Faithlife Sermons

A Promise With a Future

Covenant  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Genesis 17:1–16 NRSV
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
The man walks along the path as he does every day. He is old, older than he ever imagined that he would be. It seems to him that he is kept waiting for something to happen, something big but he does not know what. And he considers when the big thing is going to occur. After all he is 99 years old. How much time does he have left to wait? But wait he does. And it is in this waiting that he walks along an old familiar path, one where he often meets someone.
The old man stops. He hears something, or someone, nearby. One can never be too sure out here. After all it is still a wild land even with the camp close by. Turns out it is someone. Someone known to the old man. Someone calling his name.
As he looks around, he hears his name spoken again. This time he looks to the side and sees the one who has been speaking his name, the one who led him to this place.
The one who spoke calls to the man again and calls him by name, Abram. He tells Abram that this is El Shaddai, God Almighty. That is the name that Abram knows, as the name YHWH has not been given to him. And in calling Abram, God is telling him to walk before God and be blameless. To walk with God, rather than in front. To walk like Enoch who was taken up and never died. To be like Noah who had integrity and found grace in the eyes of the LORD. Being blameless means the same as to walk before God. It is not expected that Abram will be completely blameless; that is not possible with humans. But he is to be blameless in his devotion to God. He is to do what Micah would later proclaim, to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” This is Abram’s calling.
With this injunction comes a promise. That God will “...make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”[1] A promise of many descendants, a promise that is made between God and Abram. Notice that it is a covenant that God says is “my covenant”, not a covenant where the other side has a say in it. It is a covenant of grace where God extends to Abram the covenant of many descendants.
And what does Abram do? What any man who is to follow God closely would do: he falls on his face. Though I do wonder if he fell on his face or gingerly went down to the ground and got on his face. He is 99 years old. But he shows the respect that is to be offered to God. The reverence that is saying that God is the one true God and that Abram worships him.
With Abram on the ground not in fear, but in worship, God tells him what is going to happen next. That he will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. A gigantic horde of people. And that this is God’s covenant with him. Once again, a covenant that is not requiring anything from Abram. What God had told him before the announcement of the covenant was what God expected him to do in any case, even without the covenant. This is God’s covenant to give and God does just that.
To make sure that Abram understands what is being told to him, God tells him that he is no longer to be known as Abram (exalted ancestor) but as Abraham (ancestor of multitudes). That he will no longer be the same. See, names have a powerful affect on lives. They are not merely labels that tell people to what family we belong, but can mean so much more. John Goldingay says this about names: “Names can suggest people’s destinies or significance, or say something important about their parents’ prayers for them.[2]” And so it is with Abraham. He is to be something more than he already is.
“But”, Abraham might have stated, “you already made a covenant with me before this.” “Yes”, God might have replied, “I did. But that covenant was a promise of that your descendants would have the land in which you now dwell. This covenant is so much more. This is a promise that you will have descendants. A whole multitude, more than you can imagine. In fact, you shall be the ancestor of nations, hordes of them. Not only that, but kings will come from those who are your descendants. You won’t even be able to fathom the number.”
And yet again, God says this: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.[3]” This is the third time that “my covenant” is stated in this text. As I have stated before, if a word or phrase is repeated in a text, pay attention. Three times God calls it “my covenant”. Not “our covenant” or “this covenant”. This is God’s grace coming to Abraham because it was not anything that Abraham had done yet that caused God to establish this covenant.
In this third statement, God says that this is to be an everlasting/perpetual covenant. God will continue the covenant with the people who are the descendants of Abraham. Even when they mess up and forget to walk before God, the covenant will still stand. This does not mean that they will not face consequences for their actions or inactions. Far from it. They will continually find themselves in trouble. But the covenant will still stand.
God even makes the promise again that the land where Abraham and his family are currently strangers and aliens will be given to them and to their offspring. All the land in which they are in will be a perpetual holding. And the biggest promise of all, God will be their God.
Abraham hears all of this and wonders what his part, his role in all of this will be. What can he possibly bring to this covenant? He has nothing to really offer but himself. What will be the response to God’s covenant and promise?
God tells him what the response is to be. All the males in the company of Abraham are to be circumcised. All the men. From Abraham to servants, slaves, family members. They are to be circumcised right away. And they are to continue circumcision from now on. Everyone who is in the line of Abraham, descendent or slave, is to be circumcised. If they are not, they are to be cut off from the line.
Now this does not mean that this is the covenant. Like the rainbow in the sky for Noah, this is to be a sign of the covenant. Those who are circumcised will stand out from among those of the other nations. They will show themselves to be a part of the covenant people and that they are a part of God’s chosen.
Abraham has more questions I am sure that we are never told (it is interesting to note here that in this covenant story, Abraham does not speak at all). But God is not done yet. He has one more thing to tell Abraham.
Abraham has a son, the thirteen-year-old Ishmael. This is to be the heir and the one who the promise and covenant will go through, presumably. God however has other ideas.
God tells Abraham that his wife Sarai’s name will be changed as well. That the son of the promise and of the covenant will come from her womb. Therefore, she will be known from now on as Sarah (or princess). One cannot have kings from a line of commoners. There needs to be a princess who is at the beginning of all of this. Sarah will be that princess.
If you have read anymore of this story, you will know what Abraham’s reaction to the announcement that Sarah will have a son is: He laughs. Laughs hard. And it is from this laughter that the name of the son comes, Isaac. But that is for another time and place.
Abraham was given a promise with a future. He did not know all of the particulars or how God would arrange what would occur, but he trusted that God would do it. He walked before God and worked to be blameless, though he faltered and failed at times.
How do we look at this covenant today? Are we like Abraham with a need to be fulfilled by God? Are we like Sarah who was barren and was awaiting the end of her struggle? Do we have barren spots in our lives? God has what we need and is willing to give it to us. Our needs are known to and are met by God. Just like the need of Abraham to have an heir from Sarah.
The covenant God made with Abraham is still in effect today. We are part of the multitude of nations that are descendants of Abraham. And so, the grace that God gave to him extends to us. Our sign of the covenant today is the faith in Jesus Christ.
We are also called to do as God told Abraham. We are to walk before God and be blameless as well. When we do this, when we walk humbly with our God, we will realize that there is a promise with a future for us as well. That God will be our God and that the covenants that are made by God will never fail, not because of anything that we do, but because of the one who makes the covenant with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.
[2] Goldingay, John. Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50. First edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. Print. Old Testament for Everyone.
[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.
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