A Covenant of Blessings - Sermon for Lent 2A (Genesis 12)

Genesis 12:1-4

The words bless, blessed, and blessing, appear regularly in the Bible. Jesus offers nine blessings to begin the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12). We find many words of blessing filling the Psalms. The same is true of the Book of Genesis. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God blessed God’s human creation and then told them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28).

This morning in our reading from Genesis 12 we hear God make a covenant of blessings with Abram, better known to us as Abraham. God tells Abram to pack up the family and head off to an unknown land. If Abram does this, God promises to bless him and make him a blessing to all the families of the earth. The promise of blessings sounds good, but on the flip side, this promise involves quite a bit of risk on Abram’s part. Nevertheless, as Paul reminds us in Romans 4, Abraham acted in faith and God proved to be faithful.

When it comes to this covenant of blessing, what do these words bless, blessed, and blessing mean? The Hebrew word is Barak and it speaks about life, health, fertility, and longevity. God promised to bless Abram by making his name great and by making him a great nation. God also promised that other people would be blessed through Abram so that they too could share in God’s gifts. The opposite of blessing in Scripture is to be cursed. To be cursed means you don’t share in God’s gift of life. The good news though is that if we share in the promise made to Abraham, we too will be blessed and  flourish. That is,  we can live a life led well that reflects God’s ultimate purposes for creation.  

This theme of blessing runs through Scripture starting with creation and moving through the call of Abraham to the ministry of Jesus and then to our inclusion in Abraham’s family through faith in Jesus. The good news we hear today is that while God is the source of all blessing, as members of Abraham’s family we serve as agents of this blessing in the world (See Cornwall, Called to Bless).

Abraham appears in the biblical story at the end of Genesis 11. At that point, his name is Abram, son of Terah. He’s married to his cousin Sarai and they live in Haran (Gen. 11:27-32). We pick things up here in Genesis 12 after the death of Terah. Abram is still living in Haran, minding his own business, when God shows up and tells him to pack up the family and head out on a journey toward an unknown destination.

Not only did God tell Abram to pack up the family and head out on this journey to an unknown land, but God promised to bless Abram and make his name great and make him a great nation. Finally, God promised that the peoples of the earth would be blessed through Abram.

When Abram said yes to God’s call, even though he didn’t know where he was heading or how God would bless the peoples of the earth through him, he was a young seventy-five years old. That’s a decade older than me, and I’m not sure how I would respond at my age. Nevertheless, he said yes! 

Now, there’s a problem embedded in this covenant of blessings. While God promised to make Abram a great nation, Abram and Sarai didn’t have any children and Sarai was well past the age of childbearing. So how was God going to fulfill this promise? At one point Sarai came up with a solution to the problem. Perhaps her slave Hagar could serve as a surrogate and produce a child for Abram. Surely that would fulfill God’s plans. While Hagar did bear Abram a son, that didn’t fulfill God’s plans for Abram and Sarai. Eventually Sarai, now Sarah, does have a son whom they name Isaac. It’s through Isaac that the covenant of blessings gets passed down through time.

To get a sense of Abram’s call to bless the nations, we need to step back to the story of the Tower of Babel. According to Genesis 11, the peoples of the earth all spoke the same language. They decided to make their own name great by building a tower on the Plain of Shinar so they could storm heaven. God responded to their arrogance by confusing their languages and scattering the people across the earth. This serves as a reminder that God is God and we are not! 

While God essentially curses the people by confusing their languages, God begins to turn things around in Genesis 12 when God makes a covenant of blessing with Abram so Abram could be an agent of blessing. While God begins this work with Abram, this work of blessing is going to take more than one generation. In fact, this work continues to this day. 

We fit into the story because by adoption we are members of Jesus’s family, and Matthew connects Jesus with Abraham in his genealogy, where Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham (Mt. 1:1-17).  Since Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, he inherited the family business, which is to be a blessing to the nations. Here’s where we come in. As Paul reminds us in Romans 4, we have been adopted into Abraham’s family through faith in Jesus (Rom. 4:1-5, 13-17). Therefore, we’ve been entrusted with this call to bless the nations. 

So what does this mean for us? We might want to go back to the story of Babel and the building of a city on the Plain of Shinar. Not only did the people build a tower to storm heaven, but they also built a wall to protect themselves from outsiders. Old Testament scholar Gerald Janzen suggests that the confusion of the languages at Babel served as “a sign of the divisiveness embodied in the city walls and as God’s judgment on divisiveness.” We humans have a tendency to build walls to protect ourselves from others. These walls can be physical in nature or they might be metaphorical or spiritual in nature.  The message of Genesis 12 is that God decided to tear down those walls by calling Abraham and Sarah to leave behind their place of safety and travel to an unknown land. In other words, instead of putting their trust in walls, they would put their trust in God, who is the source of blessing. So, as Gerald Janzen puts it: “now Abram’s name is to serve as a seed word in the reunification of the human family” [Abraham and All the Families of the Earth, p. 18]. 

In his Galatian letter, Paul speaks of how the seed of blessing God promised to Abraham is embodied by Jesus (Gal. 3:15-18). Paul then points out that when we’re baptized we clothe ourselves with Christ, so that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” Therefore, by belonging to Christ we are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29). Therefore, to be in Christ is to be an agent of blessing to the nations. 

When it comes to better understanding what this call to bless involves, I have found the words of Rachel Naomi Remen helpful. Remen is a physician and the daughter and granddaughter of Orthodox Jewish rabbis. In her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, she speaks of a principle passed on to her by her grandfather. It has to do with the principle of Tikkun Olam, which is often translated as “to heal the world.” Remen’s grandfather told young Rachel:

"We need to remember to bless the life around us and in us, Neshme-le,” he would tell me. “When we bless others, we free the goodness in them and in ourselves. When we bless life, we restore the world." [Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, p. 327].

I believe that is what God intended for Abram and his descendants. By responding to God’s call Abraham and Sarah entered into the covenant of blessing that restores the world to wholeness so that it can flourish as God intends. That work is not yet complete, but it is underway. While God first called Abraham and Sarah to take up this work, it is also our calling as adopted members of Abraham’s family through our faith in Jesus. 

David Arnow, a Jewish psychologist and author of the book Choosing Hope, points out that not only did God call Abraham to abandon his homeland for an undefined destination, but that call also reaches deeper into Abraham’s sense of being. Arnow writes: “It tested the strength of the two core qualities of hope itself—the willingness to embrace the possibility of a future fundamentally different than the present and the readiness to help bring it about” [Choosing Hope, p. 49]. 

Even as Abraham and Sarah said yes to this divine calling, when we respond to the call of Jesus, we commit ourselves to participate in this divine effort to create a different future that brings blessings to the nations by helping tear down the walls that divide us from one another. It is in fulfilling this call that the world experiences hope, which is much more than mere optimism.  So, may we respond in faith to God’s call to be a blessing to the nations, even as Abram and Sarai did so many generations before!

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall

Pulpit Supply

First Presbyterian Church

Troy, Michigan

Lent 2A

March 5, 2023   

Cross, Henri Edmond, 1856-1910. Landscape with Stars, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57008 [retrieved March 4, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Landscape_with_Stars_MET_DT736.jpg.


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