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Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Great Grace (Genesis 17.1-7,15-19)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 18, 2011
Some Music Used
Prelude : "The First Nowell" - Linda Jenkins, organ; Cathy Youngblood, piano (Anna Laura Page)
Advent Candle Hymn: "We Light the Advent Candle" (Grindal)
Hymn of Praise: "Prepare the Way" (Evans & Nuzum)
  The Word in Music: "Joy to the world" - Acapella Choir (Cash, Norman, Levi; arr. Youngblood)

Offering of Music: "Carol of the Bells" - Walker Austell, piano (Leontovych)
Hymn of Sending: "The First Noel" (THE FIRST NOEL)
Postlude: "Fling Wide the Door!" (Pepping)

A Great Grace
Text: Genesis 17:1-7,15-19

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Years had passed… long years. God had made a promise long ago and there had even seemed to be a few reminders and answered prayers along the way, but in many ways, they were still waiting… waiting on God.

The people living in the time of Mary and Joseph had been waiting for generations. It was easy to lose hold of the promise day in and day out. It was also easy for the story to change – from the thing, the One, who had been promised into the thing that they thought they needed. There were ancient promises and prophecies – a Messiah, an Anointed One – but what they really needed was the government off their back.

Really, for those who would stop to think about it, their waiting – their story – was not that different from a much older story. 

“Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old” (v. 1)

Abram and Sarai had been waiting for a long time for that promised son. They had seen God’s promises of land and blessing fulfilled – Abram was rich and respected and prospering, but no son with Sarai. We heard last week about his back-up plan of passing his inheritance to Eliezar, a relative, but God promised him a biological son. Since then we find that he has had a son with Sarai’s servant, Hagar. That too, was a kind of trying to make his own destiny. And God would protect and bless Hagar and Ishmael, but he was not the son God intended for Abram and Sarai.

So in many ways, the cycle repeats. Abram has had to wait to see God’s promise fulfilled and has made his own back-up plan. After all, God had told Abram (in last week’s text) that the son would “come forth from your own body” (15:4) And it was accepted practice in those days for a servant to bear a child if the wife was infertile. At Sarai’s request (16:2), and then eighty-six years old (16:16), Abram had a child with Hagar, and named him Ishmael. Now at ninety-nine years old, we can see how Abram must have concluded that Ishmael would be the son who would inherit the promise. Abram made that leap that any of us have probably made – “Well, this must be what God meant!” But this was not yet the child God had promised. 

Reminders and Renewal of the Covenant (vv. 2, 19)

In last week’s text, God spoke to Abram in a vision to remind him of the covenant promises. It has been many years, but God does not leave His people without a witness to His will and purpose. In Abram’s case, God not only sent messengers like Melchizedek and visions, but in today’s text appeared as when He first spoke to Abram. Note that, as unusual as this direct communication was, it’s not like God spoke with Abram every couple of days or even years. This is only the second time God has “appeared” and spoken directly to Abram… it’s been twenty-four years since that first time (12:4).

So God speaks to re-affirm and renew the covenant: 

I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.
I will establish my covenant between me and you
And I will multiply you exceedingly. (vv. 1-2)

In the presence of God Almighty, Abram falls to his face as God continues: 

As for me, behold, my covenant is with you
And you will be the father of a multitude of nations.
No longer shall your name be called Abram
But your name shall be Abraham
For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. (vv. 4-5)

Nothing has changed from the original covenant promises of land, descendants, and blessing; but God nonetheless seems to “up the ante” here – re-asserting in the face of Sarai’s barrenness and Abram’s old age that he will not just have a child, not just be the father of a multitude, but be the father of a multitude of nations! God changes his name – a powerful symbol in any culture, but especially then – from Abram, which means “exalted Father,” to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.”

God is saying that not only will He keep the promise about children and descendants, but He will do so far beyond anything Abraham, could have envisioned or imagined. That’s hard to pull off after saying the descendants would number as sand or stars, but indeed God has expanded the promise even further!

God goes on to elaborate that nations and kings will come forth from Abraham. He also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, which means princess, perhaps alluding to the nations and royalty that will come from them. She was part of the plan! And as He did in response to the “Eliezar Plan,” God specifically indicates that the son will come from Sarah: “I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her… I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (v. 16)

And all of this is in the context of renewing the covenant, not only with Abraham and now Sarah, but also with the yet unborn child and their descendants that would follow. Listen to God’s words in verse 7: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.”

God has not forgotten them, and years after that original covenant promise, now promises even greater things for Abraham and his family. 

Laughing at God (v. 17)

What would your response be? What would you say or do if God had spoken to you some twenty-five years ago and, despite a few significant answered prayers and reminders along the way, you were still waiting on God to act?

Would you doubt? Would you have lost faith? Would you have made a few back-up contingency plans, as Abraham did?

And what about this new “Word from the Lord” – sure, God was very present and real; Abraham fell on his face in God’s presence. But now an even more outrageous promise?

Abraham laughed.

And I don’t read that as a complimentary, joyful laugh of faith and welcome, but one of complete disbelief. I read it as coming from one who had known the blessing of God and thought he had figured out God’s plan – a plan that looked like having a child with his wife’s servant and moving faithfully ahead. I can even admire him for that plan and for making the best of his situation.

But God was not done with him. Do you ever wish God was done with you? Hmm… that’s a hard one to answer well.

And God gave Abraham and Sarah a name for the baby, even as He would to Mary and Joseph hundreds of years later. “You shall call his name Isaac.” Do you know what it means? Isaac means ‘laughter.’ No, Abraham and Sarah would never forget this conversation and God’s outrageous promise. 

Great Promises

God’s final words here in our text remind me of the Gospel Christmas story. “Your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name… and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant…”

Listen to Luke 1:30-33, to the overlapping promises and message to Mary from the angel-messenger, Gabriel: 

Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.

Next Sunday we will hear the story of two births – Isaac/Laughter and Jesus/Rescuer. Abraham, Sarah, Mary, and Joseph were trusting and struggling with God-sized promises… but then, the one making the promises was the Most High God.

I think it is helpful to hear the story of Abraham and Sarah at Christmas-time because it helps us hear the story of Mary and Joseph with fresh ears. I hope it also helps you consider your own stories with fresh ears.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, Mary, and Joseph, and the babies they would have, is a significant part of the story of the Bible, of God drawing near, pursuing the human race – pursuing YOU – in love. God’s promises and actions are God-sized, requiring faith and sometimes generating doubt. The testimony of Scripture, of multitudes who have trusted in God and seen answered prayer and covenant promises fulfilled, is that God is faithful and worthy not only of trust, but worship, love, and service.

God can handle your questions, your doubt, and even your laughter; and God presses in all the same to remind, renew, invite, and pursue. What will you do with that? What will you do with God’s extravagant love for you – not just people in general, but you specifically?

I invite you to dig in, listen carefully, trust hopefully, and believe anew this Christmas season. Amen.

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