Genesis 17 – Our Amazing and Surprising God!
God calls, and God promises. When Jesus began his ministry, one of the first things he did was to call people to follow him. The Gospels record a number of those “call” stories. Jesus called Philip and Nathaniel. He called the fishermen—Peter and Andrew, James and John. He called Matthew the tax collector. “Follow me,” he said to them. And to each he included a promise. To Philip and Nathaniel, he said, “you will see great things.” To the fishermen he said: “I will make you fishers of men.” To Matthew and those with him he promised the healing of their sin.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear of a renewed but different call to those same disciples. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The call to follow Jesus will involve suffering for the sake of his message. But as with his first call, Jesus also includes words of promise: “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” This promise echoes words that he had said, in a more general way, earlier in his ministry: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
We know that Jesus will fulfill these promises to his disciples, for we see them fulfilled in his own life. He suffered and died for the sake of the Gospel, and was saved from death by being raised to new life. Because Jesus lives, we will live also.
And this is not only a future promise, but also a present one. In a way, we have been raised to new life already. New life is given when we are in relationship to God. Those who are baptized into Christ can be assured that they are in a saved relationship with God. In Christ, we have already experienced the great reversal from death to life.
As children of promise, we will sometimes experience signs of this great reversal that amaze and surprise us. These are meant to encourage us along our journey and help us through our times of suffering. Consider the story of a man named Abram.
2000 years before Jesus appeared, God called his disciple Abram. The call to Abram was a call to follow God’s instructions: “go to the land I will show you.” There was also a promise attached to this call: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” This call and promise was given when Abram was 75 years old.
As the years went by, Abram followed the instructions of the Lord very well. And God fulfilled his promises. Abram’s name did indeed become great in the land where he lived. And Abram was blessed with great prosperity. But there was one promise of God that was not yet fulfilled. Abram could not be a great nation, because he had no offspring.
Ten years after God first appeared to Abram, God appeared to him again. “Fear not,” he said, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (15:1). This time, Abram replied by sharing his concerns. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” His only heir, he explained, was his servant. God replied: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” And Abram “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Shortly after this, Abram’s wife Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Abram listened to the voice of Sarai, after all, God had only said to him “you will have a son.” He didn’t say who the mother would be. So, Abram slept with Sarai’s servant, Hagar, and she conceived and bore them a son, whom they named Ishmael. The surrogate arrangement of Abram and Sarai succeeded. Yes, at first there was some hard feelings between the two women, made worse by Abram’s reluctance to help out. But things were patched up before the baby was ever born. Abram and Sarai now had their promised child. All was well.
Thirteen years later, God appeared to Abram once more. This is the appearance we read about in our Old Testament reading today. God once again began his message to Abram by speaking words of call, followed by words of promise. “Walk before me, and be blameless,” He said, “that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”
When Abram hears this, he falls on his face, as an act of worship and acceptance. God repeats his promise of Abram being the father of a multitude of nations, and then He tells him something new. He tells him that his name is to be changed. No longer would he be named Abram, which meant “exalted father” – a very fitting name for someone of Abram’s status and success. But now his name was to be “Abraham” – which means “father of many.”
The change of name certainly reflected the repeated promise of God—that Abraham would indeed be the father of many nations. But it was also a sign that God had new things in mind… two of them.
First, as detailed in the section of verses that we skipped in our reading, God tells Abraham that he is to introduce the practice of circumcision to his people, as a sign of the covenant God has made through him. Every male was to be circumcised. And not just for those natural-born offspring, but any who come into the household. They are to be a part of the covenant people too. “Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised.” Later we are told that Abraham, Ishmael and all of the males in Abraham’s household were circumcised. God’s covenant promise was extending beyond just biological family.
Then, secondly, God shares something else with Abraham. His wife, Sarai, is also to receive a changed name. The change is not big. It seems to be only a new Semitic form of the same name—from Sarai to Sarah, both of which mean “princess.” Then again it could now come from the verb “strive,” in which case it becomes related to the word “Israel”- a sign of the nation that will come from her.
Regardless of the exact meaning, the name change does indicate that something greatly significant will be happening. Sarah, in her very old age, 89 years, will soon conceive a child. Moreover, this child, this very surprising child, will be the child through which God’s covenant promises will now be passed down.
Abraham and Sarah had acted on their own to find a creative solution for the fulfilling of God’s promise. They used a surrogate to have a child. God does not condemn them for this in the least. For thirteen years they grow to love their child Ishmael. But God then chooses to act in his own surprising way—no doubt just to show them, and us, that He reserves the right to do things His own way, and that His ways are often amazing and surprising.
The question this text presents to us, then, is do we believe in a God who works in amazing and surprising ways? Or, do we expect life to go forward only in ways that seem logical and predictable?
Likewise, there is a related question to this that we must consider as well. Do we only expect human answers to our problems? Or, do we believe that God may provide in His own ways?
In facing our problems, God certainly doesn’t mind human answers, as long as they conform with His laws and commands. But He reserves the right to also provide His own answers, in ways that amaze and surprise us.
Reading on in the text, we see that Abraham had a hard time believing. The text tells us that Abraham “fell on his face” once again, but also that he laughed. He certainly didn’t want to be disrespectful to God. But he couldn’t help but laugh. The text says that he said to himself: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Abraham then said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” He thinks this is a much more logical answer to his problem. But God said, “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”
God’s ways are not our ways. The good thing is, when God insists on His way, we know it is best. The name Isaac means “laughter.” There is joy that comes when God’s ways are accomplished… and when they are believed. Abraham and Sarah would soon believe, for she did indeed have that child. God’s promise to them would be fulfilled.
At the time, God’s promise to Abraham seemed strange and unreal – a child at 90 and 100? So also, to circle back to the very beginning of today’s Genesis text, it may seem strange and unreal that we could ever be “blameless and walk before God,” as God commanded Abraham to do. How in the world, with all it’s great temptations, and with all our great weaknesses, could we ever manage to live this way? We laugh when we think about it. We have messed up so many times. It’s just logical and natural, we tell ourselves, that we would sometimes cut corners for the sake of our own self-preservation, and that we would sometimes do things that hurt others, as a simple mistake, or maybe for the sake of efficiency or effect.
Being blameless seems far out of reach. Walking before God seems impossible with all we have to hide. And yet, being blameless and walking before God are the amazing and surprising things which God accomplishes for us through Jesus. He does it by taking our sin away, placing it upon himself instead. St. Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Colossians (1:21–22), “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
Jesus presents you to God as holy and blameless, even though you are not.
Jesus also works in our hearts and minds to work toward this goal of blamelessness, not because we need it for our salvation but because we need it for our life together—for our happiness, for our endurance in faith. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” says Paul to the Philippians (2:14,15), “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
When we were baptized into Christ we were given a new name—Christian. Let us live according to our name, and cherish that name always.
As the coming birth of our Savior Jesus was announced to Mary his mother, she sang a song that reflected both her joy and her faith. The song spoke of God’s greatness. It spoke of the great reversal, whereby the humble are exalted and the hungry are filled. Mary concluded her song by mentioning God’s help, as shown “to Abraham and his offspring forever.”
God’s ways are amazing and surprising. Best of all, God’s ways are merciful and good. Therefore, let us be blameless and walk before Him, with holy laughter in our hearts, songs of praise on our lips, and acts of mercy and goodness befitting our name. God has called us to these things. And promised to be with us. Amen.