From the very beginning of life until its end, people will make requirements of us. A baby on his first outing in the buggy will be required to smile at everyone who coo’s over him. A child on her first day of school, will be expected to conform to the patterns of behaviour of the classroom. Every parent will hope that their teenager will perform well in school, leave with reasonable exam grades and move on to college, university or a job with some prospects. Once in that job, there will usually be a contract of some kind that will set out the requirements of the employer alongside the rights of the employee. May be, we look forward to retirement as time when we won’t have to be beholden to others and can set our own agenda, yet I am guessing that there are still demands made upon those of you who are retired. Indeed, people sometimes remark that they are busier retired than when they were working, especially if they belong to church, a club or society. Then comes the time when a person is unable to cope. It is a hard decision to surrender that independence and become reliant on carers or move into a residential home. Part of the problem is that it means conforming to the requirements of those who look after you; who will determine the time you get up and go to bed and a whole lot else besides.
But the truth is that any relationship is about give and take. If we want to benefit from the love, compassion and support we receive from another, there will be requirements that we need to fulfil in return. That is true of any friendship. The closer the friendship or working relationship, the more is required from each party; the greater the investment. Nowhere is this more true than in marriage. In scripture, God institutes marriage as a covenant relationship between man and woman to provide a safe place for children to be nurtured and a family to be a secure part of society. Both parties to the marriage are to submit to one another in love for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Is it not this need to submit to one another in a contractual relationship which has been a driving force behind the demands for marriage to be open to couples of the same gender and the establishment of civil partnerships? Yet, perversely, at the same time, many in our society fight shy of the commitment of marriage, not wishing to make those vows that submit them to another’s requirements preferring cohabitation. This can easily become, especially for men, a way of enjoying the benefits for family before getting bored and moving on to a new partner leaving their children with a single parent and creating instability in wider society.
What about our relationship with God? The whole of the bible gives itself to the idea that every human being is created in the image of God and is therefore intended to be in relationship with him. It is in this way that we become the people we were intended to be. In this relationship, we achieve our fullest potential and experience our greatest fulfilment. But what are the requirements of that relationship? What are the terms of the contract?
I guess we all know what we would like to have from God: long life, happiness, material comforts a peaceful passing from this life and the assurance of a place in heaven. If we are a bit more perceptive to what we read in the bible, we refine those requests to: knowing his love, forgiveness and healing in our lives, having his strength to overcome the obstacles and temptations in life and sharing in and seeing blessing from his mission in our churches.
But what does God require of us?
Our first reading today from Genesis (chapter 17) picks up on the very beginnings of God’s dealings with human beings; with the story of Abraham. God has already called Abraham to make the momentous step of leaving Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. The remains of Ur can still be seen today in southern Iraq, so it was quite a significant move for Abraham and his family to go to seek asylum in Canaan, what today we might call the Holy Land. The relationship between God and Abraham was further strengthened through a compelling and prolonged vision Abraham is given recorded in Genesis 15. It results in a covenant, a contract between God and Abraham. In today’s passage, that covenant is further reinforced. God promises that he will make Abraham, exceedingly numerous, (verse 2) the ancestor of a multitude of nations (verse 4) and exceedingly fruitful. (verse 6)
God’s part of the bargain then is to secure Abraham’s family for future generations, to make it very large and to see that it will be drawn from many nations. The only problem was that Abraham was 99 years old, not quite the point in life to be thinking of a family! Sarah, his wife could not have children, so he had already tried to force God’s hand by having one with his slave girl. Despite that, God’s promise is for Sarah as well. She is the one to bear his son through whom all the terms of God’s contract with Abraham will be fulfilled.
Was all of that a sensible proposition? Was it going to happen? Humanly, there was no chance. There was nothing Sarah or Abraham could do to make it happen. They were not considered suitable candidates for IVF treatment. All they could do was to trust in God, to have faith that he would carry out his side of the bargain.
This is the point that Paul picks up on in our new testament reading. (Romans 4. 13-25) He writes: ‘Hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become the father of many nations.’ (verse 18) Paul goes on to put it quite bluntly: ‘Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead…or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith.’ (verses 19-20) Paul is keen to show Jewish background readers that actually, it was not by obeying the law that Abraham developed his relationship with God, but by faith. Quoting from Genesis 15.6, a reference to that earlier covenant we spoke of, Paul says of Abraham: ‘Therefore his faith was reckoned or credited to him as righteousness.’ (verse 22) God’s requirement for Abraham was not keeping the law, the ten commandments. It would be a long time before Moses would receive them on Mount Sinai. Instead, Abraham (and we should of course include Sarah too) found that their tremendous faith in the seeming impossibility of God gave them bonus ‘righteous points’. Paul suggests that our faith in the seeming impossible events of Easter credit us in the same way with righteousness. We are saved, that is born into a relationship with the living God, not by what we do but through the love of God which we access through faith.
Is that God’s only requirement; faith? Does it mean that the way we live is not important so long as we have faith? To answer this, we can go back to the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis and the opening words of our reading: ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty, walk before me, and be blameless.’ (Genesis 17.1) God in his dealings with Abraham requires him to walk with him and to be blameless. Already the verb ‘walk’ has appeared three times in Genesis. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve heard the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. (Genesis 3.8) Enoch is one of the long-lived characters who appear between Adam and Eve and Noah. We read that ‘Enoch walked with God; then he was no more because God took him.’ (Genesis 5.24) We learn also that Noah walked with God which was why God chose him to organise the ark to save his family and the animals. (Genesis 6.9) So God is walking, and some chose to walk with him.
It reminds us that life is a journey and that we do not achieve the holiness God wants of us in one go. As the circumstances of life change we have to adapt to find out where God is going. What the Lord wants of us is walk in his presence with nothing to hide unlike Adam and Eve. So, Abram is called to walk with God. He is also called to be blameless.
The word is also used of Noah. (Genesis 6.9) It’s root meaning in Hebrew is whole, complete; nothing half-hearted. James in his letter urges his fellow Christians to ‘let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. Just as the athlete, such as those competing in the winter Olympics in South Korea are single minded in their pursuit of winning, so we should make it our aim to please the Lord. The good that we do should not be an end in itself, something of which to be proud, but the by product of our aim to be whole hearted followers of Jesus.
So, what does God require of us as Christians in our relationship with him? Abraham is a good example for us. We are to be people of faith. Indeed, our very hope of being saved from the sin in which we are all mired is based on faith, faith in the remarkable atoning work of Jesus and his mighty resurrection. But that is not all. As one writer I came across the other day put it: ‘Neither Old or New Testament has any place for confessions of faith that leave lifestyle and practice unaffected’ (Williamson, 1985) Along with faith, Abraham is called to walk with God, seeking his presence in all of life’s twists and turns being open and honest with him. He is called also to be blameless, totally committed to the God he worships. It is for this reason that we, as people of faith, seek to emulate Jesus in caring for the poor and needy, loving in an open and no judgemental way. I will let the prophet Micah have the last word:
‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah6.8)
Williamson, H. G. (1985). Ezra-Nehemiah. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Material has also been drawn from Baldwin, J. G. (1986) The Message of Genesis 12-50 From Abraham to Joseph. Leicester, England: IVP
Lent 2 25.02.2018