The God of the Covenant
Genesis 17:1 – 27
The God of the Covenant
The God of the Covenant
A few years ago I lost my wedding ring. If you’ve ever done that, you’ll know I was sad! I’d been at the playground with the kids, one of them had hurt themselves, and in the ensuing carrying, crying, comforting and whatever else, my ring disappeared into the bark chips, never to be seen again. A couple of weeks afterwards, I was preaching here, and I made a comment about having lost my wedding ring, and there happened to be a man visiting that day, who was quite an accomplished artist and silversmith, and he came up to me afterwards and, “I’d love to make you, as a gift, a new wedding ring”, which he very kindly did, and which I wear, to this day.
So let me say today, that this week, I somehow lost my car! So if you can do something about that, let me know! No, no! Just kidding!
Losing your wedding ring though, it is an unhappy occurrence!
Not just because of the value of it, and because in my case it was a family heirloom that had been passed from generation to generation until it got to me, the end of the line!
But more than that, is because of what it stands for.
It is just a piece of jewellery, but it’s not just, a piece of jewellery.
I wear it as a symbol of my marriage, and so its significance, its worth, its personal value, is not held in the metal itself, but in what it points to.
Picking up where we left off
It’s been 2 years, since we were in Genesis together, many of weren’t here then, but we’re picking up part-way through a story, which can be kind of problematic, because if we’ve missed something important, none of the rest of it will make sense!
I remember seeing the movie Erin Brockovich at the cinema. We got there late, and the only empty seats were in the front row, up against the side wall.
A few minutes into the movie, there was a car crash, well, I gather there was a car crash. I actually missed it, because I was so close to the screen, all I could see was what was happening in this corner here.
But I gather the car crash was integral to the whole story, and I struggled to make sense of everything else, because I was unaware of that.
Jumping in part way through the Bible’s narrative, we miss the car crash that’s come earlier!
In this case though, it’s not a car crash, quite the opposite, what we need to understand has come before this, is that God has made promises to this man named Abram,
Specifically promises of blessing,
Promises of inheriting a land,
And promises of many, many descendants.
And where we jump into the story here, we’re waiting for God to act on these promises.
And if 2 years, seems like a long time for us to see God’s promises fulfilled, spare a thought for poor old or Abram, because for him it’s actually 13 years since the close of chapter 16.
Look up at the very last verse of chapter 16, Abram was eighty-six years old
And chapter 17 verse 1, When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him
When the author first wrote this, there were no chapter breaks or paragraph headings. They were added much more recently, just to help us find our place,
So verse 16 of chapter 16, originally just flowed straight into verse 1 of chapter 17.
It’s supposed to be a shocking juxtaposition, 13 long years, since God made his promises.
And the particular promise that gets most attention here, is the promise of a son, and chapter 16 is about Abram and his wife Sarai’s impatience, and the way they take things into their own hands, to try and get more quickly to what God had promised.
If they were impatient back then, how much more so now?
If it felt impossible then, to trust God’s promise, how much more so now?
And you may know the story, their attempt, to take a shortcut into the fulfilment of God’s promise, was that Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and got her pregnant,
She gave birth to Ishmael,
And so for 13 long years, Abram and Sarai have lived with the consequences of their sin, and their lack of trust in God.
Sin has consequences,
Sin wrecks relationships,
Not trusting in God,
Thinking that I know better than him, when it comes to relationships,
Thinking that I need to look out for what’s best for me, because God’s not doing a very good job of it, is a recipe for disaster.
Resist the temptation, to think “I know what is in my best interests better than God does”
God Almighty offers a fresh start
But look with me at verse 1 of chapter 17, When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you
Did you see that God attaches his own name to the promise, so that Abram can be absolutely confident in it?
I was looking at a $20 note the other day, and I saw it’s got a signature on it, Glenn Stevens, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia. I can be confident that this is worth $20, because he’s attached his name to it,
It’s issued, in his name, to assure us of its validity.
The title God Almighty comes from a Hebrew name for God, “El Shaddai.” And it means something like “the God who makes things happen, because of his awesome power and divine majesty.”
Despite the half-baked human efforts, God says, I will make a covenant, that is a relationship with you.
Despite Abram’s faithlessness,
God reaches down into that mess, and offers him a fresh start.
Does that picture of the work of God sound at all familiar?
This idea of God, breaking in to sin, and failure, and disobedience, and offering a new start, it’s kind of a future echo, of what one day God offers his people through Jesus, isn’t it?
The fresh start that God offers to Abram, despite his sin and faithlessness, is like what offers to each one of us, through Jesus’ death in our place.
We were the faithless ones,
We were disobedient,
We turned our backs on God and his pattern for life,
And let’s be honest, we’re left with the same kind of mess as Abram and Sarai found themselves in.
And yet Jesus reaches in to the tangle of broken relationships, and our powerlessness, and says “I can give you a fresh start, the kind of relationship with God that you were created for.”
You think you’re too far gone?
Your sin is too great?
You’ve messed up too badly?
He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
Maybe there’s someone in your family, whom you desperately long will come to faith in Jesus, but every conversation you have with them about Christian things, leaves them seemingly more opposed, and further from the kingdom of God. And it looks to you, like it’s impossible for them to ever accept the claims of Christ.
He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
Maybe you don’t even get to the conversations about Christ, perhaps there’s just no way, you can ever imagine yourself talking to friends about Jesus, or inviting them to church, or sharing the perspective and insight that your Christian worldview gives you.
You don’t think you could ever speak up, and witness to God’s saving grace in your life, and you don’t really think that Jesus can change that in you.
He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
Maybe you’ve been a Christian for a while, but you realise, “I’ve failed, completely and utterly.
And I’m glad nobody else knows, but there’s no way Jesus could ever put things right in my life,
No way he could use me for his purposes,
No way I could bring glory to him, I shouldn’t even be sitting in church, because the building is likely to fall down!”
He is God Almighty! Nothing is too hard for him.
God gives a new name, an assurance of his promise.
God wants Abraham to be absolutely convinced, that he is able to do what he says he can, and one of the ways he reinforces this, is by giving Abram a new name.
Verse 4, 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.
Generally speaking our culture is more interested in the sound of names, rather than their meaning. No place is this better illustrated than in the list celebrity baby names! I had a quick look at the names of celebrity babies born so far this year, and one celebrity named their baby Cash, and another called theirs Register, so there’s a match made in heaven!
But often what we find in the Bible, is that when God gives somebody a name, it’s to serve as a reminder.
Perhaps you’ve come to church one day, not realising, you’ve put your name badge on upside down. And eventually, some smart alec asks, “Do you have it upside down because you need to remember you own name?”
Well, God would say, “Yes!”, “You do need to remember your name!
Abram means “exalted father”, But Abraham, means “Father of Many.”
God is raising the stakes significantly, isn’t he?
Not just father, but “Father of many”?
But you probably noticed that God speaks as if this has already happened. Verse 5, For I have made you, a father of many nations.
“Consider it done!” Actually it’s even stronger than that. “It is done!”
We saw the same idea when we were looking at the Extravagant Promises of God, a month or so ago.
God’s promises are so trustworthy, that even though the son through whom all this will take place, hasn’t even been born yet, still God speaks as if it’s already happened.
Which makes me wonder, if that’s how we 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 in the Bible we’ll only see fulfilled in their entirety when Jesus returns, won’t we?
And so we wait, 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.
In the couple of weeks before Christmas, we’re going to be looking together at the opening chapters of the New Testament.
And we’ll see there, this promise of a kingly line reaching its highest fulfillment, in the words of Matthew 1 verse 1, Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
The opening statement of the New Testament, is that God’s promise to Abraham came true, and that Jesus is God’s promised king.
We can look back and be assured of that, but Abraham couldn’t, and so God gives him this reminder, this new name that assures him of the certainty of the promise.
I don’t know how many times a day you hear your name mentioned, but think of Abraham, every time he hears his name, he’s reminded of God’s promise, I have made you, a father of many nations.
Every time he answered the phone, “Abraham here”, that reminder, father of many nations.
Every time he introduced himself, God’s promise, I have made you, 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.
Each and every time, someone spoke his name, they were quoting God’s own promise to Abraham,
Repeating God’s words,
I have made you, a father of many nations.
God makes an everlasting covenant
But what we find here isn’t just a repetition of the promises God had made 13 years earlier, and even 11 years before that in chapter 12, This is an expansion.
Here God reveals more about himself, and about his plans and purposes.
Here we learn that the relationship that God offers, isn’t just good for a few years, or for a few generations,
God’s not just showing an interest in Abraham, and his son, and maybe his son after him, as long as they’re around.
God establishes an eternal covenant.
Look with me 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 now reside as a foreigner, 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 the yet to be born, Isaac, that these promises will be reckoned forever.
4 times in this section 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.
The author doesn’t want us to miss the fact, that this is a relationship, built upon 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,
Clinging to God’s promises,
Living in the light of the Word of God,
If you hear those words to Abraham in verse 1, walk before me faithfully and be blameless, if you hear that command, that covenant obligation, and you realise there’s no way you can do that on your own,
That your very best efforts can’t get you there,
And so you’re relying on Jesus to present you as acceptable to God,
Then you’re included in this covenant.
God’s promise to be your God, verse 7, is a promise made to you!
There’s an edition of Bible called the “Personal Promise Bible”, where all the pronouns are taken out, every time there’s a “you” or a “your”, they take it out, and print your name there instead!
Now, I think there are a number of dangers in doing that, first and foremost is that the Bible isn’t a book about me! It’s about God and what he has done.
But in this case it would be a good reminder! Verse 7 could say, I will establish my covenant, to be Clayton’s God.
Of course, we don’t need to move to Palestine, to get the blessing of the land, this land of Canaan that God promises Abraham in verse 8.
Our “place” of blessing isn’t in that land, but in Christ.
That is, for Abraham, and his immediate descendants, they received the blessings of being God’s people through being in that particular geographic location. We receive the blessings of being God’s people, through being in Christ, a relationship that isn’t even hindered by death, since Jesus has conquered death.
God does offer a fresh start, but what God offers doesn’t stop with a fresh start.
And maybe you started well with God, but you think perhaps God’s 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!
That to all who come after Abraham, and follow in his spiritual footsteps, God offers an everlasting relationship.
Maybe you’re not a Christian, but you’re trying to get a picture, “what actually would I be entering into, if I rely on God’s promises, and trust in Jesus to make me acceptable to God?”
Well, Christianity is not just something that you sign up for, and then just forget about and get on with the rest of your life. The relationship that God offers you, is an everlasting covenant, that shapes everything that matters, about life, and death, and eternity.
A Covenant needs a sign
And yet, if a new name,
And a restatement of the promises, with more detail that ever before,
If that wasn’t enough, we see yet another way, that God teaches his people about his promises. And in verse 9 through to the end, God gives a sign for this covenant.
Look at verse 11,
You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 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
You will have noticed that the NIV translators have called this whole section “The Covenant of Circumcision”
And especially from here in verse 9, that’s what it seems to be about. 11 times, we read the words circumcised, or circumcision, and yet, what’s most important here not circumcision,
But what the circumcision points to.
Just like the wedding ring, that some of us are wearing,
Its value to us, is not in the sign, the object itself,
The sign was permanent
See in God’s own words, circumcision is the sign of the covenant. It was a means being identified with God, in your very body.
You probably know people who have their children’s names, or their spouses name, tattooed on their arm or somewhere.
They want to say, “this relationship is not just something that I think about from time to time,
It is in my body,
It is part of me,
I can never be away from it.
That’s the idea of circumcision.
It was a sign of the relationship with God, that every Jewish male took with them, everywhere they went.
And it was a permanent sign.
There were some Jews, descendants of Abraham, centuries later, who, when they were being persecuted for being Jewish, tried to hide their Jewish identity and therefore sought to uncircumcise themselves, but even that was not especially successful.
This was an un-erasable sign, of an un-erasable covenant.
The sign was just a sign, not the reality
And we see in those verses that every male in Abraham’s household, those born in, those adopted in, and those who would come in subsequent generations, all of them were commanded to be circumcised as a sign of being a member of God’s covenant people.
Even so, 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 this 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.
A friend of mine who lives in the Western suburbs of Melbourne told me once about a friend of his from England who came to stay with them.
One day she asked if she could borrow the car.
“Sure, no problem” my friend says.
So the lady takes the car, and returns about 45 minutes later. She says she’s driven to Ballarat and back.
My friend is a bit surprised, that’s about a 300 kilometre round trip, and he’s imaging all the speeding fines he’s going to get in the post!
So he asks, you know “Which way did you go?”
Turns out, she’d driven to the Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne, seen a sign pointing to Ballarat, and thought that’s where she was!
But the sign isn’t the reality.
And the sign isn’t an indicator 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,
It wasn’t a sign of their justification,
Circumcision wasn’t a way of saying “I’ve chosen to live for God. I’ve accepted his lordship.”
Circumcision is a sign, that points to the God who made promises of relationship and blessing,
It’s a sign invited those who were circumcised to put their faith in God.
It’s a sign that points to the God who gives a fresh start.
Circumcision also pointed forwards. Again, future echoes of the work of the Holy Spirit in God’s people, a work in us that would be called the circumcision of the heart,
A real change, a real transformation, that cannot be achieved by people, but only by the Spirit of God at work in us.
The sign could not be refused
If circumcision was a sign of something that you’d decided to do,
If it was a sign of a choice that you’d made,
You’d be free to either have it, or not have it.
A Port Adelaide football scarf, for example. People wear it, as a sign of their choice;, they have chosen to follow the team.
They aren’t forced to wear it, they can choose to wear it, or choose not to.
But because circumcision wasn’t a sign of something that you had done, or decided, but a sign of what God had done, and the promises God had made, you couldn’t refuse this sign.
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 claim 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 read once about high school student who was writing about the English Sea Captain, Sir Francis Drake, and how he circumnavigated 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.”
Every year, as part of being a marriage celebrant, I have to do professional development training. Which I don’t usually enjoy, but part of what I have to do, is make up new and exciting things to be included in marriage ceremonies!
If I was to write a little bit of liturgy for the exchange of rings, we could have the groom say, “With this ring I wed you”,
And we could get the bride to reply “I don’t want you stupid ring! I don’t want any visible sign of our relationship, thank you very much”!, How do you think that would go down?!
Probably not very well!
We’d think that’s no kind of relationship at all.
Anyone who refused this sign, had broken the covenant, and had no place among the people of God.
God has given us signs of his promises
So circumcision was a sign of the promises that God had made, the relationship that offered to his people.
And today, as God’s people who live after Christ, God has given us signs of his promises too.
Christians today call them sacraments. It’s a very religious sounding word, it just means an external, physical sign, instituted by Jesus, in order to teach us, and remind of God’s promises.
So the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, written in 1662, which, as it happens, is quoted in our leaflet today, that book defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign, of an inward and spiritual grace.”
And just having the sign of circumcision, wasn’t the same as having the reality to which the sign pointed, it’s 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 a wedding ring doesn’t somehow make you married,
What would happen if somebody else accidently put on my wedding ring? Suddenly they’d be married to Kathy!
That would be awkward!
The Lord’s Supper, and baptism, the reason we do them, and why we in this church, like most churches throughout history will baptise the children of God’s 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 the covenant he made with Abraham,
The promise of blessing,
The promise of a people,
He’s fulfilled those promises through the shed blood and broken body of Jesus.
Baptism preaches visibly to us, that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, that the king has come, and that he, though perfect and obedient, was cut off from the people, he took the penalty for covenant unfaithfulness.
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.
I am baptised
Martin Luther was a 16th century Christian leader, who kickstarted the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
He knew that the devil would try and undermine Christian people’s faith, and so he said to people, “When the devil attacks you, and says you can’t possibly be good enough for God, and that you deserve nothing from God”, Luther would tell people, “In that situation, Say, ‘I, am, baptised.”
And every time I heard that, it horrified me!
It sounded to me the same as “Well, I’m going to get to heaven because I was in church on Sunday”
“God will be pleased with me because I filled in my Commitment Form!”
It always sounded to me like his faith was in his baptism, that he didn’t need to fear the devil because someone had poured water on him, once upon a time.
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, has made me good enough, to be acceptable to God.
But 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 in that moment of doubt, and torment, when my sin and rebellion becomes especially clear to me, 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.
To say “I am baptised” is to say “Oh, that is right, a right relationship with God only ever comes by trusting in Jesus, it doesn’t matter how bad I once was, or that other Christians seem to be so much better than me,
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.