“Ritual of Promise”
March 13th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Last week we sang one of our favorite praise songs, “Waymaker, Miracle Worker, Promise Keeper, Light in the Darkness, My God, that is who you are.” I want that to be the soundtrack for this sermon, because today we are talking about a ritual of promise. A sign of God’s promise to us. A sign of our participation in the promise. A sign of who God is: the Promise Keeper.
Now the ritual we hear about today isn’t familiar to us, but we know what ritual is. Like the ritual of having a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or the ritual giving up something for Lent (or more recently of adding something on instead), or even the ritual of showing up on Sundays for worship. The ritual we read about today is steeped in ancient covenantal practices—where there was a ritual, a physical symbol to show that agreement had been made between two parties.
The two parties in this story are God and Abram (early enough in the story of God’s people that Abram has not yet been given the new name Abraham). And the covenantal promise was that Abram would have a son; that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars; and that they would eventually be “given” what came to be known as the Promised Land—from the river of Egypt to the great river, Euphrates—a land that even the storyteller has to acknowledge belonged to others.
And to seal the deal, to sign the contract, to make theater out of an oral agreement, there was this ritual of promise. A cow and a goat and a ram and a turtle dove and a pigeon were brought and slaughtered, and the larger animals were cut in two and laid on top of each other.
This seems pretty disgusting to us, but animal sacrifice was an acceptable way of showing honor to God from the time of Adam’s sons (when God liked the gift of Abel’s sheep over Cain’s gift of crops), all the way into Jesus’ time (where we hear that he drives out those who are selling animals for sacrifice in the temple). So after all these animals are killed and cut in half and set on the altar, then a deep sleep falls on Abram—a sleep that allows him to see, to hear, to be with God. And in this sleep, God speaks the promise, and to cement it in everyone’s mind, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passes between the cut pieces, and the covenant is sealed.
Now we who hear this story know a little more context than Abram. We know that God will appear in later generations to a man named Moses as a burning bush—and announce God’s name “I Am Who I Am” and God’s desire for the oppressed to go free. We know that God (as God tells Abram) will lead the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt and into the wilderness towards the promised land—and we know that God will lead them by day as a pillar of cloud and will be their rear guard as a pillar of fire by night. We know that many years after that God will visit the new-born church at Pentecost and God’s Spirit will appear as tongues of fire, catapulting everyone there into a new way of life.
So it appears that when God makes a promise, God often stitches it together with fire, and it is sewn into the fabric of the universe. Now notice that the promise takes many generations, maybe even eons to come true. From Abram to Moses to the Promised Land is a lot of “begats.” But the ritual of promise does not have an expiration date. God’s word stands firm—even if God’s love and care do not shield us from having to face what life can bring. But one thing is sure—God’s love and care does not tarnish, or fade away. The ritual is a sign and seal, something to hold onto, something to remind us of the promise, the covenant, something to declare what will be in the end.
Last week we talked about grace in the dark, and this week we seem to be talking about promises in the dark. Last week we saw Jesus tussling with the devil. But this week, we see Jesus crying over Jerusalem. And in this designated “women’s” month it is lovely to have Jesus wishing himself not as a rooster striding around ready to peck out another’s eyes, but as a mother hen, wanting to gather her chicks under her wing, dreaming of protecting us from the cold world, desiring to hide us from what is to come. Wanting that for us, yet, as he says, “we were not willing.”
Often I think we remember this scene as Jesus crying over Jerusalem, but maybe, in today’s context, we should hear it once again as a promise of the covenant. A promise that God can be like a mother hen. God’s offer to us of the shadow of God’s wing. God’s offer to hold us close. It doesn’t mean that we will not walk through the valley of the shadows, or that the world might not lead us into murky places, but Jesus is saying to us, God doesn’t turn a blind eye—God is with us, God is crying too, God is bolstering even those who find themselves in grave danger.
And Jesus knew he was in grave danger. Some of the religious leaders come to him and say, “Get away from here, Herod wants to kill you.” But he didn’t run away. He stayed the course, even saying that "it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
As we have watched the horror of the invasion of Ukraine unfold before our eyes, I could not read this passage without thinking of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who has refused to leave the capital city of Kyiv, even as the Russian army pours over his borders and begins to encircle the capital and several other major cities. Zelensky has gone out of his way to show that he is not running away, he is not fleeing to another country, he is not putting himself (or his family) out of harm’s way.
And his choices have greatly contributed to the morale of the much smaller army and the rag-tag, “all hands on deck” militia consisting of almost anyone who can find a weapon and defend their homeland. As one man said to reporters, using a quote attributed to many people starting with Euripides in the 400’s BCE, “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
That passion, that unswaying belief that we see in our reading from the gospel reminded me of those brave people standing up for their right to exist.
It reminded me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech before he was assassinated, the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech where he said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop …I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem on hope.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—that perches in the soul—And sings the tune without the words—And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—And sore must be the storm—That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land—And on the strangest Sea—Yet—never—in Extremity, It asked a crumb—of me.
It reminded me of the most famous song from Les Miz “Do You Hear the People Sing?”—an anthem of protest for people facing oppression all over the world. And yet, we know that the June rebellion of 1832 was quashed and almost all on those ramparts died. But we still sing that song because it speaks of a promise, of freedom, of liberty, of a better life, a better way. It speaks of hope.
That is what the ritual of promise did for Abram and his descendants. It was a vision of the future held up for all to see, for all to believe in, for all to work towards. That is what Jesus is wailing about on the hills above Jerusalem.
That the promise was not yet fulfilled, that the covenantal tie between us and God is not as strong as it could be. That we do not always avail ourselves of God’s refuge and strength, of God’s bulwark never-failing. That we allow ourselves to be led by fear, or to turn our backs on what we know is the right thing to do. That we have not remembered what the Lord requires of us. That we have forgotten to see God in the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger and those needing clothes and the sick and those in prison, and any who might be considered “the least of these.”
Jesus is weeping because Jerusalem, the temple city, the place where God was supposed to come down and dwell and commune with God’s people, had put the promise to the side, had allied themselves with the oppressors rather than the oppressed, had in essence lost its way. And Jesus vows not to leave, even if it be downright dangerous. Jesus weeps hoping that his tears will spur a change of heart, a turning back to God.
It is similar to what our own rituals of promise do. Our baptism, when we remind ourselves that God has adopted us, that we are children of God before we even know ourselves. The assurance of pardon, with the pouring of water—reminding us we are washed and made new, we are forgiven and freed. Our invitation to the table to eat and drink together with Jesus, until he comes again—reminding us we are part of the story, we are given strength for the journey, we are treated like family. And our going out into the world, our service, to do what the Lord has required of us, to treat everyone, from the elite to the “least of these” as if they were Jesus, is our part of the promise.
As we live our lives, sheltered under the wings of God’s promise, may we continue to sing about our Promise Keeper. I was taken by a relatively new hymn from the Philippines found in our hymnbook called “When Twilight Comes” and based, in part, on Jesus’ lament. Let me share two verses with you.
When Twilight Comes #195 (verses 1 and 3)
When twilight comes and the sun sets,
Mother hen prepares for night’s rest,
As her brood shelters under her wings
She give the love of God to her nest.
O! what joy to feel her warm heart beat
And be near her all night long;
So the young can find repose
Then renew tomorrow’s song.
So gather round once again, friends,
Touched by fading glow of sun’s gold,
And recount all our frail human hopes,
The dreams of young and stories of old.
O! what joy to pray close together,
Kneeling as one family;
By a mother’s love embraced
In the blessed Trinity.
We have these rituals of promise because we are formed in the image of the Promise Maker. We have these rituals of promise to remind ourselves that we worship the Promise Keeper. And we have these rituals of promise because we follow in the footsteps of the Promised One, the Promise made real, God’s Promise face to face with us.
O! what joy. Amen and Amen.