Genesis 17:1-8 (NLT)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. 2 I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.”
3 At this, Abram fell face down on the ground. Then God said to him, 4 “This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! 5 What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!
7 “I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.”
Sermon by Rev’d Jo Joyce
I wonder what stories your family tells to root it in history? I don’t mean famous people or events, but anecdotes about Grandma so and so or tales of why they came to live where they did or where they worked. The stories we tell about our origins, understanding who we are and how we came to be are common across all cultures, and often in the bible they are significant. Have you ever wondered why there are long lists of genealogies? It’s about people placing themselves in history, about showing how they were connected to heroes of the past, that feeling of rootedness, of being connected to a place and a people of long ago.
Today we are thinking about Abraham as part of a series on people from the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. Now Abraham is significant not just in Judaism as the one who made a covenant with God, but in Christianity as the Father of all who come to faith and in Islam as the link in the chain of Prophets between Adam and Muhammad. So how did the story of a nomad living in the near east during the Iron Age come to be so significant? After all there is no historical evidence for the existence of Abraham, so what is it about his story that is so compelling?
Firstly, I think the story of Abraham is that key link in those stories of origin we so like to tell. As the writer of the Hebrews said, Abraham had faith in God, and it was by faith he obeyed God. Here was an upright man of faith, who lived faithfully – despite his personal circumstances, who was prepared to risk it all. It was with Abraham that God made a promise to build a people, to become the Father of many nations. And on this Father’s Day, it’s good to remember his story.
Abraham was a nomad, living in the desert in Haran. You can find the beginning of his story in Genesis chapter 12. Following a long genealogy, it begins with God’s call a promise to Abraham and all who come after him:
“The Lord had said to Abram [his original name], “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
God takes him on a journey – and despite the fact he is 75, he agrees and sets off. Now of course the story doesn’t tell us anything about how he came to this decision, whether he prayed it through, talked to his wife or anything else. But regardless of how he discerned this was God, he decided to be obedient – to trust his instinct that this was the call of God and to go, not knowing where or how long for. I think that’s pretty brave. It was whilst he travelled, when he came to Canaan that God told him that he would give the land to his offspring, and it is this promise that marked out the ‘promised land’ for the children of Israel.
As the story develops, he travels through hostile places, he deceives a king by pretending his wife is his sister, because he was frightened the king would kill him. Abraham like many biblical heroes is definitely a bit of a flawed character. Yet, he still continues to develop in his relationship with God, building an altar to worship, and once again God promises all the land that he can see for his dependents. And this pattern repeats itself because once again the promise that he will be made into a great nation is built on when God makes his covenant with Abraham.
God promises Abraham that he will be ‘very great’ but Abraham just doesn’t understand. He and his wife had been unable to have children. Far from an encouragement, the promise that he would become a great nation begins to sound hollow and Abraham’s disappointment spills out of him: what will God give when a slave is due to become his heir? So, God takes him outside and shows him the starts of the sky and promises his descendants would be as numerous as them, and Abraham believes God. But, then in a very human way he doesn’t have the patience to wait and see what happens. Instead, he takes things into his own hands and sleeps with a slave girl. Eventually she and her young baby, Ishmael, are driven out of the house by Abraham’s wife Sarah and sadly there is no indication that Abraham tried to intervene.
Once more Abrahams failings are clear and once more God promises him descendants and as a reminder of this covenant between them God instructs that every male should be circumcised, something that is part of Jewish life to this day, as a reminder of God’s covenantal promise to Abraham. After a meeting with three mysterious strangers a son is promised to Abraham and Sarah and in time Sarah gives birth to Issac in her old age. You might remember later the strange story where later Abraham is asked to sacrifice Issac, only being reprieved at the last moment and, in the fullness of time Issac goes on to succeed Abraham.
So, what can we learn from Abraham? From the repeated pattern of God’s promise of blessing and Abrahams failing, and God’s promise of blessing once more.
Well, firstly God can use anyone, however flawed they may be – even if they don’t believe, try to engineer their own answers to prayer, fail to stand up for others or think they are past it. Abraham, one of the great heroes of 3 major faiths did all these things and more, yet when things were tough, he believed God and God blessed him.
Secondly, God is a God of promises and God keeps those promises, even if they don’t happen as quickly as we would like.
Thirdly, God made a covenant with Abraham, and with his descendants – all who believe. That Promise that he would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations has always been taken by Christians to include us, wherever we are from. In this way we too become part of that great Covenant between God and people, Abraham’s God becomes our God.
So how can we respond? Well I suggest several things;
Is there something you are persevering for in prayer? Continue and don’t loose hope.
Are we tempted to discount ourselves? Why? Remember God used flawed humans just like us, just like Abraham.
Do you feel disheartened and disappointed? It’s ok to take that to God, to be honest with God.
Take some time to go back over the story of Abraham in Genesis. What might God be saying to you through this? What are the blessings that Abraham was promised? How might you be being blessed by God?
Abraham was blessed that he might be a blessing. How do we take the blessings we have and use them to be a blessing to others for God? What might that look like for you?
Abraham is distant from us in time and culture, yet he was human just as we are, he had faith, he made mistakes, he walked with God, trusted and believed God, without being afraid to question him either. Abraham was real with God, by the grace of God, may we be real with God as well.
In peace, let us pray to Jesus our Lord,
who ever lives to make intercession for us.
Saviour of the world,
be present in all places of suffering, violence and pain,
and bring hope even in the darkest night.
Inspire us to continue your work of reconciliation today.
Lord of the Church,
empower by your Spirit all Christian people,
and the work of your Church in every land.
Give us grace to proclaim the gospel joyfully in word and deed
Shepherd and Guardian of our souls,
guide and enable all who lead and serve this community
and those on whom we depend for our daily needs.
Grant that we may seek the peace and welfare of this place.
stretch out your hand to bring comfort, wholeness and peace
to all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.
Fill us with compassion, that we may be channels of your healing love.
Conqueror of death,
remember for good those whom we love but see no longer.
Help us to live this day in the sure and certain hope of your eternal victory.
Let us commend ourselves, and all for whom we pray,
to the mercy and protection of God.