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From Generation to Generation (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16)

02/23/2015 11:14 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

We asked people about wisdom and what advice they'd like to pass on to future generations.

What do you want to pass on to your grandchildren? What will you give to future generations?

There's a special spot on my shelf for books my grandparents handed down to me over the years. I cherish the collection of love poetry my grandfather gave my grandmother for a wedding anniversary decades ago. I treasure my grandfather's old prayer book and hymnal. Depending on your family history, most of us will have at least a few old treasures from generations before.

Some things pass from one generation to another with special care--a family wedding ring, a chess set from the home country, old pictures. Other items, however, pass with less care and planning. My wife, for instance, has her grandmother's old cookie jar. It's made of cheap, simple glass and is completely unremarkable except for the memories of cookies eaten at grandma's house it evokes.

Families aren't the only ones thinking of passing things along. Politicians, skilled at tugging heartstrings, speak often of "future generations." Couching moral decisions in terms of how they affect generations to come can give an issue more weight. Indeed, the way we live our lives today will affect not only us, but our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The problem for politicians, however, is that future generations don't vote yet. We must be convinced to make decisions for the welfare of not only ourselves, but the community to come.

This week's Old Testament passage begins with a man likely not expecting any more children. Abram was eighty-six when his son Ishmael was born to Hagar, handmaiden to his wife Sarai. Twenty-four years have passed since God first called him to set out from Haran (12:4). By the time we reach chapter 17, Abram is ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sarai is ninety. In fact, the idea of having children together is so preposterous that Abram laughs out loud at God's suggestion (17:17). And yet, God is certain.

The Lord makes a covenant with Abram: "You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations" (17:4). And this isn't just any covenant, it comes with name changes that signify a new relationship status with God. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. In fact, God also claims a new name of sorts, as for the first time God uses the term "God Almighty" (El Shaddai) as a self-referral (17:1).

The new names mark God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah. They have been blessed. Their names remind them of their destiny as God's beloved forever.

This is not to say Abraham and Sarah were perfect people. Even so, God Almighty used them for God's divine purposes. God does that throughout scripture, using those others see as too old, or too stubborn, or too broken, but whom God sees as just the ones to love and bless.

God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah is sure and without conditions making it clear that this is an ongoing relationship for generations to come. The Lord will make them:

exceedingly numerous (17:2)

the ancestor of a multitude of nations (17:4)

exceedingly fruitful...and kings shall come from you (17:6)

In sum, the God Almighty establishes the covenant for all time, to all their offspring throughout the generations.

The church usually approaches the season of Lent as a time for personal reflection and individual examination. Certainly, this focus on self-reflection is well and good. The emphasis of Genesis 17, however, is less on Abraham and Sarah's personal "getting right with God" than on God's good gifts to their progeny for generations to come. God's blessing includes the personal, but it always moves to the communal.

Believe it or not, in this case those politicians who appeal to our love and care for future generations may be on to something. God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah in an ongoing way, and we, too, are inheritors of God's blessing. That blessing continues beyond ourselves, beyond this current generation to future generations as well.

What would happen this Lent if we reflected not just personally but corporately? Quickly, we'd be pushed to consider how our use of the earth's resources will make life exceedingly difficult for future generations. Scientists warn that our oceans may be on the verge of a mass extinction event. Not only will future generations miss many species facing extinction due to global warming, the human species will be living in a world very different from the one we know now.

For years, teams of United Nations scientists have urged organized, worldwide response to global warming. The question is not if global temperatures will increase for future generations, but how high will they go; not whether the ocean will rise, but how far and how much it will affect coastal communities.

Perhaps due to harsh realities like global climate change, young people in the United States are increasingly pessimist about the future. Last year, an Ipsos Mori survey found that only 26% of people under thirty answered that their generation's life would be better than their parents' generation. But we don't have to accept this pessimism. It's certainly not what Genesis 17 suggests.

God's good blessings always call for faithful response. With our financial resources, we're called to care for others. With our beloved faith communities, we're called to welcome in God's name. With God's gifts of creation, we're called to steward for generations to come. This Lent, with Abraham and Sarah, may we seek to pass on a world in which God's blessings of love, acceptance, and hope continue forevermore.

Bible Study Questions:

1 What has been passed down to you in the form of promise?

2 What obligations do you hold to those who come after you?

3 How are you part of God's covenant today?

For Further Reading:

Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox: 2010)

50 Was to Help Save the Earth, Rebecca Barnes-Davies, (Westminster John Knox: 2009)

Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation, Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, (IVP: 2012)

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