"Walk with Me"#87-09
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 27, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 17
This journal that I'm holding in my hand is special to me. It's not special because of its construction. It's just cardboard and paper and notebook that my wife picked up on some clearance rack somewhere. It's special because of what my son wrote in it. My son Josiah wrote in this journal when we took a trip to Alaska when he was 13 years old, about three years ago. It was supposed to be a coming-of-age trip for him, and for me, in some ways. It was an adventure where we could be men. During the first week that we were there, we hiked the Pinnell Mountain Trail. The Pinnell Mountain Trail is a 27-mile wilderness trail along the mountain ridge above the timberline, just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle through the Alaskan tundra. We had a great time, and on the hike we talked about how hiking is kind of like life. There's ups, there's downs, there's tests and rewards. There's struggle and scars and summits all with the people who walk with you. Such is life, and Josiah wrote about it in this journal that his mom made him carry in his backpack, and I'm so thankful that she did. Because now I get to hold it and read it, and it's become a sign for me of that trip, and it brings me back.
On this program we've been listening to the account of an ancient sojourner, a wandering Middle Eastern nomad named Abram, and his wife Sarai. Of all the people in the world, the God who created the universe and still rules the universe, He picked them to be the mother and father of a family, a multinational family, that would be the source of ultimate blessing for all families. Now, how does one family bless the whole world? It's not how you might think. It wouldn't be through political or social reforms. It wouldn't be through advances in technology and education. A wouldn't even be in superior morality. Abram would bless the nations by trusting in the God who created everything.
The world according to Genesis has come under the curse of God because of mistrust in God, distrust of God. And so for the world to be put right again, God has to reestablish this trust. So how do you reestablish trust? Well, what do you do in your relationships to establish trust? One way is you make promises, and you keep your promises. For example, your favorite online store promises that they'll deliver the product on a certain date, and they do again and again and again. And in time they establish trust. Or a father promises his son that he loves him, that he'll always be there for him, that he'll take care of him, and he wants the best for him. And if the father is competent and reliable and trustworthy, the son begins to trust him—even when that involves going on a wilderness hike through the Alaskan Tundra.
That's how you establish trust. See, this is what God is doing for Abram in the book of Genesis. God says, "Walk with me, Abram, into the wilderness, into the unknown, and I will take care of you. I will be your shield. I will be your great reward." And Abram starts to trust God, and God declares that Abraham is in the right with God. Abram is justified by grace through faith in God's Word of promise, and through this faith, God will put the whole world right again.
But not so fast. God decides that Abram's faith must be tested first. Before you put your weight on something, you test it, right? To make sure that it will hold. And before Abram's faith can be a source of blessing for all people, their faith must be tested. And that's what we see happening in this part of Genesis. God is testing and strengthening Abram's faith. Abram has to wait for God's promises to be fulfilled. God had promised Abram and Sarai a son, and they've been waiting for 10 years. They've been waiting. And Sarai, his wife, apparently can't have children, and so they come up with a plan of their own. Abram takes one of their servants, Hagar, as his second wife. And Hagar becomes a surrogate mother for Sarai, and she has a son named Ishmael. And now Ishmael is 13, and Abram's almost 100, and Sarai 90 years old, and it looks like they've passed the test, and then God brings another. Will Abram and Sarai trust God, even now, to give them a child. It seems like too much to ask.
And so, to strengthen them in this test, God gives them a visible sign, a permanent mark, right where it counts, so to speak. Listen to how it goes in Genesis 17
"Now Abram was 99 years old, and the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said to him, 'I am God Almighty, walk in My presence and be blameless. And I will confirm My covenant promise between you and Me, and I will greatly multiply you.' And Abram, he fell on his face, and God said to him, 'Look, I have established My covenant promise with you, and I will make you a father of many nations. No longer will your name be Abram, but you will be called Abraham because I have made you a father of many nations. And I will make nations come from you and kings come from you. I will establish My covenant promise between Me and you and your offspring after you, throughout all their generations, as an everlasting covenant. I will be God for them, and I will give the land of your sojourning to you and to your offspring after you as an everlasting possession. This is the sign. This is the covenant promise between Me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you will be circumcised. You will undergo a circumcision in your flesh, and this will be the sign of the covenant promise between Me and you throughout the generations to come. Every male among you who is eight days old will be circumcised, and so My covenant promise will be in your flesh. Any man among you who is uncircumcised, who is not circumcised in his flesh, will be cut off from his people. He has broken My covenant.' And then God said to Abraham, 'As for Sarai, your wife, you will no longer call her name Sarai, but Sarah will be her name, and I will bless her even more. She will bear for you a son. And I will bless her, and she will become nations and kings of peoples will come from her.
"And Abraham again fell on his face, and he laughed. And he said in his heart, 'Will a child be born to a man who is 100 years old, and will Sarah who is 90 years old, will she bear a child?' And then Abraham said to God, 'Would that Ishmael would live before You.' And God said to him, 'Yes, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. Isaac, which means "he laughs" you will name him Isaac. And I will establish My covenant promise with him and with his offspring after him as an everlasting covenant. As for Ishmael, I have heard you, I will bless him. I will make him fruitful and multiply him, and he will become a father of 12 princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant promise I will establish with Isaac whom Sarah your wife will bear for you this time next year.'
"And after He was done speaking with him, God went up from Abraham that very day. Abraham took his son Ishmael and all who were born in his house, and he circumcised them as God had told him. Abraham was 99 years old, and Ishmael was 13 years old. On that very day, Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised."
According to Genesis 17, circumcision is the sign of the covenant promise God made to Abraham and to his family. What do signs do? Signs bring us back, and they point us forward. For example, when my son Josiah and I were on that hike in the Alaskan tundra, there were several times when we were struck with the fear of taking a wrong turn and getting lost. And you got to remember this is a wilderness hike, and you get about a day into it and there are no signs of civilization anywhere. You take a wrong turn you might not ever come back.
Now, thankfully the path was pretty well marked most of the way. But there were multiple occasions when we would come up over the summit of a hill, and the path would completely disappear. And we would look around and everything looked the same and panic started to grip me when Josiah would ask, "Dad, where do we go now?"
You might not have hiked on a wilderness trail before, but I think you know what that feels like, that panic that hits you, that feeling of wandering, of aimlessness. This happens to me most often outside of the context of hiking when I've come upon some goal or achievement that I've been working towards, a summit in my life, and I get to the top, and I expect to be in the clear, and then all of a sudden I'm back out in the wilderness. And I don't know where to go or what to do, and sometimes I just feel like laying down and giving up. You know what that feels like? How's your walk? How are you being tested?
More importantly, where do you look when the panic starts to rise? Now when we were on that trail in Alaska, thankfully, the good people of the Federal Bureau of Land Management had the foresight to plant signposts along the way on the trail every 100 yards or so. And so if you lost track of where you were going on, here's all you had to do, you stopped, you scan the horizon and you looked for the next signpost. It was always there. Even if it took some time to see it. And that's what circumcision was for the family of Abraham: it was a signpost for them to tell them who they were, where they'd come from, and where they were going. They were a people who were set apart for a mission, a mission to rescue the world.
My wife Amy tells a story about when she was on a trip with her youth group, hiking in the Colorado Rockies. And about a day into the trip, one of the students fell and hurt himself and could no longer walk, and so the leader of the group had them divide into two, two groups. One group stayed with the young man who was injured, and the other group had to double time it back, a day's hike, to the trailhead, and call for help. And Amy my wife was on that group that had to run back to the trailhead. And she said that hike was a different hike. It wasn't leisurely. It wasn't for their own enjoyment. It was to save someone.
And that's the kind of hike that Abraham's family is on. The whole world is waiting for them. The whole world needs them to pass this test. The whole creation, whether they know it or not, is waiting for this family.
This family was gathered together. It was the eighth day. It was the day set aside for His circumcision. His mom and dad, they were staying in Bethlehem, but they were actually from Nazareth, about 90 miles north of there. Even though she was pregnant, they came down to Bethlehem for the census. The census was a sign for all of them that they were still exiles. The Roman emperor says, "Go!" And they go.
They are the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. They're the people of the living God. Yet nearly 1,800 years after Abraham, they're living like slaves in their own land. This caesar, a man posing as God, tells them to go, and they go. Maybe God was testing them, Mary wondered, as she watched them prepare her eight-day-old Son for His circumcision. Moses and the prophets had chided their people for their uncircumcised hearts, for their lack of faith, and so maybe they were being tested. After the circumcision, He got His Name officially: it was Jesus. It was the Name that the angel had given to her. "He will be great," he said, "and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will rule over the house of Jacob—Jacob, the son of Isaac, Isaac, the son of Abraham. He will rule forever. God had kept His promise. Kings will come from you. Isn't that what He said to Abraham and Sarah? Here he was—the King, and now He is bound by blood to His people through this sign of the covenant. Mary felt a piercing premonition that He would be tested—and also peace—that He would prove faithful, even if no one else would. God His true Father would make Him be a sign for all the nations and glory for His people Israel.
This week many followers of Jesus will commemorate the Reformation—a reformation in the church that began 502 years ago. At the heart of the Reformation was and still is the conviction that what was true for Abraham is also true for me and for you. That is, you and I are put right with God by the grace of God alone, through faith alone in the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ alone. Jesus, God's eternal Son, became flesh and blood. He became the offspring of Abraham and Sarah to keep the covenant for us. God Himself was tested—and He proved trustworthy so that you by grace can trust Him.
The sign of circumcision is complete now. He's here. The King has come, and so the sign is no longer necessary. This is why the New Testament can say of circumcision in Galatians 5:6, "In Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything but only faith (only faith in Jesus) faith working through love." And the sign to sustain and create this faith—the sign that has replaced circumcision, according to the book of Colossians 2 is Baptism—Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. That's the sign that sustains this faith. We walk with God because we have become children of God. It's not the other way around. That is, it's not that we become children of God because we've worked really hard to walk with God. You see, the difference? Sometimes it's easy to get those flipped around, especially when you're being tested. God will test you just like He tested Abraham and Sarah, but it's not that kind of test—you know, the kind of test where if you pass you're worthy, and if you fail you're a failure.
The test that God is bringing us through is more like a coming-of-age trip. You see, I took my son into the Alaskan wilderness, not so that I could decide if he was worthy to be my son, he already was my son. He will always be my son that has already been decided. I took him into the wilderness to build trust, to help him become a man—a man who walks with God. I took him on that trip because I wanted to be with him. I love him, and I love these memories that I have with him, and as they are captured in this journal that his mom made him take: memories like when after the first day, when we hiked for 10 miles, we were so tired that we slept for 12 hours straight. Or when Josiah was so hungry and so tired at the same time, he said that he wished he was small enough to crawl inside the little packet of rehydrated beef stew that I had given him. Or when we were hiking, and we saw this person behind us who was gaining on us. And this person was coming so fast that we thought this must be some kind of Alaskan mountain man hiking, and when she passed us, we learned that her name was Annie, and she was a first-grade teacher at the local school . That made us feel like men. And the mosquitoes that chased us, and the bald eagle feather that we found, and the hymns we sang to Jesus to keep our minds off the blisters on our feet. How's your walk going? Have you gotten lost?
Well, why don't you just stop and look for Jesus? He'll always be there—even if it takes some time to see Him. Amen.
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Reflections for October 27, 2019
Title: Walk with Me
Mike Zeigler: This week, many Christians are going to be celebrating the 502nd anniversary of the Reformation and, of course, Martin Luther was a prominent figure in this. I have joining me in the studio again, a specialist in Luther and studies and the impact of his life, Dr. Erik Herrmann, who's a professor of historical theology at Concordia Seminary. Thanks for coming back, Erik.
Erik Herrmann: Oh, thank you very much.
Mike Zeigler: We started talking about Luther's lectures on the book of Genesis, and of course, we're walking through the book of Genesis on this program. Erik, what was going on in Martin Luther's life when he was giving these lectures? Was it early in his life or right after he did the 95 Theses? When was this?
Erik Herrmann: This was actually at the very end of his life. These were the very last lectures that he gave in his career. It's a long set of lectures. He lectured on Genesis for the last 10 years of his life.
Mike Zeigler: Ten years.
Erik Herrmann: So, 1535 to 1545. In fact, the very last sentence of his lectures, he says, "Well, there's my dear Genesis. Someone else is going to have to finish and surpass me. I'm tired."
Mike Zeigler: After 10 years.
Erik Herrmann: After 10 years, and he says, "Pray for me." Then it's not that much longer afterwards that Luther passes on.
Mike Zeigler: One thing that really stood out to me in his commentary on chapter 17 of Genesis, which we heard today, the sign of the promised circumcision. Is that Luther calls circumcision a sacrament or a means of grace for the people of the Old Testament kind of like Baptism and the Lord's Supper are Sacraments, means of grace, for us. What does he mean by that?
Erik Herrmann: He understood and wanted to emphasize that these aren't just rituals, strange practices from an ancient time, but these are promises with the oath of God connected to them. They point the people of Israel forward to God's faithfulness that He would one day redeem them in the same way that our Sacraments do the same thing. They point us forward to ... we remember first of all, what God has done for us in Christ and forward what He will do for us on the last day.
Mike Zeigler: So, circumcision just becomes another way that God communicated with His people. He spoke to them. He assured them just like He's speaking to us and assuring us through Baptism, to the Lord's Supper, through the spoken Word.
Erik Herrmann: Yes, but even more than that. These things are specifically connected to Christ. They're not just general promises in which God makes a sign and He has a variety of promises, like the sign of the rainbow that He'll preserve the world. But these are specifically signs that will be fulfilled in Christ, that are aiming towards Christ, and so have this really strong connection to the Christian life. That's of course, why Luther is reading Genesis anyway. It might sound funny, but he's talking about Jesus all the time in his Genesis lectures.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Erik Herrmann: He sees Jesus everywhere because he knows that Jesus will fulfill all of these things.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. Even back in Genesis three that Eve was saved by faith and her promised seed who would crush the serpent's head.
Erik Herrmann: Correct. Right. This is all the same promise, keeping unfolding.
Mike Zeigler: What does he mean that salvation by faith was kind of the plan all along?
Erik Herrmann: The Old Testament becomes a really powerful example for Luther because they're clearly waiting for something. All of these lavish promises of a peaceful kingdom and a Messiah, a Person who would come, is not there yet. They're just there waiting. So, they live lives of faith. There's nothing tangible there. Even the sacrifices are sacrifices of goats and bulls. Those are just symbols. They don't really take away sin. So, they're waiting, and they must trust God's going to finally fulfill it. Luther saw that as a paradigm, really helped him understand what it means to be a Christian too, not that we're waiting for Christ to take away our sins, but that our entire life may not appear to be free from sin and yet, we have this promise that helps us trust that God will take these sins away and raise us on the last day. Just as the Old Testament people could really only live by faith and hope in something in the future, that's actually how we live, too.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)