Our Sermon for February 25th, 2018: To Walk In a Promise, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (plus a little of verse 17)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
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.
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.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
To Walk in a Promise: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (and vs 17)
Abraham fell to his face and laughed. Laughed out loud. Laughed until he was out of breath. Even as he stayed low and face down in an ancient posture of reverence, he laughed. So often, when we tell the story of this family and their relationship with God, we talk about Sarah's laugh in the face of Divine Impossibility. Her son Isaac was named for her laughter. But, Abraham laughed, too. He was 75 years old and still going by the name Abram when God first promised him children and land on which to thrive. To his credit, he believed God at that first promise and mostly did what God asked him to over the next 25 years. There was this moment of fear-based decision making on Abraham's part that ended up with Sarai getting taken by a Pharoah to be a new wife or concubine. God helped her get back to Abram, though. And, that whole debacle didn't stop either of them from trusting that first promise God made to Abram.
Abram usually trusts God when God makes a promise. The second big promise God made, after Lot and Abram decided to settle in different areas, was yet another promise of children and land. God said their descendants would be as numerous as dust on the earth. That is a lot of offspring and he was probably in his 80's at that point. But, he followed God. At one point, after saving Lot and many others who were kidnapped in war, when God again tells Abram that he will be blessed, Abram does ask when. He and Sarai were well-passed the years that most people conceive and they had no child. He was worried that one of his slaves would be an heir. But, God confirmed the promise. Abram and Sarai would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. God said they would have land for a home.
They do try an end run around the promise once. Sarai convinced Abram to try to conceive with her slave Hagar. It is not at all clear that Hagar wanted to be a part of this arrangement. Abram could have said no, but he didn't. Hagar had a son, Ishmael. God took care of her and child when Sarai and Abram wouldn't. God would eventually find them a home in the wilderness. But this child, Ishmael, would not be the promised child. That boy will come later. By the time we come to our reading for today, where God makes one more promise of children and land, Abram and Sarai do not yet have a son together. They have been following God's promise for nearly 25 years. Even after the pharaoh debacle and the mistreatment of Hagar, God sees potential in this family and assures them that a richer future is in store for them. Abraham, that's what he's called now, Abraham... Abraham hears this promise and he believes, but he laughs out loud anyway. It has been twenty-five years. There have been so many moves, even a war, and he has one son, even if it's not with Sarah. He will do what God says, but, he has to laugh. He no longer has any sense of how long this promise with take to manifest.
You'll remember, Noah had been made a covenant, too. God saw the destruction that was a product of God's anger and added a mark to the world as a reminder to never do that again. It was a promise to all of creation, not just one particular family. Creation didn't really have to do anything to merit this covenant. God just made the promise. God's covenant with Abraham is different. While God will remain the God of all the world, this part of the story is about Israel's particular relationship with God. The covenant reflects that particularity. This covenant is not a blanket promise over all creation. It is a particular promise to this family and their descendants. While Abram and Sarai didn't do anything to court God's favor at the beginning of this story, once they decided to follow God and believe in the covenant, God began to ask something of them. This portion of the story is the moment where God set forth the expectations for their side of the covenant. They would have to do something to demonstrate their faith.
First, they would have different names. A name change often signifies a new or changing relationship. Their new names become one sign that they are changed by their relationship with God. There is a second sign that's not part of our reading, circumcision, but this sign isn't available to all people. God asks for it, nonetheless. Whereas the marks in the sky after the flood remind God of a promise, these marks on some of the people and in their very names become signs to the people of the covenant they have with God. The rainbow reminds God to create, not destroy. These marks and names remind God's people to walk with God and be blameless. Notice, this doesn’t mean perfect... Abraham and Sarah are far from perfect, even by their own cultural standards. As scholar Wil Gafney says, people are more than the worst things they've ever done. And part of the uniqueness of this God is that this God entrusts fallible people with a powerful covenant.
So, what does it mean to walk blameless before God as a sign of the covenant? A scholar I read this week named Alejandro Botta explains it this way. When you look at Genesis, where the covenant begins, alongside other books of the Bible, where the covenant is fleshed out, to behave in a way that is called "blameless," like Noah or Job is to know God. Knowing God means doing a couple different things. In 1 Kings, Psalms, Proverbs and Isiah, it means to fear God. In 1 Chronicles, it means to serve God. In another part of Isaiah, to believe in God, and another Psalm, to trust God and cleave to God. In Jeremiah, a good king is said to truly know God when he dispensed justice and equity and upheld the rights of the poor and needy. Blamelessness then becomes a third mark of the covenant... a commitment to serving God and caring for those who need it most.
In another article I read this week, a minister named Kathryn Matthews, noted that these stories weren't written down by Abraham or Sarah themselves. They were written well after these things were traditionally thought to have taken place. These stories, and many other parts of the Hebrew Bible were finally written down during the exile in Babylon, after Jerusalem had been destroyed. While the leadership in exile and the temple in ruins, people wondered if the promises God had made were really true anymore. With the people so spread out, some living in poverty in Judah and some in exile in Babylon, were these old promises even valid anymore? These authors say yes. This covenant is everlasting. For a people who would not have had access to many of their most important religious sites and for whom evening keeping up with rituals may have been difficult, what a relief it could have been to hear that you can be blameless without the temple. You can be blameless without the sacrifices. You can be blameless, even, without your people. You carry the mark of the covenant on you. You can live into the covenant wherever you fear God and do justice. Babylon can never take that away.
Maybe that's why we need to see Abraham laughing while also kneeling in worship. He knew that God's promises don't always happen in the way you think they will or on the timeline you imagine. He remembered times when he was afraid and times when he was brave and probably some times when he was both. I mean, Ishmael, the product of both his and Sarah's anxiety for the promise, lived with them every day (until Sarah sent him away). He believes, but he's not sure how he believes or what will come of this belief. God has been with him thus far. Now God is asking for a greater level of commitment from his family. So, he laughs, and he prays. That's all he can really in the moment. It's what they will do next that shows us whether or not he and Sarah will fully participate in this next iteration of the covenant. I'll give you a little hint about what comes next: Abraham has everyone who can be circumcised, circumcised. Then a couple angels show up at their tents. That's the part of the story where Sarah laughs and, their son Isaac is born.
This is the season of Lent. It is a time for telling the stories of God's promises, even in the midst of that which is challenging in human life. It a time for remembering all the ways that God calls to us, as God called to Abraham and Sarah, inviting into both new life and greater responsibility. Our faith is richer for remembering these promises, and discerning new ways to live them out. Maybe we'll find ourselves praying and laughing at the same time, completely unclear how God will make a way with us but choosing to trust that God will. You see, the apostle Paul thought that Gentiles could be part of God's covenant with Abraham, too. He said we got adopted into the family. That means that we are asked to be blameless, too, then, as a sign of the covenant. What are the signs that you count on to remind you of your own covenant with God? What are the signs that we collectively need to remember are written onto the hearts of our community? How will you remember these signs and be changed by them?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3596
Cameron B. R. Howard: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2384
Alejandro F. Botta, "Second Sunday in Lent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_25_2018
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.