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"Abraham's Promise"
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
I once read an article that told of all the things one should do before one reaches the age of forty to insure success in life. 
    And throughout that article I got a sense of a boundary, that if we haven't achieved such-and-such by the age of forty, just forget it.  It's all over. 
    And while I believe that it is good to establish certain habits early in life, and that it is good to attempt certain achievements early in life, I also believe that there is much that was overlooked in that article. 
    The author certainly overlooked the seventeenth chapter of Genesis.
    "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 to me this is very reassuring.  For even if success walks off and leaves me after the age of thirty-nine, God most certainly will not.  In fact, for me, God most certainly has not.  But for Abram, the situation is unique. 
    "And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous."
    Now that's a bit much.  Covenant, fine.  But EXCEEDINGLY NUMEROUS?  Remember, Abram IS ninety-nine. 
    "Then Abram fell on his face."
    And we really have to wonder what was going through his mind.  Why is God speaking to him in this way at this time?  But then, maybe it isn't all so strange. 
    Because when I think about it, I realize that there are numerous times when I am asking, why is this happening to me in this way at this time?  They aren't moments as significant as that which Abram is experiencing, but for me they are important.  And in a sense, all we can do is wait and listen and try to figure out what is going on.  And God will speak.
    "...and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you:  You shall be the ancestor of  a multitude of nations." 
    Now that's going to be tough to do.  Because Abram and his wife Sarai have had no children; although Abram has a son, Ishmael, by Sarai's Egyptian maid Hagar.  But is that what God means by fathering a multitude of nations? 
    And even Ishmael was not born until Abram was eighty-six, which is a bit late to be getting on with empire-building.  This has to be confusing and frustrating to Abram, trying to figure out how all this fits together.
    But to assure Abram that this IS all on the level, God goes on to say,
    "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."
    A new name for a new identity and a new purpose.  And the name, which means "the divine Father is exalted" is artificially explained by its similarity to the Hebrew for "father of a multitude." 
    And this refers to the nations whose ancestry was traced to Abraham, for example, the Edomites and Ishmaelites.
    "I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you."
    Now this is no small promise.  It gets better all the time.  And if God were not giving this away, it would sound as if God were trying to sell something to Abram, continuing to add fringe benefits to the contract.  But the irony is that this is NOT a sales pitch; it IS a gift.  And a further irony is that even today, when we listen carefully, God is promising much to US. 
    God is not selling it to us; God is giving it to us.  But we have to listen for it.
    And to Abram God continues,
    "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 this is the eternal contract of God with the Jewish people.  But what does this say to us--those of us who do not consider ourselves Jewish?  Are we included or excluded from this?  I think we're included; but that is because I consider myself, as with other Christians, a spiritual descendant of Jesus Christ, who was an heir to the covenant of Abram.
    But the promise continues:
    "And I will give 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."
    This verse is troublesome.  The Jewish people--or at least many of the Jewish people--have taken it to mean that there is a plot of land on this earth that is theirs and theirs alone forever.  I take issue with that. 
    For my theology, my belief, tells me that nothing in our physical world is forever.  Absolutely nothing.  But is this at odds with this verse?  I don't believe so. 
    But I do believe that we need to understand where Abram and his people had come from and to where they wanted to go.  They had been wanderers, strangers, foreigners, sojourners; and they wanted to settle down, to become part of the land, to move from a nomadic society to an agrarian society.  Symbolically, this was Canaan. 
    And I believe that God was telling Abram that they would be helped to achieve that sense of place.  But I do have difficulty believing that my eternal, infinite God has carved out a parcel of land on this earth and put a label on it that would be for all time.
    But God's covenant with Abraham continues: 
    "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."
    I guess every contract has some fine print.  But this "sign of the covenant" is interesting for several reasons.  First of all, it is a physical act, an outward sign.  In addition, it is a physical act that is not reversible. 
    But finally, it is a physical act that does not disfigure or disable.  And furthermore, we need to understand that women really were second-class citizens in those days, which is why no sign was expected of them.
    And the sign of the covenant is spelled out in detail:
    "Through 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."
    And we know from the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of Luke, "After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb."
    And then, to wrap it all up,
    "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."
    Now, I have to ask myself, was all this really necessary?  Was my eternal, infinite God really this picky in demanding a sign for the covenant?  And for an answer, I turn back to the ninth chapter of Genesis, and God's comment on the covenant of the rainbow:  "When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant." 
    I don't think God needed reminding of the covenant made with Abraham, but Abraham and his people DID feel that need.  And the sign that Abraham heard God spell out for him was more the felt need for Abraham that it was for God. 
    Just as we Christians have signs to remind ourselves of our relationship to God, so did Abraham's people. 
    And to the extent that those signs do remind us, they are signs that have been created jointly by us working with God; for if we are not of a mind with God, those signs will be meaningless for us.
    "God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name."
    So the wife of Abraham is to have a new identity also, with a new name, which, by the way, means "princess."  And I can't help but be reminded of another couple in another place earlier in Genesis. 
    God started out with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; and in a sense he's starting again with Abraham and Sarah.  Granted, the circumstances are considerably different; but the re-naming of these two is strongly symbolic of new beginnings.
    And of Sarah, God says,
    "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." 
    And this is similar to the promise made to Abraham earlier.  But do we believe it?  Remember, Sarah is childless; Sarah is barren.  But move your mind forward in time to another woman who was childless. 
    And although she was not barren, neither had she known a man. And Mary learned that a king would come from her also.
    But Abraham does not know of this future.  He knows only of his past. 
    "Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?  Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"  Abraham is a realist, and he is unaccustomed to miracles. 
    But then, so are we.  In fact, I suspect that most of the time we expect a lot less from God than God is capable of delivering; and even when someone brings up the improbable, let alone the impossible, we, like Abraham, feel like falling on the floor in laughter.
    So Abraham, the realist, says to God,
    "O that Ishmael might live in your sight!"
    Abraham doesn't want to put what he considers to be impossible demands on God.  He just wants God to be pleased with the limited possibilities, and in this case that is Ishmael, son of Hagar.  That sounds like me most of the time. 
    Maybe that's most of us.  I usually don't want miracles from God; I just want God to be pleased with what I know I can do and have done.
    But God persists:
    "God said, "No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac.  I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him."
    And the miracle is to be.
    Maybe that's the way miracles are supposed to work.  They don't show up when we go begging for them; but when we thank God for what we have, and then proceed to do the best we can, somehow miracles occur. 
    It is when we put our faith and trust in God, and let God be God, that the powers of the almighty truly burst upon us, that the amazement of who God is becomes apparent to us.
    And God really does bless what we have done:
    "As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.  But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year."
    While God's covenant with Noah was to withhold God's destructive wrath, God's covenant with Abraham was to be  everlastingly supportive of the descendants of Abraham.  While the first covenant avoids the negative, the second promises the positive. 
    But there's far more to it than that.  This story tells us a great deal about our relationship to God and about how God goes out of the way to do things for us if we are open to change.
    This season of Lent is an appropriate time for us to reconsider our covenant with God.  Do we have Abraham's patience and humility in responding to God?  And are we prepared to be surprised by God's miracles for us?

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