Well, as often happens, it would seem that God wants to remind me of a part of His character that I’ve been conveniently forgetting. You’ve probably experienced this before… somehow, the same passages of Scripture or the same theme in different Scriptures keep jumping out at you from every sermon, devotional, and discussion. This time, it’s been the theme of His holy and powerful, awe-inspiring and fear-inducing, I-can-never-live-up-to-it holiness.
It all started with a late-night discussion with my friend Anna while we were at the beach last week. We circled around a couple of different topics that she had questions about in Genesis, but one major question came out of Genesis 15. Now, this is one of my favorite passages in Genesis, and here’s why: the covenant that God makes with Abram is hair-raising in both God’s fearfulness and His grace.
So, God tells Abram to prepare the animals for a culturally common covenant ceremony between a ruler and his subject. In the culture, the ruler would covenant protection for the subject, and the subject would covenant loyalty to the ruler. They kill a number of different animals (seen in Genesis as a heifer, a goat, and a ram, as well as a dove and a young pigeon), cut the big animals in half, and make the halves face each other so that their blood forms a little rivulet in between the animals.
Then both the ruler and the subject would walk through the blood, essentially saying “So be it to me if I fail to uphold my end of this covenant.” (Wow. BTW, can you imagine if our culture was this serious about making an oath?)
Here’s where it gets interesting. God asks Abram to prepare the animals for a covenant ceremony. Abram complies, then waits for God to show up to walk the bloodpath. Bold move, yet what else could he do? Verse 12 says, “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.”
Now Anna’s question was, “why a thick and dreadful darkness? Isn’t God a God of light and joy?” Good question, Anna.
The next morning, I was reading in Matthew. I was almost forcibly struck by chapter 3, verse 11. John the Baptist is talking about the coming of Jesus, and he says, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
I went on to read further in Matthew until I was part of the way through the Sermon on the Mount, and I was again almost forcibly struck by the following familiar passage:
You have heard that it was said “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” but I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. …You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. …Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
All these things combined tell me one major thing: I cannot live my life as if I am Lord. I’m not perfect; I barely love my family and friends, let alone my enemies. Sadly, very sadly, tragically in fact, I am prone to do this, to diminish and cheapen a God who cannot and will not be mocked. I put God in this tiny little box whereby I can try to control my life and my circumstances while giving Him a cursory nod. Continuing in the vein of pounding this lesson into my brain, the sermon today was, essentially, CHRIST IS LORD. And that is a heart-warming truth!
Going back to Genesis (if you’ve stuck with me this far, congrats!), Abram falls into a deep sleep, filled with a dreadful darkness. There, God talks to Abram, expounding on His end of the covenant bargain which He outlined for Abram in Genesis 12: I will make you a great nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you; also, I will give you the land of Canaan.
Abram’s part of the covenant is communicated to him later, in chapter 17: “Walk before me and be blameless.” And God gave him the sign of the covenant, by which he would know the seriousness of this covenant: circumcision.
Now, if Abram walks the bloodpath between the animals, his end of the bargain is: Walk before God and be blameless, and if I fail to uphold my end of this covenant, may I be like these animals. Yikes!!!
But Abram fell into a deep sleep. He literally could not walk the bloodpath. Only God, in the form of a smoking firepot and a flaming torch (like the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that led Israel out of Egypt and back to Canaan; like baptism by the Holy Spirit and by fire) … only God walks the bloodpath.
If Abram, or the children of Abram, fail to be blameless, if I fail to be blameless, God must bear the death demanded by the covenant.
How amazing, how fearful, how awe-inspiring, how heart-warming is the holiness of God! My pastor was clearly also struck by the Sermon on the Mount as he preached today. But as he read out of Luke’s account of the sermon, he was struck by this passage:
“But love your enemies, do good to them, lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”
So. The holiness of God. Baptism by fire, thick and dreadful darkness… out of which come the power and promises of God for those who “love Him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
I think this must be the answer to Anna’s question, and herein lies the call to my own heart to remember this neglected character trait of my God: In Christ, God’s holiness cannot be separated from His mercy, His grace, and His unfailing love. Rather, seeing His holiness drives me to see the darkness of my sin and to turn to His grace found in the covering of Christ’s blood that was shed to keep my end of the covenant.
What a God we serve!