Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 17: 1-27 Covenant Confirmed

On Hallowe’en night there were quite a lot of fireworks whizzing and banging and popping in the night sky. Some places have large firework demonstrations which go on for quite a while, every second there’s something new to catch your eye - and maybe even set up to explode in time with the music. That might be how we see the Bible - lots of great things, all very exciting, but you quickly move on to the next bit. And that’s how we imagine it must have been for Abram. All these times when God speaks - how amazing!

The reality, though, seems to be far less exciting, and more like a home made fireworks display. Forget Belfast or Derry, or even Enniskillen. One Hallowe’en I went to a friend’s house, where they had one tube stuck in the back field, from which one single firework was fired every five minutes or so. By the time they got one out of the box, arranged it in the tube, got the fuse straightened out, fumbled with the lighter, instead tried to use the damp matches, and eventually let one off, it wasn’t just as exciting.

As we read about the life of Abram in Genesis, we might think that it’s a non stop rollercoaster ride of God speaking in chapter 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and now 17. But look closer and you discover that the times when God spoke to Abram were rare. Chapters 12-15 all came in quick succession. Chapter 16 happened ten years later. That was when Abram and Sarai had thought that God wasn’t able to keep his promise and needed a helping hand by way of the slave girl Hagar and her son Ishmael.

We jump from chapter 16 to 17 so easily, but the wee white space in between those two lines represents 13 years of getting on with ordinary life. Just think back to 2001. Think of the changes since then. Ishmael the baby is now 13. Abram is now 99. The word of the LORD is rare. God hasn’t spoken for ages. And then he appears. He speaks. ‘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.’ And once again, God renews the covenant with Abram.

[I’m sure you’ve seen those red letter Bibles - where the words of Jesus are in red. If the words that God speaks were in red here, almost the whole chapter would be red. But then we don’t need the red, it is all God’s word anyway!!!]

As we look at what God says, we discover that he speaks of four different people, and how they relate to his purposes. We’ll look at each of them in turn. So first up, ‘As for me’ (4). We expect God to talk about himself, but actually, he speaks mostly about Abram. How Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. how Abram will be exceedingly fruitful; how Abram and his descendants will have the land. Abram is also to get a new name - the exalted father Abram will now be father of a multitude, AbrAHam.

Those promises we’ve seen before are enlarged and expanded. It’s in the promise that we see how this is ‘As for me’ - God. You see, God is the one who makes the promise, the covenant. All the way through God says, ‘I will...’ - Abraham isn’t going to manage this by himself. It’s only by God’s gracious promises. And it all flows from a relationship with God - ‘I will be God to you.’ ‘I will be their God.’

In verse 9, the focus changes. ‘As for you’ - Abraham. As the sign of the covenant, God commands Abraham to begin circumcision - not just on himself, but on everyone in his house, and everyone who will become part of his house. At eight days old, baby boys are to receive the sign. The removal of a portion of skin is the sign that they themselves are not cut off from God’s people. You see that principle in verse 14. To not be circumcised is to be cut off from God’s people by breaking the covenant.

The focus then shifts again, to Sarai, Abraham’s wife. She too is to get a new name - Sarah. She too is to be blessed - by the birth of a son, and by the promise of nations and kings coming from her descendants.

At this point, it seems that it’s just too difficult to believe. After all, surely Sarah would have had a better chance of producing a son when she was younger. Why now? Back in verse 3 Abram had fallen on his face in worship. But now in verse 17 it’s as if he falls on his face in hysterics. He laughed and said, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?’ It’s laughable! Imagine Sarah and Abraham going to look at prams and cots. The shop assistant asks if they’re for their new grandchild or great grandchild? No, we’re going to be the parents...

It would be far easier for God to work with what Abraham has already tried. ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight.’ We’ve already got him, God, couldn’t we just work things out that way? But God is firm - Sarah will bear the son, Isaac (he laughs), and the covenant will be through him. Ishmael will be blessed, but he’s a dead-end when it comes to the promise being fulfilled.

Imagine that God hadn’t spoken to you for thirteen years. Then he suddenly appears with the confirmation of the covenant - and the word of circumcision. How would you respond? What would you make of it?

Perhaps quite a few men would think to themselves, just hold on a minute. You want me to do what? But Abraham gets up and does it - Ishmael, all the slaves, and Abraham himself, ‘that very day.’ In fact, Moses tells us twice that it happened in those verses. What God says, he does.

You might be wondering to yourself why don’t we practice circumcision these days? If this is an eternal covenant in every generation; if we look to Father Abraham, how come we don’t do this now? Abraham was promised offspring. From that earliest moment, he heard the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the greater promised son, who perfectly fulfils every promise God made in the Old Testament. Jesus himself was circumcised in obedience to the command, as we’re told in Luke 2:21.

But Paul goes on to show how Jesus completes the promise in a greater and deeper way. You see, Jesus was himself cut off as he died on the cross. Our sins were on him as he died, so that we can live to God through faith in him. The New Testament sign of the covenant is no longer circumcision; it is now baptism - the sign of bring united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.

Our sins are gone. The record of wrongs was nailed to the cross. It is paid in full. The law has been fulfilled. We live to Christ. The power of sin has been broken. We stand in the fulfilment of the promise through Jesus Christ. Today, as we approach the Lord’s table, we take refuge in this everlasting covenant. ‘I will be their God’ is the promise to Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and in Revelation, where this eternal covenant finds its final fulfilment in the new Jerusalem.

God’s promise is forever - to be held on to every ordinary day until we get to that day. So don’t lose heart.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd November.

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