Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., on Mar. 8, 2009.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25
It was a strange and new idea, that Abraham “ that anybody “ would limit himself to the worship of only one God. There were so many gods available, what right did one deity have to claim the sole devotion of anybody? And how did Abraham get this notion, to yield his life to the calling of this one, singular God?
We simply read, When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him… And we just accept it. But sometimes, before you simply accept scripture, you’ve got to wrestle with it a bit, dig deeply between the lines of it and do more than just scratch its surface. That’s what I’ve been doing with this story, and it’s raised some questions.
How did the Lord appear to him? Was God disguised as a human being? Did the Lord appear in a sort of vapor, coming out of nowhere? Or did he come walking down the road so Abram got a good look at him before they entered into this momentous conversation?
And how did the Lord speak? Did he sound like Cecil B. DeMille? Did God whisper or did God shout? Did the skies thunder and the clouds roll, or was it more like the rustling of the leaves on the nearby oak trees?
You may have never wondered about these things, but I can’t help but ask these kinds of questions. Gotta get a mental image of it, you know.
One thing I think we can be certain of… this conversation between God and Abraham, however it may have occurred, came out of their quite unique and quite personal relationship.
I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you… There is no mention of a rainbow in the sky, a voice emerging from a burning bush, or a whirlwind rumbling over the plain. As far as we know, it was just a whisper in Abraham’s ear.
You see, at this point in the story it’s not as if Abraham and God are strangers to each other. They’ve been traveling together for twenty-four years, with Abraham pretty much going wherever God told him to go. Poor Sarah. She’s just along for the ride. You know what they say, For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer… She takes those vows pretty seriously, doesn’t she? Just read the story. You can’t miss it there in Genesis. Sarah is hardly unscarred by all these notions her husband has about traveling around in the name of his God. Her name Sarai “ her first, original name “ means princess, and while Abraham treats her as such, she hardly feels regal, the way they’ve been sloshing around from pillar to post, packing and unpacking their tent.
Not to mention those times he passed her off as his sister so they wouldn’t be treated inhospitably by their reluctant hosts. Go ahead, it’s in the book. Read about it and you’ll see what I mean. It couldn’t have been easy being Sarai or Sarah.
And it could easily be argued that so far neither Abraham nor Sarah has anything to show for all their troubles. And I do mean troubles. The land in which Abraham lives “ or rather, pitches his tent “ is just overrunning with gods. Why did this particular God have to choose him? Of all people, why Abraham?
When I went to Africa almost three years ago, I learned that, especially in the bush country, a man’s wealth is measured by the number of wives he can afford. We drove by one Masai compound that had four houses, or huts, one for each wife. By those standards the man of the house “ er, houses “ was a wealthy man. Not to mention busy, I would think.
In Abraham’s day, one’s wealth was measured, not so much by wives, but by the number of his gods. Usually, these deities were associated with the land. Different areas had their own unique deities, not terribly unlike school mascots. Fierce loyalties can come out of such things.
When I was in the eighth grade I transferred to Paragould Junior High from the more rural Oak Grove school district. The mascot for Paragould High School was the Bulldogs. We wore our red and white colors proudly, and defended our turf quite well. We had possession of a state football championship from 1949 and a state basketball crown from 1962. Our junior high basketball team was equally successful, having been runners-up in ’62 and state champs in ’63. It was ingrained in us that It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
However, about fifteen years after I graduated, and needing the added revenues, the Paragould school district consolidated with Oak Grove. In the process, they changed the mascot from the Bulldogs to the Rams and now, if you go in the gymnasium, you will see no sign of the old Bulldog days… no trophies, no pictures, no remembrances whatsoever. It’s like the town has Bulldog amnesia.
I’m still chapped about that.
The Paragould Rams haven’t won any state championships either. Haven’t even come close. Serves ’em right.
Go to the land and the time of Abraham and you’ll find gods as plentiful as school mascots. Sometimes one’s gods were handed down through family inheritance. If a certain deity had worked well for papa, it ought to be good for the son as well. There was a god for this, a god for that… a god in every pocket. But twenty-four years before, when Abram still lived in the land of his father, one particular God had come to him and claimed a singular allegiance. And Abram followed. Taking all his idols from his pockets, Abram threw them away, packed up his tent, and journeyed wherever his God told him to go.
It had not been easy. For one thing, Abraham’s God had continued to whisper his promise, that he would bring forth a nation of people from Abraham’s loins; that he, Abraham, would be the father of many; that he, Abraham, would be remembered as the one who sired the one group of people who would wholly devote themselves to the only true God, the Creator and Savior of the world.
Twenty-four years can be an eternity, even way back then, when God keeps making a promise that has not yet come to fruition.
And now Abraham hears the Voice in his ear yet again. I am God Almighty; walk before me… What does God think Abram has been doing these last twenty-four years? If he hasn’t been walking before God, then what in the world has he been doing?
It is in this encounter, when Abram is ninety-nine years old, that everybody’s name gets changed. Abram, which means exalted ancestor, becomes Abraham, which means ancestor of a multitude. You did know, didn’t you, that back then people didn’t just get names that happened to be popular or unusual. They got names that meant something. Sarai is told she will now be Sarah. Before, she was princess. Now, she is princess of many.
God just will not let go of the idea that Abraham and Sarah, even at their old age, will have a family. And to show just how persistent God can be, even God gets a new moniker. He refers to himself for the first time as God Almighty. Perhaps you’ve heard of him by the Hebrew, El Shaddai.
Walk before me, and be blameless, says El Shaddai. And I will make my covenant between me and you…
Yeah, well, it’s not as if Abraham hasn’t heard all this before. He and God, by whatever name he called himself, have been around the block together a few times already. The word covenant has been a regular part of their relationship, not to mention their conversation. So far, Abraham hasn’t seen a lot come from it, for all his trouble, except that every once in awhile God shows up to give him his promise again, the promise that a nation of many people will come from his loins, that he will be the father of God’s very own children. So far, that’s all this covenant has amounted to… it’s just been conversation; conversation and empty promises. That’s all.
Was there any reason to think that now things would be any different? Well, if you’re Abraham, then yes, there is good reason to think this time might be different. Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would tell us why. Because the promise came not through the law, the apostle says, but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13) from the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Abraham hoped against hope, Paul says, and he became the father of all of us.
Maybe Abraham has, in his old age, learned a valuable lesson that you and I need to understand as well… that a covenant is a living thing, as surely as if it had a beating heart and blood flowing in its veins, 1 and that God’s timing is different from ours. That too is a lesson Abraham is beginning to understand “ the hard way “ that God is willing to make covenant even with flawed people like Abraham and Sarah. Not to mention old, flawed people like Abraham and Sarah.
Can you imagine their discouragement? When God appears occasionally to remind them of the covenant he has made with them, do you think he does so at those points in time when Abraham and Sarah perhaps are at their lowest ebb, when they’re ready to go back to where home used to be, to give up on this idea of a God who only appears to them in a voice?
There are few certain things in life, but what Abraham does know without doubt is that he is old, that Sarah is barren and beyond the natural ability to give birth, and that so far the only thing they have to show for all their efforts is dust in their nostrils and no place to call their own. And though we didn’t read it, we are aware that when God once again tells them Sarah will have a son, Abraham is left with nothing but his laughter. It is not a gleeful sound that comes from joy; it is the laughter that comes when it hurts too much to cry.
Through his tears of both pain and laughter, Abraham somehow never gives up on his journey of hope. Abraham, despite the difficulties and seemingly empty promises, continues to walk before his God, the God who is bound and determined to have a family.
Remember the between-the-lines questions we asked before? I’ve got some more. How do you envision this encounter between Abraham and God? Was it in the middle of a hot and dusty afternoon? Could it have been early morning, when the dew was still on the ground and there was a nip in the air? Abraham is famous for having dug wells everywhere he pitched his tent. Was he getting a drink of water, was he watching over his sheep? What was Abraham doing?
I wonder if maybe it wasn’t at night. After Sarah had gone to bed, once again settling into a fitful sleep “ Sarah never slept well; there was her barrenness, and too many unfulfilled promises in her life to allow her a good night’s rest “ Abraham slips out of the tent and wonders down by the oaks at Mamre. He listens to the crickets in the night, the rustling of the leaves. It is then he hears that whispered voice yet again. I am El Shaddai; walk before me, Abraham, and be blameless.
But my name is Abram.
No more. From now on it shall be Abraham. You will be the father of a great nation, for multitudes of people will come from your loins. Walk before me, Abraham, and I will make my covenant between me and you.
And Abraham looks up into the dark sky. He sees the stars twinkle in the night, so many they cannot possibly be counted. He remembers the promise of God that this is what his children will be like… so many they can’t be counted, children who will walk before Abraham’s God. The blameless part? Well, that will have to be worked out still.
And here we are, you and I. We too are children of the covenant. Is God whispering in your ear? Is God telling you to walk before him? Is God making a promise to you, that he will be with you no matter what?
Listen, and look up. See the stars and know the One who put them in their place has a place for you. Walk before him, and then let him take care of the blameless part.
Lord, when we take our next step, may it before you. When we make our promises, may they be to you. And when we give ourselves in response to your grace, may it be with all our hearts. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.