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Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Sometimes lectionary compilers choose a passage in such a way that it means something quite different to what it means in its biblical context.  Todayís reading is one of those. In selecting only vv. 1-7, 15-16 to be read in worship they have given this text a new meaning, one influenced heavily by the fact that we read it in Lent in anticipation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is not entirely inappropriate, we just need to be aware that we are seeing the text differently to any ancient writer, reader or hearer. On the other hand, it does not hurt to consider the parts of the text, and its context, which do not appear in our Sunday reading.

Genesis 17 is the Priestly (P) version of the covenant between God and Abraham. The other version of the covenant, coming from the so-called J (Yahwist) source, is to be found in Genesis 15. The selection of Genesis 17 in the lectionary continues the theme of covenant highlighted at the beginning of Lent last week with the reading from Genesis 9 (see Lent 1). The lectionary compilers thus put the events of Easter, toward which we shift our focus in this season of Lent, in the larger context of Godís covenants with both all creation and his elected people. The lectionary compilers also invite us to read the story of the ancient covenants in the context of Jesus and the beginnings of the church. While Abraham is the ancestor of Godís special people, Godís promise still applies to the Ďmultitude of nationsí who will be his descendants (vv. 4-6). This promise will see its fulfilment in the spread of the Church beyond Jerusalem to the heart of the Roman Empire in the readings from Acts in the Easter season. The reference to kings being descendants of Abraham (Gen 17:7) already makes us who read it in the context of the story of Jesus think of the final chapter of Mark where Jesus is proclaimed king by Pilate and the soldiers who mock him, and finally by the sign fixed to his cross (Mark 15). We are thus invited to see the story of Jesus, and especially his death and resurrection, in the context of the whole of Godís creation and the entirety of Godís activity as described in the Bible, even as we are invited to read the latter in the context of Jesus.

The selection of vv. 1-7 and 15-16 from Genesis 17 also creates the impression that this covenant and promise is all on the side of God who makes his promise to Abraham. This is not only an everlasting covenant (v. 7) but one established and enacted by the one who is himself everlasting. This is entirely proper in that Godís salvation for us in Jesus Christ is entirely the work of his love and grace. It is not ultimately dependent upon our response or good works. This point was made last week in relation to the Genesis 9 reading. But it is at this point that we might become painfully aware of the parts of Genesis 17 that are omitted from the lectionary.

Genesis 17 consists of three speeches by God to Abraham (vv. 1b-8, 9-14, 15-21) which cover the covenant. In vv. 23-27 we hear of Abrahamís response in action. While the covenant is eternal and for all Abrahamís descendants, vv. 9-14 make it clear that Abraham does also have responsibilities in relation to the divine promises. He is to circumcise every male in his family, and every male of every subsequent generation is likewise to be circumcised, as a sign of the covenant between God and his people. The covenant, while established by God, is to be owned by its recipients. They will bear the sign of it in their own flesh and being, and that (literally in the story) will not be without its own pain and struggle. There is a suggestion here of the discipline of Lent as we examine ourselves in preparation for remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. Godís gift of salvation for his world is entirely of his own giving. We do not (indeed, could never) earn it. But it is not without the need of response from us.

Of course, we will think of that response in terms of confession of sin and, as a well-known prayer puts it, Ďamendment of our livesí. But it is more than that and here the Gospel reading for today and another bit of Genesis 17 omitted from our reading help us. The Gospel reading (Mark 8:31-38) comes mid point in the Gospel of Mark, both literally and theologically. It is the point from which Jesusí journey and our attention become focused on Jerusalem and what lies ahead. Peter has just made his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8:29). But Peterís reaction to Jesusí next words shows that he cannot bear the true nature of what he has himself confessed. He apparently wants a Messiah who does not go the way of the cross (vv. 32-33). Jesus then turns to the crowd with them and begins to teach that the nature of discipleship is one of self-denial and joining Jesus on the road to Calvary.

In the lectionary readings from Genesis 17 we do not get to read the response of Abraham to Godís promise regarding Sarah. Abraham laughs at Godís promise (Gen 17:17), and laughs so much he falls over in the process. This is not the laughter of joy or excitement, but of incredulity. Abraham finds it hard to believe and accept the nature of Godís promise, given other circumstances, namely his and Sarahís age and Sarahís barrenness.

Our response to Godís covenant promise to all creation, fulfilled in Jesus and the events of his life and resurrection, is not just a matter of confessing our sins, but of acknowledging our unwillingness to look at things the way God sees and pursues them. It is to tackle deep down the unbelief that always struggles with our efforts and desires to believe. It is to acknowledge that we often do not want to see things the way God does, as they are, nor see what is needed for their redemption.

We enter Lent not simply in confessing the sins we know about and can often correct. As our minds and hearts are turned toward Jerusalem with Jesus, as we become more aware of how Easter relates to Godís covenant with creation and all peoples, we become more aware of the nature and depth of faith called for in our discipleship. We become more aware of how deep our need of redemption runs and how the one we would call Messiah, bears that within himself.

Psalm 22:23-31

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