A Conversation about Covenant: A Covenant of Faith


Dr. Jim Somerville


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16


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A Covenant of Faith

First Baptist Richmond, February 25, 2024

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord 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.

I thought today’s sermon was going to be a piece of cake. When I looked at the text a few weeks ago I thought, “Oh, it’s Abraham and Sarah! I know that story. If someone asked me to tell it while we were sitting around the campfire I could do it without even thinking about it. I’ve got this one.” I thought I would simply re-tell that story this morning and then do a little moralizing at the end, as in, “Here are three things we can learn from Abraham and Sarah.” I thought it was going to come together easily, effortlessly, and so I didn’t give it nearly as much thought as I usually do.

But on Friday morning I got into the Sermon-Writing Chair and started pounding it out, and that’s when I realized that I might have a problem. Because what I was writing looked almost exactly like something I had written before. And when I did a quick search to see when I had last preached on Abraham and Sarah I found that it was on March 5, 2023, less than a year ago. And when I dug a little deeper I found that I had preached this same text from Genesis 17 back in 2021. When I compared what I had written to those other sermons it looked almost identical and I thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t resort to an annual recital of the story of Sarah and Abraham! I need something new, something different. I mean, that’s what people are paying for, right? Novelty!”

So, I slept on it—hard—on Friday night, and when I woke up on Saturday morning I had some ideas. I thought that since we are having a conversation about covenant—which is, as you may recall, not only a promise but a sacred promise—I thought I might work through the story of Abraham and Sarah by focusing on those places in the text where God comes to them making promises, and that begins as early at Genesis, chapter 12. In the rough draft I wrote on Friday Abraham had walked out to the edge of his father’s farm, stepped up onto the bottom rail of the fence, and was looking out toward the horizon when he heard God say:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

And for whatever reason, that was the best news Abram could possibly hear. Something inside him jumped for joy and the very next day he started packing his belongings, loading up the wagon, gathering his flocks and herds, his manservants and maidservants, his wife and his nephew, and heading out toward the land that God would show him. I think it was the promise of a family more than anything else that did it, because as we learn in Genesis 11, Sarah was barren. She hadn’t been able to have any children. And so Abram cracked his whip and headed out toward the land of Canaan thinking of the property he would own and the babies he would bounce on his knee.

Only when he gets there he finds the land is already occupied (Gen. 12:6). He asks God about it and God says, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7), which may explain the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the

Palestinians. The present day offspring of Abram insist that “God gave us this land” while the descendants of the ancient Canaanites say, “We were here first.” Abram does his best to live among them peaceably, and when there’s a famine in the land he goes down to Egypt for a while. But when they come back to Canaan Abram gives his nephew Lot first dibs on the land he would like to occupy. Lot picks the fertile land along the banks of the Jordan River, leaving Abram with everything else. This is the second time that God comes to Abram making promises, at the end of chapter 13, and this is what he says:

Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you (Gen. 13:14b-18).

And I’m sure Abram was happy to hear it, but he might not have been as overjoyed as he was before. He and Sarai had been on this adventure for months now and they still had nothing to show for it: only the promises of God. But Abram decided to stand on those promises. He pitched his tent at Hebron, under the oaks of Mamre, and there he built an altar to the Lord. But weeks went by, months, maybe even years with Abram camping on someone else’s land, still homeless and childless. He may have been on the verge of giving up when the Lord came to him the third time, at the beginning of chapter 15, and said:

‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my

heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’ (Gen. 15:1b-5).

And honestly, Abram might have gone either way at that point, but when he looked up at that night sky and saw all those stars up there, twinkling like the eyes of children and grandchildren yet to be born, Abram believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Centuries later the Apostle Paul would find great meaning in that moment. In today’s reading from Romans 4 he reminds the Gentiles that, just like them, Abram had never been circumcised, and, just like them, he had never kept the Law of Moses. It hadn’t even been given yet! But Abram believed God; he trusted his promises; and God reckoned his faith to him as righteousness, meaning simply that Abram’s faith—and faith alone—was enough to make him right with God. Years later Martin Luther, the great reformer, would insist that people didn’t need to buy indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church to save them from hell, and that the pope didn’t have the power to determine who was in and who was out. Luther would insist that it was faith and faith alone that made us right with God, as Paul had affirmed and Abram had learned by looking up at the night sky and trusting God, who reckoned it to him as righteousness.

That was a good night. Abram was full of faith. But years went by, more than before, and still Sarai hadn’t had a baby. In desperation she suggested that Abram sleep with Hagar, her Egyptian slave girl, and have a baby by her, and for whatever reason Abram agreed. Hagar conceived and gave birth to a little boy named Ishmael. And Abram may have decided that through Sarai’s plan God’s

promise had been fulfilled. He had become a father in spite of his circumstances, and maybe now God would make a great nation of Ishmael. If that’s what he was thinking, then this morning’s reading from Genesis 17 serves as a kind of correction:

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; [which means something like, “the ancestor of a multitude of nations”]. ‘As for Sarai 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’ (Gen. 17:1-5, 15-16).

Now, this was the fourth time God had come to Abram telling him that he and Sarai were going to have a baby, and while he had responded at first with joy, and then with determination, and then with faith, this time he responded with laughter. The author of Genesis writes:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year (Gen. 17:17-21).

And what could Abraham do but get up off the ground, brush the dirt from his knees, and go on believing.

In Genesis, chapter 18, we are told that Abraham looked up from the shade of his tent flap and saw three strangers approaching. He leaped up and ran to offer them hospitality (pretty spry for a man of his age). In less time than you would believe he had washed their feet and Sarah had cooked a meal and those three strangers were sitting in the shade enjoying it. One of them (who turned out to be the Lord) said, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” And Abraham said, “She’s there in the tent.” And the Lord said:

‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. But the Lord said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh’ (Genesis 18:10-15).

If you have been keeping count, this is the fifth time the Lord has promised Abraham and Sarah that they are going to have a baby, and on the basis of that alone you could decide that God is like a senile old grandfather, who says to his two-year-old grandson, “Someday, I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” And then, when his grandson turns ten, “Someday I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” And then, when the boy is in his twenties, “Someday I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” And then, when he turns fifty, “Someday I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” That is, you

could decide that God is a God who makes promises but never keeps them, until you get to Genesis 21 and read this: “The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him” (Genesis 21:1-2).

And that is a straight-up miracle.

The alternative to hearing this story and deciding that God is like a senile old grandfather is to hear this story and decide that God is a god who keeps coming to his people, and keeps reminding them of his promises, because he doesn’t want them to forget. Think about it: if you were inventing a religion, wouldn’t you invent one in which people come to god asking him for favors? Isn’t that the way most primitive religions work? Isn’t that how it was for Abraham’s neighbors, the Canaanites, who begged Ba’al, the storm god, to send them rain so their crops would grow? Instead, Abraham’s God comes to him, saying, “One of these days you’re going to be holding a baby in your arms—your own son—who will be the child of the promise I made to you all those years ago,” and all Abraham has to do is believe it, and keep on believing it, no matter how long it takes and no matter how ludicrous it seems. “Do you see all those stars in the sky?” God asked. “One of these days, your descendants will be as numerous as those.” And even though it seemed incredible Abraham believed it, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Imagine what he might do for you.

—Jim Somerville © 2024