This is our fourth week of tracing the covenant theme through this Lenten season. First, we looked at the covenant with Noah which took effect after the flood. At this time of a brand new beginning, God establishes a covenant with Noah and all creation that he will never again bring about such wholesale destruction and loss of life, and the rainbow is established as the sign of the covenant.
Next we looked at the covenant with Abram, a time of new beginnings when God calls a specific family to go to a new place and become the people by whom all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This got sidetracked a few generations down the road when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, setting in motion the events which would take the Hebrew people out of the land of promise and into Egypt, where they would end up enslaved for many years. After 430 years in Egypt, the people called out to God for help, and God sent Moses to lead them out.
After bringing them out of Egypt, God brought the people to Mt.Sinai, where he established a new covenant with them for this new beginning when they would return to the land of Promise and become a great nation. Having already brought them out of Egypt, God promised to bring them to the land and to always be with them. In response the people were to be obedient to the Ten Commandments which God gave them. Other laws were given as well, and obedience now became the big challenge for Israel.
A challenge which they were not up to, any more than we are. They went through continuing cycles of rebellion and disobedience and punishment and repentance and restoration. Prophets continually warned about the disaster that loomed if Israel did not get its act in order. But no heed was paid, and it was time for the ultimate punishment, exile in Babylon.
Exile was a devastating occurrence which seemed like the end of the covenant relationship. Due to their disobedience, God seemed to have cut off his people, sent them away, given up on them. But Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that this was not the case, that the covenant was still in effect, that restoration would take place. Furthermore, God would establish a new covenant with his people, a covenant written on hearts rather than stone, so that people would obey God’s law because they wanted to not because they had to.
And indeed, restoration occurred. The exiles were allowed to return home. A new temple was built. Religious leaders did all they knew how to do to help people internalize the law in their hearts by learning it, talking to their children about it, writing reminders on their doorposts. Book after book was written which explained the implications of various laws and ways to make sure they were not transgressed. In so doing, the lives of people were more and more micromanaged and enslaved by the law so that it was not a delight but a burden to live by God’s law. And disobedience still abounded.
So finally God made the radical decision that he would send his son. The covenant written in flesh and blood. The Word made flesh and dwelling among us. A covenant no longer mediated by words on a stone or prophets or priests, but in the very person of God’s own son, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. He taught about what God is like and what God wants from people; he preached repentance and the good news of forgiveness and salvation; he healed and fed and calmed storms and opened eyes and called all to follow in the way of God.
It would be nice to be able to report that this was all wildly successful and that everybody followed and believed and lived happily ever after. But the truth is some believed, many did not. Many were not willing to pay the price asked of leaving behind wealth or family or position. Many were not willing for their long standing religious traditions to be upended and their positions of authority compromised. And an unholy coalition of political and religious forces came together determined to silence this voice and safeguard the status quo. As Jesus and his followers arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the turbulent last week of his earthly life began
As with the flood, as with slavery in Egypt, as with exile in Babylon, this could have just been an ending. But God would not allow it to be so. God used the horrific events of this week and the repulsive action and inaction of people of faith and of government to establish a new covenant sealed in blood.
Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, I give it of my own accord for the life of the world.” “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for the forgiveness of many.” Paul wrote, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Hebrews says, “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins and has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”
The amazing high point of the covenant relationship comes this week as we remember these events when God through Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves. We would never be able to be good enough, obedient enough, to earn God’s love and God’s salvation on our own. But God showed his great love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, the ungodly. What we could not earn he has in mercy given as a free and undeserved gift. A covenant sealed in blood.
Today is known both as Palm Sunday and as Passion Sunday. You learn something every day, and this week in spite of all the years I have been doing this I learned that a long standing church tradition has been to read the whole of Mark 14 and 15 on this Sunday. I’m going to do that for the first time this morning. This is the story to focus on this week. Think of it as the overture which will sound all the themes of Holy Week. I hope you will gather at First Presbyterian on Thursday night and here at Central on Friday night to focus more deeply on these events as we prepare for Easter. But for now I invite you to hear the story of the new covenant sealed in blood.
David J. Bailey
March 29, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church