Genesis 17:1-9,15-17,19,22 – 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. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 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.” 17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah 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. 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
Matthew 1:16-17 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. 17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.
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Today is the first day of Advent. Advent is a season of the liturgical year observed in most Christian denominations as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the coming of the Christ Child. Worship practices associated with Advent include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional, erecting a Christmas tree or a Chrismon tree. The primary focus of Advent is waiting – expectant waiting.
Waiting — ever sit at a traffic signal waiting for it to change? How about you are in a doctor’s office waiting and waiting to be called. Waiting? Fidgety waiting? Are you good at waiting or do you keep staring at the clock or your cell phone? Waiting is hard to do – and waiting can be a learned discipline – especially if we are waiting for God to arrive or God to intercede or God just to be present. Isn’t it true, we will call upon God and then wait? But waiting can be active waiting also – we engage others while we are in the process of waiting.
In the book, Undaunted Courage by Stephan Ambrose, Ambrose writes about the Lewis and Clark expedition that took place in the early 1800s. President Jefferson, commissioned the expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase – a massive amount land for the future United States. The purpose was to establish the US presence there and to seek ways for easier commerce over water routes. After facing massive challenges—hunger, fatigue, desertion, illness and so much more—Lewis and Clark (near Three Forks, Montana) finally reached the headwaters of the Missouri River.
All of their advance information led Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to believe that once they had reached the continental divide—just one-hundred miles west of Three Forks—they would face a half-day portage, reach the waters of the Columbia River, and then float to the Pacific Ocean. The hard part of the journey was behind them. It was time to celebrate. Or so they thought!
Meriwether Lewis climbed the bluffs near the Continental Divide, expecting to see the Columbia River. Imagine what he felt when, instead of seeing the Columbia River, he was the first non-native American to see the Rocky Mountains. They couldn’t go back, and there was no clear way forward. We have a word for that—trapped.
Do you know that feeling? Sure, we all do, in some way, shape, or form. Maybe we recently conquered a bad habit, only to suffer a relapse. Maybe we feel stuck in a dead-end marriage, a dead-end job, a dead-end life—or all of the above. Like Lewis and Clark, we can’t go back, and, like Lewis and Clark, there is no clear way forward. We have a word for that—trapped.
Welcome to the world of Abraham and Sarah. Their story begins in Genesis 11. Abram—as he was called then—was the son of a man named Terah. The family was from the ancient Babylonian city called Ur. It was in Ur that Abram met Sa-rai—that was her name back then. At some point Abram and Sarai married and then moved from Ur to Haran, a city on the Tigris River.
Then God showed up. In Genesis 12, God called Abram and Sa-rai to go to the land of Canaan where he would make a great nation through—of all people—Abram and Sa-rai. Abram was sixty-five years old then; Sa-rai was fifty-five. Genesis 11:30 says that Sa-rai was barren. Can you imagine what Abram and Sarai said? “A great nation? But we can’t have any children. And look how old we are!” And so, they waited. And waited. And waited some more. Still, no son. Still no daughter.
They got tired of waiting when Abram turned eighty-six and Sar-ai turned seventy-six years old. Who could blame them? Sarai pushed a slave woman named Hagar into Abraham’s tent and nine months later their union gave birth to Ishmael. There is more to that side of the waiting story later.
Thirteen years later, in Genesis 17, Abram is ninety-nine and Sarai is eighty-nine years old. Sarai is still barren; the household is still full of rancor and strife because of the Hagar and Ishmael debacle. We have a word for that—trapped. Then God showed up. Genesis 17:1 state, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty.’” The Hebrew phrase behind the title “God Almighty” is El Shaddai. El Shaddai means that God is sufficient; God is able; God is powerful. El Shaddai means that God is almighty.
What does El Shaddai do when he shows up? God cuts a covenant with Abram and Sarai. A biblical covenant is a promise that God makes to humanity if humanity keeps God’s laws and were faithful to God. The term “covenant” appears five times in today’s reading from Genesis 17. In fact, “covenant” appears another eight times in the rest of Genesis 17. Additionally, in three of these references in Genesis 17 (verses 7, 13, and 19) God says that this covenant is eternal. Do you think God is trying to make a point?
In the Old Testament, covenants weren’t made. In the Old Testament, people didn’t sign their names to paper to make a covenant. There were no attorneys or notary publics. But there was blood. That’s because in the Old Testament, people enacted covenants. They sacrificed animals and poured out their blood. Covenant cutting was a messy business.
God fulfilled his covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah through the birth of a son—Isaac. Even more, God fulfilled his covenant promise to us through the birth of his son—Jesus. That’s what we look forward to celebrating this Advent season. God showed up—again! But it took a really long time – 42 generations or more than 2000 years as we read in todays Gospel of Matthew before God showed up as Christ Child, Jesus. The everlasting covenant promised to Abraham is signed, sealed, and delivered for each of us. Signed by the crucifixion of Jesus and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This Covenant comes to us by God’s grace through the Gospel, through Baptism, and by Holy Communion where Jesus says, “This is the blood of my covenant, shed for you, for the forgiveness of sin.”
But—there is always a “but” isn’t it? We hear other voices when we feel trapped, don’t we? And these are persuasive voices. Hedonism says, “Party your way out!” Materialism says, “Spend your way out!” Individualism says, “You are the way out!” And skepticism says, “There is no way out!” If we listen to these voices long enough, our feeling of despair becomes an insidious virus that destroys our body, mind, and soul. Trying to self-medicate only gets us further trapped in patterns of self-sabotage.
When we feel trapped, we certainly don’t whistle while we work. And when others whistle while they work, we give them the look. You know. The look! That “are you that naïve?” look. We scold them, “Haven’t you read the news and heard the reports and seen the studies? Airplanes fall out of the sky. Bull markets go bear. Terrorists terrorize. Pandemic’s create a new virus. Good people turn bad. The other shoe will drop. Fine print will be found!”
Feeling trapped in a dead-end job or dead-end relationship twists us into emotional pretzels, makes our eyes twitch, our blood pressure rise, our heads ache, and our armpits sweat. We numb our pain with six-packs and food binges and too much TV. We express our angst with volcanic anger and silent stares—we’re experts at both.
A Hungarian man named Andras Tamas fought for the Germans in World War II. The Soviets captured him in 1944. Andras Tamas went crazy while in the Russian gulags—I’ve heard that Russian gulags can do that to a person! After Tamas was transferred to a mental hospital, the Soviets—whose system was not exactly a model of efficiency—eventually forgot who he was. It wasn’t until 1998 that a doctor recognized that Andras Tamas was speaking Hungarian. Everyone else just thought he was crazy. Opening his medical file for the first time in decades, the doctor found Tamas’ case history and notified the authorities in Hungary. The POW finally returned home in 1999 to a hero’s welcome, where he was called “the last prisoner of World War II.”
We’ve all felt like that, “the last prisoner of World War II.” Today some of us may even feel like we’re at the end of our rope. But hear this loud and clear. God has shown up in Jesus Christ! We are not trapped! Say “no” to that lie. Sin can’t trap us. Jesus forgives that. Death can’t trap us. Jesus conquered that. Hopelessness can’t trap us. Jesus hears our prayer!
“I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Those are words of St. Paul. “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:7). Those are the words of God to Abraham and Sarah.
What does all of this mean to us? No matter what you may be feeling trapped by–caring for small children, worrying about teenagers, a broken heart, or an overwhelming feeling that everything’s gone terribly wrong—wait upon the Lord with faith. Because of Christ’s everlasting covenant with you, death is dead, sin is forgiven, hope is eternal, the victory is won! We have a word for that—free. The waiting is over. When Christ was born, God fully showed up. Jesus is our Immanuel, our God-with Us. Put your faith fully in him. Because of this little baby, you are forever free. Amen.
Thanks be to God!