As I told you last Sunday, this year during the season of Lent I am using lectionary texts which lead us through an exploration of the theme of covenant. I have always found the theme of covenant to be the best unifying feature of the whole biblical story. After all, the Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word “testament” also means “covenant,” so we have the old covenant and the new covenant – the story of God’s relationship with people.
A covenant is described as a binding agreement between two or more people or parties. A covenant can be a business agreement like a mortgage, where one party loans a certain amount of money to another party, which then agrees to repay the money within a certain amount of time at an agreed upon rate of interest. If either side fails to hold up its end of the bargain, the covenant is null and void, and there are consequences.
Some neighborhoods have covenants, where all who choose to live there agree to abide by a set of guidelines which are perceived to be for the common good.
Marriage is a covenant which is both a legal and an emotional bond, in which both parties bind themselves equally, heart and soul, to each other.
The covenant God makes with people is not like any of these examples. The dictionary simply describes it as God’s promises to humankind as recorded in the Old and New Testaments. That definition is too simplistic, but it accurately reflects the fact that God’s mercy and generosity are pre-eminent in the covenant relationship between God and people. The role and obligations of the people are present but clearly secondary.
The Bible tells the astonishing story that the creator God not only created a world which could sustain various life forms, then created all kinds of creatures, plants, trees, terrains, and waters, but also created people who were built in such a way that God could have a relationship with them. The Bible says God created people “in his own image.” I suppose God could have created people who were perfect and would never disappoint him. We cannot know the mind of God or whether there were choices made about what people would be like that later made God scratch his head and say, “I should have tested that model some more before putting it into production.”
We are even more limited in trying to understand God than the blindfolded person is who tries to describe an elephant by touching it. What we know is what we observe, which is pretty subjective. It seems that God chose to create people who have independence and the freedom to make our own choices. The Hebrews conceptualized this with the story of Adam and Eve, our archetypal parents. In the account, God makes gracious provision for Adam and Eve, with all they need provided for them in the Garden of Eden which is their home. There is only one prohibition, not to eat from one tree. This not really spoken of as a covenant, though we can view it as one. Adam and Eve, of course, cannot stand the temptation of the forbidden fruit and what it may do for them. They partake, and the covenant could have been null and void but instead it is revised. There is a price to be paid. The paradise of the garden of Eden is gone. The Hebrew people rightly ascertained that this story of Adam and Eve is the story of all of us.
As the human race expands outside the garden, God is appalled at the violence and destruction they are capable of and eventually decides to start over with Noah and his family, and we looked at that story last week. The flood ends with God formally stating a covenant, for the first time, the covenant of “never again.” He promises to never again wipe out all life in this way. He establishes this covenant not just with Noah and his descendants, but with every living creature of the earth. God makes peace with creation and promises to uphold it, come what may. The rainbow serves as the sign and seal of this covenant.
Today’s story brings us to the Abrahamic covenant. With the twelfth chapter of Genesis we begin the continuous, traceable history of Israel. And that story begins with a man named Abram and his wife Sarai. The story begins in the middle of nowhere, because Abram and Sarai are on the move. Abrah’s father, Terah, had moved the family from Ur of the Chaldeans, in present day Iraq, to Haran, in modern day Turkey. When Terah died, Abram sensed that God was calling him to move on to a new place, though he did not know where. So Abram departed in faith.
This departure is like another beginning, another new creation, out of nothing, this time the creation of a family with whom God will have a special relationship and from whom God will expect special things. The family begins on the move, without roots, without status, without claims. There is to be no doubt about how this family will thrive and endure and prosper during history. From this point forward, a Hebrew’s statement of faith would begin, “My father was a wandering Aramaean.” We come from very humble beginnings.
In Abram’s call from God, there are assurances given about the future. God will lead Abram to a land in which to dwell, and God will make a great nation out of him. That’s a pretty astonishing promise since Abram and Sarai were both easily eligible for the senior discount at any Cracker Barrels they might have passed en route to their new home. Abram was 75 years old.
Following the chronology of Genesis, we know that by the time of God’s promises in today’s readings, Abram is now 99 years of age. He has had a son, Ishmael, by Sarai’s slave girl Hagar, but God again promises a child to Abram and Sarai. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Twenty-four years have passed since Abram first heart this promise. If God had taken this long with Mary, she might have had gray hair by the time her baby came.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 51)
But she also says that these years of waiting have given opportunity for them to learn to trust God’s promises. She writes, “This old couple is deeply flawed, yet they have remained faithful to God’s promise. With no evidence that they will ever be parents of a single child, much less the parents of a nation, they have continued in relationship with God and one another. Their trust is unconditional.” (pp. 51-53)
In this chapter, at their advanced ages they are given new names, Abraham and Sarah. It is not a time for endings, but a time for new beginnings. The covenant draws them into the future, a future that is inconceivable from where they stand, so they can only laugh. Craig Kocher writes, “The two of them have been blessed by God; their destiny is guaranteed. In the twilight of their lives, God will do in them the impossible. They will be the ancestors of many nations, their heirs more numerous than the stars in the sky.” (Ibid., p. 52)
In today’s reading from Romans, Paul does a very interesting thing. As the early church got started, there was an ongoing battle over whether people who became followers of Jesus also became Jews, and whether they needed to follow the laws and rituals of Judaism. Paul said no, but many Jewish Christians said it was necessary to continue following the Mosaic law.
In this passage, Paul says, “Look, God’s covenant with people was established before Moses, before the giving of the law. Go back before that and look at God’s covenant with Abraham. It was based on faith. God told him to go and he went. God told him he would provide for him and he did. God told him there would be descendants and in time they came. Abraham had faith throughout those long years of waiting and wandering and wondering, and through that faith he pleased God.”
Paul reminds us that God made covenant promises to Abram long before the law was given. God promises Abram a child in his old age, and that Abram will be the ancestor of many nations. All Abram brought to the deal was a faith which would enable him to walk with God in trust. Abraham and Sarah had to persevere in faith through lots of very difficult experiences and many long years of waiting. I can imagine them sitting around the fire at night looking up at all the stars and remembering the promise of God and wondering if it might possibly be true.
Do you ever sit around the fire and wonder what the God of covenant has in store for your future? Can you conceive of the possibility that after you start getting the senior discount and Social Security checks, the God of covenant might have a new name for you, a new task, a new blessing which you have long since given up on? Or if you are just starting out, can you embrace the possibility that it might be 24 years until your ultimate purpose becomes clear and the fulfillment of it comes into view?
Our God is a God of surprises, of laughter, of covenant. When we ask why, he asks why not? When we think we are settled in he might say go. When we contentedly say that we have ample goods stored up to keep us for many years, he might say we are not going to need them, come on. Throughout it all, though, he assures us, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Let’s make the journey together.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.