God’s Promise of New Life


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

What’s in a name?

Companies will spend millions of dollars in research and product testing to determine what names will get the best reaction and eventually make them the most money.

Now, we don’t do that when we are choosing the names of our children. We may float them by a few people, and more often than not, there is a story behind why we pick the names that we do. Names can connect us to our ancestors. Names can also connect us to events in the lives of our parents. There are many reasons why names are chosen.

When I was born, my parents named me Alex Nathan. I was named after two of my great grandfathers, one on each side of the family. However, their names were Alexander and Nathaniel. My parents were not quite sure if I could handle those big names and thought it may be a lot to write. Once I found this out, I protested and requested that my name be officially changed to reflect the ancestors that I had descended from. So, for my twelfth birthday, I found myself along side my parents in probate court having my name officially changed. My birth certificate now reflects the proper names of my great grandfathers.

To hear one’s name triggers something in your being. To hear one’s name elicits in a person a sense that people care enough to know your name and signifies a relationship.

Our selection from Genesis opens up with Abram and Sarai. Two people that have been attempting to walk faithfully for the majority of their lives. The covenant we hear this morning from God for Abram is a covenant that Abram has been waiting for. It reflects the covenant that God made with him twenty-four years earlier and is reiterated a second time and again for a third time in our reading today. The covenant does not make Abram and Sarai without sin. They have also been human the past twenty-four years. While God chooses to bless them with favor and promises to make their family abundant, they have lied and cheated. They have been impatient in waiting for God to fulfill the promise. In those years since the first covenant, Abram and Sarai go into Egypt and attempt to pass Sarai off as Abram’s sister. Then in their impatience of waiting for God to act, Abram has a son, Ishmael, with Sarai’s slave girl, Hagar.

In the repeated promises that come from God, Abram and Sarai begin to wonder what is going to happen. God has yet to reveal to them when the promise will be fulfilled and they feel that they are left to their own devices. As they get older and older they begin to believe that Sarai will never conceive children and if she doesn’t, how is God’s promise going to come true. They must be able to fix it themselves and explore other options.

We are guilty of the same thing as Abram and Sarai. We become impatient waiting for God and want to make things happen along our own time frames. We force things to happen with little to nothing to show for it and we abruptly bring things to a close when we don’t think God is in our efforts.

When we pray and feel as though our prayers are not heard or neglected to be answered, we get angry at God. We get impatient in waiting for an answer and at times ignore the answer because that is not the answer that we wanted. We fail to learn from these mistakes and continue to make them over and over again. We fail to see our mistakes, or choose to ignore them. In the brokenness of our world, sin is abundant, and we are not exempt from it.

It is during the season of Lent that we are called to come face to face with our own sin. We are called to repent, or turn back to God, and be reminded of the baptismal waters and the promises made in the water.

God’s promise did not vanish over the twenty-four years from the first time that Abram received it to receiving it in our lesson today. It is not until Abram is 99 and Sarai is 90 that the covenant that God has promised in the birth of Isaac will begin to be realized. Imagine having a baby when you are in your early nineties. In reality, Abram and Sarah have an entire lifetime ahead of them. We learn in scripture that Abram lives until he is 175 and Sarai dies when she is 127.

They are called to leave behind those things that they clung to and the way that they viewed themselves. They are not barren, used up, and past the point of change as many would have thought. Instead in the promise that God reveals to them, they can see themselves as full of newness and new life. They are full of potential that will also be carried down to the newborn, Isaac.

What makes the covenant we hear today different from the two previous ones that are made with Abram, is that they are marked with signs. The first is the renaming. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. The names reflect the covenant that God has chosen to make with them. Abraham means the father of a multitude, or the father of nations. God even receives a new name in our lesson, El Shaddai, or God Almighty! While our lesson leaves it out, another sign pointing toward the covenant is the institution of circumcision being a sign of the covenant of God’s people at the time of Abraham. Later, Peter and Paul will get in an argument over the necessity of this and we realize that grace is enough.

It is in this fulfillment of the covenant that Abraham is lifted up as the father of three faithful peoples; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The promise that God has fulfilled in this covenant is one that will carry on to this very day and encourages us in our inter-faith dialogues.  It is a promise that extends to all of God’s people.

The covenant speaks to us today in the waters of baptism. In the waters we are washed clean and marked and sealed with the cross of Christ forever. Being marked and sealed does not exclude us from sin and does not promise an easy life. It is a promise of new life and a promise that no matter where we go or where ever we end up, God is present with us. We receive new identities in our baptism, just as Abraham and Sarah received in the covenant. While we do not usually practice it, some churches have the practice of picking a biblical name for those being baptized or confirmed. This is an outward sign, for our time, of the covenant that is made with Abraham.

We can begin to understand Israel’s life with God through the covenant that God makes with the people. It is an event that continues to be part of our faith today. Through it, we too are drawn into the divine promise of forgiveness that God makes readily available to Abraham and Sarah. In that forgiveness, we have a sense of belonging that is fulfilled and a freedom that we cannot find anywhere else. It is in the covenant that we are reconciled to the one true God. A God that is willing to go to the cross to show an endless love that is poured out for us in Christ’s blood. A God that promises new life through the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.

Let us pray. God, you continue to be faithful to Abraham and Sarah through the years where at times they have questioned if you will answer your promise. May your faithfulness be a continuous sign of hope for us in this world of uncertainty. May we be patient as we wait in the silence of this Lenten season and be open to the Holy Spirit calling us in new directions. Amen.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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