Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2024

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Commentary

Cutting Out the Covenant

Perhaps the compilers of the Lectionary intended a compassionate reprieve for those who might have to explain the meaning of circumcision to their youngest and most inquisitive learners.  It is, however, a lamentable omission for two reasons. The first is that it truncates the literary markers of covenant-making, which typically include an announcement AND a sign.  Second, and especially poignant for those of us in Reformed tradition, the sign of belonging and membership in the covenant community lives on in the practice of infant baptism today. In conjunction with Abram and Sarai getting new names, circumcision works to show that God’s people are set apart.  In baptism, we name a child and claim God’s choice to set them apart, to welcome them into the community in which covenant is spoken fluently.  And, as an added bonus, water seems an easier right of initiation than cutting. Not to mention it includes male and female equally.

“I Promise”

In this chapter, God restates God’s promise to Abraham. In these short verses, we can discern much about the content and nature of that promise as it guides the narrative.  Walter Brueggemann offers four characteristics of this promise.  (1) The promise is tied to creation, as verse 6 seems to echo Genesis 1:28. Abraham serves as the bridge between creation and new creation accomplished in Christ.  (2) This is a royal promise, linking God’s work in and for Abraham with Israel’s later Davidic rule. (3) This is an eternal promise, in other words not made contingent upon human obedience or deserving.  (4) Finally, this promise shapes the relationship of God and Abraham, which in turn shapes Abraham and Sarah’s identities (in their name changes) and their belonging and their purpose. Brueggemann writes, “the entire text of Gen. 17 concerns binding Abraham to God in radical faith.” God’s promise is far reaching and it is concretely embedded in earthly realities.  If Abraham and Sarah will someday have descendants “as numerous as the stars” they should probably have at least one someday sooner rather than later. The whole thing rises and falls on this one point.  “All of it depends on an heir. The large visions of God require concrete historical reality. And that is not yet given.”

Covenant Renewal

Although this passage is included in a sequence of Old Testament stories of covenant-making, this is, in truth, a covenant renewal.  God called Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 and gave them an everlasting promise.  As the years passed, God specifically promised Abram and Sarai a son in Genesis 15 and cut a covenant in a traditional Near Eastern oath ritual. This, too, is a reminder of God’s promise, cutting the covenant with another sign, circumcision.

The whole of Scripture is full of covenant renewal.  Each time God says, “I am Your God. You are my people.”  Each time Moses or another leader enjoins the people to “remember.” Every act of worship in the Tabernacle and Temple.  When the prophets tell the story of God’s people, when the Apostles retell the story of Jesus in the book of Acts, these function as acts of covenant renewal.  I don’t think it goes too far to call Jesus an incarnate, living, dying and living again embodiment of covenant renewal.

Covenant renewal is vital to Christian discipleship because we are, in the words of the familiar hymn, “prone to wander.” Tremper Longman III writes, “Faith is a firm conviction in something or someone that they will be true to their word. Unbelief is also a firm conviction that they will not. Doubt entertains both possibilities. In the case of Abraham, doubt tends toward unbelief — at least until God reassures him that he will indeed provide him with a son. Christians too struggle with doubt. We have received promises from God.”  God is clear in Scripture, God communicates love, providential care and promises to come again but, like with Abraham, “as time stretches on and on.” We are likely to grow careless.

But, oh, how precious it is to watch God’s faithfulness, even when we forget.  God is not angry. God is not surprised, disappointed or offended.  God reminds. God continues to invite. God finds new ways of revealing God’s loving-kindness, even to a stubbornly negligent people.

Worship Idea

Consider the way your worship services functions as a kind of covenant renewal — an opportunity to remember and reapply God’s promises to lives that have grown stale and hopes that have dwindled. Are there ways that you can highlight this aspect of worship this week?

This week, you might consider inviting people to remember their baptism as a corresponding sign to that of circumcision.  In high church settings, sometimes this involves sprinkling the people with water from the font.  In participatory settings, you might invite people to come forward and dip their hands in the water, maybe picking out a stone to keep in their pockets this coming week as a reminder.  A very simple way to remember baptism and, in so doing, participate in covenant renewal is by offering a benediction from the baptism liturgy.  A favorite in my congregation has been the Huguenot blessing:

For you Jesus Christ came into the world:

For you he lived and showed God’s love;

For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary

and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished’;

For you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;

For you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.

All this he did for you though you do not know it yet.

And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled: “We love because God loved us first.”


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