Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 28, 2021
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Commentary
As any regular reader of my Sermon Commentaries on these Old Testament readings can easily tell, the theme for Lent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary is covenant. Every one of our Lenten readings has to do with God’s covenant in one way or another, even our upcoming lesson from Numbers 21, which is about covenant broken and restored.
As we journey to the cross, we do not walk alone. We walk with the God who has taken his people by the hand and will not let go. In all of these readings, the story of God and his sinful people is based on a series of promises. One of my favorite old gospel songs says that we are “standing on the promises of Christ my King.” Through all the self-examination, sorrow and repentance of Lent, we will be walking on the promises.
We started last week with the post-Flood promise of Genesis 9, where God makes a covenant with the whole human race (as represented by Noah and his family) and all of the animal kingdom (represented by the animals from the ark). It is a universal and unconditional covenant. “Never again will I destroy the whole earth with a flood.” That covenant is the bedrock of life on planet Earth. Life will go on to the end of time. God has made a solemn promise, a covenant.
In Genesis 17 God makes what seems like a more limited covenant– not with the whole human family, but with one family, with Abraham and his descendants. Unlike the covenant of Genesis 9, this one has a condition built into it. Abraham and his seed must “walk before God and be blameless,” which will be symbolized by the faithful administration of the sign of circumcision.
The covenant with Abraham, too, is everlasting. God will remain faithful to his promise for the generations to come. However, if his people are unfaithful, they might not remain in the covenant. Covenant breakers can put themselves outside the covenant. But, as the very first mention of this covenant said, even those outside the covenant can be blessed by God, because “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:3).”
That mention of Genesis 12 reminds us that God has made covenant with Abraham 2 times before this in Genesis. It all began after the debacle of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. It took only two chapters for humanity to once again rise up in God-defying rebellion. Thus, in Genesis 12, God begins over again with a new humanity represented by a pagan named Abram. He was 75 year old when God came to him with the multi-pronged promise that Abram will become a great nation, that his name will be great, that the way people treat Abram and his family will call down blessings or curses on them, and that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [Abram and his seed].”
The second iteration of the covenant with Abraham came in Genesis 15, when Abram was 86 years old. In spite of God’s promise that Abram would become a great nation, here he was, an old man, with not even one child. So, in Genesis 15 God specifically promises Abram that he would have a child whose seed would become as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. That covenant is sealed with an elaborate ceremony involving the shedding of much animal blood.
Now, here, 13 years after that last promise, with Abraham just one year short of 100, God comes to Abram again with a third iteration of that original covenant. God comes to “confirm (verse 2)” and “establish (verse 7)” that covenant with Abram. Abram desperately needed this word from God because he was still childless and well beyond the age where conception was statistically likely. Indeed, it was physically impossible for post-menopausal Sarai. For 24 years the promises of God’s covenant had not come true. So, it is remarkable that, as Romans 4 puts it, “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed….”
This renewal of the covenant is signaled by new names for the covenant partners. For the first time God identifies as El Shaddai, which the NIV translates “God Almighty.” Some scholars claim that the literal meaning is “God of the mountains,” perhaps an allusion to the many mountains that loom in the history of salvation (Moriah, Horeb, Sinai, Zion, Calvary).
Further, God gives Abram and Sarai new names, signifying the new beginning they are about to experience. “Abraham,” in particular, points to the imminent fulfillment of the promise of multiple offspring who will become “many nations.” What’s in a name? A new future guaranteed by a mighty God who makes and keeps covenant.
This renewal of the original covenant of Genesis 12 and the repeated covenant of Genesis 15 focuses on the promise of family—not just the one child of Genesis 15, but the “great nation” of Genesis 12. Here God promises not just one nation, which we would expect given Genesis 15, but many nations, which is an expansion and explanation of “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:3).” Reading this through New Testament eyes, we hear an echo of the Great Commission commanding the disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” By faith, many diverse peoples will become descendants of Abraham and heirs of these covenant promises (Galatians 3).
But there’s even more here for the careful preacher. Not only will many nations come from Abraham and Sarah, but also kings. Think of David and all of his descendants, many of whom broke covenant with God, resulting in Israel’s Exile. And think of Jesus, the son of Mary who would occupy the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32)). Here is a natural connection to Christ, whose obedience would result in a “new covenant in [his] blood.” Because of his sacrifice, this old covenant would, indeed, be “an everlasting covenant between God and all of Abraham’s descendants for the generations to come.”
It’s unfortunate that the Lectionary intentionally omits verses 8-14, probably because of the sensitive subject of circumcision (who wants to preach on that?) There is so much in those verses, including the repetition of the promise of “the whole land… as an everlasting possession,” though that, too, is a sensitive subject in today’s world.
At the end of verse 8 we encounter the central promise of the covenant, the root of all the other promises; “I will be their God.” As Paul put in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also, with him, freely give us all things?”
God promises all good things in his covenant, and he only asks for a piece of us, albeit it a central piece of us men. Of course, God asks that we “walk before me and be blameless,” which means a whole-life commitment to our covenant Lord. But in the elided verses of our reading, God narrows that commitment down to a single point, the sacrament of circumcision. It was an apt sign of the covenant; the God who has drawn a circle around a particular man and his family now asks that man and all his male children to draw a circle around a particularly personal part of their lives. “Walk before me and be blameless” calls for the commitment of our whole self– not just the spiritual, but also the physical, including what for many men is the center of life.
Now, of course, in the non-patriarchal culture of the church, neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything. Instead, all of us, men and women, are called to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1,2). Maybe circumcision is a bit too personal, painful, sexual to preach on in your church. But if you dare, you can help people realize that commitment to the God who freely gives us all things is often personal, painful, and, yes, even sexual. Which makes this a perfect Lenten text.
That is so particularly in times like ours, when there so much that makes hope difficult. Like Abraham, we face challenges that seem overwhelming—from pandemics to politics to personal struggles. This text reminds us that “our existence, our family of God, our church, our future—everything hinges upon the promises of God and God’s faithfulness in keeping the promises (William Willimon).” Because of God’s covenant promises fulfilled in Christ, Lent (and life) is not a lonely journey; we walk hand in hand with a God who shed his blood so that we could freely receive all things.
I know that this illustration is embarrassingly familiar, but it captures the difference between involvement and commitment. When you sit down to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, you owe your nourishment that morning to a hen and a pig. Both are represented on your plate, but there’s a big difference. The hen made a contribution. The pig made a commitment. The hen got involved. The pig gave a piece of himself. The God of the covenant made a commitment to bless, a commitment that resulted in God giving himself to and for us. How have we responded? With some involvement in the things of God or with commitment to God that might cost us dearly?
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