Bible Reading

Genesis 17:1-27

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  • Growing to be more like Jesus
  • Richard & Helen Barwick (Crossroads, Hong Kong)

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Sermon Transcript

Is your life useful to God? Now, I don’t know where exactly you’re at in life – what you do during the week, where you live, what your house is like, what your family is like. I know what it’s like for some of you. You might love your job. You might be fortunate enough to work in an industry that you’re passionate about, or you work with a great team of people. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you feel stuck, trapped in a dull monotonous job. When people say you should just quit and go do something that you love you laugh at them – there are bills to pay, a family to support. Is your life useful to God?

Maybe your world revolves around your family. Maybe your life seems to go from one family drama to the next. Maybe your life seems full of nappies and washing and cooking and cleaning and school drop-offs. Life might just be plain hard for you. Poor health may have snatched away your ability to work. Poor decisions may have locked you into relationships or careers or whatever that don’t seem to do much good. Yet you are still here. You still wake up every morning. Is your life useful to God?

The wonderful message of the Bible is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, then yes. Yes, your life is meaningful – wherever you’re at. Yes, your life is useful to God. We’re going to see that today as God again speaks to Abraham in Genesis 17, so let’s pray as we come to hear God’s word.

Let’s start at verse 1:

Gen. 17:1        When Abram was ninety-nine years old,

That in itself says a lot. Abram is old. The apostle Paul says that by this point “his body was as good as dead.” (Rom 4:19). It means that 13 years have passed since the last chapter. Abram has watched Ishmael learn to roll, to sit up, to crawl, to walk to talk. Ishmael has grown from a baby to a boy to a young man. For 13 years his wife Sarai has remained barren. God had promised that a “a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir” (15:4). It looks like Ishmael is it. We’re nowhere near “offspring as numerous as the stars.”

Abram was ninety-nine years old. That means it’s been 25 years since he left his father’s house. 25 years since God first promised to make him into a great nation. And what does he have to show for it? Sheep. Abram lived as a nomad, moving sheep from one patch of grass to another. One son. A bunch of sheep. A bunch of servants.

But then God speaks.

God had spoken to Abram back in chapter 12, then again in chapter 13 and again in chapter 15. And so far the focus has been on Abram’s descendants and the land they would receive. You could be forgiven for thinking that God’s plans were all about Abram. But they’re not. God hasn’t been making promises to Abram purely for Abram’s benefit.

Remember what God promised in Gen 12:3?

3          I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

God’s been speaking to Abram because the world was living under God’s curse. God’s been making promises to Abram because humans had turned away from obeying God, and left a trail of destruction behind them. The world is falling apart, and God is going to fix it. “All peoples on earth, all the nations, will be blessed.”

And now, in the face of an aging hero, his barren wife and an illegitimate son, God speaks again. Most of this chapter is taken up by God’s speeches to Abram. You might have noticed that it seems very formal and repetitive. Whole sentences come up again and again. There’s semi-legal language, like “As for me…as for you…as for Sarai…as for Ishmael. This isn’t a casual yarn over the fence.

No, in this chapter, God is reaffirming and clarifying Abram’s role in his plans for creation. This is a conversation of cosmic proportions. God makes promises to Abram, gives Abram and his descendants a sign to help them remember, and along the way he answers questions raised by the passing of the last 25 years: Sarah’s barrenness and the fate of Ishmael.

Let’s look at verses 1-2:

Gen. 17:1        When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Right off the bat, God wants Abram to note his power and might – I am God Almighty – God is the God who makes things happen. Then God gives Abram a command. We’ll get to it shortly, but notice what’s next.

Be blameless, 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.

In some way, God’s covenant with Abram will be dependent on Abram’s obedience.  In some way, the promises of this chapter are conditional on how Abram lives. What Abram does matters.

Here’s the covenant promise God confirms here in verses 3-8: Abram will be the way God blesses the nations. Abram and his descendants will have a special role in God’s plan to save the world.

We see this in three ways: First, Abram will be the spiritual father of many nations:

God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.

Previously, God had promised to make him into a great nation, and had promised him countless descendants. Now God promises he will be “the father of many nations.” Now what does this mean?

It could be saying that many nations will trace their ancestry back to Abram. For example you have Israel, Ishmael, the Edomites from his grandson Esau, the Midianites through his concubine Keturah.

But I don’t think that’s what God means. Later on, down in verse 16 this promise of the nations is associated with Sarai: “She will be the mother of nations.” If Genesis 17 is only about the nations that come from Abram and Sarah, then there’s not many to speak of – Israel and Edom.

I think it’s more likely that God is saying that Abram will be the spiritual father of many nations. He will be their benefactor, their provider, their protector – the one who would bless them. In the Bible, the word father was not just used of literal parents. Prophets, kings, priests and governors are described as fathers in various places. In fact, the word is used later in Genesis 45:8, where it says that Joseph was a father to Pharaoh. In the story God used Joseph to protect, provide for and bless Pharaoh. Being the father of many nations means that Abram will be a channel of God’s blessing to the world.

The second way we see Abram’s special role is that he will fulfill God’s commands to be fruitful and multiply.

The very first command God gave to humans was in Gen 1:28:

Gen. 1:28   God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.

The same command is given again to Noah when creation was virtually restarted after the flood. This is what we were made to do. So look again at verse 2:

“[I] will greatly increase your numbers.”

And verse 6:

“I will make you very fruitful.”

Abram will be the one to keep God’s first command – but there’s a key difference. God will empower Abram to do it: God says “I will increase your numbers…I will make you fruitful.”

Here’s the third way we see Abram’s special role: Abram and his descendants will enjoy the ultimate blessing, the blessing that was tragically lost at the fall: They will enjoy a personal and eternal relationship with God. Verse 7:

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. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

I will be their God. Forever. God promises that Abram and his descendants will have a key role in his plan to save the world.

And to mark the occasion God changes Abram’s name. He goes from Abram “exalted father” to Abraham “father of many.” Some parents will choose a name for their kids based on its meaning. Often the name will express a hope or desire the parent has for their child.

Some friends of mine at college chose to name their son Levi Thomas. Levi and Thomas were two of Jesus’ disciples. Levi was a tax collector. When he met Jesus he left everything to follow him. When Thomas met the risen Lord Jesus, he fell on his knees and worshipped him saying, “My Lord and my God!” And that’s what my friends wanted for their son – they wanted him to leave everything for Jesus and worship Jesus as his God. But they could only name him in hope. They couldn’t ensure it happened. Parents can only name their children in hope.

But here we have God changing Abram’s name. “This makes the name Abraham…a divinely guaranteed statement about Abraham’s identity and future destiny.”

But there’s a part Abraham has to play. Let’s look again at verses 1-2:

the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Before Abraham can be a blessing for the nations, he’s got to walk before God and be blameless. So what does that mean? I think that “walk before me faithfully” means that Abraham is to live his life in the presence of God. He’s to live in conscious view of God. He’s to live a life in relationship with God. To live a life knowing that God is God and he is not. He’s to live God’s way.

And blameless means he’s to live a life of moral integrity. It’s not necessarily that he had to be perfect, that he never made mistakes. It’s that he was known as an upright, honourable, trustworthy guy. God’s saying that Abram will bless the nations by walking faithfully before the LORD. Abraham’s godliness was part of God’s plan to save the world. This covenant extended to his offspring as well, so the same thing was required of Israel. If they were to be a blessing to the rest of the world, they needed to live in a way that honoured God.

So God’s made promises of a special role and given Abraham a special responsibility. To lock this unique role and relationship into the minds of Abraham and his descendants, God gives them a sign. Signs can do lots of things, but the purpose of this sign is as a reminder. Earlier in Genesis God gave the rainbow as a sign, as a reminder that he would never again flood the whole earth. The sign confirmed the covenant he made with Noah.

Verse 11 here tells us that the sign for this covenant is circumcision. Verses 9-14 give the what, when and who of the sign , and the consequences of disobedience.

Gen. 17:9        Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 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.

Then verse 11 tells us the what: Literally: “you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”

Verse 12 tells us when:

12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised

Verses 12-13 tell us who: Every male in Abraham’s household. Even if they are not physically descended from Abraham, if they are part of his household, part of his family-community, they are part of the covenant and so need the covenant sign.

Lastly, verse 14 tells us the consequences:

14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

By refusing to be circumcised, a person is choosing to be separate from the covenant community.

What we’re not really told is why circumcision was chosen to be the sign.

It was certainly painful. It was costly, it was permanent. It is a very personal, private sign. It’s not a sign to be shown to people in general. You can get arrested for that sort of thing.

It was not unique to Israel. We know it was practised by the Egyptians, the Edomites, the Ammonites and the Moabite. It was probably not practised in Abraham’s homeland of Mesopotamia. That said, they way Israel did circumcision was different.

In other cultures, circumcision was a rite of passage, marking the point where a boy became a man, or it was preparation for marriage. In Israel circumcision happened at 8 days old. It was the mark of being part of the covenant family.

In Egypt, it was only the priests or priest-kings who were circumcised. In Israel it was for every male. I reckon that means circumcision points to a priestly role for the whole people group, for the whole nation. Circumcision was meant to remind the people of their unique relationship with God and their unique responsibility to walk before him.

What God does here is give Abraham and his family a permanent, physical, private reminder of their dedication to him, their special place in his plans, and their responsibility to live for him.

So that’s the main part of God’s speech to Abraham. In the rest of the speech, God addresses the issues that have really challenged Abraham’s faith in the last 13 years: His barren wife Sarai, and his semi-legitimate son Ishmael. God graciously and surprisingly makes promises to Sarai. She will share in Abraham’s promises. She will be the mother of nations. Kings of people will come from her. And to cap it all off, She will have a son, and he’ll be the one to pass on the covenant blessings. Ishmael is not left out, but he’s also not the focus of God’s plan. Finally, at the end of the chapter we see Abraham’s immediate, exact and personal obedience as he circumcises his household to the letter.

That’s where we’ll leave Abraham for the moment, because we’re going to fast-forward through 2,000 years of Biblical history. Abraham has the promise of God and a permanent sign that his godliness will be part of God’s plan to save the world. The godliness of his descendants, the nation of Israel, will be part of how God brings blessings to the nations.

But over the next 2,000 years, we watch Israel fail to keep the covenant. Time and time again their conduct, the way they live, denies the sign they carry in their body. Towards the end of the nation’s life, God pleads with them through the prophet Jeremiah:

4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.

Although they had the physical sign, their hearts weren’t right with God. They kept turning away from him, they kept sinning against him. Rather than being a source of blessing for the nations, Israel brings God’s curse on themselves.

It’s only when Jesus comes that the promise is completely fulfilled. Jesus is the promised, chosen offspring of Abraham through whom God’s blessing would go to the world. He is the only human to have lived a perfectly blameless, righteous life. And he died to free us from the curse brought by sin.

Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: Gal 3:13-14, 29

Gal. 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Gal. 3:29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Jesus succeeded where Abraham’s descendants failed. Jesus is the way God restores creation.

Jesus is the way God saves the world.

And what that means for us is that when you decide to trust Jesus and follow him, that makes you part of God’s great plan. Just as God involved Abraham and the way he lived in his plan to bless the nations, so too Jesus involves his followers. This is an amazing privilege, and it answers the question we started with.

Is your life useful to God? Yes! If you follow Jesus, then your personal godliness is part of God’s plan to save the world. Let me show you from Jesus’ words.

Come with me to Matthew chapter 5. We’re right at the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He goes on to teach how his followers are to live radically righteous lives. This is what he says in verses 13-16:

Matt. 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14      “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The message here is this: Jesus’ followers are meant to stand out – like salt in a stew, like  Las Vegas at night, like a light in the darkness. You are meant to stand out by the way you live – so that people would be drawn into a relationship with God.

Or listen to John 13:

John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The way Christians love one another is supposed to point people to Jesus. 1 Peter chapters 2-3 are all about the way our lives can make people think twice about Jesus and even win them over to the message about him. If you follow Jesus, then your personal godliness is part of God’s plan to save the world. God will use your life and your relationship with Jesus to draw people into his kingdom.

I want you to look at your life. And when you look at your life, I want you to think: my job is not to drive forklifts or stack shelves. My part in this world is not to teach this lesson. I haven’t retired and finished my life’s work. My role is not to change this baby’s nappy. My purpose is not to cook these french-fries.

My purpose is to take my place in God’s plan to save the universe through Jesus. My God-given role in life is to draw people to Jesus in what I do and what I say.

I want you to look at each day. And when you look at each day, I want you to think: each day is a new opportunity to live in God-honouring way. Wednesday this week may be the final straw for one of your co-workers. One more patient answer when you could have spoken harshly may be what pushes someone over the line to ask, “Hey, what’s different about you?” One more time when you refuse to join in the rude joke could be what pushes someone over the line. One more kind smile may push someone towards Jesus.

Even when we stuff up and do the wrong thing, the way we humbly admit our mistakes, the way we ask for forgiveness, the way we try to make things right – God will even use those things to show Jesus to people.

So work hard at your godliness. Work hard at saying no to temptations and saying yes to God’s way. And make sure you’re ready when the questions come. You might need to do a bit of thinking and planning and training. Peter says in his first letter:

15 In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Is your life useful to God? Yes.

Let’s pray.