Sunday, March 1
Second Sunday in Lent
God of Sarah and Abraham, long ago you embraced your people in covenant and promised them your blessing. Strengthen us in faith, that, with your disciples of every age, we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ to generations yet unborn. Amen.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
All Readings For This Sunday
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9
1. What do you think it means to “walk with God”?
2. How do you experience yourself as included in this covenant made between God and Abraham and Sarah?
3. Who else is included in this covenant, perhaps in spite of our expectations or even our wishes?
4. What is a new name for God that may fit better with your own life experience, and the life experience of others in your time and place?
5. What “unbelievable” things has God done in your life? How did you react?
Reflection by Kate Matthws Huey
This wasn’t the first (or the last) time God and Abram had a conversation; in fact, the Book of Genesis is regularly punctuated with the words, “The Lord said to Abram….” It isn’t even the first time that God “made a covenant” with Abram and promised him lots of descendants, as numerous as the stars in the night sky (15:5). Still, it must have been something of a balancing act for Abram. On the one hand, it had to be impressive to be seeing God, and actually hearing God’s voice. Surely, that would never get old, and who among us doesn’t yearn for such clarity? And yet, the things that God was saying to Abram during these visits really tested the limits of a person’s imagination. Not just one child, but a multitude of descendants, for two people past ninety years of age? Could it possibly be true that old Sarah would not just produce one child but would “give rise to nations,” to “kings of people”?
It was one thing to be told to pull up stakes and leave Haran, to set out for a new home and a new future. However, the promise of a baby, at their age, made both Abraham and Sarah laugh. Our reading this week stops just short of Abraham’s response in verse 17: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.” Sarah wasn’t around to hear directly from God about her impending pregnancy (or, for that matter, her name change), but we find out in the next chapter how she reacted when she finally got the news: “Sarah laughed to herself” (18:12).
That’s not all that the carefully chosen verses of the lectionary reading leave out: the rest of this 17th chapter tells us that the gift of “the land” is an important part of the promise, “for a perpetual holding,” and then spends a good amount of time on the sign of this covenant, circumcision. W. Sibley Towner acknowledges that Christians may find these themes “relatively uncongenial”: the promise of the land (which continues to be the source of great controversy today), circumcision (think of the struggle in the early church about its necessity), and finally, “doubt, manifested in laughter.” Great ancestors in the faith don’t doubt or question, right? We certainly don’t want them to fall off their pedestals. How do you experience doubt intertwined with faith?
We remember an earlier covenant, the one between God and Noah, with a rainbow as its sign, a universal covenant that included not just all of humankind but all of creation, the living things that God had made. No more wholesale destruction, God promised, and instead offered the earth and its inhabitants a future once again. But this covenant with Abraham is more focused; it applies to “the nations” that will descend from these two very old ancestors-to-be. (Later, the covenant will narrow even more, at Sinai, to include only Israel.)
How the story was written
It helps us understand what’s happening underneath this story if we think about how it was written. The Book of Genesis, scholars generally agree, brings together the work of several writers who in turn brought together ancient traditions about the origins of the people of God (which sheds light on why some things, and some stories, are repeated). Consider the biblical narrative so far, as it has gone from the vastness of creation, separating light from darkness, to the story of the beginning of all humankind, to this story of Abraham and Sarah. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are called the “Primeval Saga,” the story of the human family in the earliest age. Today we might call these chapters the “prequel” to the story of the people of Israel, whose saga begins with Abraham and Sarah in Chapter 12.
Scholars think that today’s story was probably written by the Priestly Writer, during the time of the exile in Babylon. It makes a world of difference to read the story through this lens. In the sixth century before Christ, the people of Israel were devastated by the destruction of their city and its temple, the center of their life, both political and religious (which were not separate). The leadership, the flower of their society, had been carried off to Babylon, and we couldn’t blame the people of God for wondering just what had happened to the promises God made so long ago. Were they still valid? Did they still “count”?
Yes, the Priestly Writer says, and listen now to the story one more time, about something William Willimon calls “the great originating promise” of the covenant God made so long. Remember that God said that these promises were an “everlasting” covenant with the people, no matter what. “What do a people do,” Willimon asks, “when they are strangers in a strange land, uprooted, aliens? One thing they do is remember,” and remind one another of the promises, and of the faithfulness of the One who made them: “Israel, now persecuted and laid waste by the nations, is destined to be the family above all families, the nation before all nations.” As we consider “the multitude of nations” that will descend from Abraham, it is poignant, as John H. Hayes notes, that the Priestly Writer “and his contemporaries have experienced persecution and destruction at the hand of some of those very nations.”
What is God doing here?
It is, of course, God who is at work in this story. It’s God’s initiative, and God’s plan in motion. God is shaping a family, and commits to be at the heart of that family’s story, to travel with that family when they wander and dwell with them when they reach their home. This covenant and its blessings aren’t just for the sake of Israel, however, because God intends, through Israel, to restore all of humanity. But it starts here, with a man and woman who leave home and all that is familiar, including its security and its gods, to set out in response to the irresistible call of this “God Almighty.” Thus begins a relationship, at times beautiful and at times troubled, between the children of Israel and their one God, whom they trust to be with them always. In fact, Mark Husbands claims that Israel’s monotheistic faith was born from this kind of relationship, not from “philosphical reflection.” We could say then that this faith is a thing of the heart, not simply the head.
Names play an important role in this story, and not just for Sarah and Abraham. The different writers used different names for God throughout the Book of Genesis. In this text, God is El Shaddai, translated here as “God Almighty,” but more accurately, Valerie Bridgeman Davis writes, as “God of the mountains,” or “God with (many) breasts,” which is significant, she says, “given that Sarah’s breasts are dry from never having a child, and she and Abraham are about to be promised prolific progeny.” Undoubtedly there are good church people who would be scandalized to think of God as “The Many-Breasted One.” However, Terence Fretheim suggests that we open ourselves to new names for God “that may be more congruent with the life experiences of people in new times and places.” Think of Hagar, for example, in the chapter before this one, lost out there in the wilderness and feeling forgotten, who dares to name God as “the One who sees me” (16:13).
Not your typical heroes
Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “The Late Bloomer,” makes Abraham and Sarah feel like people we know, and the covenant something that lives in our hearts, too. These two old people are not really typical heroes, and yet they live on and their memory is powerful today, and so is the covenant, “a living thing, as surely as if it had a beating heart and blood flowing in its veins. Its life thrives on its revival, and every time it is uttered the promise is renewed.” But it’s difficult to keep believing the promise, “to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name and see it again in your lover’s eyes….a promise with no power to make it come true….And yet. What better way to live than in the grip of a promise, and a divine one at that?”
We are early in Lent, a long way from Easter, whether the world wants to acknowledge that or not. Barbara Brown Taylor observes that “We do not head straight to Easter from the spa or the shopping mall.” Lent, she reminds us, is a time for reflection on (and perhaps even wrestling with?) our relationship with God: “Upon what does that relationship depend? What do we trust to give us life? What concrete practices allow us to become bodily involved with God?” Taylor’s beautiful book, An Altar in the World, is a fine resource for just such examination, for rich reflection, no, better, for spiritual formation through our Lenten practices. Maybe, if we get in the habit during Lent of practicing, for example, how to “encounter others,” we will find ourselves wanting to continue spiritual practices year-round.
A time for examination, a time for repentance
Lent is a time for repentance, too, for facing the ways we are broken and have broken others and the world. The world may not like the word “sin,” but it is very much marked by it, and so are our own lives. Still, the promises are everlasting, and God is with us, always, calling us to be God’s people. Even that phrase, “God’s people,” has been at times the source of much heartache and, ironically, division. When we hear about the tragic conflicts between and among the descendants of Abraham, we know that we have a long, long way to go toward that dream of God, the blessing that lies out there, in the future. Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection on living in the meantime calls us “to live reverently, deliberately, and fully awake: that is what it means to live in the promise, where the wait itself is as rich as its end.” Yes, we may need to be reminded of those promises from time to time, but they endure, “as real as the million stars overhead” (“The Late Bloomer,” in Gospel Medicine).
This is a family story, and it is poignant that the families descended from Abraham have struggled for centuries with each other, like so many family stories today. Still, the story of Abraham and Sarah can inspire hope in every family, every congregation, no matter what appearances may insist to the contrary. What unseen possibilities, beneath those appearances, can God use to produce marvelous and amazing results, a multitude of blessings for the entire human family? What do families need most today?
The lectionary has included the promise to Sarah, an important part of the story, but has omitted the verses about circumcision: “Any uncircumcised male shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Given the enormously significant issue in the early Christian community of whether or not to require circumcision of Gentile converts, this is an interesting omission from the lectionary. How do you reconcile the claims of grace and the requirements of covenant, which sometimes seem to compete against each other? Abraham and Sarah were told to be “blameless,” that is, completely loyal to God; perhaps that reminds us of Jesus’ own words about being “pure of heart.” Like the words of Micah, so simple and clear, about what the Lord requires (“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”), these requirements of Abraham by God sound simple: “Walk before me, and be blameless.” In what ways is the Stillspeaking God acting and initiating wonderful things, including surprising and seemingly impossible ones, in the life of your church today?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For a preaching version of this commentary (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
For Further Reflection
Blaise Pascal, 17th century
“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”
Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
“God will recruit as necessary from the human cast in order to reorder human history.”
Khalil Gibran, 20th century
“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
Walter Ong, 20th century
“In an oral world, you must think memorable thoughts.”
Augustine, 5th century
“Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, � 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is � 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.