Sermon for February 25th, 2018
In our passage from Genesis this morning, if you look in the bulletin you will notice there is a large section in the middle that is printed in italics. While our lectionary has assigned Genesis 17 and God’s covenant with Abraham as our reading today, it also suggests that we skip over verses 8 to 14 and move on to God’s promise to Sarah. So, plenty of churches this morning will hear about God’s promise, God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, but they won’t hear what God is asking of Abraham. It is a shame, because I think those verses are critically important. If we want to understand and appreciate Abraham’s faith then we need to understand what he is being asked to do, even if it makes some of us a little uncomfortable…especially if it makes some of us uncomfortable. So bear with me gentlemen, let’s hear it again:
And I will give to 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.’ 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. Throughout 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. 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.’
There are several things in those verses that might make you feel uneasy, but let’s just focus on Abraham for a second. Poor Abram (as he is known in the beginning), the man is 99 years old, and he longs for a child with his wife Sarai. And God says to him if you will follow me, and be faithful to what I say and trust in me, then I will give you a son. Not only that I will make you the father of nations. You will have land and more descendants than you can count, only as a sign of your faith and your commitment I need you to do one little thing for me first. Abram probably eagerly said anything Lord, just say the word. And the Lord said: circumcise. Every male among you shall be circumcised. No doubt that is not the word Abram wanted to hear. This was no token gesture that God was asking for, this was a sign of real commitment. But think beyond the pain of the procedure for a moment and think about some of the deeper symbols here.
What Abram wants most is a child; he wants to live on through a son with Sarai and God has just asked him to take a sharpened stone to the very organ that he needs to make that happen. I may not have children, but I know how they are made, and this little procedure seems like the very last thing I would want to do if I was hoping to father a child soon. This was the ancient world mind you, not some sterile hospital. They may not have understood exactly how infection happened, but they certainly knew that wounds were dangerous, so if Abram wants to have a child, this thing God is asking him to do isn’t just counterintuitive, it is crazy. It is dangerous. It is risky. But he does it…that day. That is some kind of commitment. That is some kind of faith.
That is the faith that Paul is referring to in his letter to the Romans when he is talking about the righteousness of faith that Abraham demonstrated. It isn’t faith that is just an intellectual exercise; it is faith that is committed…really committed to God. That was no token gesture that Abraham performed; it was a sign of true commitment. It demonstrated a faith that trusts in a God that “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” That God is able to do what he promises; most of us think it is up to us to figure out how to make things happen, to make things happen the way we conceive and according to our own abilities, but thankfully there are people like Abraham that have such trust in God, that they will hold back nothing from him. People that know that God is faithful to his promises. Yes, Abraham was obedient to God’s commands, but that obedience was born out of a genuine trust in the goodness and power of God. Abraham held nothing back from God, and although his end of the bargain may have left him permanently marked, and a bit sore, the legacy he received was far greater than any temporary discomfort. God was faithful to his promises. He did become the father of nations and the father of a faith that still look to him for guidance on how to walk with God.
Many centuries later, some of Abraham’s promised descendants were on a mission to call God’s people to deeper faith and a closer walk with God. But what at least one of those descendants, a man named Peter, wasn’t prepared to hear, was just what that faith and that walk might cost, not only to his leader, Jesus, but also anyone that might follow him. Peter didn’t want to hear that following God might come at a cost. His master’s words made him uncomfortable; the idea of willingly accepting suffering didn’t make any sense to him. But I’m sure Peter wasn’t alone. Humans always want to put faith in their own power and abilities; they want to be strong, but God wants us to put faith in him and to find our strength in him. The more we try to save ourselves, the farther away we get from his salvation.
That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t ask us to do anything, quite the contrary. God asks us to do some pretty profound and difficult things. We are still asked to sacrifice things, but perhaps the greatest thing we have to sacrifice is thinking that we can save ourselves. Our faith we have in our own intellect, our own reason, our own power…that is really hard to let go of. But learning to hold on to God, means learning to let go of ourselves and that is a lesson that both Abraham and Peter had to learn. Maybe it was hard for Peter to hear his Lord’s rebuke, I’m sure the words made him a bit uncomfortable, his feelings may have been hurt, but the cutting words probably didn’t trouble him as much as the realization that trusting in God comes at a cost.
Now Peter would later argue, along with Paul, that it wasn’t necessary for the gentile believers to bear the same mark in the flesh that Abraham did, but it was still necessary to have the same sincerity of faith that compels us to go where God leads and give what God asks.
“If any want to become my followers,” our Lord said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Words we needn’t be ashamed of. We don’t need to cut words out of the text that make us uncomfortable. We need to hear them and in our discomfort resolve to put more faith in God’s love and power than we do in our own feelings. Trusting in God comes at a cost.