The Identity Covenant: Sermon on Genesis 17, the Naming of Abraham and Sarah

Last week we began the first Sunday of Lent with the story of the first covenant God makes with creation and God’s reminder through the symbol of the rainbow.

This week, we move to a new covenant between two people named Abram and Sarai.  Abram and Sarai are a married couple, with no children, who are in their late 90’s.   By the time we arrive at the 17th chapter of Genesis, Abram and Sarai have been in some sticky situations.  In the 12th chapter, the Lord says to Abram, “leave your land, your family and your household for the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation.”  Abram obeys and set out for the land of Canaan.  As they journey, a famine strikes the land, so they go to Egypt as immigrants with no resources. So Abram comes up with an idea.  He says to Sarai, “I know you are a good looking woman.  When the Egyptians see you, they will say, this is wife and they will kill me and let you live.  So tell them you are my sister so that they treat me well for your sake and I will survive because of you.”  Sure enough, Pharoah’s princes thought Saria was a catch and so Sarai becomes one of the concubines and Abram is paid handsomely for his wife.  This does not sit well with God, and the Bible says, God put plagues on Pharoah because of Abram’s wife.  Pharoah figures it out and expels Sarai and Abram from Egypt.

Later, Abram gets involved with a slave named Hagaar, who has a son named Ishmeal.  He laters banishes them both into the wilderness to their assuming death.

Saria and Abram have not had a perfect life.  They are not perfect people. They have made some pretty huge mistakes.  And it is at this point of the story that God appears to Abram and says, “I am El Shaddia.  Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many descendants.”  Abram falls on his face, but me my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations.  And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham.” He goes on to say that the covenant is  kept through the act of circumcision and then he says to Abraham.  “As for your wife, Sarai, you will not longer call her Sarai, but Sarah.”    God then promises them a son, and Abraham laughs.

Imagine being 98 and 99 years old and being told that at almost a century year old, you are given a new identity and told that you will be  bringing  a new life into the world.

My grandfather died earlier this year at the age of 99.  I know 99. At 99 you sleep. You have patterns and routines.  You are pretty certain who you are and you are not about try out a new career or a new name or become a new parent.  But this is what God says – not to a 22 year old, but a 99 year old – I have a job for you – I knew identity for you – and covenant with you.


It’s this promise  and idea of being given a new identity that I want to hone in on this morning. You know, you hear people talk about going out and finding themselves. – Young adults wanting to break free from their parents and shaping their own religious or political identity.  People in their 40’s having identity crisis.  There’s a lot that has been written about identity in the age of the internet.  People put their identities all over social media in hopes that people will comment and “like” how they look or where they are.

The first covenant God makes is with creation.  The second covenant God makes is with a man and a woman in which he gives them a new identity – or perhaps more clearly, he reminds them of their identity.

I can remember, as a kid going over to a friend’s house for dinner they ate dinner with the TV on and off of TV trays.  The next night, as we sat around the table to have supper, I advocated that we do the same and I remember my Dad saying, “that’s not who we are, that’s not what we do.” Somehow our identity as a family was defined by how we gathered at the table at meal time.

When parents say to their children, “that’s not like you…”  When a friend calls and says, “You don’t sound like yourself…”  When a teacher says, “You can do better…” it strikes a cord and it causes us to pause and take a longer look at who we are.

The Disney Movie, the Lion King is a story of a lion, who runs away from home because he fears taking responsibility and facing his past.  He grows up away from home until he is found by a wise monkey named Raffiki who makes him look at himself in a pool of water.  Here is what happens next:

The Lion King

—Remember who are, his Father says…. Remember who you are.

We make two mistakes when we are trying to define who we are.  The first thing we do, is we define who we are based on what we have.   We say, “I am my education, my stuff, relationships, social status, good looks, health,” and when that stuff is taken away or ends, we can feel threatened, because we don’t know who we aren’t if we aren’t married or wealthy or beautiful. “I am what I have” is the vice of lust. It is the desire for more and more, greater and greater.

The second mistake we make, is we make our identity based on what other people say about us. Here’s the thought process,  “If others say good things about me, I feel good. If others say bad things, then I enter a dark place and my very sense of myself is threatened.”  “I am what other people say about me,” is the vice of anger. It is living with a high sensitivity of how others regard you, which leads to great anger.. We think, “I’m no good, I must be no good, I’m so angry at myself for being no good. They think Im no good. How dare they think I’m not good. I’m so angry at them for them thinking I’m not good.”

Henri Nouwen makes the argument that anger and lust are two vices have long been identified as enemies to a spiritual life. Let’s face it, if you are angry, it’s really hard to receive grace and if you lust after stuff, it’s really hard to receive gratitude. Anger and Lust are great sins that keep us from seeing God.

Nouwen says: Jesus’ whole message is saying you are not what you have, nor what people say about you even when that’s important and even though it makes you suffer and even though it makes you happy, that is not who you are. I come, Jesus says, to reveal to you who you truly are. And who are you? You are a child of God. You are the one who I call my child. (Now, child doesn’t mean little child, child means son or daughter.) You are my son, you are my daughter. – The Life of the Beloved.

The spiritual life is where you hear again and again: “I love you because I love you because I love you because I love you.

This covenant is the promise that we belong to God.   It’s that simple, and that difficult.

We have been talking a lot lately at our church officer retreat and meetings about the identity of Orchard Park.  Who are we at Orchard Park? What is our identity?   Do we know who we are and what we stand for?  Is it how many people worship, or the size of our budget, or the programs we offer, or the building we worship in?  Are we the stuff that we have?   Or are we our reputation?  Are we how people talk about us, what they say and how they respond?

This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Utener of Saginaw in 1979 about the church.

“It helps, now and then, to stop and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are the workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

Who are we? I know we are not perfect. But we are enough.

We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. And we pray that all unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, By our Love, Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

It’s that simple, and that difficult.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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