An Open-Ended Promise
Chapter Two of The Story: Abraham and Sarah help God build a nation
Genesis 17: 1-10
Even a quick glance at this chapter in The Story points toward a theme of Covenant. Several years ago I did a sermon series on Covenant during Lent. It got off to a shaky start because the First Sunday of Lent was February 22, 2015. Anybody remember what happened that weekend? It was the Big Snow, and church was cancelled. Without having the opportunity to preach the series from the beginning, I’m not sure how effective it was. Covenant is a hard enough concept to understand if you don’t have a foundation.
A look at the Covenant between God and God’s people began last week with our readings from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd chapters of Genesis. At first it’s all about God and what God is up to in the “Upper Story” of Creation. Then people arrive on the scene and the “Lower Story” meets the Upper Story. After the second Big Bang, The Fall from Paradise, God figures out that the relationship with us needs some structure!
I was put in mind of my early days as chaplain at Hoffman Homes. (A residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed children.) I had a grand vision of creating a community of children listening eagerly to Bible stories that would help form and shape their little lives. And maybe what we needed was to take a break from the routine of campus life, which seemed a little rigid to me. I decided on a VBS style program during their summer break from school.
The chapel was really not big enough for the number of kids. But there was plenty of room for chaos. I vividly recall pandemonium in the chapel, with too many kids and too few rules. In one particularly misguided activity the children were to decorate cookies with icing, spelling out a bible verse when the cookies were all neatly laid out on a tray. As I said, this was early in my ministry there and I didn’t know any better! One child grabbed the tray and ran screaming through the chapel with cookies and icing flying everywhere. That signaled a general breakdown of law and order, at the conclusion of which the icing was spelling out words that shouldn’t have been seen in Chapel, and no cookie was left whole. I did manage to keep my job, but the Vacation Bible School program was discontinued.
Luckily God has not discontinued the program of Creation, although it too got off to a shaky start with Adam and Eve. It seems we need structure and rules no matter what our age or mental state. Once the sinning gets started, it keeps going. And it went right on, up until the time of Noah, when God decided it was time to put it to a stop. God made a flood to wash the earth clean and thus hit the reset button on Creation.. Chapter one concludes with the rainbow promise made by God. “I now am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you…Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of the flood.” But consider this. God makes a promise without asking anything in return.
Strictly speaking, that is not a covenant because it is all on God to keep the promise, without asking anything in return. A covenant implies two parties who agree to certain terms. Covenant means “promise.” Testament is another synonym for covenant. We speak of the Old and the New Testament, but it could just as easily be the Old and New Promise. Covenant, according to the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, places the relationship of the partners on a new and legal basis.
For instance, a marriage ceremony marks a different understanding of the relationship between the marriage partners. Even if the couple was living together prior to the marriage, the vows of marriage mark a new way of being together. A new set of promises are being made that bring structure and order to the relationship. And as the marriage vows point out, one does not know everything that is being agreed to in this new marriage covenant. The terms of the agreement are only revealed over time. “ For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad…for as long as we both shall live.” The vows provide a blueprint for the relationship. It is the foundation upon which you build the house you will live in together. And the couple is saying “I do” even though they don’t yet know how good, or how bad, things can get. Living into that promise is a lot harder than merely saying the words. It is very much an open-ended promise.
Even as serious as is the institution of marriage, unless the couple has some sort of signed pre-nuptial agreement for financial matters, nothing is signed in the marriage agreement. The pastor signs as the officiant, but the couple signs only the license application, not the final license . So it is not like my mortgage with the bank. There we have a stack of papers an inch thick, all of which must be signed. That is because I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me. It is a legal contract, not a covenant. A covenant implies trust.
And trust grows with the relationship. That is true for marriage and it is true in the story of God and God’s people. The Story, both Upper and Lower, is told in fits and starts. It represents stages, as in Abram’s and Sarai’s journey towards the Negeb desert in the 12th chapter of Genesis. We move forward and we fall back. We build altars to false gods and then fall prostrate at the true God’s feet and beg forgiveness. God’s faithfulness is never matched by that of God’s people, and so the Bible tells numerous stories of various covenants made by God to match our evolving relationship with God and God’s demands for a life of faith. It’s a wonder God has never given up us!
On page 17 of The Story, the word “covenant” appears eight times. Its all about relationship. It drives home the point that without trust there is no true relationship. Without trust we are not that tree with deep roots that remains steady in a storm, the one that can withstand parched times, the one that lives while shallow rooted trees wither.
God’s original vision was to come to earth and meet us where we live, in fellowship. As Randy Frazee puts it, that was what Eden was all about, except that humans chose to follow their own way and play by their own rules. But God did not give up on us. And even after Noah disappointed God, and the people after Noah, God chose to begin again with two righteous people. God started a new nation. The general idea was to establish a nation that would live by God’s rules and be an example for other people, those who were not living by God’s rules. It was to be that shining city on a hill spoken of in the New Testament.
These two righteous people , old as they were, were invited (not compelled) by God to leave the familiar surroundings of their homeland and travel to a place that God had yet to show them. It was very similar to those marriage vows—for better or for worse—only they don’t know how much better or how much worse it was going to be! And I really doubt that Abram and Sarai fully comprehended what exactly was being asked of them. And yet scripture says “So Abram went…” And as a mark of the new covenant, Abram and Sarai got new names. They were now Abraham and Sarah. In those days it was common for an agreement between parties to be sealed with adding a portion of a new name to the old name. I guess it’s similar to taking a new name as part of being married.
Hebrews 11 says that it was by faith that Abraham was called to a place that he would later receive as an inheritance. Abram and Sarai packed up their belongings and their whole household hit the road to who knows where.
But a nation needs people, and these two old people had no children. But God’s side of the covenant was to give them ancestors as numerous as the stars in the sky or grains of sand on a beach. It seemed impossible that God could do the things being promised. But God is known for saying and doing things that don’t make sense. Growing a tree with gorgeous fruit and then telling Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree. Telling Noah to build a boat unlike the world had even seen and then pack it with smelly animals and squawking birds. Telling Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac, who name meant laughter, and sacrifice him. That made the least sense of all. With the birth of Isaac God was building a new nation. Without Isaac, the lineage of Abraham and Sarah came crashing to a dead end. But Abraham trusted.
Trust is the glue that holds together relationships. As I have told many married couples, relationships survive lack of love, but they rarely survive lack of trust. Abraham and Sarah had many ups and downs in their life of faith. There was that messy business with Hagar and Ishmael when Sarah allowed jealousy to overcome compassion. There was the time, not recorded in The Story, that Abraham turned his wife over to Pharoah to keep his own skin intact. Abraham lied and said she was his sister.
Abraham and Sarah, like us, at times got tired of waiting for God to keep his promises so they often made their own plans, lived by their own rules. Yet still they journeyed on, doing their best to obey. We worship as the people of God because our ancestors in the faith lived by faith, not sight. Maybe they couldn’t see God’s plan, God’s vision, but they trusted God to be God. We can do no less.
But the ups and downs in the lower story are certainly not at an end. Next week we learn about a dreamer with a beautiful coat of many colors. That dreamer, Joseph, turns a story of betrayal and desertion into one that keeps alive God’s dream of a nation of faithful people.