12 Jul Promises to Keep: Live Recorded Worship
Promises to Keep
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22
July 12, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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Names are a big deal. Parents-to-be can spend months pouring over baby names, agonizing over exactly what to call the new member of their family once he or she arrives. In some cultures, naming ceremonies are held to officially bestow a name upon the child. In other cultures, weddings can also precipitate a change of names. I have been keenly interested that my daughter and her husband of just three weeks are still trying to decide how they want to handle the naming aspect of their new family unit. They are considering every possibility: Emily taking Arthur’s last name, Arthur taking Emily’s last name, each keeping their birth names, or both using some hybrid of their two surnames. Giving a name or taking a name is not done carelessly or recklessly. Naming is a weighty decision.
As we continue in our study of Genesis, we arrive at chapter 17 where we see three new names given and used. But before we get to that, let’s set the stage for what brings about these name changes. Perhaps the most obvious thing you’ll notice is that we’ve heard this language before. Chapter 17 restates the call of Abram from chapter 12 and the covenant of chapter 15. This is not a new covenant; rather, this should be understood as further information on the covenant God has already bound himself to in relation to the patriarch.
What is different is the passage of time. Abram was 75-years old in chapter 12, when God promised that he would be the father of a great nation, which implied, of course, that Abram would have at least one child through whom descendants would come. God had even explicitly promised land to Abram’s “offspring.”
In chapter 15, Abram and Sarai are a decade older—and still no baby, so they assume, as was the custom when a man died childless, that one of his servants would be his heir. Even with God’s reassurances that “your very own issue shall be your heir,” no child comes, and eventually, they take matters into their own hands. Abram fathers a son, Ishmael, by Sarai’s maid, Hagar.
When chapter 17 begins, Abram is now 99 and Sarai is 89 years old. Ishmael is 13. I don’t envy them having a teenager at those advanced years. Perhaps you’ve heard people say that 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30. Even esteemed organizations like the National Institute on Aging verifies that 90 is the new 80. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of 90-year olds in the United States more than tripled, to nearly 2 million, and I’m sure the 2020 census will show that that number has climbed even higher.
Being 90 doesn’t mean you’re confined to a rocking chair. Morris Wilkerson was still delivering mail at age 91, as he had done for 70 years in Birmingham, Alabama. Gladys Burrill was running marathons at age 92. Charles Futrell finished a triathlon on his 90th birthday while former President George Bush went skydiving on his 90th birthday. George Bernard Shaw wrote the play Farfetched Fables at age 93, Leopold Stokowski signed a six-year recording contract at age 94, and Grandma Moses was still painting at 99.
People can do a lot of things in their 90s, but making babies is not high on the list. Abram and Sarai knew this which is why the whole Ishmael story occurs in the first place. But, finally, here in chapter 17, something appears to be shifting. As God reiterates the covenantal promises to Abram, God gives Abram a new sign that these divine promises are true and trustworthy: God changes his name. The old name, Abram, means “exalted father,” but Abraham means “father of a multitude.” God also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah.
Those two name changes are explicitly made in the text. But, a third name change occurs that we miss in English, and that is the name for God. Beginning with Genesis 1:1, the Bible identifies God by the name Elohim. That name appears more than 2500 times in the Old Testament, and is usually translated into English simply as “God.”
But here in Genesis 17, God is introduced as El Shaddai. This name for God appears far fewer times in scripture, and when it does, it is usually at moments of significant emotion for the people involved, as we see here when God tells Abram he is going to have a son. El Shaddai does not have a precise English equivalent. It is usually translated as Almighty God but scholars agree that that is only a reasonable guess at its meaning. It is possible that it is derived from a Hebrew word that would render its meaning something like “God of the mountains.” But it’s also possible that the original Hebrew is actually conveying something about God’s tender and nurturing nature, the way a mother cares for a child.
Whatever its precise meaning, what is significant for us is that the Bible first mentions this name for God in the context of divine promise keeping. When God comes to Abram as El Shaddai, God comes for a specific purpose—to remind Abram that God keeps God’s promises. God is coming with comfort, but it is comfort with substance—a covenant. Abram and Sarai, now renamed Abraham and Sarah (as reminders of God as a promise-keeper), will give birth to a great nation through a son who is yet to be born to them. That God takes on a new name at the same time God renames Abram and Sarai signals a new beginning together, based on a promise.
This reality of a kept promise is vital to understanding anything at all about God. Without the essence of promise, God is just an impersonal Creator, but not Someone to whom we humans can relate. Kept promises are part of what define God’s character. It’s been said that the Bible is largely a record of humans breaking their promises and God keeping his, and that’s not an inaccurate summary.
The two major divisions of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are essentially another way of saying the Old Promise and the New Promise. From God’s side—and this is critical to understand—they are the same promise. God will be our God and we will be God’s people. The “old” and the “new” refer to how we connect with God’s promises. In the Old Testament it was by rule-keeping and sacrifice. In the New Testament, it is through Jesus Christ.
But the New Testament does not in any way set aside the covenant of the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are the inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham. In Galatians he writes, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs of the promise” (3:29).
One of the gifts of this text in Genesis 17 is that it reminds us that life as we know it is grounded in promises—God’s promises to humanity and our promises to each other. History teaches us that when we don’t keep our promises to one another, cracks develop in the fabric of life. Promises, contracts, and pacts are necessary to make society work. Marriage vows, oaths of office, pledges of support, codes of ethics, parenting promises, product warranties—these types of assurances are crucial to communal life. In big ways and small, we rely on them, and the betrayal we feel when people do not live up to their promises can be shattering.
When the 19th century historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle wrote his three-volume history of the French Revolution, he offered the observation that the revolution failed not because of great errors in the higher echelons of power, but because ordinary people in minor posts of everyday responsibility stopped keeping their promises.
In Genesis 17 Abram responds to the news that he and Sarah are to have a son by falling on his face and laughing. It’s not clear whether this is the laughter of delight or laughter at the ridiculousness of the idea that this could happen to two very old people. After all, common sense says that there is no way babies are born in the geriatric ward.
But what El Shaddai promises is that God is the God who makes a way where there is no way. Isn’t that a word we all need to hear right now? Yes, we know it is true, but it is hard to remember it when every day’s headlines seem worse than the day before. And we need to hear this word both collectively and individually. We need to hear it as the church because in the words of theologian William Willimon, the church needs to remember “God’s relentless determination to make us into a holy people, a light to the nations.” He goes on to say, “For an unfutured, weak, bleak-prospect people, the promises of God are sure to seem laughable,” as they did to Abram. But “our existence, our family of God, our church, our future—everything hinges upon the promises of God and God’s faithfulness in keeping [those] promises.”
When the church contemplates its declining influence in society or its dwindling numbers, or now, the very fact that we are unable to worship in person, it may seem laughable to cling to God’s promise that we are in fact an unshakeable rock upon which God’s kingdom is being built. When we are ridiculed or simply ignored as irrelevant, it may seem ridiculous to continue to proclaim that God’s truth is eternal, speaks directly to our lives today, and is the only solid foundation upon which to base how we live, work, interact and conduct our affairs. In revealing himself as El Shaddai, God is reminding us that God is the God of kept promises and that God makes a way where we can see none.
Certainly in this summer of discontent, when we are facing again the systemic racism in our country, the great chasms that exist in healthcare, education, and economic opportunities between the “haves” and “have nots”, as Covid-19 keeps us simmering in anxiety, uncertainty, and the ever-present unwelcome reminder of how little we actually control, we look around and at every turn we see things that are wrong and there seems to be no way to fix them.
So let me ask you: what is the promise you are needing to hear again this morning? Is it that you are not alone because God is with you? That your mistakes do not define you because in God’s sight, you are loved and worthy? That peace is available to you even in the midst of worry and fear? We don’t have to understand the “how.” Our invitation is to live in to the sure promises of God.
One of the greatest gifts that we as Christians can offer the world is hope, hope that is grounded in remembering that we live and die with promise, just like Abraham did. He saw the son who was promised born, but he didn’t live to see the promised nation that would come through Isaac. And yet, that happened, too. It is God and God’s promise, not some rosy picture of human potential, that allows us to live in hope. Even when we won’t live to see it to fulfillment, we can trust that whatever comes, El Shaddai is making a way for God’s good purposes to be realized.
Thanks be to God. Amen.