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The Bottom Line

A Lenten Message.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

17 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, for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.


15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her and also give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”


Mark 8:31-39

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed and, after three days, rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


If you think that God is so serious all the time, then you haven’t read the story in Genesis 17. God makes the promise of childbearing to a 90-year-old woman who has been barren her entire life. Do you know how I know this is funny? My wife found out she was pregnant with our daughter when she was 40 years old. The doctors told her that it was a “Geriatric Pregnancy.” `


Although this is not the first time Abram has been told he will have a child, Abram laughs when God tells him this saying, “Can a child be born to a man 100 years old?” (Gen 17:17) Although it is funny to think about, Through advancements in modern medicine, older adults are having children. Women in their 50’s, 60’s, and even 70’s have had babies using IVF methods while under special care from a doctor. Famous actor Al Pacino Had a child at 83, and Robert De Niro at 79. Science has shown us first-hand that God definitely has a sense of humor. I would expect that he laughed right along with Abram in verse seventeen. But the laughter in Genesis is surrounded by drama; you see, Genesis is the soap opera for the ages.


In verse 1, God says to Abram, “I am God Almighty.” In Hebrew, it is “Ni El Shaddai.” And God tells Abram to walk with him faithfully and be blameless. To walk before God does not mean to walk in front of God. Instead, it means to walk in the ways of God. That is, act justly, love others, and be humble in all that you do. Abram is instructed not only to act justly but also, as the father of future nations, to teach others to do the same. Because God blesses Abram, Abram is to bless others, and the world will be blessed through him.  Sadly, till this point in Genesis, Abram has failed miserably, like when he pimped out his wife in Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20), and he will continue to do so later when he repeats the same action. (Gen 20:1-3) I want to make the point that Sarah must have been one beautiful human being to be in her nineties and still be considered attractive enough for Abram to offer her to the Pharoah as he did. (But that’s a different sermon).


The 99-year-old Abram already has a son, Ishmael, by Sarai’s slave Hagar. Sarai offered her slave girl to Abram to be used sexually in order to produce an heir (Today, we would call this action human trafficking and rape). Sarai was trying to fulfill God’s promise to give Abram a son. This is a much-overlooked action in this book. Sarai and Abram, by their willingness to participate, try to force a promise of God into effect. How often do we try and force things that will only happen in God’s time? Let’s not point fingers at Abram or Sarai. We often try to force God’s hand into action, don’t we? Whether by forcing our morals onto others or worse, as in the case of what happened to Hagar. When we try to create theology or even warp it to something that isn’t God’s plan, things go wrong, and people get hurt because, ultimately, bad theology kills. The good news of the Gospel is that even after all the mistakes and plain immoral things that happen, God will still fulfill the promise to give Abram a son—not Ishmael through Hagar, but Isaac through Sarah.


Let’s make one thing clear. Although the men in the Bible actively enter the covenant with God, it is through Sarah’s womb that God’s promise is fulfilled. Apropos to this story, the new covenant that Jesus made with his disciples starts with a promise from God to Mary. But unfortunately, both these stories have something else in common. Neither Hagar, Sarai, nor Mary is asked for consent; instead, they are expected to submit because the women of Genesis and throughout scripture are considered property, with very few exceptions. Their identities are evidenced and defined by their sexual relationships with men: either married women, virgin daughters, barren wives, widows, concubines, or sex slaves. We see their status codified in the 10 Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” This command is tacked on at the end just before coveting your neighbor’s house, slave, ox, or donkey.” Ladies, I honestly don’t know why you have let humanity go on this long. Your collective faith in God must be strong.


Because of His promise, God will change both Sarai and Abram’s names. Sarai to Sarah, meaning princess (fitting to the mother of Kings), and Abram to Abraham (meaning great father, or father of multitudes). Ultimately, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and the promise is fulfilled through her. God also makes a nation of Ishmael, but before that, Sarah makes a mess of the situation with the brothers, and thus, we have an origin story of the history of strife between the two people, Hagar (Muslims) and Sarah (Jews). Genesis is a soap opera for the ages.


God also tells Abraham to circumcise all males in his household as a sign of the covenant God made with him. However, as much as the thought makes every man want to cross his legs, this is not the only circumcision God refers to in scripture. God also calls for inward circumcision. (Deut. 10:16) “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Later, we will see the prophet Jeremiah condemn those who are only circumcised in the flesh (Jer. 9:25).


John the Baptist later remarked to all who claimed salvation simply because they could claim Abraham as their father and that God could raise new children for Abraham from the stones. I can go on about such rants, but I think I have made a point…. Nepotism is not a modern concept. You see, the bottom line of all this drama in Genesis and the subsequent references by the Prophets, John the Baptist, and even Jesus is that humanity is flawed. Even when we try to do good, we mess things up. This is why the characters in Genesis relate to us so well. That’s why Pastors continuously preach discernment through prayer: because we are flawed, and we need the Holy Spirit to help us discern God’s will. (I’m a big fan of that t-shirt that reads, “Ya’ll Need Jesus!”)


One more example of how we mess things up (and it’s easier to see in hindsight): We read in scripture that Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of the world. So, European missionaries started translating German hymns into native African tongues. Maybe because they were too lazy to understand or, more appropriately, too uncaring to understand the native culture, or they assumed that the people of Africa were barbarians because they were not European. Had they taken the time to understand the continent, they may have found out before the late 19th century that Ethiopia has a Christian church as old, if not older than the Roman church. But the Africans were told they must become like the white European Christians before they could be saved.


As we move through Lent, I want us to realize that we don’t always get it right. We make mistakes, the church makes mistakes, and our government makes mistakes. Jesus understood this because even as he was being crucified, he prayed (my translation), “Father, forgive them because they’re dumb.”  When we think too fast, pray too little, and fail to discern God’s will for our lives, we continue to fail. If – and that’s a tall order – We slow down and pray and determine what it is God will have us do, then maybe, just maybe, we will have a chance to do some good. I believe there is a reason the Book of Genesis is so “screwed up” and reflects so well all humanity. It is the same reason, by contrast, that Jesus is represented as so Good and Perfect. You see… Jesus is the God that he is, and we are the humans we are.


Brothers and Sisters, I will never get up, stand behind a pulpit, and say that I have it figured out – no self-respecting minister would. I will also never tell anyone that I expect them to agree with me. I will only ask that my congregation listen, and I will only preach what I find backed up and contextualized in scripture. What I have seen in scripture is that we should walk before God, be blameless (or at least try to be above reproach), do just acts, love each other, and be in service to El Shaddai, God Almighty, who has promised us salvation through Christ. That is the good news of the Gospel, Genesis, and Lent.


In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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