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Counting the Stars

Thomas J Parlette

“Counting the Stars”

Gen. 15: 1-12, 17-18


Something happened this week that doesn’t happen very often. I cleaned out the refrigerator. I know I should do that more often than I do, but I don’t always get around to it, and things sit in there longer than they should. And it really is my own fault. You see, I’m the kind of person who can’t bear throwing out leftovers. I save them all. I always make sure to buy our lunchmeat in those reusable plastic Tupperware containers so I always have something to put that little bit of corn in, or the half cup of mashed potatoes that nobody wanted to finish.

And usually I’m pretty good at using them up. Eventually all the leftovers find their way into a casserole – I’m sorry, hot dish – or some kind of soup, what my mother used to call “garbage soup.” Sounds terrible, I know, but it was actually pretty good, and always something new.

But sometimes, I just don’t get to everything. One of the containers works it way to the back of the refrigerator and I completely forget its there. So this was the week that the odds and ends were thrown out. And I felt so good about my housekeeping skills that I moved from the refrigerator to the cupboards. After sorting through four different kinds of rosemary and tossing out some oregano that I think has moved with me across the country since my seminary days, I came across a jar of honey. And I remembered something I heard once about honey. Honey never goes bad. As long as you store it properly and keep it covered, honey will always be good, it never expires. Whether it’s five years old or a hundred years old, honey will remain sweet and delicious forever. So I finally tossed the oregano from 1992 – but the jar of honey?-  that stayed in the cupboard.

In this morning’s passage from Genesis, Abram is doing a little housekeeping of his own. Abram is cleaning out his cupboards, so to speak, throwing out some things that have been in there too long and have loss their usefulness. Problem is, one of those things Abram is prepared to throw out is a promise from God. Many years before, God had promised Abram that he would have a son – and that had not happened. Abram was beginning to wonder if it would ever happen. But when God makes a promise, that promise is like honey – it never goes bad. God keeps promises.

So as the scripture says, after these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. At this point, an attentive listener will ask, “Well, wait a minute, after what things? What happened right before this story.”

In the chapter that precedes this passage, four kings have pooled their resources and overthrown the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, making off with all their valuables. Abram’s nephew, Lot, had been living in Sodom, and he had been kidnapped in the raids. So Abram gathered up his best group of soldiers and rescued Lot and retrieved the treasures. But then Abram does something unexpected. He goes to see the great High Priest Melchizedek and he returns everything, giving a tenth of the treasure to the Priest. And Melchizedek blesses him. Abram had made a promise that he would not loot and rob to gain riches, so he gives everything back. Even when the King of Sodom offers him a reward, Abram turns it down. He made a promise and he will make good on his promise.

It was after these things, that the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. God says, “Don’t be afraid, I am your shield – your reward shall be very great.”

Maybe Abram was still chafing a bit because God’s original promise of a son had not yet come about. Perhaps a new blessing from Melchizedek brought up some bitterness for Abram, for he is quick to ask, “What will you give me God, I still don’t have a child. I’m going to have to pass on my estate to our servant Eliezer, because that child you promised me – still not here.”

But God is patient with Abram. God assures him, my promises are good forever. “You will have an heir. In fact – come with me Abram.” And God takes Abram outside, puts his arm around his shoulders, and says, “Look at that sky. Look at all those stars. Go ahead, count them Abram – if you can count that high. Do you see all those stars – that’s how many descendants you will have.”

They stand there for a minute, counting the stars… and Abram believed the Lord. He believed that God’s promises were forever and sweeter than honey.

Abram believed, but he still had questions, “How will I know Lord – how is this possible, how will it happen?”

That’s something we all want to know when we find ourselves in an impossible situation. We want to believe that God’s promises are sure – but we always want to know how, and when. But that’s not for us to know. God’s promises are sure. God’s promises are good forever – But God will work things out in God’s time, not ours. All we can do is trust in God. Trust that God is working it out, even if we don’t see how it’s all coming together just yet. That is what it is to have faith.

James Hewett tells a wonderful story about growing up in western Pennsylvania. There are no straight roads in that part of Pennsylvania. You are either going up a hill or down a hill or following the twists and turns of countless valleys. Hewett tells the story of a time when his parents took him on a trip to visit his grandparents. When it was time to go home, a thick fog had rolled in making it impossible to see more than 20 feet in front of you. But as they drove home, Hewett’s father was driving just as fast as he usually did. It was starting to get a little scary. So Hewett asked his mother – “Shouldn’t we slow down.”

But his mother calmly answered, “Don’t be afraid, your father knows the way.”

What Hewett didn’t know was that his father had walked these road hundreds of times during the depression as a boy. He had ridden his bike on these roads before he had a car and was courting his mother. He had driven these roads every week to visit his parents as they got older. He knew the way. Even though he couldn’t see very far ahead – he knew the way.(1)

That’s what God is saying here to Abram. Don’t be afraid, I know the way. Trust me.

But just to put Abram’s mind at ease, God gives him a visible sign of this covenant, this promise of descendants and a land of their own. A smoking fire pot and flaming torch, representing the presence of the Lord, passes through pieces of an offering. This was an ancient rite that sealed a promise, ensuring that it would be good forever. On that day, God made a covenant. Your descendants will one day have this land.

There is an old Jewish story that is told about a King whose sorrow was unending. Even though he was loved by his queen, worshiped by his subjects, and feared by his enemies, he still had no child of his own. “Who will carry on my work, my power, my memory? I must have an heir!”

A reward was offered to anyone who could help the royal couple fulfill their dream. Many tried, many failed – and many died as a result. And the king and queen remained bitter and childless.

Then one cold day on old wise woman came to the king and queen – she proclaimed that a child could be theirs if the king did just one thing.

‘And what is that?” Asked the king with suspicion – and hope.

‘Your majesty, because there is no system for washing out the human waste, there is much sickness in the land. The water is not clean. Use your army to dig canals through the cities and villages and give your people clean water.”

“And this will bring me a child.”

“Yes, your majesty. It will.”

So it was done. The sickness that had haunted the kingdom for generations was gone, but after many months there was still no sign of a child. The old wise woman was called back before the throne.

“You have lied to me. I did as you said and still no child. Prepare to die.”

But the old woman spoke quickly – “My good king, you have only fulfilled part of the requirement. You must now parcel out the land to the peasants, allowing each a lot large enough to grow their own food and have some left over to sell.”

“Why should I give up what is mine?”

“So that you might have one with your name to follow.”

The image of that “one” spoke so deeply to the king that he did as the old woman instructed. Every able bodied peasant was given his won lot. And for the first time in memory, they could feed their own families and make a little money. The king and queen waited. But still, no child. The king’s blood was boiling as he called the old woman back to the throne room, and he condemned her to death.

“Your majesty, you may kill me, but then you will never know if the last requirement will bear fruit.”

“The last requirement?”

“Yes, your majesty, one last thing will ensure you an heir. Of this, I am certain.”

“If it does not, your heirs will be denied their mother.”

“Have no fear. The last thing you must do is dismantle your army. For the last two decades our kingdom has fought war after war. Make lasting treaties with your neighbors and dissolve your army.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I give you no choice, your Majesty.”

And so it was done. For the first time in memory, young men remained home and worked the land while the children danced safely near the borders. The king, having sacrificed so much, was sure that now he would receive his heart’s desire – but the days turned to months, and months into a year, and still no child. The king had a gallows constructed and sent for the wise old woman.

“Now, you will die. Do you have anything to say?”

The woman’s eyes looked toward the window, and she spoke quietly. “Your majesty, your wife was barren, as was this land. Your people died of sickness, starvation and war. But look at your land now. You have given your people health. You’ve given them wealth. You’ve given them peace. You have given them a better life and your name will be spoken with reverence. Look out over your towns and villages. Do you see the candles in every window. Those houses are filled with your descendants – your children. And your children’s children. You, through acts of loving kindness will be the father of all the children of this land. They will be your heirs. You shall be remembered.”

The King followed the old womans gaze – he looked out over the new landscape he had created. Taking her hand, he knew she was right. His children now would number with the stars, and he would be remembered forever.(2)

So it was for Abram. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God would bless them with their own land. Abram did not know how that would happen, but God promised that it would. And God’s promises are good forever, and they are sweeter than honey.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p. 54.

2.    Judith Black, “The King’s Child”, Ready-to-Tell Tales, ed. by David Holt and Bill Mooney, August House Inc. 1994, p. 35-37.