The only scene that I remember from the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” takes place close to the end of the film. The movie follows the adventures of Indiana Jones, that intrepid archaeologist with the fedora and the bullwhip, as he sets out to find and recover the legendary Holy Grail, the chalice that Jesus supposedly used on the last night of his life.
Those of you who saw the film might remember the scene. Indiana Jones’ father had found a diary containing a map and a series of cryptic clues that – if interpreted correctly – would lead to the place where the Holy Grail was kept. However, if the clues were interpreted incorrectly, death was almost certain.
Indiana Jones, with diary in hand, found himself in a cavern midway up the side of a large cliff, standing on the edge of a gap that opened out over the edge of a gaping abyss. The abyss was too far to jump across, but the diary in Indiana Jones hand nonetheless suggesting that anyone who would be worthy of finding the Grail had to make their way across that chasm. “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth” said the diary, but to make the attempt seemed like the way to certain death. The movie then cuts to Indy’s father, who is dying and needs Indiana Jones to find and bring him the Grail if he is to survive at all, calling out, “you must believe, boy, you must believe.”
And so, Indiana Jones does the seemingly impossible. He sticks a foot out over the chasm…and finds that there was a bridge there after all. A trick of the light and an optical illusion was hiding it from sight, but a solid and stable bridge was there all along, a path across the abyss, a walkway that led him to the object of his quest.
And the words on Indiana Jones’ lips, as he made the decision to take that step, were words that revealed what had to motivated him to take that fateful step. “It’s a leap of faith.”
It was a step into the unknown, a dangerous decision, a choice that made no sense, but it was the choice that made all the difference. Somehow, Indiana Jones mustered up the courage, the faith, the trust to take that step, to make that leap of faith…and in so doing, found his way to that which he was longing to find.
There was nothing particularly new or creative about the idea that inspired that scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Rather, from time immemorial, our spiritual ancestors have recounted and reflected on stories about individuals who needed to make such steps into the unknown, such strange leaps of faith, in order to discover the path that they needed to find.
Soren Kierkegaard suggested that any change in life, any movement forward, particularly in matters of the spirit, required this step out beyond the limits of what was completely reasonable or controlled, referring to such a movement famously, as the need for a “leap of faith”, a step beyond, a willingness to trust beyond the realm of absolutely certainty.
Today’s reading from the ancient Book of Genesis recounts one such experience.
The story is set midway through the life of Abram. As those of you who know the story will remember, Abram and his wife Sarai were called by God to leave their ancestral homeland, and to set out on a journey in response to the call of God. If they did, promised God, they would be given a land and descendants that would become a blessed nation in the world, and blessing to the world. Their descendants, they had been told, would be numerous – as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore and the stars in the night sky.
And Abram and Sarai had set out. They had done what they agreed to do, what they were called to do, what they had covenanted with God to do. They fulfilled their part of the bargain, they lived up to their side of the arrangement. Things had not always gone entirely smoothly – they had disputes with their relative Lot, at one point they found themselves in Egypt and Abram even put Sarai into a situation of some risk because they were afraid for their lives. But in and through all of those adventures and misadventures, they had done what they were called to do.
The problem, however, was that God did not seem to doing what God had promised to do.
So could such a God be trusted? Was this another example of the capricious nature of an unreliable deity? Without doubt, the narratives and stories and myths that we find on the pages of Genesis portray a complex picture of the characters that fill these pages, and certainly a complex picture of God as a mysterious, elusive, unpredictable, capricious being. And the question of faith, in the pages of Genesis as in so much of the Bible, is not whether God exists, but rather what does it mean to be in relationship with this powerful, uncontrollable, unpredictable deity?
Which leads to the question that rests at the heart of today’s reading from Genesis. Why should Abram and Sarai continue to hold up their end of the deal, why should they continue to have faith, when God’s promises did not seem to be coming true?
It is a question that is presented to us in this ancient text, but its real power is that it is a question that each and every one of us has, or is, or will have to wrestle with on the journey of our lives. When we have done what we believe we are supposed to do, but God does not seem to be coming through, how then should we live?
Like Indiana Jones stepping out over the abyss, or like Kierkegaard taking a leap of faith, or like Abram and Sarah heading out, what happens when we have taken that step of faith, or that leap of faith, or that journey of faith – but find ourselves wondering if there is any solid ground to land on, wondering if we made a mistake, questioning whether God’s promises are really worth trusting perhaps even questioning whether God might not be quite as trustworthy as we thought?
In many ways, the most significant and influential verse in this passage is verse 6. It is a verse, and an idea, that subsequently shaped centuries of Jewish and Christian thought, and was profoundly influential in the theology of Paul, and Augustine, and Martin Luther, and countless other theologians and faithful across the ages.
The verse was this – that after hearing God restate promises that had not yet come true, Abram ”believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
So what does that mean?
Righteousness is not, as we sometimes assume, a holier-than-thou attitude rooted in a self-congratulatory piety. Rather, righteousness in the biblical tradition, was a state of being in right relationship. Righteousness between people was marked by kindness, by mutual respect, by justice, by harmony, by goodness in one’s relations with others.
Righteousness in relationship with God, in a similar way, was a state of harmony, a state of good relationships between flawed and complex humans, and this mysterious and elusive God. It connoted a state of partnership, dependence, trust.
Verse 6 of this passage, therefore, is a profound statement of the nature of relationship between Abram and God. Even though God’s promises had not yet been fulfilled in Abram’s life, Abram chose to continue to trust, even though he still did not have real reason to do so. Abram kept the faith.
And that choice – to have confidence in God, to rely on God, to believe the promises, to trust – even when he had no evidence that the promises were going to be fulfilled, was reckoned to him as righteousness. It brought the complex character called Abram and the mysterious character called God, back into right relationship, back into harmony, back into connection with each other.
So what does all of this have to do with any of us? Well here goes. Your life, my life, every one of our lives, is actually just as complex as that of this character that we know as Abram. He had taken steps of faith, but he had also made some pretty spectacular mistakes. His life was not free of failure, of flaw, of fairly significant missteps. He had all the imperfections that the person sitting down the pew from you has. And I have. And you have.
And what is equally true is this — all of God’s promises have not yet materialized in any of our lives, or in our world, any more than they had in Abram’s. The promises and visions that faith holds out to us have not yet all come true. Peace that passes all understanding? A life free of worry? A world where all of the hungry are fed with baskets of food left over? A world where good always triumphs over evil, where enemies live in peace, where diseases are cure, where the marginalized are embraced, and where peace and justice reign supreme? Freedom from death? Everlasting life? Pure joy? Abundant life?
They are all beautiful promises. But they are not yet all fulfilled.
So what did Abram do in light of the fact that all of the promises that God had made had not yet been realized? Did he give in to despair or doubt? Did he turn away from being in relationship with this mysterious, capricious, unpredictable, fascinating presence?
Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abram decided to continue on his fateful journey in relationship with God – not because all of God’s promises had yet come true, but in spite of the fact that they had not.
And today, thousands of years later, on the other side of the world, we are still telling the story of Abraham as a model and exemplar of faith. Not because he took the step of faith – heck, even Indiana Jones can do that – but because he kept taking the steps, even when it seemed ridiculous to do so. He chose the difficult path of continuing in a relationship with God when all evidence pointed away from the wisdom of doing so, he chose the path of faith in spite of any reason to believe, he chose to trust against the odds.
Of course, he was not the last to take such a courageous step.
One of his descendants took a similar step.
One of his descendants found himself in a situation in which he, as well, had every reason to think that all of God’s promises were for naught, that trusting in God was a shallow and stupid venture, that God had completely abandoned him.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Which must be one of the greatest cries of desperation in unfulfilled promises that has ever been uttered. A cry of one who had lived his life well, who had lived his life faithfully, who had trusted that God’s promises were worthy of confidence.
A cry of anguish, a cry of despair.
But then, there was a turn. A turn back. A return to trust.
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
And it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
And that is good news.