Third Time is a Charm…Right? (Lenten Lectio Reflection: Genesis 17:1-16)

Abraham, pater multarem gentium by Salvador Dali, 1967.

When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “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. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you. I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession. And I will be their God.”

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us. On the eighth day after birth, every male in every generation must be circumcised, including those who are not your own children: those born in your household and those purchased with silver from foreigners. Be sure you circumcise those born in your household and those purchased with your silver. Your flesh will embody my covenant as an enduring covenant. Any uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin remains uncircumcised will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.”

God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
Genesis 17:1-6 (CEB)

This is the third time God appeared to Abraham to tell him about the wonderful and amazing things God was going to bless Abraham with. Most notably, God was promising that Abraham would be the father of many nations, more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach. By all accounts, Abraham was a pretty wealthy guy, but the one thing he was lacking was an heir. In the ancient world, wealth was great but not having a family or an heir to pass your livelihood and name on to was of the utmost importance.

If you did not have an heir, your name and memory would pass away with you and you would be forgotten.

Three times now, God has shown up to Abraham to tell him that his life will not be forgotten. He will have heirs and his name will be great. Three times God has spoken to Abraham and confirmed his promise of descendants. Three times God has reminded Abraham that God has not forgotten the covenant made.

Three times.

The first time God spoke to Abraham he was 75 (Genesis 12). In today’s verse Abraham is 99. 24 years (give or take) according to ancient time keeping practices has passed between when Abraham first heard from God and now.

Three times over 24 years. That’s once every eight years or so.

I can imagine that Abraham is starting to get a little impatient and/or jaded. I bet there were moments when Abraham wondered if God had forgotten the promise. Did Abraham wonder if God had forgotten him? Was God just like all the other ancient gods? Would God lie, cheat and deceive to get his way or to use humans as his play thing? In the moments when God was silent, was Abraham tempted to walk away from it all? We are told that Abraham and Sarah tried to work it out on their own (the whole Hagar and Ishmael story) so we know they were getting tired of waiting for God to work as was promised. As Stephen King apparently said, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” I am beginning to understand more and more why Abraham and Sarah laugh the next time God shows up, reconfirming the reaffirmation of the restatement of God’s initial promise.

Really God? Not this again. We’ve heard this all before.

The 40 days of Lent, (in preparation/expectation for the celebration of Easter) can have this impatient/jaded feeling as well. Sometimes we wish, because we have the luxury of knowing how the story ends, to try and rush to the celebration of Easter. We want to avoid the pain of the wilderness, we want to side-step the seeming silence of unfulfilled promises and we wish we could skip the hard part. I am sure the ancient Israelites were tired of…

…oppression in Egypt…

…wandering…

…a divided and broken kingdom…

…being in exile…

…some broken walls and a meager rebuilt temple…

…being ruled by a revolving door of foreign, disinterested and oppressive powers…

…waiting for the fulfillment of another promise from God…

…waiting for a Messiah.

I have realized that I am no better than Abraham and the ancient Israelites. I get tired of waiting. I gave up eating meat for Lent to try and understand what most of the rest of the world eats like and treat eating meat as a special opportunity. Sometimes it feels useless and unnecessary. I’m barely a week in and eating vegetarian foods can be uncomfortable, bland and annoying. I’m also waiting for some kind of normalcy and emotional stability to settle on our house and family after the miscarriage of our daughter in December. On top of that, I’m still waiting for a feeling of resolution on my plans of professional ministry after graduating from seminary two years ago. Actually, it’ll be three years in June. I am watching a lot of change happen around me and opportunities I’d love to have pass by.

Waiting is hard.

Life is full of waiting and seeming unfulfilled promises and expectations. Yet, we wait because we believe God is good and that the promises will be fulfilled as they were in the past.

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