For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 2 – Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Last week our lectionary invited us to consider God’s covenant with Noah, and his promise never to flood the earth again. This week things move on, and Abram is the new partner in God’s purposes and their outworking through history. This time the covenant is a little less one-sided and unconditional: in v.1 Abram is instructed to ‘walk faithfully and be blameless’, echoing the description of Noah in 6:9, in sharp contrast to the rest of the human race. What’s in it for him? God promises him four things: descendants, a home, a new name, and a new badge. The third of these, the new name, is immediate. Abram the great father becomes Abraham the father of many, and Sarai the Princess takes on the much more honorific title ‘My Princess’. The fourth, circumcision, happens the same day (17:23), and functions in a way similar to the rainbow in Gen 9. It is an irreversible mark to remind not God but his people of the sacred relationship into which they have entered.
But what of the other two promises? Clearly they are not going to have happened before the end of that day. In fact they set the scene for much of the rest of the OT, and beyond. Their fulfilment is beset with obstacles to be overcome, dangers to be faced, and faith in God to be tested to the very limit. The first challenge is about the descendants part. Rather than the (to our culture illegitimate) son born to Hagar, Sarah’s servant, God promises that Sarah herself will give birth, an idea so ludicrous that Abraham falls about laughing. Even after, against all odds, Isaac is born, the next test is that God orders his sacrifice. And so the story goes on. The promise of the land as an eternal possession is even more difficult: first Abraham’s descendants must face famine, enslavement in Egypt, wandering in the desert, and finally the conquest of the Land against powerful enemies who, quite naturally, are not keen to be driven out. Even when it has been gained, the land is lost again, and the remaining Jews exiled to Babylon. Then it is occupied by one empire after another, and still today it forms a battleground between the descendants of Abraham’s two sons. So what of the covenant now?
The story serves to remind us of two things: that God’s promises are sure, and that they can be frustratingly slow in coming to fruition. Abraham’s faithless and cynical laughter must have been echoed hundreds of times down the centuries by people who had heard or sensed a promise which seemed totally impossible. Could God really make a ninety year old woman pregnant? Could he really feed them when the nearest grain store was in Egypt? Could he really free them from slavery, or from exile, or from Roman domination? These questions straddle both Testaments, and are alive and well in the Church today. Could God really get rid of Covid? Could he really provide for me the money I need, the job which has been snatched from me, a husband or wife at my age, healing from my cancer? The agonising questions go on, and maybe you have some in your life too. Are God’s promises meaningless? And if so, is he there at all?
Lent allows us, and in fact encourages us, to ask these kinds of questions. We’re used to thinking of it at a time when we focus on what we have done wrong to God – ‘Against you only have I sinned’, admits the Psalmist (51:40). But it is also a time for lament for what God has done to us, or what he has failed to do for us. The cry ‘How long, O Lord?’ echoes through the Psalms as people cry out in their frustration that God hasn’t just got on and done it, and can be used just as appropriately today in a world still waiting for the healing of all creation.
It is as though we are stretched on one of the mediaeval racks, with God’s covenant promises and his timing pulling us to bits from each end, and my goodness it hurts! I have no easy answers for you, other than describing how you might be feeling, acknowledging that others feel the same, and promising you that Easter is on its way. God seems to have set things up with frustration built in, presumably because he believes it is good for us, building character and strengthening our spirits. Lent encourages us to keep hanging on (as though we had much choice), but it also promises that just as God was faithful to Abraham, so he will be to his descendants for ever.