Preaching text: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Last summer when Pastor Emily led our review of this year’s Lent texts, she brought along an illustration from children’s bible. In it, a gray-haired Sarah and Isaac are smiling down at a swaddled Abraham. The text on this page read, “God told Sarah she would have a baby anyway! Soon Baby Isaac was born.”
Alongside this text, Em had scrawled in red, “NO! NOT SOON.”
In today’s text, we hear God promising Abraham and Sarah that they will be ancestors of nations. We know that part of the story.
What’s harder to remember is how much of the story happened before we got here.
“I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous…As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…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…As for Sarai your wife…I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”Genesis 17:4, 7, 15-16
Why Abram and Sarai need this covenant
Let’s review: twenty-four years before Abraham and Sarah received this covenant promise, God first comes to Abram. Abram and Sarai leave their homeland at divine behest, and pass through the land that God promises They will give them, down into Egypt, where Abram passes Sarai off as his sister and she becomes the Pharaoh’s concubine but God intercedes to send them on their way and there are approximately one thousand arguments over which well belongs to whom and all throughout this time, God keeps repeating the promise that Abram will be the father of nations. But both Abram and Sarai doubt this, and a slave named Hagar is made to have sex with Abram and bear the child he fathered.
All of this happens before the covenant that we hear today. And another year—plus another couple of moves, plus Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister again—is going to pass before Isaac is born.
The two of them have already been through so much already, and it’s not over yet. And in the midst of it all, God shows up again, to strike this covenant.
But something else happens too, alongside and through this promise: Abram and Sarai are renamed; they receive new identities through this promise. In Abraham’s case, the name reflects the promise itself: ancestor of multitudes. Something peculiar is happening here: God wants Abram to start using a name that reflects the promise that hasn’t happened yet.
This covenant accompanies the institution of circumcision for male Israelites. Just as Abraham and Sarah’s identities are reshaped through renaming, the Israelites’ identities are reshaped through circumcision. They are recognizably different than they were before, and different, too, to others around them. They are a people set aside by a promise that hasn’t yet come true, a promise that nevertheless has the power to reshape who they are, because it tells them whose they are.
Why we need this promise
This past year I participated in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting NaNoWriMo before, it’s a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
I bought a book to tell me how to do it (that’s how I roll, friends), and there in the beginning was a little piece of advice: start calling yourself a writer.
But I’m not a writer, I thought desperately. I haven’t earned the right to that name yet!
But dang it all, that was precisely the point. The title was both aspirational and actualizing. It was a classic piece of fake-it-‘til-you-make-it psychology. And it totally worked. I wrote 50,003 words in 30 days, a work of terrible fiction that I will never show it to anyone, but I still wrote a novel.
This fake-it-‘til-you-make-it faith felt strangely…well-practiced, and it didn’t take long to figure out why. As Christians, we live in the tension of already/not yet, between Christ’s first coming and his second, between a promise made and a promise fulfilled. When Jesus came roaring out of the forty-day wilderness, he came preaching, “The kin-dom of God has come near!” Someday, it won’t be near, it will be here.
Already. Not-yet. In this story, we see Abraham and Sarah living there too.
It’s a tough place to be. We get tired of waiting. We try to game the system and make it happen by ourselves, like Abram and Sarai did with Hagar. We lose faith. We regain it. We weep with frustration. We laugh with incredulity. We accept the names God gives us—children of God—and we fake it, praying, praying that one day we won’t be faking anymore.
The promise God makes with Abraham and Sarah suggests that perhaps this is enough. That this faith alone, imperfect and fumbling though it is, might just be what makes us after all. Because that, after all, is the power of the one in whom we have that faith: a God who makes impossible promises and then keeps them; a Christ who will invite us to walk the way of the cross with him and then keeps going even when we falter.