Please pray with me:
Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty, walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you, and I will be their God.”
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come, every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not be circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people, he has broken my covenant.”
God also said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you are no longer to call her Sarai, her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations, kings of peoples will come from her.”
Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Can a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah give birth to a child at ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.”
Then God said, “Yes, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael: I have heard you. I will surely bless him. I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
On that very day, Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen. Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.
That was Genesis 17. It is the story of God making a covenant with Abram, whom he will rename Abraham. It is a story of covenant-making. But before we go any farther, what is a covenant? A covenant is a set of promises that establishes a relationship. The most common covenant we see is marriage, where a man and woman say “I promise” to each other and begin a new relationship.
Genesis 17 is God establishing a covenant with Abraham, entering into a binding, loving relationship with him. In our time together, I would like you to notice with me three things about this covenant God established with Abraham, then I would like to tell you a story before we come to the table. Notice with me the heart of the covenant, the mark of the covenant, and who gets marked.
Heart of the Covenant: I will be your God
First, the heart of the covenant. The heart of the covenant is God giving himself in relationship to human beings. It is verses 7 and 8: I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you, and I will be their God.
I will be your God. That is an astounding claim. In this covenant, God promises himself to Abraham. The God of the universe, God Almighty as he introduces himself, seeks to bind himself into relationship with human beings. God promises Abraham that he will have a people – children and descendants. God promises that Abraham will have a place – the whole land of Canaan. God gives Abraham a place to belong and a people to belong to, both of which are important, but the greatest gift is God himself. The LORD enters into a covenant, a marriage-like relationship, with Abraham and his descendants. God has his side. ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: people, place, communion with God himself.’ Abraham has his side. ‘As for you, you are to keep my covenant, circumcision.’ In doing this, the LORD of the universe humbles himself in love to be God to Abraham, to be in a unique, intimate, special relationship with Abram and his people. At the heart of the covenant, God promises himself to Abraham.
Mark of the Covenant: Circumcision
Second, notice the mark of being part of the covenant: circumcision. How do you know whether you are part of the covenant people, part of those who belong to God and live in relationship with him? If you are male, you would carry that mark in your body as circumcision.
Back in college, I worked as a middle school leader at a local church. For the first two years, like my current catechism class, I had only girls. Twelve of them. One time, I was teaching on a story in the Bible involving circumcision. As I read the passage, I could see the discomfort and fear on their faces. “Oh no, he is going to talk about circumcision. He might use the words ‘foreskin’ or even ‘penis.’ I cannot handle this. What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?” As soon as I finished the passage, one of the more brave girls spoke up. “We already know how circumcision works, you do NOT need to explain it.” Message received.
As uncomfortable as it may make many of us feel, we need to talk about circumcision this morning. Circumcision is the act of removing some of the skin around the head of the penis, known as the foreskin. God chose circumcision as the mark of membership in this covenant relationship. To belong to God, to receive the blessing of relationship with him, Abraham and his people were all to be circumcised.
However, Circumcision is a surprising mark of the covenant between God and his people because it is not visible to the world. Later on Mount Sinai, the people of God would be given particular ways to eat, dress, and act that would set them apart from the people around them, but this most fundamental mark of belonging to God was something that was not readily visible to others. The mark itself was largely hidden. This covenantal relationship with God would become visible not through some easily seen mark, but by a life transformed by a relationship with God.
Circumcision is also painful and bloody. In circumcision, a part of you is cut off, cut away, removed in order to be in relationship with God. This physical, body mark was a sign of a deeper cutting, a cutting of the heart. Circumcision was both an act of obedience on the part of Abraham and his descendants, but also a gift from God. It was a gift in the sense that they carried in their bodies the mark that they belonged to God. They were reminded by the very shape of their bodily existence that God had chosen to be their God.
They were also reminded that the gift of God’s presence included a cutting, a removal. Those who belonged to God were not only to be cut in the flesh, but cut to the heart. The prophet Jeremiah and others would describe this as a circumcision of the heart. Their hearts were to be cut by the covenant so that they could live in communion with God.
Just as physical circumcision was painful, so too was circumcision of the heart. The desire to live on their own must be cut off. The hunger to make a name for themselves apart from God must be cut off. The desire to live in defiance of God must be cut off. All so that they would be in communion with God.
Circumcision is painful – a cutting off, a cutting away, a removal. It was a sign in the body of what would be done in the heart to mark one as belonging to God. It was also a gift. Apart from that circumcision, that cutting of the heart, we can easily live with all the external appearances of relationship with God, but our hearts are far from him.
Circumcision is also permanent. It doesn’t wear off and it cannot be undone. As a permanent physical mark on the body, circumcision was a perfect sign of the permanent nature of God’s relationship with his people. As the LORD says, My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. As lasting and permanent as the sign of circumcision is in the body, so also is God’s covenant with his people.
Lastly, circumcision is serious. It was not optional. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not be circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people, he has broken my covenant. To refuse the mark of the covenant, to refuse circumcision, was to reject the heart of the covenant: relationship with God. The only options were to be cut through circumcision, or be cut off from God and his people by rejecting it. The mark of covenant membership was not optional.
Who is Marked?: Infants and Gentiles
The third thing we should notice is who gets marked. Who is marked by circumcision as belonging to this covenant, as being in relationship with God? Infants and Gentiles. Listen to this: For the generations to come, every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.
The first group that is to undergo circumcision is eight day old infants. The inclusion of infants was highly counter-cultural. Circumcision was occasionally practiced in the ancient world. But those who were circumcised were usually becoming priests and were always adults. At the earliest, it was done at puberty. But with Abraham, God instructs him to circumcise children eight days old.
Before the child could speak, before it could lift up its head, before it could even remember the circumcision taking place, the child was marked as belonging to God. Before the child could choose God, it was already chosen. Before it could even begin to love God, it was loved by God. Contrary to the culture around it, God established circumcision not primarily as a mark of one’s decision to devote themselves to God, but of God claiming this child as his own.
The second group to undergo circumcision were outsiders. Specifically, God talks about those who are not physical descendants of Abraham. These are Gentiles, non-Jews. From the outset of God entering into relationship with Abraham, he had in view that people who are not physical descendants of Abraham would be brought into the covenant. Those outside the people of God who were bought at a price would be marked as belonging to God, as one of his people forever. Would these adults have made a decision to be included and undergo circumcision? Yes, but circumcision still maintained its character as a gift from God, as a mark of God claiming this person as his own. We see in the covenant with Abraham that God had always intended that his grace would extend to the nations. It was always part of God’s design that those who are outside would be invited in, those who were far off would be brought near, those who were once not God’s people would become God’s people.
So what have we noticed? The heart of God’s covenant with Abraham is joyful, life-giving relationship with God. We also noticed that one is marked as being part of this relationship through circumcision – a cutting away of the flesh that points to God’s work of cutting away of the heart for relationship with him, a permanent, hidden sign that one belongs to God forever. And we noticed that, in God’s grace, both infants and Gentiles are intended to be included in this covenant relationship, marked as God’s own forever.
The New Covenant Story
Before we come to the table, let me tell you a story. When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God promised to be his God and the God of his descendants forever. As God had promised, these descendants became a nation, a nation that lived for four hundred years under bondage in Egypt. After God led them out of that bondage, he brought them to the foot of a mountain. There God came near to them and renewed his promise to be their God and they would be his people. However, within days the people showed that while they had been circumcised in the flesh, many had not been circumcised in their hearts. Their bodies bore the mark of belonging to God, but their hearts were far from him. But God did not give up on his promise to have communion with his people.As the generations wore on, the pattern of being marked in the flesh but hard in the heart continued. Yet, God did not give up. Instead, he promised a new covenant, where what was written in the flesh through circumcision would be written on the hearts of God’s people through the work of the Holy Spirit.
God promised a new covenant, where the Spirit would mark God’s people and circumcise their hearts. God’s covenant to be God for them, God with them was an everlasting, unbreakable promise. Eventually, God himself came as the man Jesus Christ, and the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread and broke it and after supper he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” As Jesus came, the new covenant dawned. Through his bloody and painful sacrifice, Jesus opened the way for us to feast with God. The joyful relationship that had always been promised was made visible at a table, in a meal.
Less than a day later, Jesus had been crucified. Three days later he was raised from the dead. Fifty days later, his disciples were gathered in the temple when the Spirit descended upon them in fire. Peter stood up and proclaimed the good news of the Gospel and it says,
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the LORD our God will call.”
At the word of the gospel, hearts were cut, circumcised. In response, they were told to be baptized. They were told that the promises of God – the promise of forgiveness and relationship with God – is for you, your children, and all who are far off. What was Abraham told? The covenant was for him, his children, and those bought with a price. Infants and Gentiles. At Pentecost, we see the promise of God made all the way back in Genesis 17 being fulfilled by the giving of the spirit and the waters of baptism.
In the new covenant, baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of membership in the covenant. We no longer need to be circumcised to belong to God. Instead, we are brought to the waters of baptism. Listen to Paul’s word in Colossians: In him (that is, Christ) you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed with human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
We no longer need to be circumcised by human hands in order to be in the covenant people of God, to be in everlasting relationship with him. Instead, we must be baptized. Baptism replaces circumcision but it is remarkably similar. It is something not easily visible to the world, but should issue in a transformed life. While it does not involve a cutting off of our flesh, the Spirit works through baptism to cut our hearts. It is permanent and does not wear off, and it is serious. Because of the deep connection between circumcision and baptism, it is also offered to infants and Gentiles. It is graciously given to children born in the household of God and adults who were once far off but have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Baptism is the mark of membership in the covenant, which is also why the church has always claimed baptism as a prerequisite for coming to the Lord’s Table. This is why we always place the baptismal font on the way to the table. We must be washed and claimed in order to eat with God. We must belong to God in order to feast in his presence. We must be marked as his own to come close and join in the feast of the new covenant.
The heart of God’s covenant with Abraham was to be his God and the God of his descendants after him. That joyful presence of God is offered to us here at the table. Through baptism, Christians are marked as Christ’s own forever and invited to feast with Jesus. So come to the feast, come taste the sweetness of God’s presence. Come enjoy the promise fulfilled: I will be your God.