An Everlasting Covenant – Feb. 28, 2021
An Everlasting Covenant
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
Genesis 17 1-7,15-16
February 28, 2021
Main Idea – God gives us identity.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
If someone were to ask you “Who are you?”, what would you say? Most of us would start with our names (or first say “Who are you, and why do you ask?”). What if the person said, “That’s nice, but who are you really?”? How would you answer that? Our identities are so central to our self-understanding and yet they can be rather fluid, changing over our life span due to many circumstances; our location, our employment, our commitments, even who we might be talking to at any given moment. When I used to volunteer in my children’s classroom, I was Mrs. Mendes, Nicholas or Margaret’s Mom. I don’t go by that name anywhere else. Some of us changed our names when we entered into a covenant relationship with our spouse. In this extraordinary year all of our identities have changed as our circumstances have changed. Some of us have retired or changed jobs, some have moved, some are dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. All of us have needed to rethink who we are as we live with the strictures of the pandemic. As a church we have reimagined our congregation’s identity as more than just those who gather at 81 Saint Paul Street in Burlington. “Who are we?” and “Whose are we?” are the questions of the day.
During this season of Lent we are reminding ourselves of the covenants God has made with us and with all of creation. Last week we explored God’s covenant with Noah which lifted up God’s love and commitment to all of creation. Today we are exploring God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah in which God promises that they will be the ancestors of great nations. Within this specific covenant promise is another promise and a challenge. In the covenant God gives Abram and Sarai new names and God reveals a new name as well! Our identities change with the covenant commitments that we make. We are changed by the promises we make. But our most central, our most true, identity comes from God, who sees us as we are, who claims us, and names us.
One of the challenges of preaching from the stories of the Old Testament is that they span many chapters, they include many characters, and many later editorial additions. The stories in the book of Genesis, especially, have many layers of editing. So, to get a good sense of today’s text, let me tell you the story of Abram and Sarai.
The story begins at the very end of Genesis chapter 11 where Abram and Sarai are first mentioned. Sarai is identified right off as barren, having no child (11:30). From the very beginning she is defined by what she cannot do. In chapter 12 God first speaks to Abram; “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (12:1-3). And Abram goes just as God had told him. The text makes a point to let us know that Abram is 75 years old. Already pretty old to start a family but Abram trusts God. He trusts in the promise that God has given him.
Abram and Sarai have many adventures. They travel to Egypt where they get mixed up with the Pharaoh (12:10-20). They travel to the Negeb and to Bethel. They become rich in livestock, silver, and gold. (13:2) They fight in battles against petty tyrants (14:13-16), and help kings (14:18-20). But no child is born to them and eventually Abram makes one of his servants his heir.
Then God speaks to him again: “This man will not be your heir, no one but your own child shall be your heir. Look to the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be. (15:4-5). And Abram trusts God. He trusts in the promise that God has given him.
Today’s text from chapter 17 is the third time God speaks to Abram and notice that Abram is now 99 years old. 24 years have passed since Abram first spoke with God! Abram has trusted in God’s promise all of this time! This time when God speaks, God shares God’s own identity. “I am God Almighty, El Shaddai which means “God of the Mountains”. This is the first time the name El Shaddai is mentioned. At this incredible revelation of God’s name and identity, Abram falls on his face in awe. God makes the covenant between them; “an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your children after you.” As part of this covenant God gives Abram a new name, a new identity. “No longer shall your name be Abram (which means exalted father), but your name shall be Abraham (father of multitudes)”.
Now this may not seem like a big deal to us, but this covenant is extraordinary because it includes Sarai by name. Women had no legal standing and very little agency. Sarai’s name, which means “my princess”, changes to Sarah, which means “princess” without any reference to another. Sarai is named and claimed by God as a unique person unto herself, and acknowledged as Abraham’s equal partner. God says “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations, kings of peoples shall come from her.” (17:16). At these words Abraham falls on his face again, this time with laughter! Does he laugh with incredulity, “no way can this be happening” or with relief, “our prayers are finally answered”? When Sarah hears about this covenant, she laughs as well. (18:12). She had settled into her identity as a woman without a child. Both of them were close to 100 years old. They thought their lives as they knew them were all that they would be. Frederick Buechner wrote, “the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.” (Frederick Buechner, frederickbuechner.com)
With the laughter, God claims them and gives them new identities. It is no longer “someday this will happen” but “now is the time!” God says to them “All that you knew, all that you were is now changed. Yes, it is funny to think about being partners and new parents at 100 years old but it will happen. Because you laughed, the child will be named Isaac which means laughter.” Before the child is even born, God gives him a name and an identity. His birth will be a sign of the promise.
This covenant, these new identities, brought new responsibilities, new commitments. Abraham and the men of his household are told to mark their bodies with circumcision. Sarah must prepare for their child. Both must teach their household about God and about the special covenant God has made with them.
This covenant is different from the one made with Noah because it is a covenant with this specific family of Abraham and Sarah which God promises will grow to be the foundation for many nations of the world. This has, in fact, come to pass. Today more than half of the world’s population (56%), those of the Christian (31%), Muslim (25%), and Jewish (0.2%) faiths, claim Abraham and Sarah as their ancestors! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_religious_populations) The children of Abraham can be found in almost every nation on earth.
God called Abraham and Sarah. God gave them new names and new identities. That God, El Shaddai, calls us as well. God names us and claims us. God leads us to places we had not thought to go. God turns our lives upside down, bringing unexpected joys and challenges. And we are God’s covenant people who see God’s power and love throughout history and especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Christ. As we move through our lives with our many identities, being different things to different people, we can remember that our truest identity comes from God. We can laugh with joy that no matter what occurs God’s love and promise remains with us.
Let us pray, God of our covenant, help us to put aside our various personas and identities so that we can rest in who we truly are; your beloved child. May we see others as you see us. May we know your love deep in our bones and may we share it in all that we do. May we be a blessing to you and to the world. Amen.