It’s comforting to know that there’s someone looking out for us, isn’t it?
It’s even better if we know that someone has made it their special business to take care of us. They’ve taken us under their wing. There’s what the Americans call a “special relationship”.
Lots of men in the world are fathers. Only one of them is my father. Lots of women in the world are wives. Only one of them is my wife.
There’s the world of difference between know that someone is a father, and knowing that they are my father.
It’s the same with God.
To know that there is a God – that’s one thing. It’s quite another to know that he’s my God. My protector. My defender. The one who has my destiny under his loving control. Who’s made it his special business to work all things for my good.
God. As my God. That would be wonderful.
And that is what God holds out to us this morning.
We continue this morning our series of sermons looking at the story of Abraham. In today’s passage, God appears again to Abraham. God’s already made a covenant with him. (He’s already made an agreement.) He’s made him some very big promises. Then in chapter 15 he confirmed that covenant, that agreement. And then today, in chapter 17, he confirms it again.
And what we get from God is a whole load more details about this special agreement he’s got to bless Abraham. I think there are 3 main new things we learn in chapter 17 about God’s promise. And they all point to this wonderful offer that the God of the universe could be our own God too.
Promise to be our God forever
The first new thing we learn is that God is making a promise to be our God forever. A promise to be our God forever.
What God has to say in Genesis chapter 17 divides into 3 distinct sections. Verse 4 starts with God saying, “As for me”. Verse 9 starts with God saying “As for you”. Verse 15 starts with God saying “As for Sarai you wife”.
So verses 4 to 8 are God’s bit. As for me. God’s promise to Abraham.
And as we look at it, there is one key word that comes up. That’s the word everlasting. This promise to Abraham is an everlasting promise. It’s forever.
So what is everlasting? Verse 8: The gift of the land of Canaan is forever. And also in verse 8: I will be your God forever.
We’ll come back to the promise of the land in a minute. But the other thing God promises Abraham forever is that he will be his God forever.
Over the Royal Jubilee period, we’ve all thought a lot about the royal family. Some of us could name just two or three; others know the whole family tree. We all recognise a picture of the queen. She’s on every stamp. We’d know her if we saw her. But if I’d gone to The Mall, and the Queen had come past and spotted my face in the crowds, she’d have looked straight through me. She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t even know I exist. She’s my queen. But she looks after 60 million of us, and it’s not personal.
Whereas with God things are different. God is infinite, so he can have a personal relationship with many more than 60 million people. God promises to be our God forever. And that doesn’t make us a statistic. We’re not just one of many people God looks after. We’re one of his special people.
And he’ll be so forever.
Your toaster’s warranty runs out in a year. Your car’s anti-corrosion warranty runs out in 5. Your roof will need replacing in 30. And your leasehold flat will need renewing in 125 years. But God promises to be our God forever. He never runs out.
A promise to be our God forever.
Promise that requires a response
Second, we learn that God is making a promise that requires a response. A promise that requires a response.
Verse 9 starts, “As for you.” Verses 9-14 give us Abraham’s bit. What he must do.
He only has one thing to do. He has to circumcise every male in his household. If he leaves anyone out, then they are excluded from the covenant, they’re not party to this wonderful promise.
So God’s promise is forever. It’s God’s promise. But we do have to respond to it.
When I was an undergraduate, McVities ran a special promotion. On 7 of their brands of biscuits, they put a special numbered coupon. Chocolate Digestives had a number 1, custard creams had a number 2, and so on. Collect all 7 and send them off with your receipt, you get your money back. Free biscuits. We students thought this was great. But you did have to send off the coupons. You had to respond to the offer, otherwise you missed out.
The promise that God will be our God forever is wonderful. We want to be part of it.
So we have to respond to it.
The question is, what response is God looking for?
For Abraham, the response was circumcision. But as we come forwards to today, there are two things we have to understand about circumcision.
First, it’s a sign. If you were here when we looked at chapter 15, you’ll remember that we said the really significant thing about Abraham was that he trusted God. That was all God wanted. That meant he was God’s friend. And that happened before circumcision was even mentioned. The really important thing is the trust.
We need to respond to God. But before we do anything to symbolise our trust, we have to make sure we are trusting God. That trust is what the symbol points to. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
The other thing about circumcision is that it’s an Old Testament sign.
After Jesus rose again from the dead, the early church fairly quickly worked out that the actual sign of circumcision was not something that New Testament Christians had to do. Why they concluded that is deeper than we have time to go today. The visible sign that Jesus left us to show that we belong to him is baptism. You could even say that baptism has replaced circumcision today. It’s fulfilled it.
So, yes, we also have to respond. God makes a promise that requires a response.
First and foremost we have to trust God. God has promised that Jesus’ death and resurrection dealt with our sin, and that means that we can have God as our God. We have to say “yes please”. We have to trust him.
We should also apply the sign that God has given us that points to this reality. If there’s anyone here who wants to live by trust in Jesus but who’s never been baptised, then that is something to put right. By all means talk to me about that.
But of those two – trusting in God, and baptism – the trust is by far the most important. We’ll come back to that thought at the end.
A promise that requires a response.
Promise that only comes through Jesus
Third, we learn that God is making a promise that only comes through Jesus. A promise that only comes through Jesus.
Verse 15 starts, “As for Sarai, your wife.” This is Sarah’s bit.
And her bit is to be give birth to Isaac, the son through whom all this will come about.
Ishmael’s twelve at this point. Abraham loves him to bits. But God is quite clear that he is not the one through whom these promises will be kept.
Which means that God’s wonderful promises aren’t going to be kept through every physical descendant of Abraham without exception. Rather God will choose which of Abraham’s descendants he’ll use to bless the world.
And this doesn’t just happen here. God doesn’t divide Abraham’s extended family into two halves – those who come from Isaac and those who trace their line back to Ishmael – and only one half is in. No – this is a pattern that God repeats. In the next generation it will be Jacob, but not Esau. About the year 940 B.C., it will be the tribe of Judah, but not the other ten tribes. In 587 B C, it will be the ones who go to Babylon, not the ones who stay behind. And so it goes on.
Until the prophet Isaiah and the New Testament both see this as zeroing in on one individual. One descendant of Abraham. The only one ever to have been truly faithful. Jesus Christ.
Do you see the point? Jesus wasn’t an afterthought. Right from the beginning of God making his promises, he’s showing us that it’s not about biological parents, it’s about choice.
Which means that today we don’t need to be rightly related to Abraham. We don’t need to be Jewish. We need to be rightly related to Jesus. We need to be Christians. If you’re from a Jewish background, you need to know Jesus. If you’re not, you need to know Jesus. He’s the one person who matters.
Go back to my delight at finding I could have free biscuits. Not only did you have to respond, you had to respond to the right offer. It was no use buying Maryland Chocolate Chip Cookies – they weren’t in the offer. It was no good sending your numbered vouchers off to Nestle. They weren’t the promoters. You only get your money back if you bought the right biscuits, and sent it off to the right promoter.
This promise God makes, to be our God forever, is wonderful. But it’s a promise that only comes through Jesus.
And saying that helps make a few of the other things we’ve been saying a bit clearer.
One of the subjects I said we’d return to is the matter of the land of Canaan. God promised that to Abraham forever, too, so what’s happened to that promise?
Well I hope that’s now clear. When God said the land was his forever, he meant it. God has given that land to Jesus forever. In fact, he hasn’t just given Jesus that bit of land. He’s kept his promise, and some. God has given Jesus the whole world. Every nation. Every language. Every continent is his. And they’re his … forever.
The other thing we said earlier was that the most important response is that we trust God. That’s just got a lot more specific too. It’s actually Jesus we need to trust. It’s his promises we need to base our lives on. We need to trust Jesus with our life, and with our own death, if we want God to be our God.
The other detail I said we’d come back to is that our trust in God is more important than the symbol of baptism.
Ishmael is a warning for us. Did you notice how the promise applied to Isaac, not to him. And yet they were both circumcised. We’ll see when we get to chapter 21 that the problem with Ishmael was that he didn’t keep it up. The sign, on its own, did him no good. He didn’t combine it with a trust in God’s promises.
And so for us, it’s not enough to be baptised, if that’s all we are. We have to trust in Jesus, and keep doing so.
So: How would you like to have God as your God?
That’s exactly what God promises and offers to us here!
God promises that to Abraham.
He promises it to Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ.
And Jesus offers it to everyone who knows and trusts him.
It’s an offer that’s open to each of us.
But we have to respond. Repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins. Trust Jesus.
And then we can be absolutely sure that forever means forever. God the Father is your God. You are one of his special people.
And that is a very wonderful, very safe, very special place to be.