This is the sermon given in St John’s Meadowfield, Durham, on Lent II, the 21st of February 2016. It asks the question, ‘What is God’s Covenant with us in Jesus?’ God’s Covenant is God’s good promise to us of love and life in Jesus Christ.
Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 (included at the bottom)
The Old Testament Covenants
You won’t understand what it means to be a Jew, until you understand what the Bible means by ‘covenant’. Words of my Old Testament teacher. The idea of covenant is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible, and is the foundation of the Jewish faith.
Covenant in the ancient world was a special sort of contract. A deal made between two parties about something that was important. Peace treaties, war pacts, marriage and land rights… the things that mattered most to people, they sorted with a covenant.
A covenant was an unbreakable bond. It was more than a simple agreement. A covenant was the sort of deal you made for life. A spit and handshake deal. They were often sealed with the blood of sacrifice… and their terms even called the gods to punish anyone who tried to wriggle out of their obligations.
In other words, a covenant is something you take a bit more seriously than an agreement to go halves on a new fence. Think about marriage. Marriage is an agreement that runs deep. It binds two people together, changes them, forms them into something new. This is exactly what covenant is like in the Bible.
In our Old Testament reading, we heard how God made a covenant with Abram. 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.’
Now there’s something odd about this covenant. I wonder if you can spot it? ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’ +++ It’s all one-sided. Where are Abraham’s promises? This doesn’t seem like a pact, an agreement…. It’s a gift. It’s like a couple on their wedding day, standing at the front of church, and only one of them making any vows. God gives Abram the land and Abram has to do… nothing!
And there’s the nub. The covenants the God makes with the Jewish people in the Bible… are completely different to the sort of deals we make with each other. A pint of beer please. That’ll be three quid. Cheers… NO. God’s covenants aren’t like that. God doesn’t do buying and selling. God doesn’t have a wallet… and he doesn’t keep a tab.
God’s doesn’t buy anything from Abram.. he doesn’t try to sell him anything. In his covenant… God gives Abram… a promise. A good promise… because God loves him.
The first really famous covenant in the Bible is in Genesis, and it’s one we probably know better than we realise. God has flooded the earth, cleared it of everything living… but for one man and his family. Noah. And when the waters have subsided, Noah, his family and the animals step off the boat and God says: I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.
Anyone remember that story? God promises that never again will he destroy the earth… and he seals this good promise with a covenant… and he gives a sign for that covenant. Can anyone remember what it is? ++ The rainbow. God said, When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.
God’s good promise is that he will grant life to all creatures… and because it really matters, he seals that promise with a covenant.
And God’s promises keep coming. God promises life to Noah and all creatures. God promises Abram a land to live in, as we heard this morning. And in Exodus, when the people are fleeing from Egypt, he promises something really quite beautiful. You shall be my people, and I shall be your God. In the wilderness, God promises Moses and his people something amazing… God promises them… Himself.
Whether it is life… land… or God’s very self, that God wants to promise to his people… at every stage He thinks it important enough to do it with a covenant. All the most important moments in the life of the Jewish people… are bound up in God’s good promises… sealed with this almost unbreakable bond, this marriage of lovers… sealed with covenant.
God’s Covenant with us in Jesus
And what does this matter for me? I’m a Christian, not a Jew. All that Old Testament stuff is very well, but I’ve got Jesus, I go to Church, I’ve got the New Testament. I don’t need this covenant nonsense.
But do you remember the name by which the New Testament used to be known? It used to be called the New Covenant. And do you recognise the words of the Eucharistic prayer, which say “This is my blood of the New Covenant”?
The New Testament is a covenant as well. The sacrament of the mass is a covenant. They seem to be saying that there’s something about Jesus that has to do with covenant, that Jesus is another of God’s good promises. But what is going on?
The answer, I think, is to be found in the letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews tells the story of What Christ Has Done For Us. It tells the story of how God made a relationship with the Jewish people, how he made Covenant with them… God promising them good things… time after time… and binding those promises with Covenant. And then Hebrews says: But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.
Basically Hebrews says, If you thought God’s promises in the Old Testament were good, the promise that Jesus brings will knock your socks off.
This New Covenant, made in a birth in Bethlehem, a Cross and an empty tomb… is the sign and the seal of God’s greatest promise ever. God’s promise to Noah… God’s promise to Abram… God’s promise to Moses… these were only small things compared with the promise God makes to you.
In his New Covenant, sealed with the life, and the death, and the resurrection of His Own Son, Jesus… God promises you… nothing less… than his unfailing love in this life… and in the next, eternal life. In the New Covenant, God promises you… love… and life.
The other covenants were imperfect. Human beings mucked them up. Whenever God promised them good things, the people turned away. Noah got drunk and broke the promises HE made to God. The Jewish people turned away from God, and the land given to Abram was taken away. The people who fled from Egypt were promised God’s very presence among them… and they preferred to worship a golden calf.
But not this time. God says that this time… whether this succeeds or fails is not up to us. This time, God has made an ETERNAL Covenant. What God has brought together in Jesus, we can never put asunder, no matter how much we forget him, or do wrong.
And this is the spirit in which we keep Lent. We do not fear that God will not love us. We do not worry that we are not doing enough. As Christians… our challenge is to keep lent… in faith… faith that God’s promises to us in Jesus are true. If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have eternal life.
And this is what we come to now. We approach this table… we affirm our faith in God’s promises to us… we affirm our faith in the New Covenant in Jesus, the promise that will always stand firm… we receive the blood of the covenant… we receive the body of our Lord.
And we rejoice… even in Lent… for God has promised us good things… love and life that will never end. This is the promise of Jesus. This is God’s covenant, God’s good promise, to me… and to you.
Love… and life in Christ… whatever happens.
Love… and life in Christ… whatever happens.
Reading: Gen 15:1-12,17-18
God’s Covenant with Abram
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards 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.
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 turtle-dove, 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.
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.’