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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Makeover.


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.
I.
            Back at the beginning of chapter 12, God calls Abraham to leave his home and journey to Canaan, where God promises to make of his descendants a great nation.  Abraham is 75 years old.  They sojourn in Canaan for many years.  God keeps repeating the promise.  Abraham and Sarah keep getting older.  Sarah has long since reached the age where childbearing is possible. 
            Tired of waiting, in chapter 16 they have this brainstorm that “God helps those who help themselves.”  They take matters into their own hands and choose interpret God’s promise in terms of what is possible.  They figure God must mean that Abraham will children by Hagar, Sarah’s slavegirl.  Then, according to legal standards of the time, Sarah could adopt that child and it would be as if it were her own.
            This plan doesn’t work.  So, Hagar does bear Abraham a child, named Ishmael.  But this approach is not God’s intention for them.  That was not what the promise meant. 
            God insists that Abraham will have children by Sarah.  Sarah is an indispensable and equal part of the covenant.  Her motherhood is just as important as Abraham’s fatherhood.  Abraham may have as many children as he can, by whatever women.  But these offspring will not represent or fulfill God’s promise.  Their perhaps well-meaning scheme to help God’s promise along a bit, fails.
            In spite of their self-serving creativity in interpreting God’s words, God still comes back to Abraham here in chapter 17 and reiterates the promise.  Abraham doesn’t get punished for trying to force the matter.  God appears to be used to human disobedience by now, and pays it no mind, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of God’s larger plan.  God realizes that people, even his chosen and faithful servants, are going to be self-centered jerks no matter what. 
            God just kind of rolls his eyes and says, basically: “Are you done?  I mean, you just sired the Ishmaelites, and I will make a great, blessed, faithful, and powerful nation out of them, because I who made lemons can readily make lemonade therefrom, because no amount of your faithlessness or cluelessness will cause me to be unfaithful.  Congratulations.  Can we get back to my program now, which is after all the only program that matters?”
            God calls upon Abraham to “walk before me and be blameless.”  In other words, Abraham knows he will be living his life ever in the sight of God, and that God will always see us as God created us: blessed and good.  To walk before God is to be the people God sees us as.  It is to be forgiven.  
            To which Abraham responds in the only way possible: he falls on his face.  God says walk: Abraham falls down.  His response is abject humility.  He realizes that this God is way bigger than he is.

II.  
            God addresses Abraham and repeats: “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’”  “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations….  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.”  God repeats the part about descendants three times, in both past and future tenses.  It will happen; it has already happened.  Which is to say that if God says something will happen, then it might as well have happened already.
            God also changes Abraham’s name.  His name had been Abram up until now.  But God adds to Abram’s name a letter from God’s own name, a Hebrew letter called a He, which is basically our H, to the middle of Abram’s name, so that he becomes AbraHam.  “Abraham” sort of sounds like the Hebrew term for “father of many nations.”
            And this, of course, is very questionable, to name a very elderly man who has a very elderly wife, and who has been unable to have children with her, the “father of many nations.”  It sounds like something people would call Abraham if they wanted to mock him.  “Yo, check it out, here comes old Abraham, the ‘father of many nations,’ like that’s ever going to happen.”  It sounds like a joke, a cruel joke at that, for God to give this particular man that particular name.
            Then, for some reasons, the lectionary asks us to skip over verses 8 through 14, which are all about a somewhat uncomfortable topic, especially for men: circumcision.
            But these verses are important because of what Abraham and Sarah’s problem is, which is procreation.  God is prescribing an operation that has to do with just that.  And as soon as Abraham does this, bang, the promise is immediately fulfilled in chapter 18!  God has been talking about giving Abraham and Sarah descendants for 24 years!  But as soon as Abraham is circumcised, Sarah conceives.   
            God refers to circumcision as “a sign of the covenant between me and you.”  Last week we read about the rainbow as the sign of the covenant between God and all creation.  Now the covenant is with Abraham and the sign is circumcision.  Like the rainbow, circumcision is a reminder to both God and the people.  In this case what is to be remembered is that this family has been chosen, specially set aside for a special vocation.
            These, by the way, are signs of God’s blessing.  They are not God’s blessing in themselves.  So by the time of the early church actual, physical circumcision is considered by Paul to be a distraction from what is really important which is having a “circumcised” – which is to say a dedicated, equipped, remade, undistracted, single-minded, unemcumbered – heart. 

III.
            So once Abraham has this reminder literally cut into his flesh, he is finally ready to be the father of many nations as his new name indicates.  And, just so we don’t lose sight of her as an essential element of the covenant, Sarah gets a new name as well.  She apparently needs no extra reminder in terms of any physical operation.  Sarah, as I noted before, is more essential even than Abraham as far as the covenant is concerned.  It is her offspring that carry the covenant forward.  It is Abraham who needs to be modified before he is deemed able to participate with her in the covenant.
            With their new names, and Abraham’s new body, this elderly couple is now finally, fully equipped to bear God’s impossible promise into the future.  And in a few verses God will send emissaries to announce that she will bear a son named Isaac. 
            For Abraham to move forward into the promise, it required a change in his body.  For us to move forward into God’s promise it also requires a change in our bodies.  And the change that is required in our bodies is that we reshape, retool, reform, remake – “make-over” if you will – our bodies in the sense of reorienting and regrounding our actions, what we do with our bodies.  Paul talks about offering our bodies as a living sacrifice; not in merely and superficially cutting off a piece as a sign of our devotion to God, but making our devotion to God apparent and visible and tangible and actual in the things we do.  People should be able to look at the things we do, and clearly see that we are people of God.
            What they ought to see is that we are relying on God’s promises as an invisible means of support.  Our actions need to reflect and express our conviction that God is doing amazing, miraculous, spectacular, and magnificent things.  God is in the process of turning our world upside down.  People notice: God’s people do not suck up to the powerful; they cast their lot with the needy, the sick, the possessed, the broken, the alien, the barren, the losers, and the ridiculous. 
            We do this because we know who inherits the earth!  According to Jesus it is the gentle and the grieving and the persecuted and the peacemakers.  Not the violent, rich, powerful, protected, and well-off.  We follow and obey a God who takes a childless elderly couple of foreigners and turns them into the ancestors of a great nation.  We follow and obey a God who takes a band of beaten slaves, and liberates them and gives them a law and a land.  We trust in this upside-down future that God is making, and we reveal that trust by our commitments now.

IV.   
             God is going to do what God is going to do.  And what God is going to do is wonderful!  God makes the barren fruitful.  God makes aliens into kings.  God takes things we dismiss as impossible, but, when they happen, we look back and say they couldn’t have happened any other way. 
            And the One who makes us see this, the One in whom we trust because he first called us, by God’s amazing grace, is Jesus.  This is our story because of him.  Because he welcomes us into it.  It is his story!  He is the one who has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, and sent the rich away empty.  He is the One who turns the world’s order upside down.
            And he is the One who changes us and gives us a future.  In him we acquire circumcised hearts; that is, our hearts are cleansed and restored and renewed and reshaped.  And in him we turn our hearts, our whole selves, to the God whose love is always present and working to save and to heal and to free us. 

III.
            In this journey of faithfulness, the evolution of their learning to trust in God, Abraham and Sarah have to move from self-sufficiency and trying to figure things out on their own, as we see in the Hagar and Ishmael story, to a more radical and absolute obedience and trust.  The normal, self-centered, rational way of doing things is always a habit we repeatedly fall into if we are not constantly vigilant.  We require ever-present reminders of whose we are and who we are called to be.
            If we are going to bear God’s impossible promises into our future, we too need constant reminders.  It doesn’t have to be something literally carved into the flesh of your body.  Jesus and Paul both recognize that this aspect of the law is easily abused to subvert the inner meaning of the law.  People use the letter of the law, in this case to the point of cutting their own flesh, and think that is sufficient, even commendable, in itself.  But if they don’t thereby realize the loyalty, trust, and obedience that the outward sign points to, it is meaningless and even detrimental exercise. 
            But it does have to be something that touches your heart.  Paul says it happens by faith, that is, it is a matter of trusting in and obeying God.
            We are Abraham and Sarah’s descendants… by adoption.  We are not distracted by the possibility of resting on our literal, physical descent from them.  We are who we are purely by God’s grace in rescuing us from our Gentile nature and grafting us onto Abraham and Sarah’s family by our trust in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus.  That’s why we are reading this story today.  That’s why Abraham and Sarah’s story is our story.

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