"Last week_ in the course of our several week series on Abraham and "
Last week, in the course of our several week series on Abraham and his significance for the modern-day follower of Christ, we began talking about one of the most important ideas in all of human history—the idea of a covenant relationship existing between the God of the Universe and the men and women he has lovingly created. We spent some time looking at four primary characteristics, revealed in Scripture, that we might apply to this covenant, ways in which we might describe God’s relationship to humanity for those who are curious or in the dark as to what this is all about. I’ll be the first to admit that this idea is sometimes difficult to understand. It’s not easy to build a bridge between the culture of the Bible and the one in which we live, and so it takes some time, and some work, if we’re going to be able to relate to these things. So, on the one hand, I hope that last week’s sermon helped to illustrate for some of you all, or to define for some of you all, this idea of covenant, maybe in a way that you hadn’t thought about before. On the other hand, it’s necessary that we don’t view the covenant, or any of the characteristics involved in the covenant, in a purely academic or scholarly way. We don’t study the idea of the covenant merely because it’s interesting. We don’t want to adopt a detached stance and observe the workings of the covenant like a biologist might observe an ant colony or an anthropologist might observe a tribe living in the jungles of New Guinea. One of the first things we need to understand about the story of the covenant is that we are not alien observers. We are, or at least we should be, active participants in the drama which unfolds from Genesis to Revelation, a drama which puts on display, for all the world to see, the love of our Lord and the faithfulness of his promises. Even though this relationship, described in the Book of Genesis, has its foundation in a culture and a context very different from our own, among a people who don’t look like us, eat like us, dress like us, talk like us, or do any number of other things like 21st century Americans might do them, it is absolutely necessary to our faith that we understand that the covenant love of God, expressed to Abraham and his descendants, is still a reality for us today. We’re going to spend some time this morning looking at how and why this is true. What are the circumstances that have allowed us, Todd and Bob and Tim and Yvonne and Sherri and Ginger and all of the rest of us, to take hold of the promises and challenges that God held out to his people so long ago. And furthermore, what is our appropriate response to this covenant? We’ll look at some of the characteristics we looked at last week, to understand more fully the covenant as it looks from God’s side. Then we’ll see how our responses, the lives we live in answer to God’s promises, might match up. So, the first question we want to look at today is simply, “Why does this matter for us?” Why do the promises spoken to a shepherd named Abram who lived and died in the first half of the first book of the Bible occupy any place, much less a necessary one, in the life and times and concerns of a Christian living in today’s world? Here, we turn to the New Testament, which says that it very much matters. The earliest followers of Jesus, as I mentioned last week, were Jews. They had been raised, in contrast to the culture around them, to believe that God would be faithful to the promises he had made to Abraham. This was the whole reason that they were waiting for a Messiah in the first place, a deliverer who would overthrow the enemies of God’s people and re-establish the kingdom of God in the midst of the godless Roman Empire. Every aspect of their lives— religion, politics, finances, family—was, or at least should have been, infused with the idea that they were God’s covenant people. They should be different, called out, separate from the culture of the empire that surrounded them. And this impulse didn’t vanish when Jesus appeared on the scene. Contrary to what some people might have thought then, and what some people might think today, Jesus didn’t come to do away with the covenant of the Old Testament. He didn’t come to erase the promises of God. In Matthew 5, Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. In Matthew 3, when Jesus is baptized, he says that he is doing this in order to fulfill all righteousness. At every turn, throughout his ministry, whether he is quoting the Book of Deuteronomy to the devil in the wilderness or quoting Isaiah to a crowd in the synagogue, Jesus maintained a vibrant and necessary connection to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, or the Old Covenant. These books were, as Philip Yancey has put it, “the Bible Jesus read”. At the same time, however, Jesus said and did a lot of things that made the old guard mad, or made the establishment very nervous. “Destroy this temple,” he said to the Chief Priests, “and I will raise it again”. “One greater than the Sabbath is here,” he said to the Pharisees. “I have other sheep who are not of this sheep pen,” he said to a crowd in Jerusalem. “I will bring them also, and there will be one flock.” None of these sayings rested well with Jesus’ enemies because these people had mistaken spiritual pride and exclusiveness with the call to be the covenant people of God. Jesus came not to abolish the covenant, but to make it bigger, to fulfill the part of the promise where God told Abraham that he would be a blessing to all nations. Jesus and his followers brought a new way of life, a new ethic, a new testament or covenant to this world, which fulfilled and completed the old one, and in the process made the family of God a lot bigger. Now, almost two thousand years later, we’re here. We are gathered as the people of God, just like the communities of Christians that we might find in Kansas, or California, or Columbia or Korea or Kenya or virtually any nation in the world. By being united with Christ through our faith, through our baptism, and through our discipleship, we become adopted into his family, the line of Abraham, the covenant people of the living and holy God. This should be more than enough to completely blow our minds. We have been woven into a gigantic tapestry of holiness that includes all of the characters we read about in Scripture. We have been introduced into a millennia-long story of faithfulness that began when God first called Abraham to leave his homeland, a story that will really get good on the day when we sit down at the heavenly banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If you have a hard time getting excited about the faith, the answer isn’t in spicing things up with something new. The answer is in rediscovering the age-old truth that lies at the foundation of our belief: God has chosen us to be a part of his kingdom, and through Christ he has made this possible. So, because we are now identified, through Jesus Christ, as the chosen covenant people of God, there are certain responses expected of us. Last week, we enumerated a few of the characteristics of the covenant that we saw in Genesis 15 and 17. Each of these qualities introduced into the equation by God demands a certain response from us. That’s what we’re going to look at today. If you remember, last week I said that the first characteristic of the covenant is simply that it originates with God, not us. We can’t set this process into motion, because we wouldn’t begin to know how to approach God. He’s not the sort of God we bargain with. We can merely accept his terms. And so, because this covenant has its birth in the greatness of God, our response is to humble ourselves. As James says, when we humble ourselves in the sight of God he will lift us up. As Paul says in Romans 5, it is only by the grace of Christ that we aren’t perceived as God’s enemies. This is a humbling thought, and so pride has no place in the face of this reality. We can only respond to this awesome love as Isaiah did, when he said in chapter 6 of his book, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and I have seen God Almighty!” Or as the Centurion who came to ask Jesus for a miracle said, “I am not worthy to receive you, Lord.” It is this sort of humility that prepares our hearts and minds to receive the covenant promises of God, and that allows us to begin to grow into the sort of people who might serve God with all our strength. This doesn’t mean we have to go around in sackcloth and ashes all the time. This isn’t an invitation to self-loathing. Remember what Paul said: because of the grace of Christ, we are not God’s enemies. We’re God’s friends now. Jesus has made us worthy. We have gained access into the presence of the King. But we better not ever forget where we came from. We better not take God’s love, God’s calling, and God’s mercy for granted, or we only show ourselves to be truly unworthy of accepting what he holds out for us. When we refuse to acknowledge, with Paul, that we are the worst of sinners, saved and redeemed only by God’s goodness, then we are on our way to the sort of pride that Jesus’ enemies displayed whenever they opposed him. The second characteristic of the covenant that I mentioned last week was its solemnity. A covenant was a serious matter. No one would intentionally break it, and it was important to be on guard so that they didn’t break it unintentionally, either. It was important to pass on the significance of this relationship with God from generation to generation. And so, the appropriate response to this solemn promise, this serious relationship, was to remember. Because the covenant is solemn, we remember. The stories we tell and the observances we enact all serve to keep these things fresh in our minds, so that we might not treat them lightly. This was the mistake that the Israelites made, time and time again in the Old Testament. They had a few very important observances. They were to read and recite Scripture on a daily basis. They were to circumcise their sons. They were to celebrate the festivals and offer the sacrifices at various times throughout the year. Every time the Israelites got into trouble, every time they gave into sin and idolatry and found themselves so overrun with corruption and death and spiritual sickness that the only solution was for God to let them be defeated in battle or exiled or otherwise disciplined for their disobedience—every time something like this happened, at the center of all this misfortune was a sort of national forgetfulness. The people stopped reciting their prayers and Scriptures. They stopped offering the sacrifices. They got lazy about keeping the Sabbath or the other festivals. And in the process, they forgot the God who had given them these observances in the first place. Now it is possible to engage these practices day after day, year after year, and not give God the glory he deserves. It’s true that many, if not all of the Old Testament people of God were guilty of this from time to time. But to hear all of the talk in the modern Church about “mindless ritual,” you would think that these observances were somehow evil in themselves. They weren’t. They were gifts from God. There is no such thing as mindless ritual. Only mindless observers of the ritual. Circumcision and sacrifice wasn’t bad. These things were given to the people to help them remember God, and as long as they truly remembered, they were okay. It’s when they allowed the action to take the place of the remembrance that they got into trouble, and needed to be awakened from their spiritual slumber. We are also called to remember. We don’t have exactly the same sort of rituals and observances that the Old Testament people of God had. Where they had circumcision as a physical act to set them apart from the world around them, to designate them as God’s people, we practice baptism for some of the same reasons. But we also root our identity in the lives we live after baptism. In baptism we die with Christ, but then we rise to live a new life, acting out the Scriptures in such a way that we cannot forget the solemn bond that exists between us and our Creator. Where they offered sacrifices, we look to the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ, and we remember what he did through our observance of the Lord’s Supper, or communion. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11, whenever we eat and drink of this holy meal, we proclaim the Lord’s death, we remember what he did, until he comes again. Whenever we tell the story of Jesus, by reading Scripture and singing songs and talking about things that matter, we take part in remembering the covenant. We pause from our busy lives and engage in these practices which must look so strange to the world, so that we won’t forget the relationship that we have with our Lord, a relationship that began all the way back in the book of Genesis, and has expanded to include a throng of worshipers and rememberers throughout the ages. The third characteristic of the covenant that we explored last week was the fact that it is demanding. God’s choosing of this people, Abraham and his physical and spiritual descendants, was a calling to a challenging sort of life. For Abraham, it began with the command to circumcise the males in his household, but by the time Jesus came onto the scene, the Laws of the Covenant had grown. The writings of Moses and various interpretations of those writings through the years had given the people of Israel a huge laundry list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots that could make the average citizen’s head spin. It was a demanding life, and in some ways a tough life, for those who wanted to distinguish themselves as God’s covenant people. And the appropriate response to these challenges, then and now, was the response of obedience. Because the covenant is demanding, we obey. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that Jesus came to make things easier, to relax the requirements of the Law and to usher in an era of live and let live, with little or no accountability for the things we do. If you think that Jesus was a softy when it came to obedience, read the Sermon on the Mount sometimes. Jesus doesn’t relax the Law. He calls his followers to an even higher standard. The Law didn’t say anything about loving enemies or responding to violence with peace or avoiding lust or forgiving those who have wronged us. Jesus told Christians that they had to do all of these things. But he also gave us the grace and the mercy and the forgiveness to know that if we fail, we can continue to grow and to seek redemption in him. We are people of the new covenant. We live lives in which we are tested every day by temptations and by the mindset of this world. And we are called to obey the higher standard of love and forgiveness and peace and trust in God and humility that Jesus commanded and put on display in his own life. The covenant relationship between us and God is a demanding one. And we respond, if we respond correctly, with obedience. Finally, the covenant is enduring. We looked last week at the ways in which the people of God, in both the Old Testament and the New, pushed God’s patience to its limits. The ways in which they rebelled against the covenant. The ways in which they failed, time and time again, to live up to its demands. And when this happened, even when the people of God, like the prodigal son, wandered into the far country, as far away from the promises and the challenges of the godly life as they could possibly get, God remained faithful. God’s word endures. As Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God will remain true to the words he has spoken. And because his words, and his covenant, his promises are enduring, we hope. This is the only appropriate response to such faithfulness. And this is something that we need, maybe now more than ever. We live in a world where, no matter what the positive thinking gurus might say, the underlying and dominating mindset is one of hopelessness. Humanity has seen the future, the results of our violence and lawlessness and rebellion and selfishness and greed and immorality, and they know, even as well as the Church does, that the end result of all of this is destruction. And they respond with hopelessness. But for those in Christ, for those who have been adopted, through no special skill or action of their own, into God’s family, the only appropriate response to everything is hope. Hope that God will carry out his promises of life in a world of death. Hope that God will continue to show love in a world of hatred. Hope that God will watch over those who have drawn close to him, like a shepherd over his flock or a mother hen over a brood of helpless chicks. This world will always be a dangerous one, for believers and unbelievers alike. This was true when God called Abraham into a covenant relationship, and it continues to be true today. But I can think of no better life to live, even in a dark and hopeless world, then a life of humility, remembrance, obedience, and hope. This is what it means to be the people of God. This is what binds us to the past. And this is what points us to a future when we will see clearly, and maybe we will understand for the first time what it means to be chosen and what God has been planning for us all along.