Often, when people have a profound encounter with God, they become undone. They go down for the count, passed out on the ground, without any strength to help themselves. And quite frankly, I don’t think that becoming completely undone in God’s presence is an option. It’s not something over which we have the power to decide. And of course, this rankles us a bit, because we want, even demand to have the the power to decide how we will react to God. First of all, we want God to behave himself around us, we don’t want, and won’t tolerate any divine outbursts. We require that God be a polite gentleman, never intruding into our lives uninvited, or unexpected. And when we require this of God, God generally complies. The danger, of course, when we require that God bow to us, is that we miss out on having any relationship at all with God. When we become God over God, God pretty much leaves us to our own resources, which, because we are human, are always quite scant and generally quite ineffective. One of the hardest lessons for us to learn is that apart from God, we have no strength at all, and in a glorious and wonderful paradox, if God determines to show up in our lives unannounced, we also will have no strength at all to resist it.
And this is exactly the state in which we meet our old friend Abram this morning. He’s down. Down on his face, cowering in the presence of God Almighty. The power and the presence of God has so overwhelmed Abram that he is completely undone. But it is in this state of absolute helplessness that Abram will receive the covenant that God is making with him. Good news about the creation of a new community of faith is about to be revealed, and Abram needs to know that it is God who is creating this new community of faith. The sad bit here is that Abram has already tried to create this community by his own strength, and with his own resources. And while it has not been a complete and utter disaster, Abram’s own attempts to create a community certainly qualify as a failure. And so now it must become clear to Abram that it is God, and God alone who is creating this new community of faith, and so Abram needs to find himself in a position of complete and total helplessness. And on his face, and down for the count is a very good place to begin. When we are able to embrace our own helplessness, it becomes possible for us to begin to leave room for God to do his work through us (more on that next Sunday, by the way). Too often, like Abram, we get it just backwards. We start with our own strength, and expect God to come along for the ride, as if we were the ones in charge of this whole thing.
Well, like Noah, Abram is about to have a covenant thrust upon him. And as in Noah’s experience, God is the one who is initiating this covenant, and it is God who is stipulating the conditions of this covenant. It is instructive to me that during this whole encounter with God, as the stipulations of the covenant are laid out, that Abram does not speak a word. This may be due to the fact that he’s flat on his face while God is talking, but I’d rather think that Abram understands that this is a profound experience that he is having with God and that it is best to remain silent and listen. It is only after all of the stipulations of the covenant have been laid out that Abram speaks, but he does so rather foolishly, and receives a reprimand from God. If we ever get to the point of hammering out a new covenant for ourselves here at Thomaston Baptist Church, acknowledging our status as one of God’s local communities of faith, a key component of that process will be first of all embracing our own utter and complete weakness in the presence of Almighty God, and then listening for what God has to say. Any other attempts will result in failure.
So the covenant that God is making with Abram has some similarities to the covenant that God made with Noah. Both men receive the promise of many descendants. Both men receive the promise that God will be God to their descendants, that God will be God to a people yet unborn, and that his covenant promises extend far, far into the future. And to me, this is exceedingly comforting. As much as I might wish, I have no control over my descendants. I may have some influence, but I certainly have no control. And yet God says, I will be there for all who follow you in this world. I will be available to enter into covenant with them. If they choose me, I too, will be their God.
And, much to what should be our delight, the covenant that God makes with Abram is not just a guy thing. Guys figure pretty prominently in the covenant, as we’ll see in just a bit, but this covenant is made on equal terms with Sarai, Abram’s wife. She receives the same promises that Abram receives. Sarai will give rise to many nations, and kings of peoples shall come from her. One of the more remarkable kings to emerge from Sarah’s womb was Jesus Christ himself.
And yes, her name is now Sarah, and Abram has become Abraham. With the new covenant comes a new name for each of them. And with the new name comes a new beginning, a new chapter in their relationship with God and with each other. At this point in their lives, Abraham’s and Sarah’s marriage could use a little mending. Let’s just say that it has been stressed, and that it could certainly benefit from a new beginning. New names always signify a new beginning in the Scriptures. I’ve often wondered if the writer of the hymn, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory” fully understood the profound impact of his words*. If so, it is a very remarkable hymn, if only for its great and subtle truth.
It turns out that there is also to be a sign with the covenant what God makes with Abraham. The sign of the covenant that God made with Noah, was God’s bow, or rainbow. Intended more as a reminder to us than to God, the bow or rainbow was a spectacular sign, clearly visible to all who would look and be reminded of God’s faithfulness. But it was rare. Not so rare that its significance would be lost, but rare enough so that it would be appreciated and understood when seen.
The sign of the covenant that God makes with Abraham is a little different. For starters, circumcision is not quite as visible as the rainbow, but like the rainbow it is unmistakable and undeniable, and permanent. It is a sign of the covenant. And it is the work of God, albeit through the hands of Abraham. And like the rainbow, it is a reminder of the covenant. But unlike the rainbow, it is not a rare reminder at all. It is quite frequent. In my case, because of coffee, I am reminded of the covenant several times a day, and unfortunately, because of age, I am also reminded of it not a few times during the night. But there is much more to it than that. Because Sarah is specifically included in this covenant as a co-participant, Abraham’s circumcision is also a visible, and frequent reminder to her and to the promises that God has made to her. It is the sign of a new beginning in their relationship, and the promise of fulfillment. The Abrahamic covenant is made with women as well as with men. There is no hint of masculine superiority in the Abrahamic covenant. God enters into relationship with both males and females equally.
And, in the Abrahamic covenant, there is obviously more of a personal commitment when it comes to participating in the covenant. There’s a bit of sacrifice involved, and that’s intentional. It paves the way for the new covenant that Jesus expressed in these words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The call to personal commitment grows exponentially as each new covenant is instituted. But, as each new covenant is instituted, the promises of God also increase exponentially.
And for the first time, there is an opt-out clause in this covenant. In creating the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God has established a religious community of faith. While many nations and many kings will arise from Abraham’s loins and Sarah’s womb, one special community of faith will be established. And God will never, ever depart from this community. God will be faithful to it forever. The Abrahamic covenant is an everlasting covenant. God will always stay. We, however, may not always stay. We may depart from the covenant. We are able to refuse circumcision whether it is circumcision of the foreskin or circumcision of the heart. However, we depart at our own risk. God says, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
The play on words is intentional; the message is, be cut off or be cut off. But who does the cutting? There’s no judicial procedure laid out here to accomplish the cutting. There’s no group process, or group vote, or any action by a jury that accomplishes the cutting. God doesn’t even imply that he’ll be the one to do it. So who does the cutting? It is the one who departs. The one who departs cuts him or herself off from the covenant community. And this seems perfectly reasonable to me. If we choose to exclude ourselves from the communityof faith, then it turns out, quite simply, that we are excluded from the community of faith. We’re cut off, and we are the ones who did the cutting. But if we do that cutting, we cannot expect to experience any of the covenant blessings, or any of the covenant promises or protections that are part of being in relationship with God and with the community of God. And without active and committed participation in the covenant, we will die. We will die spiritually, and eventually we will die physically without any hope at all. That’s frightening. God intends for us to be part of the covenant community that he has established. But, for the penitent of heart, there is always the possibility of redemption and reconciliation. There is always the possibility of a new circumcision, especially that of the heart.
*Unfortunately the hymn does not appear in any hymnbook that our church has used in the past 100 yrs. It was actually called “A New Name in Glory” and was written by C. Austin Miles. He lived from 1868-1946.