The sign and the significance - Genesis 17

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 6th February 2005.

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A missionary working with children in the Middle East was driving her jeep down the road when she ran out of petrol. Unfortunately she had no jerry can in the jeep, and after rummaging around in the boot, all she could find was a potty. So she walked a mile down the road to the nearest petrol station and filled up the potty with petrol. As she was pouring the petrol carefully into the tank, a very large Cadillac drew up occupied by two wealthy oil sheikhs. They were absolutely fascinated as they watched her pour the contents of the potty into her jeep. One of them opened the window and said: "Excuse me! My friend and I, although we do not share your religion, we greatly admire your faith."

  Well over these last few weeks we've been studying the life of Abraham in these early chapters of Genesis. And we've seen that one of the key themes of these chapters has been that of faith. Abraham had received some promises from God himself and God asked Abraham effectively to trust him. And they were wonderful promises of a people, a land and a blessing. And we've seen that this promise of a blessing meant that through Abraham and his offspring, the whole world would be blessed and a rescuer would come and save mankind from their rebellion against God. But as we've gone through, we've seen that Abraham's life has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Sometimes he's done well in trusting God for the future and for God to fulfil his promises. But at other times things have gone tragically wrong. Abraham has decided to take things in to his own hands to try and speed up the process of the fulfilment of God's promises. And as we reach Genesis 17, we've just gone down into a stomach churning dip. Because in chapter 16, we saw Abraham take his life in own hands and try to produce the heir promised by God in his own way. He'd slept with a woman called Hagar who wasn't his wife and he'd produced a child that way. But it was a disastrous move. The child born to Abraham is not the child that will carry forward God's promises. And in fact, that child, Ishmael, would be the source of much pain to Abraham and his descendents for centuries to come. So if you are Abraham, then you might be tempted to think that you'd blown it. That the promises were in tatters, and that God was looking for a new way to bless the whole world and bring about the promised rescuer for mankind. But Genesis 17 is the answer to those fears. Has Abraham blown it? Yes. Has God torn up this promises? No. Because the great truth is that the promises of God are not dependant on human performance. They are dependent on God and his unchanging character. What God promises, he fulfils.

  And that is something that you and I need to be reminded of again and again as well. Because I would guess that many of us would describe our walk of faith as a bit of a roller coaster ride as well. Sometimes there are times of great joy in our walk with God. We feel on top of the world. At other times, it feels as if we are on a downward dive, perhaps because something has happened in our lives, or maybe because we have let God down badly. Perhaps you're a student who has been on the conference last weekend, and you had a wonderful time, but this week has been very much back down to earth again, and you're wondering if you've blown it? All those thoughts about serving God at uni have been blown away, it seems. And we're tempted to ask: "Is God really still committed to me? After all it just seems to be the same old story doesn't it? Up, down, up, down! The roller coaster of faith! Can I really keep trusting the promises of God when I let him down so badly?" Well as we come to Genesis 17, we'll see that the answer to that questions is "yes". And the reason we can be so confident is not because of our ability to keep the promises of God. But rather God's ability to keep his side of the bargain. For it is where your faith is that is the all important thing. And as Abraham found out, God was more than trustworthy. So let's come to this passage and we'll see what the true life of faith looks like. It's about total dependence on total grace with total devotion.

1) Total Dependence

First then the life of faith is about total dependence. Dependence that is on God. Now before we go any further, we need to be clear in our minds just exactly what faith is.

Now I guess many of us here will have had a conversation with a non Christian friend, where the other person ends up by saying: "Oh, I greatly admire your faith, but it's just not for me." Or they may say: "Oh if only I had your faith." But faith today is really a very wishy washy word. This was confirmed to me when I looked up "faith" in the Oxford English Dictionary. I now no longer recommend this as a starting point for preparing sermons! For a start the entry two above was "fairyland" which didn't inspire confidence and then when I got to the definition, I read: "Faith: A firm belief, especially without logical proof." And I guess many people think that faith is simply believing something which you know is not true, taking a huge leap from reality and reason, believing something when you are flying in the face of the evidence. In fact, just this week, I had a conversation with someone who told me that Christian faith is a blind leap in the dark! It's like someone saying "I have faith that Robert Kilroy Silk will be the next Prime Minister", or "I have faith that Nathan will buy the whole student team a cooked breakfast tomorrow." Both those are vain beliefs with no grounds for assurance. But Christian faith is very different. Faith is defined by the person or things you have faith in. So everyone has faith, it's just what you place your faith in. For some it may be yourself, for others your family or your work. But for the Christian it is God. We could define it like this: "Christian faith is a firm belief that God is trustworthy, and a conviction that leads to action." Or to put it another way, faith is believing that what God has said is true, and then acting in the light of that certainty. And when it comes to putting your faith in God then we can be absolutely sure that our faith will not be found to groundless. So Martin Luther, the sixteenth century Reformer, said: "Faith is a living and unshakeable confidence, a belief in the grace of God so assured that a man would die a thousand deaths for its sake."

  And that is precisely what Abraham found in Genesis 17. Have a look with me at verse 1: "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, 'I am God Almighty.'" Now what I want us to focus on here is Abraham's age. He is 99. But just go back to chapter 16 and verse 16. Because there we discover that Abraham was 86 years old. So thirteen years have passed since that mistake Abraham made with Hagar. And how long has it been since the original promise was given to Abraham in Genesis 12? At that point he was just a young boy at the age of 75! So can you see what is happening? 24 years have passed since the original promise, and still there is no fulfilment. And how many times has God appeared to Abraham to remind him of the promises and keep him going? Just three times! This is only the fourth recorded time that Abraham has had communication directly from God! Now that I think that is very different to how we imagine it. I reckon most of us would think that Abraham woke up every day with an angel sitting at the bottom of his bed. His life was one of constant visions and direct communications from God. But that is not what we learn from Genesis or indeed the rest of the Bible. No, we are told that Abraham lived by faith. That is he trusted the promises of God. He had to keep trusting that what God had said to him all those years ago would come true, despite the fact that humanly speaking it was now impossible. For Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 90. Abraham had to live in total dependence on God. He had to live by faith.

  Now does that ring any bells for you if you are a Christian? Well it should, because that is precisely what the NT says we Christians are to do. We are to live by faith in the promises of God, precisely what Abraham had to do. And in fact we are far better off than Abraham because we have seen these promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as we'll see later. Abraham had to wait 25 years before his child was born, and by the end of his life, those promises of a people, land and blessing were a very long way off. But we can see everything fulfilled in Jesus. And so we are challenged to live by faith, trusting the promises of God, in total dependence on him.

  To help us understand what I mean, let me tell you about my trip to Scotland. On Friday I had to go to Dundee for a friend's wedding. And when I got to Edinburgh, I had to change trains to get to Dundee. Now as the train to Dundee pulled in to Edinburgh station, I had a choice to make. I could either ignore all the evidence before me that the train was going to Dundee, or I could accept it and trust the driver and get on board. Everything was pointing to the fact that the train was going to Dundee. The screen said so, the front of the train said, and so, I think did the tanoy, though I couldn't understand a word the man said! Now that is faith. Trusting that what is said is true, believing the evidence giving to you, and then acting on it. And that is what Abraham did. Despite ups and down, he continued to believe through many long and barren years that what God had said was true.

  But of course you will only trust someone if you know them to be reliable. I wouldn't trust any old person on Edinburgh station. The information had to come from someone who was authorised. And so it is for Abraham. And that's why God reminds him in verse 1 of who he is. "I am God Almighty." Literally, I am El Shaddai. And what does that mean? Well it most likely means something like I am God the Mountain or the Rock. In other words God is totally immoveable and trustworthy. Nothing will force him to change his promises and deny himself. So imagine that after thirteen long dark years of nothing, on the back of a disastrous mistake in Genesis 16, imagine how reassuring that would have been to Abraham. I am El Shaddai. I'm trustworthy. I will not let you down. And the only thing Abraham could do in these long years of waiting was to fling himself on El Shaddai, the Rock, who would keep his promises.

  And friends, that is why we can have assurance that total dependence on God will not be in vain. He will never let us go or let us down. And the life of faith is not one of daily extraordinary experiences and visions of God. It wasn't for Abraham and it's not for the NT Christian. Rather we are both commanded to trust God and his promises today. The normal experience for the Christian is a daily trust of God in the nitty gritty of life knowing that what he has promised to us will not be found wanting. He's promised to forgive us, he's promised to strengthen us, he's promised us to bring us safely to his perfect kingdom. The question is will you trust him, or will you rest on your own strength, as Abraham did all too often. It's never easy, as Abraham found. But that is what we must do. For the first lesson of Genesis 17 is one of total dependence on El Shaddai. For that is the way of faith.

  

2) Total Grace

But then secondly we learn what we must be dependent on, and that is total grace. We must be totally dependant on total grace. Because God was not asking Abraham to be good and then he'd bless him. No, God made promises to Abraham irrespective of Abraham's response. His response as we will see later comes as a result of what God has done first. So what has God done? Well this chapter is a reaffirmation of the promises God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12. Verse 2 speaks of a covenant that God will confirm, and really a covenant is a series of promises. So this weekend up in Dundee I witnessed a covenant between two people. Paul promised to Debs that he would take her as his wife to have and to hold from this day forward for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, etc. And she promised to do the same. And that is a covenant. A series of promises. So here God is reminding Abraham of the covenant he made with him, the promises he made. So God reminds Abraham that he will receive a people, and a land and that he will be a blessing to many nations. But there are two things in particular which are new in this reaffirmation of the covenant. Two things which remind us very clearly that God is acting in grace when he is making these promises.

a) A New Name- First Abraham receives the promise of a new name. Verse 3: "Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you." Now let's just pause to think what kind of guy Abraham was. We've already remembered that things were a bit up and down for Abraham. And to be quite frank, Abraham was a bit of a scoundrel. If you remember he passed his wife off as his sister to avoid trouble, not once but twice; and then he committed adultery with another woman to speed up the promises of God. So much for the man of faith. He was a man like you and me, deeply flawed and struggling to trust God in a pagan world. And added to the that was the fact that he and his ancestors were pagan idolaters from Iraq. It wasn't as if he came from a nice Christian home so to speak. So how incredibly gracious it is of God then to make these dramatic promises to this old, sin-riddled pagan. And now even his name testifies to God's grace. Because Abram meant exalted father. And now Abraham means "father of many." So his very name carried the promises of God. And it's not just Abraham that gets in on the name changing. Sarah does too, as her name changes from Sarai to Sarah. There's no real change in meaning. Both mean princess. Both the fact her name is changed testifies to the personal nature of the promises. God is going to carry out his plans through this elderly couple. And verse 16 makes that clear: "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her 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 peoples will come from her." It's going to be through Sarah that the child of promise will come. So Hagar's child Ishmael will not be the one to carry the promises forward. Yes God will protect him and give him a gift of a great nation. But he will not be a blessing to many nations, as Abraham's other son Isaac will be. No it's through 90 year old Sarah that the promises will be fulfilled. And do you notice Abraham's reaction? He laughs in verse 17. And Sarah will find it equally laughable as we will see next week. And it does seem laughable doesn't it! The whole thing humanly speaking is ridiculous!

  Can you imagine the scene as Abram went down to the old Goat and Camel on the next Friday night to see his friends for a game of cards. And someone says: "Hello Abram how are you?" And he replies: "No, don't call me Abram, call me Abraham!" And they all fall off their bar stools with uncontrollable laughter. This old 99 year old, the father of many! What a joke. Or imagine the scene at the Shechem General Hospital as Abraham and Sarah come for the scan at the maternity unit. And the girl at the desk, says: "I'm sorry dears, the geriatric ward is next door!" "No , no, says Sarah, we're here for the baby." "Oh, that's sweet, come to see your great great grand daughter have you!" "No, we're here to have a baby". And she too falls about laughing!

  So what's the point? Well these promises must be of God if they are to happen, because humanly speaking it's impossible. They must be promises of sheer grace, because no-one deserves it and no-one can do it for themselves. Despite human weakness and frailty, despite human sinfulness and rebellion, God's promises will be fulfilled. And all Abraham and Sarah can do is trust the promises. And that is what God is like. He is a God of incredible grace.

b) A New Relationship- And it's not just a new name that God highlights in this chapter. It's a new relationship too. Because it's in this passage that God spells out the results of the promises for his relationship with his people. Verse 7: "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, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." God was promising a personal intimacy with him. I will be your God and you will be my people. And that is a phrase that runs right the way through the Bible. And what is it dependant on? The people's good deeds? The people's faithfulness? No. It's going to be by grace that God sustains his relationship with his people. For even in Israel's darkest days, God will not abandon them. Once he has pledged himself to his people, he will not go back on his promises.

  And that is precisely the way it works for the Christian. Because how are all these promises fulfilled? In Jesus by grace. Through Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, all nations can know God personally. Through Jesus we can enter into that personal relationship with God that Abraham knew only fleetingly and occasionally. For now God dwells in our hearts by his Spirit, with our hearts having been washed clean permanently and perfectly through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. And through Jesus was can enter the land, and new kingdom that God has for us when Jesus brings this world to an end and ushers in his perfect new kingdom. And all these good gifts are things given to us by grace. We cannot earn them. We cannot buy them. And we certainly don't deserve them. It is by grace we are saved, says the apostle Paul, through faith, that is trusting the promises of God.

  Now you may be thinking to yourself: "Come on Nathan, tell us something new here." But this is a lesson we need to keep hearing again and again, that we must be totally dependant on total grace. Because the moment we fall into the trap of trusting ourselves for our salvation, or for the strength to live the Christian life, then that is the moment we crash and burn. It was a lesson Abraham had to learn time and again, that you cannot short circuit the promises of God, and it was only by trusting God's grace that Abraham could keep going. And whilst we might say, "Yes it's by grace I am saved", yet we so easily fall into the trap and say "it's by my strength I continue".

  It's a bit like the story of the sparrow and the boy. A young Arab boy was walking along a lane when he came across something small and fuzzy in the road. So he bent down to get a closer look, and he saw that it was a sparrow. At first it looked dead, but then he realised that the sparrow was very much alive. For the sparrow was lying on its back with its two scrawny little legs thrust up into the sky. So the boy said to the sparrow: "What on earth are you doing?" The sparrow said: "I heard a rumour that the sky was going to fall down, so I'm trying to hold up the sky with my legs!" "You must be joking, said the boy. You don't seriously think you're going to hold up the sky with those legs do you?" So the sparrow looked at him very solemnly and said: "One does the best one can." And like the sparrow trying to hold the sky up by his legs is the Christian trying to live the Christian life in his own strength. It's very easy to fall into the trap of saying "one does the best one can". May that be the reason why so much of the time our Christian lives are like a roller coaster ride. Because we have not yet learnt to entrust all things to the God of grace who will never go back on his promises. For it's by grace we are saved and by grace we continue. And like Abraham we need to learn that the way of faith is total dependence on total grace.

3) Total Devotion

But then finally we see that what God asks of Abraham is total devotion. For the walk of faith is total dependence on total grace with total devotion. For another difference in this chapter compared to chapters 12 and 15 is that God outlines the response Abraham is to make to these amazing promises. It's highlighted for us in the words God uses in verses 4 and 9. In verse 4, God explained his side of the covenant. "As for me". But now in verse 9, he explains Abraham's side with the words "as for you". And again we need to remember that this is not a deal that God strikes with Abraham. What God has promised he has promised by grace. These promises are a free and undeserved gift to Abraham affecting the whole world. But in the light of this gracious act, God expects Abraham to act in a certain way. He is to live in the light of the promises God has given. And the heart of this demand is in verse 1: "I am El Shaddai, God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless." This does not mean that Abraham is to be perfect. Rather the word blameless means "whole hearted". God is saying that he wants Abraham to follow God with everything. Total devotion.

And what does this involve specifically for Abraham? Verses 9 and following explain. It is the rite of circumcision. And the point is not that this rite is a rule to follow to get into God's good books. Rather it symbolises an attitude of devotion to the Lord in every aspect of life. Verse 10: "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. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring." So circumcision for every male in the family was to be the mark of the covenant. There was nothing new about circumcision. It was done by other tribes. But for Abraham's people it had a new significance. It represented total commitment to God. It's like a ring in marriage. It's a physical symbol of that marriage covenant that you are totally committed to another person. So you wouldn't dream of going to an office party as a married person and as you go in just slipping off the ring into your pocket. No, that ring symbolises devotion to another. And so does the sign of circumcision. But it also reminded them of God's gracious promises to them, wonderfully symbolised in the fact that babies were circumcised. There was nothing they could do to earn God's merit. Rather they were part of the people of God by grace. And as people of grace, they were to walk before him and be blameless. And that's exactly what Abraham intended to be. He followed God's instructions to the letter and did what he been asked to do.

Now of course for the Christian, that physical sign has been replaced with something that God has done in our hearts. For Paul says in Romans 2 that what really matters is not a physical sign but the heart. And just as a physical cutting away of flesh represented commitment to the people of God, so spiritual cutting away of the sinful heart has happened through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus' death on the cross that old sinful heart has been cut out and we have been given a hew heart, forgiven and washed clean. But that does not mean that our devotion should be any less than Abraham. For just as we are saved by grace, like Abraham, so we too are saved for a reason. To walk with God and be blameless, that is whole hearted in our service of him. And to be whole hearted means to give everything to God.

A man once saw a very precious pearl in a shop. So he said to the shopkeeper, "How much is this pearl? I want to buy it." "Well says, the seller, it's very expensive." "But how much?" "Well a very large amount." "Do you think I could buy it?" "Oh, of course, everyone can buy it." "But I thought you said it was very expensive." "Oh it is." "So how much is it?" "Everything you have." "Everything. Well that's a bit steep. But I'll do it." "Good, well what do you have?" "Well I've got in the bank." "OK, do you have anything else?" "Well no, that's all I have." "Are you sure?" "Well, I've got a bit of loose change in my pocket. Let's see......"OK. What else do you have?" "Well that's it!" "Surely not. Where do you live?" "Well I live I a house." "Excellent, the house." "Do you mean I have to live in my caravan?" "Excellent, a caravan." "I can't live in my car." "Oh you have a car?" "Yes, two, but......" "All the better, two cars. They both become mine. Now what else?" "But you've got my money, my house, my caravan, my cars, what else do you want?" "Are you alone in this world?" "No I have a wife and two children." "Ah yes, a wife and two children. What else?" "Well I have nothing left. I'm all alone now." "Oh of course, exclaimed the seller, I almost forgot. I'll have yourself. So that means everything because mine. Your money, your possessions, your house, your family, even yourself. The seller went on. Now listen, he said, I will allow you to use all of these things for the time being. But don't forget they are mine- just as you are. And whenever I need any of them you must give them up. Because I am the owner now."

Following Christ is no hobby. As Abraham discovered, trusting the promises of God demanded everything of him. And the same is true for us who live the other side of the fulfilment of those promises. For we like Abraham are men and women on a journey. Walking by faith in the God who has given us his sure and certain promises, heading for our promised land. Yes there will be ups and downs, but one thing is certain- God will never break his promises. And we need to ask ourselves am I a man or woman of Biblical faith? For a man or woman of Biblical faith is someone who is totally dependant on total grace with total devotion.

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