By Blood, a Genesis 17 sermon

When we planned this “Journey” sermon series for January of 2022 we did not realize just how long this January was going to be. Between COVID cases, staff shortages, and snowdays, no one I know can remember the last time they had a normal week. Virtually no one has gone untouched this month by disease, or disappointment, or death, and there’s still another week of January left. 

It makes me want to do what our son does when he is disappointed, upset, and overwhelmed. He bends over and puts his head on the floor and basically falls on his face and cries. It’s a very January 2022 kind of move. 

It turns out it’s a biblical move. 

God’s Promise to Abraham, James Tissot

In today’s text the Lord speaks to Abram and says, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me, and be blameless,” and immediately Abram falls on his face. See, Abram and the Lord both know he’s not blameless. 

Abram’s remembered for his faithful obedience–Father Abraham, pillar of faith–but when we read more of the story we see it’s always been far from a perfect faith, and a far-from-blameless obedience. 

The Lord said to Abram “Go and leave your kindred.” Abram went, but he brought along his nephew and his wife. 

The Lord said “Do not fear. I will protect you, and curse those who curse you,” but out of fear Abram sold his wife out to save his own skin. 

The Lord said, “I will give you and Sarai a child,” but he and Sarai grew so impatient they forced Hagar to give them a child instead. 

Now in Genesis 17, thirteen years have gone by and the Lord has been quiet. Abram and Sarai are starting to think they have gotten away with it all, until once again, the Lord speaks to Abram. “Walk before me, Abram, and be blameless,” but the Lord and Abram both know he can’t do that. He’s not blameless, so instead of walking, Abram falls on his face, with his head in the dirt.

In the church’s sacred year, we are now halfway between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. The Christmas cheer is gone and we are now in what is called Ordinary Time. Ash Wednesday is the day when we remember that we are dust and on our own we cannot walk blameless before the Lord. It can seem like a downer, but after a January like this one, it might just feel like the truth as with the sign of the ashen cross on our foreheads we join Abram with our face in the dirt. 

And yet, it is while Abram still has his face in the dirt that the Lord begins to speak again, saying “As for me, this is my covenant with you.” Then the Lord lists again the promises of his covenant with Abram: children, descendants. Abram shall be the father of a multitude of nations, even kings. The Lord promises Land too, that the land in which Abram now journeys as a stranger God will give to his children to possess.

But then God adds another word to the covenant. He calls it an ever-lasting covenant, a promise that shall not be broken, the promise that God will be with Abram and his descendants forever… This is the covenant God speaks over Abram while his face is still in the dirt. 

Then, as Abram rises, the Lord gives this ninety-nine year old man and his eighty something year old wife new names. “No longer shall your name be Abram but Abraham, and as for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” It’s as if this is a brand new beginning, a new birth. 

This covenant God then seals with a sign. Circumcision, an outward and physical sign of the covenant. It’s a sign to be borne in the body of all male descendants of Abraham, to be given to them on their 8th day, the same day when they are given a name. In this way Abraham and his children are marked forever as God’s people, children of a God who breathes new life into dust, and gives new birth, even to a barren woman and her bleeding husband.

Abraham's circumcision, 1430 artwork
Abraham’s circumcision, 1430 artwork

You might think that from this point on Abraham successfully lives a blameless life. After all, now he’s got some extra skin in the game. Jokes aside, Abraham has now bled for this. You would think that would keep him on the straight and narrow. It doesn’t. 

Abraham’s January Journey continues. There’s drama, intrigue, disease, disappointment, and death. Abraham does not walk blameless before the Lord, and neither do his children, but God remains with them. Even when they fall flat on their faces, God keeps the covenant. 

It’s as if what God is doing in Abraham and his children is something God is doing for Abraham and his children in spite of Abraham and his children. This is the case for generation after generation until one particular child of Abraham is born. 

I learned something this week about New Year’s Day. Can you remember back that far? January 1st? It’s also the 8th day of Christmas, but what I learned is in the church it’s a holiday for another reason. It’s the Feast of the Holy Name, or as it used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord. 

Circumcision of Christ, Menologion of Basil II, 979–984.

Luke tells us all about it, that eight days after the shepherds left the manger, the newborn king, this newborn son of Abraham, in keeping with tradition was brought by Mary and Joseph to be circumcised. On that day they gave him his name: Jesus. 

As one early writer puts it, as Jesus is named and circumcised, he is the first blameless son of Abraham to do so, and so this first time that his righteous blood is spilt pre-figures his blood which will be shed on the cross not just for Abraham’s children, but for all. It is his blood through which Abraham and all the children of the world come to be regarded as blameless in the sight of God. 

It’s not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection that the church stops even requiring circumcision. In fact, they start to proclaim that in Christ God’s covenant with Abraham has been opened up to Gentile and Jew, Woman and Man, slave and free, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly so that we might all be called children of God. 

Every year more and more people heard this message and came to become children of God not through circumcision but through baptism. Early on baptisms always happened on Easter which the church started to call the 8th day. And so year after year more and more would come and be baptized on the 8th day, and be given a new name: Christian. 

ancient-baptismal-font (1) - Ekklesia Project
Early Christian Baptismal Font

You’ve probably noticed by now that I love learning and noticing how what God began in Genesis God completes in Christ. It appears that all of this is becoming harder and harder for other people to believe. And I get it, it’s not just January, it’s something more going on in our age. 

Nevertheless, in the last year over sixty people joined as new members of this church, sixteen of them we welcomed through baptism. And on Christmas Eve I met a guy leaving our late night candlelight. He said his name was Lucas, and that this was his first experience of Christianity ever. He said he loved it, and that he wanted to come back and learn more. 

People are added to our number each year not because this is a perfect church, but because God is still faithful to this covenant. 

When people come here, they do not find a perfect pastor, or a perfect church, we are far from blameless. Instead, what I believe and hope people find here or in any church is a place where people are allowed to come in and fall on their face, and then while their face is still in the dirt, they can hear the Good News spoken over them. The News that God has not and will not leave you or forsake you. That God has made you his own, and that this does not depend on you because it is not your doing. It is yours by grace, by faith, by blood. 

God Almighty says again to you this day “Walk before me and be blameless.” And by the blood of Jesus, our Risen Lord, it is done. Thanks be to God.

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