Genesis 17 - Reflection

‘I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers […] every male among you shall be circumcised. ’ Genesis 17:2,10

Brothers and sisters, growing up I was taken to local chapel by my parents, and though I eventual got a paper round so I didn’t need to go one thing that has stuck with me are some of the old hymns which they loved singing. One favourite was the great Victorian hymn ‘Trust and Obey’. It goes like this: ‘Trust and obey, For there’s no other way; To be happy in Jesus, But to trust and obey.’ This little verse neatly sums up our part in the Christian Faith. All we have to do is ‘Trust and Obey’. As we come to one of the most important chapters in the whole of the Old Testament —if not the whole Bible— we find that this is exactly how God has always worked. Whether it is an old man in an ancient desert, or a young lady in modern-day Chorley, God has only ever required His people to trust and obey. Well let’s dive in to this latest chapter in our study through Genesis.

Do you remember back to Genesis 12…God calls an old man out of retirement and tells Abram to follow Him out into the desert… and for the next twenty-four years, Abram and Sarai follow God. Oh, they have their ups and their downs, as we’ve seen, but remarkably throughout it all God sticks with them. And now, remarkably, twenty-four years after that first call, Abram and Sarai are still, just about tagging along, when God in effect gets down and proposes to them. When a man and a woman get married in church the priest outlines the promises and they respond ‘I will’. Something similar happens in God’s covenant with Abram. Listen to these promises made by God to Abram in chapter 17. Verse 7: I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you’. Verse 8: ‘The whole land of Canaan […] I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you…and I will be their God.’ The promises are permanent. The contract is binding. And notice, Abram doesn’t get a choice to the terms. It’s not that Abram can make any deal he likes. No, God gives Abram the terms, and God promises to be faithful to those words. Oh, Abram does get a choice, He can trust or not; but what he can’t do is opt for other terms. This chapter is crucial because it shows how God always works, not just back then, but ever since up to and including today. ‘If you want to follow me, Abram’ says God, ’If you want to follow me 21st century person, then this it how it works.’ And if we choose to accept the terms, if we choose to follow God, if we choose to trust Him, then or now, we receive the inheritance promised. I don’t know if you know the Christian kids song, Father Abraham, but it goes like this: ‘Father Abraham had many sons, Many sons had Father Abraham, I am one and so are you, So let's just praise the Lord’. In that song the truth of what is promised in today’s passage is made crystal clear: that Christians are sons and daughters of Abraham. If today you trust and follow God in Jesus, then you get to be a son or daughter of Abraham, because the covenant is accessed how? By faith; by trust. Abraham is the father of many nations, because he’s not just the father  of those he is biologically connected to. Abraham is also the father of every Christian in whatever nation they find themselves in, Pakistan, Korea, France, Iran. Abraham is father of them all, through faith, through trust. And all of this is in response to God’s promises to Abraham, which are also to us. God promises, and we respond by faith. Now, in today’s passage, for the first time, God adds a requirement. Verse 11: ‘[Abraham] You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you’. Trust is the first requirement and after that God asks Abraham to obey. God is saying to Abraham ‘if you trust me then show that trust in obedience’; that is, for Abraham, to get circumcised. Trust comes first, and obedience follows. You might say obedience flows out of trust. You see it’s all contained in that old hymn: ‘Trust and Obey’. Now at this point, if you’re a man, you might be crossing your legs and feeling a bit sheepish. If you’re a woman, you might be smiling to yourself and saying ‘Phew’, or you might be thinking ‘Well hang on a mo, what about me?’ Well in St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he shows how through Jesus, circumcision has become something far more inclusive, Paul says: ‘In [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands […] having been buried with him in baptism’. If you have been baptised, you have effectively been circumcised, man, woman, or child. God’s plan in Abraham has not been abandoned, it is just that in Jesus fulfilling and renewing it, He opens it out to so many more people.

To finish I just want us to notice two dangers which apply to Abraham but also apply just as much to us! First, the danger that we might opt for the sign without having trust. Abraham is told v12: ‘For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.’ The danger here is that those generations  forget to trust. That they are circumcised as babies but don’t trust the One the sign points to. Without faith, without trust, circumcision is meaningless. The same, of course, is true for us. We may have been baptised as a baby but it is meaningless if we do not have faith, we have to trust and obey, for circumcision or baptism on their own don’t count. The second danger is breaking the covenant after we have accepted. God told Abraham in v1: ‘walk before me faithfully and be blameless’.  Blameless; the standard for keeping the covenant is perfection. Well that’s me out! And Abraham too it seems when he laughs at God’s promise in v17; and the disciples of Jesus out too, as they doubt Him many times. In fact, truth be told, none of us are blameless we all fall short. It seems hopeless, but what God asks Abraham to do, points forward to God’s solution. For Jesus not only completes the stipulations of the covenant perfectly —not only is Jesus the only blameless one— but He, like Abraham, seals and perfects the renewal of the covenant in His body and by His blood on the cross. In Jesus we are given a fresh start so that once again —and we pray for evermore— we might trust and obey. Truly the hymn was right: ‘Trust and obey, For there’s no other way, To be happy in Jesus, But to trust and obey’. Amen.(from Fr. Mike).