A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Genesis 17 on Sunday 3 November 2019
I love a good mystery. I wonder, Who built Stonehenge and how? And why? Why are sinkholes suddenly appearing all over Siberia? And how did the Earth get such a large moon? Actually, that last one isn’t much of a mystery, because the moon is just the right size that God made it.
Our message today is about a different kind of mystery. It’s not one that most people think about. It’s not one that would often come up in polite conversation. But it is one that most people would struggle to give an answer to. And it is raised in our passage today in Genesis chapter 17. And that question is, why circumcision? This cutting of the foreskin of boy babies at eight days of age. Why did this procedure out of all the ones that could have been chosen, why did circumcision become the sign of the covenant?
For God had made a covenant, a solemn pact or agreement with Abram. The covenant wasn’t a negotiation. It didn’t set up a co-operative alliance. It came from God to Abram as a series of promises. I will bless you. I will make you into a great nation. To your descendants I will give this land. All nations will be blessed through you. This was the covenant between God and Abram. It was not a mutual contract, but a one-sided commitment from God, the creator, to his creature.
In fact, the covenant can be put even more simply. With these promises, the Lord said, “I will be your God.” He would not just be a God for himself, alone and pleasing himself, basking in his own glory. No, he would be God for the world. He would be God for the people of the world. And because he was God for the people of the world, he would be Abram’s God, and the God of his children. And with the promises of his covenant, he was saying, You will be my people. Not because of anything good in them. But in order to fulfil his purpose of blessing for the whole world, they would be his people, the vessel for his blessing.
It wasn’t an apprenticeship, a system whereby Abram graduated to full blessing by satisfying increasing levels of requirements. It wasn’t a contract between equals by which Abram earned God’s blessing for services rendered. It was a covenant of grace, established by God for God grounded in God’s promises.
This is what the Lord meant when he said to Abram in Genesis 17, verse 1,
“I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. And I will confirm my covenant with you.”
He is God almighty. He can do whatever he wants. There is no obstacle or barrier that can prevent his will. And what is his will? To bless Abram so that Abram would be a blessing. “Walk before me and be blameless.” It is not a condition of the covenant. It is a consequence of the covenant. Abram does not have to be blameless for God to keep his promise, but because God will keep his promise, Abram can and will be blameless.
And that would not be the only consequence. In verses 10 and 11 the Lord said,
“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep. Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision. And it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”
The obvious question then is, why circumcision? What is special about it that makes it appropriate. Why did this procedure become the sign of the covenant?
Circumcision is practiced in about a third of the world. Predominantly in Africa and in the Middle East. In some climates, circumcision has health benefits, stopping the spread of disease and infection. In the ancient Middle East, and in some tribal cultures still today, it was practiced on teenage boys as a test of bravery and as a rite of passage into manhood.
But these explanations aren’t enough. They don’t explain how important circumcision would become for the life of the Jews. For thousands of years Jews have been distinguished from other people groups by three things. Not working on Saturdays. That’s a holiday every week. Their kosher food rules. Not eating bacon or ham or shellfish. And circumcision. Personal hygiene does not explain why the Lord chose it as the sign of his covenant. As his mark of ownership. As his brand on this people that says, “You are mine. And I am yours.” But it is not just a brand, an arbitrary practice picked at random. Circumcision was chosen for a reason. And that reason can be found in Genesis chapter 16.
In Genesis chapter 15 the Lord told Abram that his heir would come from his own body. It wouldn’t be a distant relative. It wouldn’t be a man he’d adopted from his own servants. His heir would be his own son. The problem was that his wife Sarai had still not become pregnant. They had no son and they were not going to get any younger. When Sarai had a cunning plan, because everyone knows that a man can have a child at a much older age than a woman. Her plan was to give her maid to her husband to be his second wife so Abram would get his heir from his own body through her. And it worked. Abram slept with Hagar and she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. And Abram named him Ishmael.
Now, they must have thought, everyone could relax. No more worrying about the future. God’s promise had come true with the help of a little human ingenuity. After all doesn’t the Bible say, “God helps those who help themselves”?
Well, actually, the Bible doesn’t say anything of the sort and in chapter 17 the Lord makes it clear what he thinks of their little family arrangement. God said to Abram,
“Your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham, for I have made you the father of many nations. As for Sarai, her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations. Kings of people will come from her.”
At ninety years of age. When they thought they’d solved that problem years ago. No wonder Abraham fell facedown and laughed and said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.”
Then God said, “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac. I will make my covenant with him and his descendants after him.”
Ishmael, the child of human ingenuity, the child of giving-God-a-helping-hand, the child of God helps those who help themselves, was passed over for the miracle child, the child of promise, the child of God’s own making in Abraham and Sarah’s age and weakness. For the Lord is God Almighty. He needs no helping hand. He will share his credit with no one. And he will do what no one expects, what no one can explain without him. The Lord will make his covenant with Sarah’s son, Isaac, and the blessing will pass to him.
And this is why the sign of the covenant is circumcision. It is not just a mark of ownership. It is not an arbitrary brand. It is not a random sign. Instead, God commands that the instrument through which Abraham tried to help God and conceive a child should be cut and laid bare. A physical, irreversible sign of Abraham’s foolishness. And every generation of males after him would bear in their body the mark of God’s judgment on Abraham’s unbelief.
Circumcision was not a work to be proud of. It was not an award, a prize for helping God. It was nothing less than a mark in their flesh calling them to repent of their self-sufficiency and to trust only in the promise of God.
That’s why the prophets later, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, told the people to circumcise their hearts. They were to make real in their lives what had been done to them in their flesh. Sin is like a cancer. It makes us spiritually and morally sick. Like a surgeon they were to cut out of their hearts the lies they believed in and the idols they worshiped and their pride and self-sufficiency. To become what they were called to be. To walk before the Lord and to be blameless. Not in their own strength, but by the power of the Spirit of God who takes away our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh instead. Hearts that love God and trust him and serve him. Hearts that don’t try to help God do his job, but hearts that yearn for God to help us do our job.
Of course, we are Gentiles and not Jews. And we are women as well as men. But the heart of the gospel is still the call to repentance and faith to put our trust not in our flesh, not in what we have done, not in our pride and our achievement, not in what we can do for God, but in what he has done for us in the miracle child, the child of promise, Jesus Christ. Who was not the son of Joseph, but the son of God. The son of Mary, but not of her making, but of the Holy Spirit. No one sat down with God and negotiated the gospel. No one carefully prepared for the coming of God among us. No one laid the groundwork for God and then gave him the extra boost at the end to make it possible. God did not come in our flesh to help those who help themselves but to help those who cannot help themselves. Jesus Christ, by his birth, his life, his death, and his new life, did for us what we could not do for ourselves, so that we might receive the promise of the Holy Spirit to circumcise our hearts. In the daily choice of faith, we put aside all the petty ways that we think we can help God, we confess and we repent of our self-sufficiency and prayerlessness and we reach out our hands to receive God’s help for us.
There are many mysteries that I will never solve. Where do all the missing socks go? Do they run away with all the ball point pens? But the mystery of circumcision is the sign for us, and not just for the Jews. It is the sign calling us to cut out the idols in our hearts, and to receive Christ alone as Lord.