“The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
‘Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,’ he added, ‘shall your descendants be.’
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.”
From an elevation of 6,700 feet on a trail near the Philmont Scout Ranch base camp in northern New Mexico on a crystal clear night with low humidity, no moon, and little light pollution, I looked up at the night sky overwhelmed by the beauty of the stars and the amazing swath of brightness from horizon to horizon that is the galactic plane of the Milky Way. It was awesome in the most profound sense of awe inspiring. I felt both insignificant in the face of such beauty, immense distances from the stars, and the time necessary for light to travel so that I could see it on that night, and connected to the universe in an intimate way, there at that moment in that place. I sensed who I was and who I wasn’t. It was a personal experience of the transcendent and I cried (just a bit). I counted it as a gift from God.
I can imagine thousands of years ago God taking Abram (soon to be Abraham) outside of his home in Hebron on a similarly dark night with low humidity near the mountains somewhere above 3,000 feet in elevation to look at the stars. He may have had a profound sense of who he was and who he wasn’t, but, also, with God at his side, who he could be, personally and through his descendants, both close and far. God makes a twofold covenant with Abram for his descendants to number as the stars and for them to inherit the land as a great kingdom. Abram may have felt insignificant to receive such promises, with no children and a somewhat transient and relatively small, though thriving, household community. At the same time, he must have felt connected to God Most High (El Elyon, as named by Melchizedek, the priest, a few verses prior) as we see by Abram’s faith. God made a promise and Abram believed. They entered into a covenant relationship. Abram may have even cried (just a bit) as he realized God’s gift.
God outlines the boundaries of the land and the number of Abram’s descendants. It’s important not to take this too literally. It is possible, but uncertain, that at the height of Israel’s success in the Davidic Kingdom, it’s boundaries reached the extent of those promised by God, but it would have been fleeting. The stars in the observable universe are estimated, or underestimated, to number a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), way too many for Abram’s descendants. At the high end, the number of stars that can be seen at one time by the human eye under ideal circumstances may be as many as 4,500, way too few. The number and the boundaries really aren’t that important. Instead, it is offspring and land, a people and a place or, more intimately, family and home. The promise is both grand and personal. God’s covenant with Abram is both big and small.
The covenant, in Jesus Christ, that God forms with each of us (and all of us) is the same. It is the very nature of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us: big and small, far and close, awe filled and intimate. God is transcendent and immanent. He is beyond all of time and space, yet within us and, sacramentally, even present in Jesus’s body and blood that we receive. We are insignificant in relation to the vast power, presence, goodness, beauty, and truth of God while also connected intimately to him (and each other) because of love. In God, we find our true family. In God, we find our true home. By faith, it is who we are, who we aren’t, and who we can be.