A sermon on Genesis chapters 12 to 17 by Richard Keith on Sunday 11 June 2023
Today we are talking about circumcision. Circumcision is cutting away of the foreskin of the male penis. Sounds very painful, if you ask me. We are talking about circumcision because in Genesis chapter 17 God said to Abraham
As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you. This is my covenant with you: Every male among you shall be circumcised and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.
Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Abraham.
We’ve been talking about covenants over the last couple of weeks. A covenant is a solemn agreement between two parties, creating a relationship of belonging founded on promises and leading to certain obligations and responsibilities. It’s more than just a contract between strangers. A covenant is more like an alliance. It’s an agreement when people make a commitment to stand together as one. A marriage is a kind of covenant when husband and wife become one flesh. A treaty between nations, like NATO, is a kind of covenant. A covenant says, “I am yours and you are mine.” Through thick and thin, for better or worse, they promise to stand together.
The parties to a covenant often carry a sign, a visible token that bears witness to the commitments they’ve made. Like I wear a wedding ring. It says, “Sorry, ladies, Richard is currently unavailable. He belongs to someone else.” Like NATO has its own flag. Or a bikie gets a tattoo. It’s a visible witness of their commitments and obligations.
When God makes a covenant, they sometimes come with a sign. Last week we saw that God made a covenant with Noah. He promised, “Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And as a token of that commitment God put a sign in the sky. The rainbow. As a sign, it makes sense. God has put away his arrows of judgment and hung up his long bow of retribution to show that he has retired from the worldwide cataclysm business. At the end of the storm, the rainbow loudly and colourfully says, Never again.
In Genesis chapter 17, God confirmed his covenant with Abraham. And he commanded that every male member of his family who wanted to be a part of this agreement must bear a sign, a visible mark on the body. Like a tattoo. Like a brand. They must be circumcised.
But, Why? Why circumcision? If the rainbow is a visible witness that God’s days of hunting for sinners are over, what is it that made circumcision, this cutting of his skin an appropriate sign for Abraham and his male descendants? Well, I’m glad you asked me, because it will give me the chance to tell you.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the king of England or the humblest of individuals, most people will get to a certain age and start wondering who will get their things when they die? They make a will or hand it over while they are still alive.
Abram and Sarai were rich in every respect except children. The Lord had said
Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
They took with them their wealth. Their flocks and their servants. And they took with them their closest male relative. Abram’s nephew, Lot. So who will get all of Abram’s good things when he dies? The answer seems clear in Genesis chapter 12. Abram’s heir is Lot.
But there was a problem in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites were already there, living in their cities and towns, forcing Abram to live on the fringes of civilisation. And Lot had his own good things too. His own flocks and servants that he’d brought with him. So the land wasn’t big enough to support them all, leading to an argument over the land’s limited resources.
Abram decided to solve this problem by offering Lot a choice. Abram took him to the top of a hill and said,
Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go the left, I’ll go the right. If you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.
Abram wasn’t offering Lot half the land of Canaan, the land God had promised him. Offering him half wouldn’t solve the problem. All of it wasn’t big enough for both of them. Abram was offering Lot his nephew, his closest male relative, the whole land, all the land of Canaan. Abram was offering to surrender his whole inheritance from God to his heir, giving it to him while he was still alive.
And Lot declined the offer. He chose the river plain on the other side of the Jordan. The conclusion of this arrangement wasn’t that Abram lived in one part of Canaan and Lot lived in another. It was that –
Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot pitched his tents near Sodom.
Lot had committed the sin of apostasy, of turning away from the Lord, of deliberately stepping outside the sphere of God’s favour and blessing. He married a woman from Sodom. When they fled from the city’s destruction, Lot’s wife turned back with regret and became a pillar of salt. His daughters were born and raised in Sodom and conceived children in unnatural relations. They became the ancestors of the people of Moab and Ammon, two of Israel’s most bitter enemies. Showing that one important decision can have terrible consequences.
And people will tell you that once saved you are always saved. People will tell you that nothing can snatch you out of the hands of Jesus. But if you read your Bible carefully you’ll see that the promise of God is for those who remain faithful to the end. Because the prize isn’t handed out to those who start the race, but those who finish the race. Don’t be like Lot who sold his inheritance for the fertile river plain of Sodom. Today that fertile river plain is now what we call the Dead Sea. Instead, rest secure in Jesus’ hands as you faithfully follow him all your days.
Lot declined Abram’s offer to be his heir. It solved the problem of overcrowding, but it created a new problem for Abram. In Genesis chapter 15, God spoke to Abram to reassure him.
Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward.
And Abram said,
O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.
It’s a reply full of bitterness. The question, “What can you give me?” threw the Lord’s promises of protection and reward back in his face. Abram felt like a man dying of thirst being offered an all expenses trip around the world instead of a simple, lifesaving drink of water. What use was the Lord’s protection and reward, if Abram didn’t have a child to pass it on to. Abram had left everything he knew and loved, to inherit God’s promised land and what were those sacrifices for if he had no heir?
That’s why Abram had already taken matters into his own hands. He had changed his will, leaving all his possessions, all his wealth, to a trusted servant, like a rich old lady leaving her grand estate to her butler. We don’t know anything more about this servant, Eliezer of Damascus, than his name and place of birth. And he is never mentioned again because Abram’s plan was vetoed by the Lord.
This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir. Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if you can. So shall your offspring be.
The Lord’s words helped clarify Abram’s situation. His nephew Lot wouldn’t inherit his estate and his servant won’t be his heir. No, Abraham had made all his sacrifices for a child from his own body. A son. And from his son would come a multitude of descendants.
Abram decided that he would trust the Lord’s word. He believed him. And that faith guided his choices and actions. It’s what the Bible calls righteousness, because believing God is the beginning of all that is right and good.
The story of Abram and Sarai is the story of a childless couple looking for an heir. And in Genesis chapter 16 they still didn’t have one. But Sarai lived by the motto that God helps those who help themselves. Abram may have received the promise of a son from his own body. But she still hadn’t conceived. So she came up with a solution to the problem that would still be in line with God’s exact words. She offered her Egyptian maid Hagar as a second wife to her husband and as a surrogate mother for their child.
“Go sleep with my maidservant,” she said to Abram, “perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed. Having more than one wife wasn’t against the law of his day, and no one could complain that this indecent proposal contradicted the spoken Word of God. It seemed a foolproof plan.
Until their human wisdom was exposed for its foolishness. Hagar conceived and started to disrespect her mistress, believing that since she could deliver what Sarai couldn’t, she would take her place. But this was not how it was supposed to happen. Hagar was supposed to build a family for Sarai, not for herself.
Sarai complained to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.” I mean, of course he was equally responsible. But Sarai shared any guilt that was upon Abram’s head. “I put my servant in your arms and now she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
Abram had already caved in once to her demands. Once more couldn’t possibly made things worse. “Your servant is in your hands. Do with you whatever you think best.” So Sarai bullied her, until Hagar ran away.
Although we like to cheer for the underdog, no one comes out of this story with their reputation intact. Sarai made the mistake of treating people like things. This is the sin that lies at the heart of all crimes against humanity. Slavery. Genocide. Tyranny. Child abuse. It is the sin that says what other people want doesn’t matter.
Abram was no better. Happy to take Hagar into his bed, but not into his heart. Happy to use her to achieve his goals, and just as happy to sacrifice her for his domestic peace. Neither of them accepted any responsibility. Sarai said to her husband, “It’s all your fault.” Abram said to his wife, “She’s your servant, you deal with it.” Reminds me of two people I know who had to leave the garden of Eden.
And Hagar had made her play for power at the expense of Sarai and lost and paid the consequences. Even when the Lord sent his angel to rescue her and to reassure her that she will have a son and many descendants, it would still feel like she’d won the silver medal, not gold. She had to go back to her mistress and submit to her. And her son would be a wild donkey of a man and would live in hostility with all his peers. By no means a failure, but always at the centre of controversy.
These are the choices and actions of people who believe that God helps those who help themselves. They have trouble trusting in the God of mercy and grace who made all things and bow down instead to the idol of self-sufficiency. They can’t wait for his timing and come up with schemes within other schemes to fast forward his blessing. They think they are helping God when the creator God needs no one’s help. They are the people in the church who put money and building before people. Who think the management committee is the heart of the church’s work and not a support to it. They are the people for whom prayer is the last thing they do and not the first.
Let us put our faith instead in the God of the gospel, who works out all his plans in his own time.
Hagar’s son Ishmael was born when Abram was 86 years old. Thirteen years later God appeared to Abraham to clarify his hopes for an heir.
I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.
To “walk before God” doesn’t mean to walk ahead of God so that God has to follow. Because in some ways that’s been the whole problem so far. God had been too slow for Abram and Sarai, seeming to lag behind while they raced ahead of him to get what he’d promised them according to their own schedule.
But that’s not what it means to walk before God. It means to live and to work in his presence. To travel our journey through life with God. It means to make choices and decisions that lead to actions and behaviours that are consistent with God’s nature and plans. It means pretty much the same as the Lord meant when he said, “be blameless”. Because this is what it means to live in a covenant relationship with our creator. He is not just God. He is our God. And we are not just ourselves. We are his. Made in his image, his life and character are to be seen in ours. It doesn’t mean that good works lead to our salvation or that our conduct creates the relationship with God. But it does mean that salvation leads to good works and that our relationship with God results in godly conduct.
It doesn’t mean that we will never make mistakes, because the life of the greatest saints is littered with mistakes. For example, Abram and Sarai. But to live a life that is never directed and energised by the love and joy and peace that God supplies is the same as declining the offer of that love and joy and peace. To put it more bluntly, to live a life inconsistent with the gospel is just a different way of rejecting the gospel.
In ratifying his covenant God gave new names to his human partners. Abram will no longer be “great father”. He will be Abraham, which means “father of many”. Because this is what the creator God does. When human beings have trouble believing that God can do what he promises, he rolls up his sleeves and says, “I’ll show you what I can do.” He doubles down on his promise. Because he is the God who can do more than we ask or even imagine.
God said to Abraham,
I will make you very fruitful. I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 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. The whole land of Canaan I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you and I will be their God.
This is the relationship of belonging created by the covenant. Yes, the arrangement includes “descendants” and “land”. But the greatest gift, the most wonderful promise that lies at the heart of the covenant, is that God gives himself to be theirs.
It’s a relationship of belonging founded on promises and leading to obligations and responsibilities. God had outlined his. He would provide Abraham with children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and a land to live in. But Abraham also had obligations and responsibilities. To walk before God. To be blameless. To live and to work in the presence of God. But he must also ensure that every male in his family that wants to enjoy the benefits of the relationship bear in their body the sign of the covenant.
Every male among you must be circumcised. They must wear a tangible mark on the organ of the body that Abraham used to make for himself what God had promised to give. Abraham presumed to put that thing where it didn’t belong when he slept with Hagar, thinking that he knew better than God. And so his family would bear on his genitals a reminder from generation to generation of the misery that human self-sufficiency causes, and that God’s good things only come by the grace of God. Who created everything out of nothing. Who builds the tops of the mountains from the depths of the ocean. Who heals the broken-hearted and sustains his suffering people. Who can do more than we ask or even imagine and proved it by raising his Son Jesus Christ to life. Who by that same power can bring the most hardened sinner to their senses and change them from the inside out so that all people may know and confess that all their good things are a gift from God.
Abraham tried one last time to plead for the son he had instead of the son of promise.
If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.
God said, “Yes, but” meaning “Yes, but No.” “Yes,” I will bless Ishmael in my own way. But no,
your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him.
God’s blessing will be channelled not through the child of human ingenuity and self-sufficiency, but through the child of promise received through faith and patient waiting. God does not help those who help themselves. God helps those who cannot help themselves.
And we see that grace in Jesus who was born of a woman, but was the son of no man, teaching us that no man can make what God must provide. In Jesus, God does not just give us a reason to live for today and a hope for tomorrow. In Jesus God gives us nothing short of himself. In Jesus, one of us, God becomes truly ours, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. God with us, the promise that one day we will be with God. As each day we walk before him, with him, and in harmony with his will.