Last week we looked at the covenant God made with Noah and all of creation. The sign of the covenant was the rainbow. On Sunday I spoke about how we can use signs and symbols to remember God’s promises and God’s love. I encouraged you to create a space in your home and to display symbols to remind you of the scripture readings during Lent and of God’s promises. You received some symbols in the Lent bags that were delivered. Last Sunday the symbol was a shell, a symbol of baptism, a symbol of joining in Christ’s death and resurrection, a symbol of a new creation in Christ, a symbol of being a beloved child of God. In JAM the children created a different symbol, a rainbow, which is now under the cross in the sanctuary. Each week over Lent the children during their JAM time will create a new symbol to add to our worship space.
This week the Hebrew Scriptures reading is about God’s covenant with Abram, who becomes Abraham. God says to Abram:
“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 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. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 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.” (Genesis 17:4-7)
The lectionary then skips verses 8-14 which details the sign of the covenant – circumcision.
“Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant” (Genesis 17:10-11)
Clearly this will not be the symbol the children will be making to decorate our worship space – that would be inappropriate on a number of levels. They will be focussing on the Gospel reading and will be using that scripture as inspiration for the symbol.
My sermon will also focus on the Gospel reading and the symbol in your Lent bags for this week, the stone, connects to that reading. The stone is a symbol for Peter, the rock, but more about that on Sunday.
In this reflection I will focus on the Hebrew Scripture and God’s covenant with Abram. Throughout Genesis 17, “covenant” (Hebrew berit) serves as a Leitwort (“leading word” or “catchword”), appearing thirteen times in the chapter; that is, the word “covenant” here is a literary device that emphasizes the theme of the chapter and links all of its sections together. This is not, however, the first time God promised Abram he would become a great nation. The first time this happens is in chapter 12 when God calls Abram saying:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Then again in Chapter 13 God says to Abram:
“I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (Genesis 13:16)
And again in chapter 15:
“He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”” (Genesis 15:5)
If you would like to add to your collection of symbols something for this reading might I suggest you use some sand or an image of stars, maybe the southern cross.
At first glance, God seems to establish this covenant with Abraham alone; “between me and you (singular)” (Genesis 17:2) but it becomes clear that it is a blessing for many, the family of Abraham. Though the language of “remembering” is not used here, a comparison with the rainbow, the sign of the Noachic covenant, may be helpful. When God sees the rainbow, God remembers the covenant. Creation is marked in a way that reminds God of God’s commitment to it. Similarly, Abraham’s family is marked to show its relationship with God. A sign that identifies each male as belonging to God. God’s very words of promise are carved into their flesh, so that their deepest and truest identity is as God’s own people.
Abraham is one hundred in this text and Sarah is ninety. I wonder what Abraham thought about this promise, this covenant, which kept being repeated but almost 25 years had passed since it was first promised? I don’t imagine he expected he would have to wait so long when he first received the promise. It certainly seems like a long time to have to wait. I wonder if he had begun to doubt? Although not part of this week’s lectionary reading verse 17 says:
“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17)
To fall on one’s face in the Hebrew Bible is to take a posture of obedience or worshipfulness such as Genesis 17:3, when Abram’s falling appears to be a sign of acceptance of the covenant. In verse 17, however, the falling is joined with laughter, and obedience mixes with disbelief. It is as if Abraham’s body knows what to do upon hearing this news, but his mind can’t quite catch up.
God’s ways are not our ways. We are much more impatient. Not often do we enjoy waiting. God’s ways are not always what we expect or what we want. God plays a long game and despite God’s promises and faithfulness there is no guarantee it will all go smoothly. Abraham and his family are surrounded with divine promises – many descendants and land – but they will not see the fulfillment of all of these promises in their lifetime. While they see the birth of Isaac faith for them as it does for us means living with promises as promises, short of fulfillment.
When we hear the promise of the resurrection, we know to fall on our faces in reverence: God is speaking to us! Yet surely we must also laugh incredulously; this is a foolish promise and yet we believe!
Rev Tammy Hollands