Comments and Observations
At first blush, Genesis 17 may not seem like a real likely Lenten text. But stay tuned in this sermon commentary and eventually we’ll come around to seeing how this text fits in with Lent after all and with also the Mark 8 passage assigned for this Second Sunday in Lent of the Year B Lectionary cycle.
The Revised Common Lectionary neatly skirts the part of Genesis 17 that presents the confirming sign and seal of the covenant with Abraham; namely, circumcision. That’s too bad because you really cannot fully understand what is going on here without it. Surely Abraham would not have been unaware of this omission. He was himself altogether too aware of how intimately this covenant would touch him not only spiritually but also physically!
Although it may make us uncomfortable or embarrassed—and although it needs to be handled with discernment from the pulpit—Genesis 17 forces us to think about and talk about a man’s most private sexual organ. Because for some almost bizarre reason, when God wanted to formalize his covenant with Abraham, the sacramental sign God gave mixed theology with a man’s loins. Literally, the word “circumcise” means “to cut around,” and if you’ve ever witnessed a Jewish Bris or the circumcision of your own child, you know precisely what that means.
But what in the world does it mean theologically? Of course, there is another fairly obvious link to the theology of Genesis when you remember that the chief promise God gave had to do with progeny, offspring, conceiving a child. Given the age of Abraham and Sarah, this was probably the most difficult part of the covenant to believe and so, if it ever happened, the birth would represent God’s grandest covenantal breakthrough. So in a way, there is maybe some sense after all to have the sign of this particular covenant get located on the male organ of generation, of procreation and conception.
A sacrament, some of us learned in Sunday school, is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. It’s an outward sign and seal of the inward reality of salvation. In our Protestant settings, where Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are our two sacraments, we are always careful to make clear that these signs depend on God’s Word. That’s why in traditional church architecture (at least in the Reformed tradition) the font and table flank the pulpit. The sacraments stand alongside of God’s Word because they are illustrations of, reminders of, seals of, and further channels of what we read about in the Bible.
Sacraments don’t add any new information to the gospel, but our participation in these rituals enlivens the gospel for us, makes it clearer, more vivid. What’s more, something really happens to us through the sacraments, Christ truly is present and the Spirit really is active. We are changed, strengthened by the sacraments; our union with Christ is made thicker and more secure.
Those are among the reasons God gives sacramental signs to his people. Every time we see a baptism, we see not only God’s marvelous activity in the life of the baptized baby but we are further reminded of our own baptisms and all the rich promises that cascaded over us at that time, washing over us like a wave at the seashore. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are at once reminded of Jesus’ precious sacrifice and we participate in the living Christ in a way that energizes us and nourishes us for the journey of faith.
In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that circumcision would be a visible sign to look at, to see, to reflect on for generations to come. But between Genesis 16 and 17 another dozen or so years have passed. That brings the total span of time since God’s initial call of Abram in chapter 12 to nearly 24 years.
That’s a long time, a quarter-century almost.
For Abram and Sarai, those were years of increasing doubt and disbelief. They had not been exactly spring chickens when God called them out of Ur in the first place and the succeeding couple of decades had only magnified their sense of being on the high side of life’s course. By all rights, next on their docket was Fountain Hills Retirement Community, not the maternity ward at the local hospital.
Now and again over those many years God popped back in to repeat his promise of progeny and land. But it sounded a little more far-fetched with each successive visit. You all know what you eventually think of the old college friend (let’s call him Floyd) who, every time you see him (which is only about once every other year or so), swears that he’s going to give you a call because, hey, isn’t it high time we had dinner and got caught up on each other’s lives!? “I’ll call you this week yet, and this time I really will!” But then he never does and so although you know exactly what he’ll say eighteen months down the road when you bump into Floyd again, you won’t believe him. Maybe the first time or two you took the promised dinner seriously, but after a while you cannot help but chalk it up as “just talk.”
So as Genesis 17 opens and Yahweh appears to Abram once again, you have the feeling that inside his head Abram was saying to himself, “Here we go again! I know exactly what God is going to say next!” And sure enough, God reiterates the promise of making Abram the father of many nations. There is one new twist this time, however, in that Yahweh re-names Abram as a further way to bring this promise of offspring home a bit more. Abram now becomes “Abraham,” the “father of many.”
God then goes on in verses 9-14 to introduce what we already thought about: the sign of circumcision. It will be a permanent sign on Abraham’s own body that God’s promise is also permanent and forever. As we also already noted, it will be a sign located on a body part associated with conceiving children, and so is clearly meant to seal that vital part of God’s covenant.
So the promise of land and children has been echoed yet again. God has given Abram a new name, has ordered Abraham to undergo a little surgical procedure, and finally says that Sarai, now Sarah, is on the verge of conceiving a son. But in verse 17 the apparent absurdity of it all catches up with Abraham and he starts to giggle. A giggle turns into a chortle, a chortle into a belly laugh. Finally, he falls face down in the hope that maybe God won’t notice that Abraham is laughing in the presence of El Shaddai, God Almighty.
As he laughs into the dirt, he says to himself, “Right! Like it’s terribly likely a century-old man and a broken-down woman of 90 are going to have a son!” It was all just too much. Why would God assign a man who has never had a child with his wife a new name that means something like “Big Daddy”? Why would God want him to start cutting on the one part he will most need if the absurd were to come true and he and Sarah were to conceive the promised son? But above all is the really big question: if God is so serious about this, why has there been nearly twenty-five years of all talk and no action?
Abraham even gives the “Plan B” of Ishmael one more whirl but God’s response is the same as it was in chapter 16 when Abraham tried it the first time: although God will bless Hagar’s son, he won’t be the main target of the covenantal promises. These will all be directed toward the boy Abraham and Sarah are to name Laughter, Isaac. This son will be born inside a year, Yahweh says in conclusion. Then God withdraws, and somehow or another Abraham finds that he has stopped laughing. Somehow or another the specificity of God’s words about a son to be born by the same time next year got through to him sufficiently that Abraham wastes no time whatsoever before following through on God’s command to circumcise himself and every other male in the household.
To state the merely obvious, Abraham would not have subjected himself or anyone else to this rather painful procedure were it not for the fact that, by the grace of God’s Spirit, he had somehow moved from laughter to renewed faith. In and on his own flesh he now bore the mark of God’s promise. He let the covenantal love and faithfulness of God settle into his own skin, become a part of who he simply was. Maybe God’s appearances had been a bit intermittent over the last quarter-century and maybe over time that gave Abraham cause to wonder if God would ever do what he had vowed. But now Abraham carried around with him a sign that would not leave him, would not be intermittent, but that would be as constant as the love of God–the love to which Abraham clung in faith.
It’s no coincidence, after all, that in the New Testament the most revealing simile for Christ’s relationship to the church is that of marriage, of husband and wife. For in marriage there is a bond of loving affection that is as intimate as it gets. The two become one flesh, and though that image means more than the sexual component, it does not mean less. Husband and wife touch each other, unite with each other in a most marvelous way. This nuptial unity leads us to sexuality and the intimacy associated with it. Thus, the New Testament’s parallel of this relationship to our union with Christ leads us in a real way back to Abraham and circumcision and the covenant love that first sacrament signed and sealed.
Somehow it’s all saying the same basic thing: God loves us. God desires our nearness, our intimacy, our love returned back to him. What’s more, this love follows us wherever we go in life. Our union with Christ needs to be carved into the flesh of our hearts (which, as you no doubt recall, Paul in the New Testament calls “the circumcision of the heart”). It needs to be that real, that central, that personal, and that all-encompassing for us.
And since this Genesis 17 lection is the Year B Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, we can recall, too, that Paul once went so far as to say that the crucifixion itself was, somehow, a final circumcision of the old sinful nature that we now participate in through baptism (cf. Colossians 2). Although we no longer regard circumcision as a sacrament, its meaning carries through in baptism (and I would say to a degree in also the Lord’s Supper). The covenant God promised to Abraham in Genesis 17 finds its final fulfillment on the cross of Christ, which is Jesus’ point in the Year B gospel lection for this same Sunday in Lent when in Mark 8 Jesus says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it by going under the cross-bar of death and lead a sacrificial existence in which you put off all that clings to this world so as to bring to mind again and again the things of God.
Most mature adults have a sense of “personal space.” This is a kind of imaginary bubble that surrounds our bodies. It’s an area of intimacy, of closeness, and so of a degree of privacy. We routinely allow other people to burst through this bubble in the very common gesture of a handshake. It’s a pretty personal gesture, but not too personal, not too up-close. Now and again you may realize that even a handshake involves a somewhat intimate skin-on-skin contact as when maybe someone pulls back from shaking hands and says, “I’ve got a terrible cold! Believe me, you don’t want to shake my hand today!”
Mostly, though, a handshake is the one “violation” of our personal space that we hardly even notice. Receiving a hug from someone is far more personal, however, and so we don’t hug just anyone. I can also remember, not long after I was ordained, shaking hands at the door after church when the mundane act of handshaking was interrupted by a well-meaning older lady who ran her hand along my cheeks as a way to take note that I recently had shaved off my beard. This was an invasion of my personal space I was unprepared for (and wasn’t sure I much liked!). Other times we may feel crowded if the person to whom we’re talking stands extra close, “in my face,” as we put it. We involuntarily find ourselves taking a half-step back! And, of course, we could easily go on along these lines. There are even certain ways by which a man may lay a hand on a woman that can be called criminal, sexual harassment. Because some touches are reserved only for lovers.
Genesis 17 gives us the Bible’s first sacrament, and it’s on the intimate side. But when you think about it, God’s sacramental confirmations of his covenant love and salvation are always intimate. The waters of baptism make us wet—adults sputter, babies squirm and squeal. The sacrament touches us. The bread and wine of the Holy Supper literally enter into our bodies, our bloodstream, our very physical make-up. Our mouths involuntarily salivate, our throats contract to swallow, our stomach receives the elements and metabolizes them. Again, pretty intimate stuff.
Apparently, when God makes a covenant to save, he wants it to involve the totality of our being. For nothing short of that totality is what he has been saving all along.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 1, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Commentary