Lent: violence, compassion, lies, hatred and death

Compassion is not just about feeling for those who are easy to pity. Compassion means opening our hearts to love even the fearful, the hating and the violent.


 

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I always find Lent a struggle. I always say I’m going to give up a load of things and end up indulging in them more than before. And I say I’m going to take up good things which, if it means putting in a regular effort, usually fall at the second (if not the first) hurdle.

This year, I began Lent by reading Sr Ilia Delio’s The Humility of God: a franciscan perspective. It is a short book, and although I’m not a fan of some of the theology Sr Ilia works through, her writing on the compassion of God and our need to be compassionate with ourselves and others is breathtaking. In my flat there hangs a poster of a painting of the crucifixion. I guess the idea is that I look at it and try to be compassionate with Christ, to see his passion. But what is Christ looking out on from the cross? The world’s passion, the world’s turmoil and broken-heartedness. To be compassionate with Christ is to inhabit the compassion of Christ for the world and for each of us.

I prayed for this sort of compassion. You should never do this. Asking things from God, especially virtues, never runs the riverbed you’d have expected. God tends to answer our earnest prayers in ways we don’t expect, often overwhelming.

Violence

It is my great joy and privilege, as a priest at Newcastle Cathedral, to spend a lot of time with the folk who live (either by day or full time) on the streets in the city centre. The highlight of my time at the cathedral thus far was joining with the cathedral ministry team and some of the street-homeless who generously volunteered to pick up the candle-wax in the cathedral left over from midnight mass on Christmas night. And then mushroom omelettes in the morning in the cathedral kitchen. I have grown to love very dearly some of the men and women with whom we share this city, and the cathedral would not be nearly so holy without them.

I am also a PhD student in Durham, and on Monday had had a truly frustrating day of “trying to work”. The clock inched round until I finally left my desk. Why is work sometimes just so hard on the heart? I was profoundly sad as I sat on the station waiting in the cold for a train home, and on the train I thought of all the ways I could make myself a little happier. I toyed with the idea of inviting some friends over for dinner, and decided against it. Too much effort.

I have a short walk from Newcastle’s central station to the Metro, up Grainger Street about five minutes to Monument. And every day I pass people who are street-homeless, some I know and some I avoid, hating myself for doing so. But this night as I passed a boy who looked about seventeen, a group of men started talking to him in an overly-friendly manner. I stopped and stood nearby, just waiting to see what might happen. And despite my hopes, their friendliness quickly turned sour. “Look at him, he’s just a f***ing junkie,” the biggest of them shouts, inches from the boy’s face. “You want some money?” he asks, offering a note. As the boy reaches to take it, the man whips it back, and clenches it in a raised fist. “You’ll get this instead, you scummy b***ard.”

I step over, and say hello to the boy, asking how he is. His eyes rise to mine, and the men step back for a moment. He moves his sleeping bag, and the light of a Nokia phone is just visible. “Look, he’s loaded! He’s got a phone, the b***ard! He’s taking the f***ing piss! I’m having your sleeping bag, you f***ing s**t!” The boy leaps up, and gathers his possessions as the men rip away his sleeping bag. He ducks several punches and they move down the street.

Sleeping bags are hard to come by. The folk who are part of the cathedral community lament when this comfort and protection is taken from them. It is one of the things that can really break a person’s spirits. I think they are a safe enough distance away, and move to pick up the sleeping back, and stash it near where the boy was sitting. I still think this was the right thing to do, but it was not safe. The men rounded on me, and when I asked them what they were doing, one of them held me back, shoving my chest, as another laughed and the third continued trying to beat the boy. “Look at him, he’s crying, the little s**t.” And to me,”Don’t you f***ing dare, you b***ard. That ****’s got it coming, the scum. I bet you’d like to f***ing help him, thieving ****.” In the end, it was their turning on me that lost them their prey. The boy managed to make a dash for it, with his sleeping bag, and they were distracted enough by this to let me go for long enough for me to escape as well. “Why don’t you help someone who f***ing needs it, you prick!” I hear them shout. Throughout the whole interaction, my dog collar had been clearly visible.

Compassion, Lies, Hatred and Death

What I did was in some senses rather stupid. Far safer to stand and watch, as about twenty people did. But there was something so unholy about what was being done, and to a young person who really did look like a child. I don’t care what people say about the culpability of many of the folk in our city centres, when a person is in a situation in which they are willing to sit in the cold, being spat at and vulnerable to attack, they are utterly deserving of compassion. Here was one being crucified for sins that were not his own. Here was one a Christian should see as Christ, and as Christ sees them. Standing in solidarity, hanging on to the foot of that boy’s cross was easy.

But what about the three men? Their hatred of this boy was irrational. They didn’t know him, they didn’t really care to find out who he was or the truth of his situation. The boy for them was a symbol, a symbol which evoked this formidable response. Why? When I looked into the eyes of the man who pushed me and held me, I saw a fire burning, a hatred blazing that distorted and hid his humanity behind a veil of something terrible. What was it?

One of the hardest things about being a Christian is learning really to accept the sovereign abundance of God. I don’t mean accepting the idea of it, but really accepting in your heart and in every moment of your life that God is the one who in every second of creation, in every place in creation, is willing for all of us fullness of life. In every moment of existence, God’s arms are opened wide, fashioning a space for us to flourish. In times good and bad, God is providing for us in ways we often cannot comprehend. This faith, this perspective, this way of life is one which opens our hearts to welcome, to share, to give and to love.

But alas from the cradle we are sold a different narrative. There is not enough in this world for everyone; there could never be enough in this world for me; there is not enough for me to feel safe and so I must hoard what I have and defend it against those who would take it from me; there is always someone coming, I don’t know where from, to seize this treasure of safety I have built and I must always watch out. This narrative – of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear rather than generosity, of walls rather than welcome, of me over you – is the most powerful antidote to the Christian faith and to human flourishing. It takes the human heart of flesh and replaces it with a heart of stone (Ezekiel 36), cold, hard and impregnable. It takes away our holy ability to give and receive love and replaces it instead with hatred.

These men were terrified, of the scarcity which they experienced in their lives and the scarcity they feared was coming for them in the future. And this fear led them to hate, to hate a symbolic person who was taking from them, who was consuming what would give them a better life and better security, who was somehow tricking them and laughing at them. The lie of scarcity, the fear of lack, leads to powerful hatred, and it is almost always directed at those who are actually even more vulnerable, even more lacking, even more afraid of scarcity. These three men were so afraid, and so filled with symbolic hate, that they were not able to see the boy in a sleeping bag: they only saw the enemy, the trickster they feared.

The lie, then fear and hate, distorted their sight and their reason even as it ate their hearts.

What could they do but lash out? Hatred begotten of lies has no resolution but violence. It cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be sated, for it does not dwell in reality. Hatred begotten of lies is a child of unreality, of inhumanity. It can only destroy reality, can only deface humanity. When confronted with life, even life crying on the street, it can only proceed by waging destruction and death.

Lent of Compassion

I wish I had been bold enough to say, “What can I do for you?” when the man shouted after me, “Why don’t you help someone who f***ing needs it?” But I was too busy getting away. To see the world as Christ sees it is to see it from the cross. In the crucifixion scene in my flat, the people around the cross are absorbed in the horror of Jesus’ suffering. But Jesus has been looking out from the cross to the world.

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To see the world as it truly is is not to buy into lies. Of scarcity or anything else. But rather to see God providing, God caring for and God loving all, even when what we see at first glance seems utterly unlovable, lacking and uncherished. “Eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” the eucharistic liturgy tells us. And if Christ died for me, he died that these impossible ones might know fullness of life too.

I do not know how to abolish the violence, the hatred and fear that dehumanise our streets, our homes and our hearts. But for my part, I must grow ever deeper in compassion. Compassion as the antidote for the lies of scarcity; compassion to force apart of the walls which crowd us in on every side and make our world small and dark; compassion which makes space for human flourishing in the true reality which is God’s loving abundance.

“Pray daily that your heart may be enlarged, and your understanding of the scriptures deepened,” Bishop Christine charged me at my ordination as priest. Lord, this Lent and for all my life, may it be so.

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Benedictus for the Grave

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace”


Each morning many Anglicans join together to pray the morning office together, continuing the tradition started by the first monks in these lands, praying for themselves, the communities in which they find themselves, the Church and the world. And every morning, we say or sing a canticle, the Benedictus, sung by Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel.

It is an odd canticle, but as I have been training I have fallen more and more deeply in love with it. It is a canticle rich in the praises of God, calling to remembrance God’s good promises to his people from the earliest days, and charting their fulfilment in Jesus.

And it is an odd canticle to have on Holy Saturday. This is the day between the commemoration of Christ’s passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Church is in mourning. Christ lies in the tomb. Still. Silent. The altars are stripped of their ornaments and hangings, as the Church lies waiting.

Or does it? I suggest that the Benedictus at the morning office reminds us that God is far from dormant when Jesus is in the tomb. Already on the cross, Christ has been enthroned. Soon he will rise from the dead and ascend to be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. And now, this Holy Saturday, he is hallowing the grave for us, actively and powerfully, preparing it for us as a place, not of fear, but of joy and hope.

The Benedictus begins with the praises of God, and the remembrance that God has “raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” (2). Jesus has been enthroned in glory, just by his mere presence in the world, his coming into the world. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation in Mary’s womb we can truly say that ‘God is with us’, Immanuel. And on this Holy Saturday, we remember that God is still with us. From the womb of his mother, through his ministry, to the cross, through the grave and into glory… Christ is with us.

And all this is part of God’s eternal plan. For God’s plan is to “come to his people and set them free” (1). Through the prophets (3), the covenant (4), and God’s promises to Abraham (5), God has always and at all times been working to make his people “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (6).

The cross does not stop God’s work. There is no pause. As Jesus lies in the tomb, God remains what he has always been and shall always be. Active. Continuing to carry out his one great work of creation, redemption and recreation, spanning all time and space. Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is going on.

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So what is going on?

1Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel,
who has come to his people and set them free.

2He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

3Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all that hate us,

4To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.

5This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

6Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

7And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

8To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

9In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

10To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

In the Benedictus, Zechariah acknowledges that his son John will be a “prophet of the most high” (7), but his role will only be to “go before the Lord to prepare his way” (7), giving “his people knowledge of salvation” (8) not wrought by himself, but by God. John will not himself forgive sins, but will announce what God is about to do (8).

And here, the Benedictus trawls Isaiah for some of the most beautiful and effective imagery. Christ, the light coming into the world (John 1), is here “the dawn from on high” which “shall break upon us” (9). And now, remember Isaiah 9: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them the light has shined.”

Well, according to the Benedictus, God’s work in Christ is “to shine on those who dwell in darkness” (9), but not only that. On Holy Saturday, we do well to remember that God also shines on those who dwell “in the shadow of death” (9). From the tomb, as a corpse, the Christ is still shining. From the tomb, Christ’s light hallows the grave and opens up for us the gate of glory.

As Christians, we confess that the grave is not a thing of shame, or fear, or terror. For it is not the end. We believe that in Christ we will be raised. We believe that at our deaths Christ’s light, far from being extinguished, is visible most clearly. For we die not in despair, but in hope and joy. Our grave is not our end. It is the beginning of a new life in Christ. And after a while, we shall be raised, and see him as he comes again, to establish his kingdom of justice, everywhere and for eternity.

This Holy Saturday, the Benedictus reminds us that this is not simply a day of waiting for the real event on Easter Day. This is another day on which we rejoice in God’s great and wonderful works for us. God has taken the grave, and has shined the light of the Christ into its darkness, so that it may not be a thing of fear for us, but may be “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (10).

Amen.

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“Paul: God is merciful, but will he take me back?” A sermon for Lent IV

This sermon was given at St John’s Meadowfield on 6th March 2016.

Readings: 2 Corinthians 5:16-end; Luke 13:31-end (The Prodigal Son)

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The title of this week’s sermon is “Paul: God is merciful, but will he take me back?” And after that Gospel reading, which we probably know pretty well, the answer seems relatively obvious. A man is given good things by his father, he mucks it up and spends the gift without respect. He ends up in the pigsty, and then goes back to his father and begs forgiveness, and his father receives him with open arms. This parable, we’ve been told ever since we were nippers, paints a picture of a God who will always forgive us and take us back.

Well, yes. That’s true. But there’s actually a lot more going on here besides.

Our reading from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church began, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Paul is acutely aware that human beings are rubbish at seeing the bigger picture, especially when someone has done something wrong. When we are hurt or upset, or someone we love has been hurt… Those are the times when we are most likely to forget… that we usually know… only half of the story.

But Paul says, “From now on,” we Christians, must “regard no one from a human point of view.” We must try to see them as God sees them. We must try to see the bigger picture, even when we are hurting or upset.

And to make this point, he uses the example of Jesus. [We knew Jesus, as a man, from a human point of view… But now that he has been crucified, he has risen again, and ascended to the right hand of the father…. We know there was a lot more going on there than we realised.] So he says, “If anyone is in Christ,” a Christian, “there is a new creation.” When a person becomes a Christian, the whole world changes for them. “See, everything has become new!”

When we confess ourselves as Christians, we admit that seeing the world with our own eyes is not enough. We are called to try and see things with God’s eyes. We are called to see all people, whatever they have done, as known and loved by Jesus, who went to the cross and tomb… For them, whatever they have done.

Now, this passage from Corinthians has been put this Sunday with the Prodigal Son, because it is a gloss… It explains what Jesus’ words mean for us.

Ok, the parable says that God will always forgive, but why? And what does that mean for me? And Paul writes this amazing sentence, and I suggest you follow it along at v.18. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ…; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

In his own, slightly confusing way, Paul is saying, that God… is not… a God who always forgives. God… is not… a God who always forgives. God is more than that. God has sent us Jesus, the Christ, and through Jesus he has already reconciled the world to him. God does not need to forgive us today, because God, in Jesus, has already forgiven us. Just hear that again. God is not a God who always forgives… Because in Jesus… He has already forgiven… everything.

And that, my brothers and sisters… is grace.

Let’s turn back to the parable. At v.18 the son resolves to say sorry to his father, to ask forgiveness. But before he even has the chance to speak, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Before the prodigal son has even had the chance to apologise, the father has already… forgiven him everything.

And this is what the parable of the prodigal son, is all about.

Christians are called to see forgiveness in a different light, to see forgiveness, not through human eyes, but through God’s eyes. For God does not count our trespasses against us. He does not sit like a schoolteacher waiting for us to apologise before continuing the lesson, or like a judge waiting for us to serve our sentence. In Jesus, God has already forgiven us. And when we ask for forgiveness, we can know it has already been given. This is why we usually sing the Glory be to God on High… straight after our confession! Before the day you were born… God had already forgiven you… everything.

And we who have received such amazing forgiveness, forgiveness we do not deserve… Must show that same forgiveness to others. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

In Jesus Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection and ascension… God has already forgiven us, before we had even been born. God has shown us his Amazing Grace. And he calls us to show it to others too.

Now, let us rejoice, for our Jesus was dead, and has come to life. We were lost… and, by grace… we have been found. Each one of us, and forever. Amen.

LENT SERMON SERIES

Abraham: What is God’s Covenant with us in Jesus? A Sermon for Lent II

This is the sermon given in St John’s Meadowfield, Durham, on Lent II, the 21st of February 2016.  It asks the question, ‘What is God’s Covenant with us in Jesus?’ God’s Covenant is God’s good promise to us of love and life in Jesus Christ.

Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 (included at the bottom)

 


 

The Old Testament Covenants

You won’t understand what it means to be a Jew, until you understand what the Bible means by ‘covenant’. Words of my Old Testament teacher. The idea of covenant is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible, and is the foundation of the Jewish faith.

Covenant in the ancient world was a special sort of contract. A deal made between two parties about something that was important. Peace treaties, war pacts, marriage and land rights… the things that mattered most to people, they sorted with a covenant.

A covenant was an unbreakable bond. It was more than a simple agreement. A covenant was the sort of deal you made for life. A spit and handshake deal. They were often sealed with the blood of sacrifice… and their terms even called the gods to punish anyone who tried to wriggle out of their obligations.

In other words, a covenant is something you take a bit more seriously than an agreement to go halves on a new fence. Think about marriage. Marriage is an agreement that runs deep. It binds two people together, changes them, forms them into something new. This is exactly what covenant is like in the Bible.

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In our Old Testament reading, we heard how God made a covenant with Abram. On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’

Now there’s something odd about this covenant. I wonder if you can spot it? ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’ +++ It’s all one-sided. Where are Abraham’s promises? This doesn’t seem like a pact, an agreement…. It’s a gift. It’s like a couple on their wedding day, standing at the front of church, and only one of them making any vows. God gives Abram the land and Abram has to do… nothing!

And there’s the nub. The covenants the God makes with the Jewish people in the Bible… are completely different to the sort of deals we make with each other.  A pint of beer please. That’ll be three quid. Cheers… NO. God’s covenants aren’t like that. God doesn’t do buying and selling. God doesn’t have a wallet… and he doesn’t keep a tab.

God’s doesn’t buy anything from Abram.. he doesn’t try to sell him anything. In his covenant… God gives Abram… a promise. A good promise… because God loves him.

*****

The first really famous covenant in the Bible is in Genesis, and it’s one we probably know better than we realise. God has flooded the earth, cleared it of everything living… but for one man and his family. Noah. And when the waters have subsided, Noah, his family and the animals step off the boat and God says: I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

Anyone remember that story? God promises that never again will he destroy the earth… and he seals this good promise with a covenant… and he gives a sign for that covenant. Can anyone remember what it is? ++ The rainbow. God said, When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.

God’s good promise is that he will grant life to all creatures… and because it really matters, he seals that promise with a covenant.

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*****

And God’s promises keep coming. God promises life to Noah and all creatures. God promises Abram a land to live in, as we heard this morning. And in Exodus, when the people are fleeing from Egypt, he promises something really quite beautiful. You shall be my people, and I shall be your God. In the wilderness, God promises Moses and his people something amazing… God promises them… Himself.

Whether it is life… land… or God’s very self, that God wants to promise to his people… at every stage He thinks it important enough to do it with a covenant. All the most important moments in the life of the Jewish people… are bound up in God’s good promises… sealed with this almost unbreakable bond, this marriage of lovers… sealed with covenant.


God’s Covenant with us in Jesus

And what does this matter for me? I’m a Christian, not a Jew. All that Old Testament stuff is very well, but I’ve got Jesus, I go to Church, I’ve got the New Testament. I don’t need this covenant nonsense.

But do you remember the name by which the New Testament used to be known? It used to be called the New Covenant. And do you recognise the words of the Eucharistic prayer, which say “This is my blood of the New Covenant”?

The New Testament is a covenant as well. The sacrament of the mass is a covenant. They seem to be saying that there’s something about Jesus that has to do with covenant, that Jesus is another of God’s good promises. But what is going on?

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*****

The answer, I think, is to be found in the letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews tells the story of What Christ Has Done For Us. It tells the story of how God made a relationship with the Jewish people, how he made Covenant with them… God promising them good things… time after time… and binding those promises with Covenant. And then Hebrews says: But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.

Basically Hebrews says, If you thought God’s promises in the Old Testament were good, the promise that Jesus brings will knock your socks off.

This New Covenant, made in a birth in Bethlehem, a Cross and an empty tomb… is the sign and the seal of God’s greatest promise ever. God’s promise to Noah… God’s promise to Abram… God’s promise to Moses… these were only small things compared with the promise God makes to you.

In his New Covenant, sealed with the life, and the death, and the resurrection of His Own Son, Jesus… God promises you… nothing less… than his unfailing love in this life… and in the next, eternal life. In the New Covenant, God promises you… love… and life.

*****

The other covenants were imperfect. Human beings mucked them up. Whenever God promised them good things, the people turned away. Noah got drunk and broke the promises HE made to God. The Jewish people turned away from God, and the land given to Abram was taken away. The people who fled from Egypt were promised God’s very presence among them… and they preferred to worship a golden calf.

But not this time. God says that this time… whether this succeeds or fails is not up to us. This time, God has made an ETERNAL Covenant. What God has brought together in Jesus, we can never put asunder, no matter how much we forget him, or do wrong.

And this is the spirit in which we keep Lent. We do not fear that God will not love us. We do not worry that we are not doing enough. As Christians… our challenge is to keep lent… in faith… faith that God’s promises to us in Jesus are true. If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have eternal life.

And this is what we come to now. We approach this table… we affirm our faith in God’s promises to us… we affirm our faith in the New Covenant in Jesus, the promise that will always stand firm… we receive the blood of the covenant… we receive the body of our Lord.

And we rejoice… even in Lent… for God has promised us good things… love and life that will never end. This is the promise of Jesus. This is God’s covenant, God’s good promise, to me… and to you.

Love… and life in Christ… whatever happens.

Love… and life in Christ… whatever happens.

Amen.

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Reading: Gen 15:1-12,17-18

God’s Covenant with Abram

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’