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Last week_ in the course of our several week series on Abraham and

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Last week_ in the course of our several week series on Abraham and Powered By Docstoc
					   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.

				
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