|Beneath the Cross of Jesus #4
Beneath the Cross of Jesus #4
Covenant: The Bond of Blood
Introduction: The word “covenant” is not one we use very much any more, outside of church and a couple of particular contexts. Sometimes one comes upon the word when dealing with legal matters, particularly buying and selling homes or real estate. Covenant just sounds like a legal term – a binding agreement between two parties. A softer word, perhaps, for legally binding promise. Property in neighborhood associations is often described in terms of covenants – contractual promises that one agrees to keep. The previous house we lived in had a covenant that prevented one from building a fence more than 3 feet in height. But the neighbors all signed a petition on behalf of one family whose small boy loved to be outside and for whom a 3 foot fence would have been no fence at all. The developer agreed to change the rule – the covenant.
Covenant language often appears in marriage ceremonies – it just sounds good. Sounds religious. Sounds better than “rule” or “commitment” or even “promise.” Couples are joined in a “covenant relationship.” As I thought about that language this week, I realized it’s redundant, at least if one is thinking about the Biblical use of the term. I’m afraid we hear the word and think of its legal aspects more often than we think of its relational meaning. But at the heart of the term when one comes across it in the story of Scripture is relationship. I am always intrigued by the covenants Creator God makes with his creation in the story. In the beginning of the story in Genesis, after humans have so corrupted the earth that God decides to destroy everything with a flood and start over, the sun comes out and the rainbow appears and God’s covenants with humanity never to destroy the earth again. Whenever the rainbow appears, humans are to remember God’s covenant of protection.
I’m perhaps most amazed by the story in Genesis 12 when humans have once again returned to their evil ways, and for completely unknown reasons other than God’s steadfast love for humanity, God calls Abram.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Even more amazing is the fact that Abram goes on the adventure, packs up and travels as a nomad – has all kinds of adventures. He ends up passing his wife off to an Egyptian Pharaoh in order to save his own skin; somehow manages to become wealthy, even when he behaves badly; gets in a war with some local city-state kings who have kidnapped his nephew; never does have any children of his own. Then in chapter 15, the LORD appears in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). But Abram is not so sure Creator God is going to keep his word about him being a father. Sarai his wife is still barren. So the word of the LORD comes to Abram again:
“He (the LORD) brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6). In that moment, Abrams faith becomes the model for all humans who have lived since. Not that Abram won’t continue to have second thoughts or doubts or failures to trust. But what happens next in the story is not about how Abram will behave from then on. It is about how God promises to live with Abram and his descendants from then on.
“Then he said to him, ‘I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’ When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’” (Genesis 15:8-18).
That promise, of course, is the subject of great debate these days, as the modern nation of Israel and the other ancient claim-holders to the land, the Palestinians, continue to makes their own political claims over the land. As the story goes, Creator God kept his covenant with Abram. And as one reads the story, there is little doubt that the language of covenant is about God’s promises and God’s decision to have relationship with Abram and his descendants. It’s not a covenant in which Abram’s performance makes all of God’s promise contingent. Yes, in chapter 17, God tells Abram that he needs to illustrate his loyalty to God’s covenant through the sign of male circumcision. Circumcision is not a human performance that merits God’s faithfulness; it is a reminder to Abram’s descendents of God’s faithfulness.
The story goes on, of course. The centuries pass, Abram’s named is changed and his son is born and his descendants become numerous. The strange country in which they are enslaved is Egypt and after 400 years, God keeps covenant with his people. At the Mountain of God, the LORD reiterates his promises to the people. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
Again, the covenant of the LORD is a promise of protection, but it is much more than that. It is a promise of relationship. The call of obedience upon the people is a call of response to the identity they have received. The great commandments then delivered by God are designed to keep the people focused on the relationship they have with God. They are to love and honor God; they are to respect and care for other people. That summarizes all the laws, all the rules they are ever asked to keep in the name of covenant.
But if you haven’t read the rest of the story, you know otherwise that we humans aren’t very good at keeping anybody’s rules. Our own pursuits of power and control and the need to determine our own destinies means that we, like ancient Israel, are all too often intent on doing what is right in our own eyes. So the rest of the story of Israel is the story of flailing around, having moments of peace and tranquility living in relationship with Creator God; more often attempting to create their own world and their own rule, destroying and being destroyed.
It is the prophet Jeremiah that offers new words of covenant hope as the people who once were given the land as an inheritance of the LORD, have been driven into exile because they refused to listen and trust and follow the instructions of God.
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
I hope you’ve noticed this morning that all of these are covenants God makes with his people. Israel struggles to understand that they are being called to respond to the covenant, the relationship promise that God is making with them. God is the initiator, the giver of covenant and he is always offering to live in relationship with the people who accept his offer. The days of outside performances as the measure of human covenant keeping are gone, Jeremiah announces. God is about to do something new that will forever change the landscape of relationship. Forgiveness will be announced to all; the ways of the LORD will be written on hearts. The neighbors will have that same understanding.
That new covenant comes, therefore, in human bodily form. No more images in the sky; no more tablets of stone; no more human distinguishing marks that say this person is chosen, that one is an outsider. This time the relational promise of God is for all. The WORD that was God became flesh, John says. “For God so loved the world, the cosmos,” John writes, “that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the cosmos to condemn the cosmos, but to save the cosmos through him” (John 3:16-17).
Israel understood, even in the time of Jesus that covenant was Creator God’s promise of relationship to them. They understood that whatever they did was a response to the relationship promise God was offering. But they always disagreed over what their response should be. Some thought that in order for them to enjoy relationship in covenant they needed not only to keep the rules, but protect the rules from being broken by adding on more rules. Others thought that relationship/covenant could only be enjoyed if the oppressing Roman armies were overthrown. Others thought all was corrupt and lost and they just needed to withdraw into the wilderness again and wait for a new teacher of righteousness to appear. Still others thought that relationship with Yahweh was best maintained by blending in with those outside cultural influences. Still others simply gave up and assumed they were lost no matter what.
When God did appear in the flesh, only this last group seems capable of receiving him. It was those who felt most displaced and lost, both physically and spiritually, who were able to hear and see and believe. The people who had their act already together still wanted to do relationship their own way.
Some things never seem to change with us humans. And yet, some things never seem to change with creator God either. His desire for relationship never goes away. His steadfast, enduring love will not leave us alone. Our arrogance and power games and idolatry and abuse of one another will not keep him from loving us and want what is eternally best for us. And it is in those moments of clarity, those flashes when we see ourselves for all we are not worth, when we too think that all is lost, then we are most able to see we can never be outside the Love and relational pursuit of God.
Yet, we struggle to believe, to trust, that the gift of relationship with Creator God could indeed to true. Even with all of our grace language sometimes, we still act as though we don’t know God and can’t know God. I love the words in the last verse of the song, “Who Am I”: “Who am I that the eyes that see my sin would look on me with love and watch me rise again. Who am I that the voice that calmed the sea would call out through the rain, and calm the storm in me. Not because of who I am but because of what You've done. Not because of what I've done but because of who You are.”
The movie “Antoine Fisher” is based on the actual life story of a young man named Antoine Fisher. The movie begins with a scene of a little boy being called and then led by the hand of an angelic person into a room crowded with people. It’s as though he is a boy-king being led into a giant banquet hall. Crowds smile and wave affectionately as he is led to the head of the table of this wonderful, royal banquet. Just as the boy sits at the head of the table filled with his favorite food, giant pancakes, an abrupt scene change makes us realize it is all a dream. The crowds of people symbolize a family the boy – now a young man in the Navy – never had. In fact, he has no family, only stories of a father shot and killed before he was born, and a mother that gave birth to him while in prison who never came for him after she was released. Antoine gets shuffled from orphanage to foster home and back again. It’s the story of abandonment and abuse and incredible survival. After years of not knowing he even has a family, he is encouraged to search to his birth mother and the family of his father. And he indeed does find a relative of his father who knows who his birth mother is and he finally meets her. Sadly, there is not much of a life there to discover, and the meeting does not go well. After seeing her he is taken back to the house of an aunt – his father’s little sister. There, when he least expects it and when it appears that he is indeed still a survivor on his own, he is welcomed home by a throng of family and a table spread for a king, including his favorite food, pancakes.
It is that banquet image that we tell ourselves we are invited to every week. It is the table of Jesus, sitting with the 12, only the table extends out of the room and down the hall, through centuries of time and we are invited to the table. There if food and drink, bread and wine – mysterious symbols of participation in covenant relationship. Not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who he is, and what he has done, and what he continues to do even now as we eat and drink.
This is the third Sunday in the Christian season called Lent. It is a time of remembering as we anticipate the coming of Easter, Resurrection Sunday. It is also historically a time of repentance, of turning, of changing the direction in our lives back toward the cross. So this morning as we are invited to the table, we also are invited to change the direction of our lives, to repent – confess our lost identity that has now been found – and see a sign from the children on the stairwell that says, “Welcome.”
“Then Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22: 19-20).
Delivered at Woodmont Hills,
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