Belonging to God: No Laughing Matter, Genesis 17, 2/16/14

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Feb 172014

Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
How many of you have been watching the Winter Olympics this week? How many of you saw the opening ceremonies? Well, if you saw the opening ceremonies, you saw teams in their unique “uniforms.” You saw this…[photo of Team Germany] You might have seen this… [photo of Team Bermuda] and this… [photo of Team ???] and this… [photo of Team Russia] and this… [photo of Team USA].


Many of us make a statement about who we are by the clothes we wear. At the Olympics, perhaps in some strange way, countries are trying to reflect who they are as well—or at least which designer paid them the most money to wear his or her clothes.


Most of this, of course is just good fun. Countries, by their clothing, are not trying to draw lines between insiders and outsiders, not trying to show the difference between the bad guys and good guys in our world. They are just trying to draw a little attention to themselves.


Yet we as human beings constantly use outward symbols as a way of dividing up the world.We make certain assumptions about people who wear certain things [photo of woman in hijab], Who put certain things on their body [photo of man with tattoos], or who eat certain foods [photo of sushi]. In fact, people choose certain actions or symbols in life as a way of marking themselves off as distinctive, as different from the culture around them.


These symbols can be a good thing because they can preserve cultural and individual uniqueness. But they can also be a dangerous thing, when humanity is divided in destructive and hateful ways.


At the heart of today’s scripture reading is a particular action and symbol given to the Jewish people—to the children of Abraham. It was a way of showing their identity. It was a way of marking their distinctiveness from the world around them, a way of showing belief in God’s promises. This practice is called circumcision.


[Photo of a bris]


Of all the Jewish practices and commands that have come down through the ages, the one command most regularly adhered to by contemporary Jews is the circumcision of male children as a way of demonstrating “Jewishness.” This is true whether a Jew is practicing or not, and it is true across cultures. Though circumcision for many of us is known as a medical procedure, for any Jew, it is fundamentally religious practice.The ceremony is called a brit milah, generally referred to as a bris. Circumcision involves surgically removing the male foreskin and is performed by a mohel, usually a pious, observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and (thankfully) in surgical techniques. The ceremony happens on the eighth day after a child’s birth, with the child being held by a sandek, what we might call a godfather or godmother. A chair is set aside for Elijah, various blessings are said, and the child is given a formal Hebrew name. Finally, as is so often the case in Jewish rites and rituals, the ceremony itself is followed by great feasting and celebrating.[1]


For the Jewish people, circumcision is the physical sign of God’s eternal covenant, of God’s promise of descendants and land, the most ancient form of blessing and wealth.


It is in today’s passage that we learn the Biblical origins of this practice. This story takes place well after the promises we heard God make to Abram, when God promised to make Abram’s descendants “as many as the stars.” Now he is 99 years old and still does not have a child by his wife Sarai (though he does have a son named Ishmael who is the child of Sarai’s handmaiden Hagar).


Here in this passage God comes to Abram, not so much to give him any new information, but to reaffirm his commitment to him and Sarai, to assure them that God will fulfill God’s promises, and then to ask something of him.


It is God who does almost all the talking in these 27 verses. God tells Abram his name  is “El Shaddai,” which could be translated as “God Almighty,”  or “God of the Mountains.” More importantly, God intensifies God’s promises that were already presented to Abram. Struck with awe and wonder, Abram falls on his face.


God tells him, you will have descendants—the Message translation says, “You will have a huge family!”[2] You will be the ancestor of many nations. God even changes Abram’s name to Abraham to emphasize that very point. God tells him that the covenant will be everlasting—adding that notion to what he had promised Abraham in the past. God then promises Abraham the land on which he is standing—which is good news to someone without a real home—and tells him he will possess it though all time.[3]


Then God asks one, clear, not so simple thing. Short and sweet, God says, “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” This is what I ask of you. This is how you can demonstrate you willingness to share in the covenant. This is how I will know you wish to receive these promises. God gives Abraham very specific instructions on the how and who of the ritual. You, (God says) and every male in your house—including slaves either born in your home or the ones who are bought—all these shall be circumcised. (Here, by including Abraham’s slaves, it is as if God is seeking to specifically include those who might be thought to be on the margins of society.) According to God, all this should happen on the eighth day of a child’s life, and any who do not do this will be excluded from the covenant.


Now you would think that would be enough, but still, God doesn’t stop talking. God is being very clear and specific about this message, leaving nothing to chance.


To remind Abraham that his wife is also part of this deal, and that she will be part of the dramatic life change that God’s covenant will bring, God changes Sarai’s name as well—to Sarah. He then reminds Abraham that she will bear him a son, and it is through this son that that this covenant will happen, through Sarah’s son that descendants will come.
Finally, Abraham breaks his silence. In fact, he falls on his face again, this time not in awe, but in cynical laughter.  “Can a hundred year old man have a son? Are you kidding?” “Can a ninety year old woman bear a child? You must be joking!” Then Abraham thinks, “Maybe God will bring descendants through my 13 year old son Ismael, Now that would be realistic, that would be possible!”


Then God begins speaking again. I like to think God was not scolding Abraham, but maybe even chuckling with him. “That’s not what I mean,” says God. “You will have a son by your wife Sarah. And you know what I want you to name him? Isaac. (Which can be translated as “laughter”) That’s right—your son’s name will be ‘laughter.’ It is through “Mr. Laughter” that I will establish my covenant, Through Isaac that I will give you descendants. So you can laugh all you want, but I will fulfill my promises.”


Then God has one final word. “Now don’t worry about Ishmael, I will bless him too. Just know that I want to do this special work, I want to carry out this particular covenant not through Ishmael but through Isaac.” Then, as The Message translation puts it, “God finished speaking with Abraham and left.”[4] Just like that.


Now given Abraham’s words, and the magnitude of this commitment, you would think there might have been some hesitation on Abraham’s part, but there was nothing of the kind. No doubt to their surprise, he immediately circumcised all the males in his house, including Ishmael and himself, and at the ripe old age of 99, Abraham said yes to God’s promises.


You could say this is one of the founding stories of the Jewish people. That, as we have said, is clearly witnessed by the fact that Jews throughout the world today still practice circumcision as a demonstration of who they are in relationship to God. Don’t miss what is being said here at a very deep level. Abraham & Sarah lived barren lives, and in their society without children they may even have lived shamed lives. As wanderers they lived homeless lives. They even thought they could fulfill God’s wishes for them on their own power through the child of Hagar—but God would have none of that. Before God came along, their lives were barren and empty.


God came and brought a promise to Abraham. They had no heir, no descendants, no land. They couldn’t even imagine a small result of God’s promise let alone an “everlasting” covenant. And so Abraham appropriately laughed at God’s proposal. (And if you peek ahead to chapter 18 you will see that Sarah joins in the laughter as well.)
Yet in the end, Abraham says yes. In the end, Abraham responds to God’s call and command. Maybe he was desperate, maybe he trusted deeply, we don’t really know—all we know is that he took an act of faith, signifying that he was choosing to believe what God offered him. Abraham and Sarah could only see emptiness and hopelessness—but they acted in faith anyway. And that is what circumcision here is about, not an act of religious pride, not a work to get God’s approval, but a step, even a painful one, that demonstrates a belief in the promises of God.


Maybe you have taken a steps like this. Maybe you talked to that person with whom you feared conflict. Maybe you followed a path to a new job or home. Maybe you gave up an addictive behavior knowing you could not overcome it on your own. Maybe you were the lone voice against a chorus of injustice. Maybe you sought to love when your first inclination was to hate.


It you have done any of these things, you have been marked by God. You have taken a step which can be called a “circumcision of the heart.”[5] You have been willing to act on a promise of God and been willing to be marked as different. One Old Testament scholar calls circumcision an, “assertion of being present in the world differently, not according to dominant values and expectations.” [6] Any time we respond to God’s promises, and follow God’s way, we experience a circumcision of the heart, we are marked as belonging to God.


Now some of you know that this issue of circumcision crops up quite a bit in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul the Apostle. And for the most part, circumcision doesn’t get much good press in the New Testament. You see in the eyes of Paul, things had changed for the Jews since Abraham’s time. What had once been a loving and faithful response to the word of God had now become a badge of personal honor. According to Paul, circumcision was seen as a mark of identity that was used to separate from others and to earn God’s favor.


All of us do things like this – it is not hard to understand, think about it—your church attendance, your role as a congregational leader, your knowledge of scripture, anything you do as a Christian can easily turn from an act of faith into a reason to boast.


But Paul reminded his readers that God’s love was never about our actions but about God’s free gift. To make it very simple, Paul, (and other leaders in the early church) was convinced that though Jesus was himself a Jew, those who chose to follow Jesus did not have to become Jews first, and consequently, were not required to be circumcised. This of course meant that Gentiles, non-Jews, were welcome. By the grace of God, all people were welcomed.


There were many in the church who fiercely resisted this, even some of the church’s most prominent leaders. In fact, it is reasonable to say that the controversy around circumcision was THE biggest conflict in the life of early church. Yet Paul’s reflection here is interesting. In the book of Galatians, his most scathing critique of those who would require circumcision, he says this, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”[7] In reality, he is not condemning circumcision or casting it aside, but simply saying that it is not an essential practice in receiving God’s love.


So does circumcision still have anything to teach us today? Is this practice simply a religious relic or does this mark of identity for people of faith lead us to anything similar in the Christian faith? Or to put it in the way we have been framing our Old Testament preaching series, how might this story, how might this practice lead us to Christ?


Despite Paul’s criticism of circumcision as a mark of religious privilege, there is some indication in the New Testament that this practice can help us in thinking about our faith. Listen to the writer of the book of Colossians:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him…In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God…[8]
Though it is a complicated passage, the writer here compares circumcision to baptism, and talks about a “spiritual circumcision.” And that “spiritual circumcision” somehow relates to our baptism. It is as if the mark that Abraham applies to himself and his descendants is now applied to us by God in a deeper, more profound way in our baptism.

Remember again that the very reason for circumcision was a response to and acknowledgement of God’s blessings. God’s blessings to Abraham and his children were not dependent on circumcision. They were freely given.

In Genesis 17 Abraham moves from barrenness to blessing. Here was a man with nothing —no children, no land—and now he was given everything. Such is the grace filled character of God – even in the Old Testament! Abraham did nothing to deserve or merit what he and Sarah were given. He and his descendants were not chosen because they stood out or were better than any other people. In a way, they may have been chosen to serve God precisely because they had so little.

This too is the message of baptism. Baptism is not a method for earning God’s love and favor. It is simply a response to what we have already been given. When we hear the words, “you are my beloved daughter” or “you are my beloved son,” we are overwhelmed and like Abraham we fall down on our faces because we know we did nothing to deserve this love. It is simply offered by this amazing God.

The writer of 1 Peter sums this up brilliantly, in a book they may actually have been a kind of baptismal sermon:[9]

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,
in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him
who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.[10]

From barrenness to blessing. From nothing to everything.


So it was for Abraham and Sarah and all the children and grandchildren who followed them. So it is for all of us who follow Christ and have responded in baptism. Our hearts are circumcised.We have died and been raised in our baptism. We are marked with God’s love. Abundantly and forever. Amen.





Next Step Questions


1. Reread the passage. This story happens in a world far different from ours. What puzzles you here? Where do you find yourself connecting with this text?

2. Have you ever used a symbol in your life (clothing, tattoo, jewelry, an initiation rite, eating certain foods) that identified you as part of particular group? Why was that important?

3. Do you ever find yourself “dividing the world into two groups,” based on a particular behavior or symbol? Why do you think you do that? Is it helpful or harmful?

4. Most of this passage depicts God speaking. God saying who God is, God making promises, God making a command. See if you can make a list that summarizes all that God says to Abraham here. What picture does this give you of God?

5. God asked Abraham to show his commitment to the covenant by circumcising himself and all the male members of his family. Circumcision was a concrete, earthly (even painful) action. Why does it make a good symbol of commitment? Do we mirror this level of commitment in our Christian faith?

6. When Abraham heard God promises to him, he laughed. Has God ever done or promised anything in your life that made you laugh? What was it?

7. Circumcision (in a way) helps Jews form their identity, it is one example of distinctiveness. How is that distinctiveness helpful? In what way should Christians be “distinct” from the world?

8. In the sermon Jim mentions that circumcision was THE major conflict of the early church. Why do you think that was the case? What similar conflicts do we have today in the church and world?

9. Paul the Apostle writes; “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) What is Paul saying here? Why is this important?

10. Just as circumcision was a rite of belonging, we sometimes talk about baptism as a sacrament of belonging. In what way are circumcision and baptism alike or not alike?





[2] Genesis 17:2, The Message.

[3] This notion is part of what has given rise to contemporary Zionism, and has created both possibilities and problems.

[4] Genesis 17:22, The Message.

[6]Walter Brueggemann, “Genesis 17:1-22, ” Interpretation. p. 57.

[7] Galatians 5:6, NRSV.

[8] Colossians 2:6-7, 11-12, NRSV.

[9] This idea is commonly referenced in scholarly studies of 1 Peter.

[10] 1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV.