First Reading: Genesis 15:5-12,17-18
The Vision of Abraham
5 YHWH brought him outside, and said, "Look now toward the sky, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." He said to Abram, "So shall your seed be." 6 He believed in YHWH; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness. 7 He said to him, "I am YHWH who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it."
8 He said, "Lord YHWH, how will I know that I will inherit it?"
9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 He brought him all of these, and divided them in the middle, and laid each half opposite the other; but he didn't divide the birds. 11 The birds of prey came down on the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
12 When the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. Now terror and great darkness fell on him. 17 It came to pass that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold, a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 In that day YHWH made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."
World English Bible
How do we know God is really present? When we have an experience that changes us. The experience can be a as small as a new feeling or insight, or as grand as a vision. We measure the experience, not by its depth, but by the extent it changes us.
Abraham had a grand vision, but the way it changed him was found in the God's gift: descendants and land [5 and 18]. As a wandering tribe leader, Abraham was a rich merchant (an "import-export" trader) and herdsman. Descendants were important to him in order to increase his wealth with cheap family help, and in order to give him "immortality" through the memory of his sons. Unfortunately, Abraham's wife was childless.
While land as area was necessary to raise Abraham's sheep and cattle, a land with secure borders was not as important to Abraham as it might be to his descendants in order to farm.
Who was this God promising Abraham descendants and land? Abraham's God was most likely his clan's deity, the God closest to him. In a world with many gods, there was a deity for every city, every family, and every purpose. While Abraham might have acknowledged these other gods, the only God that was important to him was the God who was closest to him and could deliver on His promises. This was the God in whom Abraham put his trust .
The vision Abraham had was patterned on a covenant ceremony a king would make to a faithful servant. The covenant was an act of gracious gift giving; all obligations and penalties of the covenant were adopted by the king, not by the servant.
The severed animals represented the penalty of the covenant [9-10]. The people who walked between the torn bodies of the animals assumed the penalty of the covenant (the people would say; "If I do not keep the covenant, may I end up as these animals are now"). Since the smoking brazier and flaming torch that passed between the pieces represented God, He alone would assume the penalty for breaking the covenant . God was putting his reputation on the line as a deity; if He could not deliver on his promises, He was not worth of Abraham's trust. On the other hand, this ceremony was an iron-clad guarantee for Abraham; he would receive descendants and land!
While feeling, insight, and the unexplainable might be measures of God's presence, personal change is a better measure. For Abraham, the change was descendants and land; for us, the change is Church, a place and a community in which to grow closer to God. And these changes are gifts from God.
How has God changed you? Was there a particular moment of change? Why was that particular moment important?