Genesis 17:1-7, 15-21, Romans 4:13-25
March 12, 2006
Today we have the story of another Covenant. I mentioned last week that there were a number of such covenants that we would be reading about through the Lenten season. We started last week with the covenant God made with Noah, and with “all flesh,” following the great flood.
Today we “fast forward” to the story of Abraham. Actually, in the DVD world we don’t “fast forward” any more. We go to the “scene select” menu and choose a later scene. Those of you with video tape players at home have no idea what I’m talking about! But if you were looking on the DVD menu, this scene might be called “Abraham and Sarah.” And there would be a little picture of them next to the titles, a picture with shocked faces. They would almost look like they were about to burst into laughter! Because in this scene, God has just told them they were going to have a son! And they’re in their 90’s.
That was the central theme of this particular covenant God made with these two. “…I will make my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.” That was a wonderful message for them. To have children, to carry on the family name, to have descendants, to be the father of a great nation, those were momentous things to people at that time.
This covenant was so important that this was the time that God changed their names. No longer were they to be called Abram and Sarai. Now they would be Abraham and Sarah! That kind of thing happened in the Bible at major times in people’s lives. When they became disciples of Jesus, Simon became Peter, and Levi became Matthew. When he had his life changing experience on the road to Damascus, Saul the persecutor became Paul the Apostle.
Some Christian traditions have preserved that tradition. In some denominations, people used to get new names “Christian names” at baptism or at confirmation. I’m not sure, but I think the Catholics do that. Maybe the Lutherans, too. Has anybody here done that somewhere along the lines? Does anyone have another name like that? I actually think that’s very cool! (Maybe we need to start that tradition!)
This was then a very important covenant between God and Abraham – and Sarah. No one knows for sure why God chose this couple. No one can say for sure why God chose this particular tribe of people at this time and this place. We could talk about that for a long time! And it would be worth the discussion! Because they didn’t really deserve it! God said that himself. They weren’t the most numerous people. They weren’t the most powerful. But he chose them anyway! He made his covenant with them anyway.
That’s the same kind of grace we see when we look at our own story. Grace means we don’t deserve God’s favor. But he gives it to us anyway! If we look seriously at our lives and God’s grace, there’s a certain part of it that is almost unbelievable. The psalmist writes “When I look at the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars which thou hast established, who are we that thou art mindful of us?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
Listen to these words from one of my favorite songs.
“Who am I, that the Lord of all the earth, would care to know my name, would care to feel my hurt?
Who am I, that the Bright and Morning Star, would choose to light the way for my ever wandering heart? ”
Who are we that God deals with the likes of us? That’s one common thing about all the covenants God made with his people. To the people involved, they tended to be unbelievable. No one who God chose could imagine why God would be speaking to, and making a covenant with them! Isn’t that the same with us?
Think about it. Can you even imagine that the God of all creation has made a covenant with you? Does that seem even possible? Does it make any logical sense that God loves you – personally? Can you even begin to fathom the great mystery that you have been chosen by God? If those things don’t seem amazing, incredible, and maybe even impossible, then I’m not sure you’re understanding them fully!
It’s interesting what Paul said about Abraham in the New Testament, when compared with what actually happened in this passage. When we read about Abraham in our passage from Romans, we find Paul telling us about the “faith” of Abraham. He tells us about Abraham’s belief and how it was reckoned to him as righteousness. But is that what this Genesis passage shows us? Is it showing us a man of great faith and willingness to believe whatever God told him? Certainly not at first!
Look what happens here. Abraham seems to be ok with all of this so far – at least up til verse 17. He was even ok when God told him all that stuff we didn’t read about. (’cause it talked about circumcision!) But when it came to this business of him having a son, what did he do? I love this! When he heard what God had said, Abraham fell on his face – and laughed! After all, he was an old guy! And his wife was an old lady! And the laugher was not over. In the next chapter, chapter 18, God would visit this couple again and he would tell them again about the child they would have. And this time Sarah laughs! That’s what the name “Isaac” means. It means “Laughter.”
Would we have felt any differently than Abraham and Sarah? I doubt it. In fact, I think we share some of their feelings in our own lives of faith. This is our story, too. Because we too are people who are in covenant with God. And that doesn’t seem to make sense! And most of our covenants with God don’t involve this kind of supernatural element. Were we faced with so impossible a promise, we might laugh, too!
With that in mind, I’d like us to consider that, even in his laughter, Abraham did have great faith. And his faith – and maybe even his laughter – was reckoned to him as righteousness. Because even in his disbelief, he still went along with God on this. He was still willing. He still allowed God to lead him, even when he couldn’t see how it was going to happen. Paul would tell the Hebrews that “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) Abraham couldn’t see how God would do this one. But he had faith anyway! He didn’t shut down. He didn’t walk away.
Friends, isn’t that the true nature of our faith, too? Sometimes I’m not sure we realize how hard faith can be. We aren’t often confronted with the supernatural. And we aren’t often presented with seemingly impossible things. But the principle is still the same. Faith is still the conviction of things “not seen.”
I think sometimes we forget that. I think too often our attitude is such that we say, “Sure, I’ll have faith – if you prove it to me.” But that’s not really faith, is it? We need to be thinking about the faith of Abraham. That’s the faith we need to be learning about in ourselves during Lent. During this time of introspection, we need to grow in the way we trust in God even when we do not see. We need to step out and move where we can’t see the end of the road, where we don’t have any assurances other than the assurance that God is with us.
Do you have the faith of Abraham? I hope and pray you do, or that you’re heading that direction. It is laughable in some ways. But God is full of surprises.
Eternal God, we can’t understand why you chose us. But we are glad. We don’t always know where you are leading us, but help us to trust that it is you who is with us. Help us to have the faith to step out, trusting in you. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.