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New Names – New Promises

Last week was a big week for Abram. As most of you know, we’ve been going through the life of Abram over these past few weeks – learning from him as he learned to walk with God. And the focal point of pretty much the entire story of Abram revolves around God’s promise to give him a son.

Abram and his wife Sarai had been unable to have children together – even though God had specifically told Abram that his family would become a great nation. In fact, God had promised that Abram’s descendants would inherit a huge chunk of land which we’ve come to know as “The Promised Land” and they would be as numerous as the stars!

Well, last week Abram & Sarai found themselves, at the ages of 85 & 75 respectively, to still be without child. And so they came up with an idea of how to finally get a son for Abram. Sarai gave her servant Hagar to Abram as a wife in hopes that she could have a child with Abram. Of course, having a child through a servant back then was fairly common practice and was certainly social acceptable, but as we pointed out, it didn’t seem to line up with God’s established design for families – that being one man and one woman. 

Well anyways, their plan worked…. Sorta…. Hagar did indeed become pregnant and have a son. But this whole scheme was not what God had in mind when He told Abram that he would have son, and so instead of this pregnancy being this great blessing from God that would bring joy & delight to this family, their scheme instead brought conflict and hostility and resentment. And that really shouldn’t come as a surprise, because anytime we act outside of God’s design and God’s will for our lives, there are always negative consequences.

However, as we pointed out last week, this in no way derailed God’s good plans for Abram and his family. God would take this mess and he would use it for good and as a showcase of his love & mercy.

And so that’s where we pick things up today. We’re in Genesis chapter 17 this morning, and we will begin at verse 1.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. 2 I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.” Genesis 17:1-2

And let’s just stop here for a minute. These two verses are the setup for the rest of the chapter, so I just want to point out a couple things that you’ll want to remember as we go forward.

Notice first of all, that Abram was now 99 years old. At the age of 99, Abram was not expecting to be the father of any other children. He was done. 13 years had passed since Hagar’s child, Ishmael, was born. And so for 13 years, Abram has raised Ishmael as his one and only son and as the promised child through whom God would fulfill His promises of Abram’s family becoming a great nation, inheriting the Promised Land, and being a blessing to every family on earth. So now at 99 years old, Abram had no reason to believe and no expectation that God was going to give him any other children. And this is going to come up again in just a bit, so just make a mental note of that.

The second thing to notice is that this is the first time that God identifies Himself by a specific name – “El-Shaddai – God Almighty”. Previous to this, God had not really self-identified Himself in any particular way. Of course, others have referred to God with various names – We’ve seen Abram refer to God as “Sovereign Lord”. Melchizedek refers to God as “God Most High – Creator of Heaven & Earth.” Last week we saw that Hagar referred to God as “The God who Sees Me”. 

But now here, God identifies Himself – and He declares that he is El-Shaddai – God Almighty. The Hebrew word ‘Shaddai’ that God uses here gets translated into Latin as “omnipotens” which in English means omnipotent – or all-powerful. God is clearly communicating that He the God who can do anything he wants. Nothing is too hard for Him. He is all-powerful – He is El-Shaddai, God Almighty!

And then the last thing to note before we continue the passage, is God’s command to Abram to “Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life.” Now this is the New Living Translation and that’s what I usually preach from, but in this case, I think there’s an idea here that gets lost in this particular translation. The NIV and the ESV and the NET all translate this verse like this:

“Walk before me and be blameless.” Genesis 17:1 NIV, ESV, NET

The main idea is the same in all these translations of course, but with our theme of ‘learning to walk with God” – I found it interesting how these other translations word it as “walk before me” rather than ‘serve me faithfully.’ I found that a literal reading of the original text would actually say “walk back and forth in my presence.” The idea here is that God is instructing Abram to live out his life (walking back and forth wherever he goes) in the presence of God. 

I just thought that was pretty cool – that God invites Abram (and God invites us) to live out our life in his presence. That’s ultimately what our salvation is all about – Christ died for us so that we can live forever in the presence of God. That’s been God’s goal and desire for us since from the beginning. And usually we think of living in God’s presence as something we’ll do one day in heaven, but we sure don’t have to wait until this life is over to do that – God invites us today to walk back and forth, to live out our lives in his presence and be blameless. 

So that’s your mini-rabbit trail sermon for the day – But getting back to our story, let’s continue reading in verse 3.

3 At this, Abram fell face down on the ground. Then God said to him, 4 “This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! 5 What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!

7 “I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:3-8

Once again, God reaffirms his covenant with Abram – or as God now renames him, Abraham. The name Abram meant ‘exalted father’ – which was probably a bit of an embarrassment for Abram for most of his life. He was childless until he was 86 year old and even now, he had only one child – and that was through his wife’s servant. Not exactly the “exalted father” that his name might suggest.

So now God renames him “Abraham” which means ‘the father of a multitude’ – which, at this point, might seem equally unfitting for a man with only one child. But God had promised Abraham that his descendants would become as numerous as the stars – and so perhaps, the name Abraham would be fitting after all. 

And Abraham wasn’t the only person to receive a new name. Jump down a few verses to verse 15…

15 Then God said to Abraham, “Regarding Sarai, your wife—her name will no longer be Sarai. From now on her name will be Sarah. 16 And I will bless her and give you a son from her! Yes, I will bless her richly, and she will become the mother of many nations. Kings of nations will be among her descendants.” Genesis 17:15-16

Now this was the real shocker – not in the name change so much – but in the fact that Sarah would give Abraham a son. Remember Sarah is 90 year old and Abraham is 99. They have both come to the conclusion that they are beyond the age of having children. In their minds, 13-year old Ishmael is obviously the son that God had promised to give to Abraham. They are not expecting any other children. The next few verse make that very clear.

17 Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?” 18 So Abraham said to God, “May Ishmael live under your special blessing!”

Genesis 17:17-18

Even though God had just said that Sarah would have a son, Abraham just couldn’t wrap his head around that. He laughed to himself in disbelief. What God was promising was not just unlikely – it was impossible!

And maybe that’s why God choose this meeting with Abraham to introduce Himself as El-Shaddai – the Almighty God – the God for whom nothing is too difficult. What God was promising was absolutely physically impossible – and so God introduced Himself to Abraham as the God who can do the impossible.

And perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that God’s name (and God’s character) hasn’t changed. He is still El-Shaddai – the God who can do the impossible. We face plenty of impossible situations in our lifetime. Some of us face incurable health issues. Some of us face conflicts that have appear to have zero chance of resolution. Some of us face the painful situation of close friends or family who want nothing to do with God. Some of us face dreams and desires that no longer seem to be a possibility.

But in all those impossible situations, El-Shaddai is still God. He can still do the impossible. I think we can take some encouragement from Abraham and Sarah in that, even in their impossible situation, while they had long passed their “best before date” as far as having children goes, God was completely undeterred. He was still going to carry out his plan and give them a son because he was God Almighty. And so in response to Abraham’s doubt and his request that Ishmael live under God’s blessing, we read in verse 19…

19 But God replied, “No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. 20 As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year.” Genesis 17:19-21

This must have been quite a shock to Abraham. As we had noted earlier, for the past 13 years, Abraham had lived with the understanding that Ishmael was his promised son. He had long ago given up on the idea that He & Sarah could have a son. He presumed that God’s means for him to have descendants was through his relationship with Hagar. At this point, it kinda seems that he would have been completely content if Ishmael was the only son he ever had.

But now God totally floors Abraham by telling him that his promised son was still yet to come. A baby boy would be born to Sarah in about a year’s time and they would name him Isaac – and he would be the one through whom God would fulfill all of his promises.

And of course, God in his compassion and love, certainly doesn’t just toss Ishmael out. God promises to bless him as well – making him extremely fruitful – the father of a great nation. But it would be Isaac who would be the son of God’s covenant, just like God had promised well over two decades earlier.

Sometimes I am just amazed at God’s timeline. In fact, sometimes I am confused and befuddled at God’s timeline. Why did God wait 13 years after Ishmael was born to point out that Ishmael wasn’t the son that God had promised? Why did God allow Abraham to spend 13 years believing that the child he had with Hagar was God’s way of giving him descendants, when that wasn’t God’s plan at all? And while we’re questioning God’s timing – Why in the world did God wait 25 years to carry out his promise of a son to Abraham? God first brought up this promise of descendants when Abraham was 75 years old – that already seemed to be pretty late in the game. Why wait another 25 years after that to give Abraham his promised son?

And honestly, I don’t know why. The Bible doesn’t give us that information. I could speculate that perhaps God waited until it was physically impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have children before He allowed Isaac to be born in order to show that He was El-Shaddai as He claimed. Perhaps God wanted to show Abraham that He was the God who could do the impossible – not just the difficult. I could certainly see that to be possibility – especially leading up to God’s future request of Abraham to sacrifice his son as a test of his faith – that happens a few chapters later. But perhaps this was God’s way of solidifying Abraham’s faith in the God who could do the impossible. Of course, I don’t know that for sure – but that’s one possibility.

And as for why God waited 13 years before He told Abraham that Ishmael was not the son He had promised, I wonder if God waited for Ishmael sake? We could only guess how Ishmael might have been treated differently in those first formative years of his life if Abraham and Sarah considered him to be a mistake. As it was, I’m sure that Abraham, after all these years of waiting for a son, I’m sure that He was a very present and loving father for Ishmael. Ishmael would have been his joy and delight. But I wonder if things might have been different if God had told Abraham 13 years earlier that this child with Hagar was a mistake – that it was not God’s plan – that God’s promised son was still to come through Sarah?

And again, I’m just speculating here. But whatever the reason, we can know that it was a good one. God always has a good reason for why He does the things He does – and He has a good reason for when he does the things he does.

8 “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.

    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.

9 For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,

    so my ways are higher than your ways

    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8-9

Now just to give you the context of these verses, if you look at the previous verses in this chapter of Isaiah,  you’ll see that this passage is in the context of how God is merciful and willing to forgive even the most wicked people. That’s often very different from the thoughts and the ways of man – we’re not naturally inclined to forgive those who sin against us. But God is – and so these verses are pointing out that God is very different from us – his ways and his thoughts are nothing like ours – and that’s a good thing. His ways and his thoughts are always more loving, more merciful, and more good.

So I think we can certainly apply these verses to Abraham’s situation – and to ours as well. Quite often we have no idea why God does things the way he does – or in the timeframe that he does. Many times we wonder why, after praying for something for so long, why does God not seem to answer?

Well, I think we can be encouraged by these verses. If God is doing something contrary to what we think he should do – if God’s ways are not lining up with our ways – that’s actually a good thing. Because God will always be acting out of love and mercy and goodness – and all his other character traits. When we are being impatient for God to act, the delay is not because God is indifferent to our situation or that He’s forgotten about us or that He doesn’t hear our prayers. No, God’s delay is always rooted in his great love for us. Peter talks about this exact thing when he writes in 2 Peter 3:9….

The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 2 Peter 3:9

We see again that God’s delay is always rooted in his great love for us. We don’t have all the information about every situation – but God does. And so when we don’t understand what God is doing, we can still know why He’s doing it – He’s doing it because He loves us. Now we might not see how that all fits together – how this can possibly be because He loves us… But we can trust that it is –  because God always acts according to his character – and his character is good.

He was good Abraham. Good to Hagar. Good to Sarah. Good to Ishmael. They probably didn’t always believe it or see it – but God was always good.

And on that note, I just want to jump back to what God said in verses 7 & 8 – we kinda skimmed that part as we focused on Abraham & Sarah’s new names – I think think this reemphasis’s God’s goodness to Abraham and his family all over again – let me read these verses once again. In verse 7, God says…

7 “I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:8-9

Not only does God re-affirm his promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s family, but in verse 7 God makes this everlasting covenant with Abraham – he says “I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”

Now this is not just saying that God will continue to be the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever present Creator of the universe. That’s a given. This is saying much more. There’s a passage in Jeremiah that more fully explains what this means – it’s a slightly different context – talking about the exiled Isrealites returning to Israel after their captivity – but it’s very much the same promise. In Jeremiah 32, verse 38 God says:

38 They will be my people, and I will be their God. 39 And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. 40 And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. 41 I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land. Jeremiah 32:38-41

When God tells Abraham that He will always be His God and the God of his descendants after him – it’s kinda like God is adopting Abraham and his descendant as his own special children. God is going to pour out his love and his goodness on them. And we certainly pick up on that language throughout the rest of the Bible. Abraham’s family is often called God’s choose people, his Holy nation. 

And as we read through the Old Testament, we certainly see God keeping his promise. In fact, the Old Testament focus almost entirely on the story of Abraham’s family – the Israelites – as God leads them out of slavery, gives them the Promised Land, defeats their enemies, makes their kingdom the greatest in the world… And even when they abandon Him later on and God is forced to discipline them, He does so like a loving heavenly father, and He brings them back to himself again. He restores them and gives them hope. It’s really one big story of God keeping his promise to Abraham – that He would always be His God and the God of his family after him.

But what is super exciting for us is that we can be part of this family! Not by being blood relatives, of course, but by being adopted into this family by putting our faith in Jesus Christ. Paul writes in Galatians 3:29…

And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. Galatians 3:29

As those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, we are considered to be the descendants of Abraham and God’s promise applies to us. He will always be our God and we will always be his children. He will always pour out his love and goodness his on us. As it said in Jeremiah, God will take joy in doing good for us. He will faithfully and wholeheartedly take good care of us.

This is really an incredible promise and we are privileged to be included as the focus of God’s love.

But this privilege doesn’t come without responsibility – not for us and not for Abraham either. Unlike God’s earlier promises to Abraham, this promise was not unconditional. Abraham had to hold up his end of the bargain. He too, had some responsibilities in this agreement. We jumped over that part earlier, so let’s back it up and take a look at Genesis 17 verse 9 through 14.

9 Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. 10 This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. 11 You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. 13 All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. 14 Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” Genesis 17:9-14

Now I realize that we are getting near the end of our time today, so I won’t launch into a whole explanation of the background and symbolism of circumcision – and for today’s message I don’t think that understanding is necessary. The emphasis in this passage is for Abraham and his descendants to  obey the terms of the covenant. That’s what God says right off the bat in this paragraph. “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility.” And then at the end, God says that anyone who doesn’t obey, would be cut off from the covenant family – excluded from all of God’s promises. 

And so basically, God’s requirement of Abraham was obedience. Abraham and his family had to believe and obey God. They had to believe that God would carry out his promises and in response they would obey what God asked them to do. In other words, they had to walk in faith.

Likewise, we too, have the responsibility to walk in faith. And while the practice of circumcision no longer applies to us (thankfully) under God’s new covenant through Jesus Christ, our obedience to God is still required if we are to receive his promises. We are still required to believe what God has said and then to carry out what God has asked us to do. We are still required to walk in faith. 

1 John 3:23 says…

23 And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. 1 John 3:23

Belief and obedience continue to be our responsibilities in our covenant with God. We must believe in who Jesus is and what he did for us on the cross. And as a result of that belief, we must obey his commands – which in essence, is to love one another.

So God’s requirements of us is very similar to God’s requirements of Abraham – simply belief and obedience.

And by the way, just to finish the story for you – Abraham did exactly as God commanded. Verse 23 says…

On that very day Abraham took his son, Ishmael, and every male in his household, including those born there and those he had bought. Then he circumcised them, cutting off their foreskins, just as God had told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and Ishmael, his son, was thirteen. 26 Both Abraham and his son, Ishmael, were circumcised on that same day, 27 along with all the other men and boys of the household, whether they were born there or bought as servants. All were circumcised with him. Genesis 17:23-27

Abraham chose that day to believe and obey the Lord. He accepted the terms of God’s covenant with Him.

And to close this morning, I would encourage you to do same. Not the circumcision thing, but to accept the terms of God’s promise to you.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NIV

And I know I refer to this verse quite often, but it’s a great summary of everything that we’ve talked about today. 

    • It talks about God’s invitation for us to live eternally in his presence. He invites us to walk before him and be blameless by accepting his Son, Jesus. 
    • It talks about how God’s ways and God’s thoughts are far above our ways and our thoughts – His great love for us and his willingness to die for us makes that abundantly clear.
    • And it talks about our responsibilities in all this – we simply need to believe in him. To put our faith in God’s Son and simply to trust and obey.

And so I would encourage you this morning, to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Not only for your Salvation, but in your day to day living. I’m sure that many of us today are facing some of those impossible situations. I would encourage you to trust and obey El-Shaddai – the God who can do the impossible.

His love for you is beyond anything you can imagine – even when you can’t see how that can possibly be. And maybe that’s your impossible situation – maybe you think it’s impossible for God to love someone like you. After all that you’ve done or after everything that’s happened in your life – maybe you think it’s impossible that God could forgive you or that He could actual love you… Maybe you’re right – maybe that is impossible. But God is still El-Shaddai – the God who does the impossible.

And I can tell you this morning that God does loves you and that God will forgive you – He’s promised that in his Word. And all he asks of you is to believe it and accept it. Simply trust and obey.

 

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