Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
Last week, which was the first Sunday of Lent, we looked at the story of Noah and the Great Flood. I shared how I don’t particularly like this story, in large part because I know that I am not righteous and that I would not be on the boat. I would be one of the ones who went down because of my sinfulness. We all would be (apart from Jesus, that is). That is a part of what Lent is about. We recognize that we are sinners. We all fail to reach the perfection of Christ.
But there was good news in that great flood as well. After the waters had dissipated, God made a covenant, an agreement, with Noah, with the animals, and with all of humanity that he would not deal with sin through a great flood again. God had a different plan. And today’s passage is the beginning of that alternate, better plan.
It would be really easy to just jump ahead and say that Jesus is the answer (I want to break into an Andrae Crouch song right about now), believe in him and be saved, but that really doesn’t take into account much of the biblical narrative. God didn’t just go straight from Noah to Jesus; the Bible doesn’t just go straight from Noah to Jesus. Jesus fits into a grand narrative of salvation history and a particular tribe, a particular people, known as the Hebrews, the Israelites, and later, the Jews. Jesus was born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, in a particular religion, with a particular history for a reason.
Our story of covenant making for today is the covenant made between Abram and God that God would bless Abram with many children and that his offspring would inherit the land of Canaan where Abram was residing as a foreigner. There is a promise of children, descendants, and land straight from God himself. Who could ask for anything more!
This covenant is accompanied by not one sign, but two. The first is circumcision, which our text conveniently skips over, so I won’t get into that one again. The second is a change of name. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah. These two leaders of God’s plan for redemption are given new names as they yield to God’s plan. Like in our Children’s Time from today, Abraham and Sarah allow God to be in charge of their lives.
That sounds simple enough, right? Let God, let Jesus be your boss. Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker that says “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” Or in the Mennonite Church we might say something like “follow Jesus.” Be his 21st century disciple, his hands and feet to the world! Oh in theory this sounds great and I’m not saying that it isn’t something that we should all aspire to. I’m just saying that it isn’t always that easy.
The Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent comes to us from Mark chapter 8. There is a lot that happens in this chapter, so I am not going to try to give the context, and I really can’t say for sure if Mark progresses with any chronological accuracy anyway. But the highest point in this reading from Mark 8 is something that I continue to wrestle with daily and it is found in verse 34, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
That is just so opposite of what we often hear in the church. Jesus is the answer, for the world today. I believe that, I just don’t believe that in the same way that many other Christians believe it to be true. I don’t think it means that Jesus will take away all of your pain, suffering, and hurts. I know it doesn’t mean that. Jesus compared following him to taking up your cross daily. And I wonder if this is why so many people come to a faith in Jesus only to drift away a few years later. We often make promises that Jesus never made. You know what promise, among others, Jesus did make? John 16:33 tells us “In this world you will have troubles.”
I recently heard about a bit of a controversy in a nearby state. There is a group with some political strength that was suggesting that text books be rewritten so as to remove any negative references to the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. They want to remove any reference to Native Americans being forced from their land and any reference to the Founding Fathers owning and/or trading slaves.
When I hear about these kinds of things, I get angry. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, as well as others owned slaves. I don’t like that it happened, but it did. It is indeed a low point in the history of this country and yes, it doesn’t look too positive for those former leaders. But I don’t think we should pretend like it didn’t happen. To do so is to deify the Founding Fathers; to make them perfect and worthy of praise. No, I believe we should learn from the mistakes of our ancestors so as to not repeat them.
I have shared that there are things in the Bible that I don’t like. There are stories about the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers of our faith that don’t always paint these individual in a flattering way. But I don’t advocate the removal of these stories. I advocate for learning from these stories.
In Mark 8 just before Jesus compares following him to bearing a cross, we see an eventual leader of the church named Peter saying things that get him rebuked by Jesus. And this isn’t just any old rebuke. Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” That isn’t a compliment. We know that there is a laundry list of the shortcomings of biblical leaders, so I am not going to restate them here. But let’s look at the guy with whom God made the covenant with in our passage from Genesis 17. Let’s look at Abraham.
Abraham is known as a central character in the development of our faith tradition. He is held in high regard by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But this man was not perfect…far from it! This is a guy that told powerful people that his wife was his sister so that he could save his own skin. And he did it, not once, but twice! He was a polygamist, having children with multiple women. And this man, this man that we often consider to be a man of faith, seems to me to be a bit of a doubter at times.
At the age of 75, Abraham, then called Abram, was called by God to leave his home behind and travel to a land that God would show him. God promises Abram to make him into great nation. Not “I will find a great nation for you to live in” but God will make him into a great nation. That means offspring, kids, family, etc. Sound familiar?
We turn three chapters to the right (in English) and we come to chapter 15. Abram has another conversation with God and Abram kindly notes that he still doesn’t have any children. And in verse 2 we find these familiar words, “He [God] took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
What happens in the very next chapter? Abram gets Hagar pregnant. Hagar, not his wife Sarai, and she gives birth to a son. Abram and Sarai don’t necessarily doubt God, they just doubt God’s methods.
Then we come to today’s passage from Genesis 17 and we hear this promise yet again. You’re going to be the father of many nations, I will make you fruitful, your family will be kings of great nations, and I will be your God! And Abram was given the name Abraham.
Let’s jump one more time to Genesis 22:17-18, “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
God made this promise to Abraham not once, not twice, but four times. Hey Abraham, God is going to bless you with children. Your family will be large. Please file that away somewhere in your memory bank.
We could get critical of Abraham for a lack of faith, but notice that the Bible doesn’t. The Bible lifts up Abraham as an example of what faith should look like! In the middle of all of these times when God had to reassure Abraham of God’s faithfulness, Abraham’s faithfulness is said to be the reason that he was considered righteous. Paul even picks up on this motif in Romans 4, noting that Abraham’s faithfulness led to him being considered righteous.
Let’s be honest, Abraham had his doubts and we probably would, too. He was 75 when he received the promise the first time. He didn’t hear anything about it for another 11 years or so. 11 years is a long time to wait on someone to fulfill a promise, especially when you are as old as Abraham and Sarah and that promise is that you will have children! And it still doesn’t happen for another 14 years. Yes, Abraham had his doubts, but he kept returning to the promise, to the covenant. That is faithfulness.
This is what I like about the Bible. It is filled with imperfect people who are still lifted up as examples of faith. The Bible doesn’t hide Peter or Abraham’s shortcomings. The Bible says, “Look at this fool. Look at all of his or her mistakes. That is the one of the greatest people in the history of our faith. That’s one of the greatest people in the history of humanity. God chose to use that person.” This gives hope to me, a guy that has noted already that he would not be among the righteous on Noah’s ark, but among the putrid sinners floating in the waters. That is what Lent is about.
Abraham and Sarah knew the things that God had promised to them. But they also knew that it was hard to keep plugging away, day after day. Jesus compares following him to a cross. We all know how hard it can be to follow Jesus. Like Abraham we know the promises that have been made, but we don’t see them being fulfilled. Lent is a time when we say, I am on board with you Jesus, even if I don’t know where you are taking me.