The Covenant Confirmed
Genesis 17:1 – 27
The Covenant Confirmed
Patience is a virtue
Patience is a virtue, posses it if you can,
It’s found seldom in a woman and ... Never in a man!
Well, true or not, Abram would have to have been the exception to that.
It’s been 3 weeks since we were in the book of Genesis, but those 3 weeks represent 13 years of Abram’s life, as he waits for God to fulfil the promises he’s made.
When the author wrote this down, it wasn’t divided into chapters, They were only added in the 13th Century.
Which means that verse 16 of chapter 16, and verse 1 of chapter 17, originally just flowed from one to the other, and we’re supposed to be confronted with the, well, rather shocking news, of these 13 long years, since Abram and Sarai decided that God wasn’t acting quickly enough on his promise to give a son, and so they conspired together, in an ill-fated shortcut.
And so if Abram and Sarai were impatient for God to fulfil his promise back then,
How much more so must they be 13 years later,
If giving birth to a son seemed impossible back then, Well, what hope is there now?
And of course, it’s meant 13 years of living with the consequence of their sin, and their lack of trust in God, as they try and get on with life, in the midst of these now very confused and damaged relationships.
But finally, after all these years, God promises a new start.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you
A new start
The very thing that Abram had tried to do on his own, God will achieve for him.,
The title God Almighty there is the translation of the name “El Shaddai”, which, if you’re a Christian of a certain age, you’ll remember from the song, but it’s a title that God uses of himself, for the first time in the Scriptures here, and it means something like “the God who makes things happen because of his awesome power and divine majesty.”
The contrast with the half-baked human attempt at fulfilling this promise ,, couldn’t be more stark.
If it looked impossible 13 years ago, and it looks even more impossible now, if that’s ,, possible!, well, God says, that’s no hindrance to me.
And already we can see, can’t we, sort of future echoes of what it means to live as God’s people today, in the time after the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the one through whom God’s promises to Abram are ultimately fulfilled.
A new start?!, Jesus specializes in giving people a new start.
I was talking to someone the other day about the Newstart allowance, for unemployed people. We used to call it The Dole, but we thought they probably changed the name to Newstart because someone thought it sounded better!
But I wondered whether instead of talking about becoming a Christian, we should change the name to Newstart , . because that’s what it is!
I don’t really think we should stop using the name “Christian”, but you get my point don’t you?
The new start that God offers to Abram here, he offers to each one of us, through Jesus Christ, through Jesus’ death in our place.
When we turn our backs on God and his pattern for life,
And when we try to live in his world without any reference to him, let’s be honest, we’re left with the same kind of mess as Abram and Sarai found themselves in.
A tangle of broken relationships,
A downward spiral of sin and its consequences,
And into lives that might seem hope-less, and help-less, and where we’re powerless against the twin enemies of sin and death, Jesus reaches in, and says “I can give you a new start, the kind of relationship with God that you were created for.”
You think you’ve done too much bad stuff for Jesus to rescue you for God?, He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
Or maybe, you’ve got friends who you desperately want to come to faith in Jesus, but who just seem more and more opposed to Jesus every day, every conversation you have with them?,
He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
Maybe there’s just no way you can ever imagine yourself talking to friends about Jesus, inviting them to church, sharing the perspective that your Christian worldview gives you., And you don’t think that really, Jesus can help you with that.,
He is God Almighty!, Nothing is too hard for him.
Or maybe you’ve been a Christian for a while, but you know, “I’ve, I’ve really stuffed up!, There’s no way Jesus could ever put things right in my life, and no way he could ever use me for his purposes, no way I could bring glory to him, I shouldn’t even be sitting in church!, The building likely to fall down!”
He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
Is your picture of Jesus big enough?
Do you see Jesus as he presented in the Scripture, God Almighty?
I remember once hearing an African Christian speaking about evangelism, talking to people about Jesus., And he was saying that that morning he’d been waiting at the bus stop, and he was so excited about Jesus, that he started talking about Jesus to someone waiting there with him.
And then he got on the bus, and he just couldn’t help himself, just so thrilled to bits about Jesus, that he started talking to someone else, and he urged them, to consider Jesus as God’s chosen king, the one rightful Lord of life,
But, this was all in the UK where he was visiting at the time, and this African guy commented, that most British Christians didn’t seem quite so excited about Jesus.,
They didn’t seem to consider him as ruler over all, but seemed to have Jesus much more compartmentalised, into one part of their life,
“Jesus is good for Sundays”
“Jesus is good for spiritual crises and the days when I’m feeling a little bit down, but Jesus is no good for the real issues of life.”
And I think he was probably right, that that’s the understanding lots of British Christians are living with, and I say that because I think that’s the understanding lots of Australian Christians are living with,
We listen to this guy describe his excitement at Jesus and think, well, that’s just not me!
But then this great African preacher, when asking the congregation, why isn’t your picture of Jesus enough to lead you into conversation and boldness, and ,, unreserved prayer, why don’t you think that Jesus will act to glorify his name when you ask him to, he said ,, “If your Jesus is boring, try mine!”
He is God Almighty,,
And so God Almighty restates the promises he’s made, he is able to bring them to fruition.
A new name reflects the certainty of God’s promise
And one of the ways that God demonstrates how sure Abram can be that this is going to happen, is by giving Abram a new name.
“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.
Names in Genesis are really significant., After I mentioned the other week that I wished my name meant something like “Great Warrior” or something, Andy Buchan came up to console me, and to tell me that his name means “manly”, so at least one of us has a name that reflects our enormous masculinity!
But God gives names in Genesis, as reminders.,
You know sometimes you put your name badge on upside down, and then eventually, just as you’re getting ready to go home, someone points it out and asks, “Do you need to remember what your name is?”
Well, God would say, “Yes!”, “You do need to remember your name!
Abram means “exalted father”, and Abraham, means “Father of Many.”
Abram’s 99 years old remember, and ever since he and Sarai got married back on that happy day back in 1900 BC at Holy Trinity Ur of the Chaldeans, every time he’s introduced himself to someone, how has that conversation gone?
“Hi, I’m Abram”
“Oh, Abram, exalted father, that’s great!, So how many kids do you have?”
“Oh, OK”, awkward silence.
Some of you know all too clearly, the pain of desperately wanting children, but not having any.
Imagine, in the ancient near eastern culture, where the size of your family was seen as a sign of your blessedness, and your name meant “exalted father”, and you were the father of ,, none.
But in giving Abram a new name, God actually raises the stakes doesn’t he?
“Father of a multitude”?
Imagine how the servants must have joked about that around the campfire at night!,
But did you see how God speaks as if this has already happened? I have made you, a father of many nations.
The grammar here, pictures something in the future, as if it’s already completed.
“Consider it done!” But even stronger than that., “It is done!”
That’s how sure God’s promises are. Even though the son through whom this will happen hasn’t even been born yet, still God speaks as if it’s already happened.
Is that how you think about God’s Word?
That God’s promises are so sure, that even those things as yet unseen, can be spoken of as if they’ve already happened?
Some of the promises of God contained in the Bible we’ll only see fulfilled in their entirety when Jesus returns, won’t we, but even while we wait for fulfillment, just like Abram had to wait, he didn’t see a multitude of nations, or kings in his family, but he was able to live as if it had already happened, because he was confident that since God had promised it, it was as good as done.
And if we were to turn to the first page of the New Testament, we find the promise of a kingly line reaching its highest fulfillment, A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, Matthew writes, the son of David, the son of Abraham., Here is God’s chosen king, a descendent of Abraham.
How many times in a day do you reckon people use your name?
I don’t mean, muttering your name under their breath!, but as a means of communicating with you!
I was going to try and count one day this week, but I felt kind of stupid just sitting around waiting for someone to call my name!, But I’m sure it happens countless times each day!
Every time someone spoke his name, Abraham was reminded of God’s promise that he would be the father of a multitude of nations.
Every time he introduced himself, that reminder, God’s promised that I will be the father of many nations.
Every time he signed his name, there’s that promise again!
Every time he filled in a government form, father of many nations.
And every time he heard his name on someone else’s lips, it was like they were quoting God’s words, repeating God’s promise.
How kind of God, to give Abraham so many daily reminders of his promise.
An everlasting covenant
But one of the ways in which God develops his promises in this episode, is in the statement that this covenant relationship between God and Abraham will be an eternal covenant.,
See there from verse 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. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
And specifically, we see in verse 19, it’s through this son Isaac, who will be born to Abraham and Sarah, that these promises will be reckoned ,, forever.
4 times God makes the point that this covenant is an everlasting relationship with those who come after Abram, and follow his example of trusting in the promises of God.
Verse 7, verse 8, verse 13, verse 19, the author doesn’t want us to miss the fact that this is a relationship, a series of promises, that extend, well, right down to us!
Do you see that?, If you’re a Christian person, that is if you’re following Abraham’s example,
You’re living in the light of the Word of God,
Clinging to his promises,
Refusing to trust in your own efforts, and instead relying only on Jesus to present you as acceptable to God, then you’re included in this covenant.
God’s promise to be your God, is a promise made to you!
Of course we don’t need to move to Palestine, to get the blessing of the land, Our “place” of blessing isn’t in that land, but in Christ. Paul Harrington talked a bit about that 2 weeks ago.
The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Rome in the first century AD, Christians who ,, like us, live after the time of Jesus, and he says of this covenant:
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law, That is Christians who had come out of Judaism,, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, Christians like most of us, who aren’t Jewish., He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed.
See is that what you think your relationship with God is like?
That the God who called you, and elected you, is constant and unchanging, and his relationship with you goes forever?
God is the God of new starts, but he doesn’t stop there!
Maybe you started well with God, but you think that God’s perhaps lost interest in you,
Maybe actually it’s you who’s lost interest in God!, Well see here that was never the kind of relationship God wanted!
God signed up for the long-haul!
Maybe you’re not a Christian, but you’re trying to work out what Christianity is all about., Well it’s not just something that you sign up for, in a sense, and then just forget about and get on with the rest of your life.
The covenant relationship that God will draw you into is an everlasting covenant.
If you go to a Christian bookstore, you can buy posters, that have Bible verses on them, or other kind of ,, inspirational sayings., I had a friend who, on the back of his toilet door had the words of Philippians 4:13., “I can do all things through him who gives me strength!” Not sure of the significance of the location!
But someone else I know had a poster up with the words “If God seems far away, guess who moved?”
If it seems like God has forgotten you,
If you think that God’s moved on to better things,
Or maybe you reckon that God’s lost interest, guess who moved?!
That’s not how God works.
A Covenant needs a sign
We see also though, another way in which God teaches his people, of his promises, from verse 9 onwards, we’re told of the covenant sign.
There in verse 11, you are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring.
The sign was permanent
See in God’s own words, circumcision is the sign of the covenant.,, It was a means of bearing in one’s own body, the mark of being identified with God.
And it was a permanent mark, wasn’t it?, There were some Jews in the Greek speaking world later on who tried to hide their Jewish identity and therefore sought to uncircumcise themselves, but that not withstanding, this was an un-erasable sign, of an un-erasable covenant.
The sign was just a sign, not the reality
Now, although every male was commanded to be circumcised as a sign of being a member of God’s covenant people, simply being circumcised wouldn’t give you the standing before God that Abram had, would it?,
The case in point is Ishmael., He’s circumcised, we’re actually told that 3 times, to drive the point home, he’s circumcised, but he’s not the one through whom God’s covenant and the promises will be realised, verse 19.
The sign is just a sign that points to a reality, it’s not the reality itself.
Someone who lives in the West of Melbourne told me about a friend who came to stay from the UK, she asked if she could borrow the car one day.
She returned about 45 minutes later, and said she’d driven to Ballarat, which would have been a 300 kilometre round trip!
Her friends were a little surprised, so they asked how she’d got there, it turned out that she’d got to the Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne, seen a sign pointing to Ballarat, and thought that that’s where she was!
But the sign isn’t the reality.
And the sign also isn’t a sign of spiritual health.
The fact that the 8-day-old baby boys were circumcised tells us that doesn’t it?
They weren’t circumcised as a declaration of their faith were they?
Circumcision wasn’t a statement about the condition of their hearts, not a sign of their justification!
Circumcision is a sign, that points to the God who promised to rescue and guide and protect, and who invited those who were circumcised to have faith in him.
Circumcision also pointed to the blessing of circumcision of the heart that the Holy Spirit would eventually bring to God’s people, and conversely, it was a warning about the possibility of being cut off from the people of God.
The sign wasn’t to be refused
See this was a sign you couldn’t refuse., If you were a male person in the community of God’s people, this sign was applied to you.
Again, not because it made some statement about the state of your heart before God, it would be hypocritical to force that kind of sign on people if they weren’t ready for it, or if they didn’t want it, but because it’s a sign not about the individual, but about God.
See verse 14 there, Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Little play on words there, cut off, from God’s people!
I remember once hearing of a high school student writing about Sir Francis Drake circumnavigation of the world in 1579, but he got his words mixed up and wrote that Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world, with a 100 foot clipper!
It’s supposed to make you wince!,
It’s a serious warning., No one can say, “Well I have the reality, so I don’t need the sign.”
So in a wedding, the ring is a sign of the promises that are made, exactly the same ideas as this here.
Imagine in the middle of a wedding, we’ve got through that awkward silence that follows after “if anyone has any reason why these two can’t get married”, hearts thumping in your ears, well, we get past that hurdle, only for the bride to say, “I don’t want your stupid ring!”
“I don’t want any visible sign of the promises we’ve made!”
You’d think “What kind of relationship is this?!”
No, anyone who refuses the sign, has broken the covenant, and has no place among the people of God.
What do we call the signs of God’s promises?
So circumcision was a sign of the promises that God had made, and in fact in Romans 4:11, the Apostle Paul says that circumcision is a sign of justification by faith., Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith, while he was still uncircumcised.
See today, as God’s people who live after Christ, God has given us signs of his promises too.
We call them sacraments.
External, physical signs, instituted by Jesus, to teach us and remind of God’s promises.
In the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
And just like taking part in the sign of circumcision wasn’t equivalent to having the reality to which the sign pointed, it’s just the same with the signs we’ve been given today, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.,
Simply taking part in the sign doesn’t equal having the reality.
Think of the wedding ring again, simply putting on the wedding ring doesn’t somehow make you the recipient of the promises of marriage, does it?
If it did, then those girls you see on TV,, who have their entire wedding planned and booked, they just don’t have a bloke yet, all they’d need to do is slip the ring onto their own finger and bam!, Some slightly shell-shocked groom would appear and they’d be married!
The Lord’s Supper, and baptism, the reason we do them, and why this church, like most churches throughout history will baptise the children of God’s covenant people, is because these signs visibly preach to us the good news of Jesus,
They speak to us of who he is and what he’s done for us.
The Lord’s Supper declares that God has fulfilled his covenant with his people through shed blood and broken body of Jesus.
Baptism preaches visibly to us, that the descendent of Abraham through whom all these promise would be fulfilled, has come. That he, though perfect and obedient, was cut off from the people, taking on himself the penalty for covenant unfaithfulness, and that in his death and resurrection he purchases people for God.
The very reason we do these things publicly, not off in a corner somewhere, but in the one time in the week when we gather as God’s people, is because they visibly declare to us the gospel of Jesus.
They preach to us of the promises of God.
Martin Luther was the 16th century church pastor, who kickstarted the Protestant Reformation in Germany, by insisting that the Bible teaches that people come into a right relationship with God only by faith, by trusting in Jesus’ death in our place.
He knew that the devil would try and undermine ,, destroy, Christian people’s faith, and so his advice to others was his advice to himself, when he was in the same situation, “When the devil attacks you, and says you can’t possibly be good enough for God,
That your life excludes you from God”, he would say, “Say, ‘I am baptised.”
And every time I heard that, it always annoyed me a little bit.,
It always sounded to me like his faith was in his baptism, that he didn’t need to fear the devil because someone had got him wet once upon a time.
Why did he have so much faith in his baptism?
But when I read what he actually said, not just the soundbite, I realised he was right all along.
He wasn’t actually saying, the bit of water that got poured on me, or that I got dunked in,, is going to make me good enough to be acceptable to God.
He understood that baptism is a sign, a reminder of God’s promises,
A reminder of what Christ has done,
A reminder that we can be acceptable to God only because of, Jesus.
And so to say “I am baptised”, is to cling, not to the water, but to the promise of God that the water points to!
For Luther to say “I am baptised”, was to throw himself on the promises of God
“I am baptised” is to say “Oh, that’s right, justification is only ever by faith, it doesn’t matter how bad I once was, or that other Christians seem to be so much better than me, of course I have nothing to fear from the devil”
“I am baptised”, is to say my God is El-Shaddai, God Almighty, who is true to his word, and whose promises I can depend on.