21 Jun June 21, 2020: Covenant or Contract?
Covenant or Contract?
June 21, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
This morning we delve into a biblical theme that pervades all of scripture, both Old Testament and New. That theme is covenant. As I said in the first sermon of this series on Genesis, having a robust theology of both creation and covenant is absolutely essential to understanding the story the Bible is telling. In fact, you cannot grasp the meaning of the cross unless you understand covenant. As Western, 21st century Christians, we are at a significant disadvantage in this regard because our culture and much of our lives are dominated by contracts, rather than covenants, and there is a world of difference in the two.
Genesis 15 begins with God reiterating the promises first made to Abram in chapter 12. Those promises have to do with land, descendants, a name, and blessing. Abram has a dream in which God says to him, “Do not be afraid, for I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” God doesn’t specify the nature of the reward, but Abram connects it to the promise of a son, blurting out the question that has been weighing on him for some time: “What will you give me, for I remain childless?” God has been full of promises, but thus far, Abram has little to show for it. He still has no land and no heir.
In all his human wisdom, Abram has already devised a contingency plan for this “lack of an heir” problem. He has designated his household servant, Eliezer, to receive his inheritance, but God is not impressed with this plan. God reiterates that Abram will have a son. The literal Hebrew translation of verse 4 is rather graphic: “A son will come out of your own loins.”
God takes Abram outside on a starlit night. “Look at the sky, Abram. Count the stars. Can you? That’s how big your family is going to be.” The same Creator God who fashioned the stars without number can and will produce a son for this barren family.
“And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” You could make a strong case that no Old Testament verse has exerted a more compelling influence on the New Testament than this one, Genesis 15:6. Paul references it in Romans 4 when he says, “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness…so, then, he is the father of all who believe.” To the Galatians Paul says, “Consider Abraham, who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (3:6-7). James, also, writes in his letter, “The Scripture was fulfilled that says Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness and he was called the friend of God” (2:23).
What exactly did Abram believe that led God to declare him righteous? Abram trusted God’s promises. No matter how bleak his situation looked on the outside, Abram believed in his heart that God would honor God’s promises and his actions were then shaped by that core conviction.
Now comes a critical scene. God directs Abram to take a heifer, a goat, and a ram and cut them in half and lay them on the ground. In the Near East, when agreements between people were still ratified orally rather than by signing a written document, people would cut animals in half and walk between the carcasses. By doing this, they were announcing that the same fate that befell the sacrificed animals would come to them if they failed to keep the agreement.
Now look closely at verses 17 and 18. Who walks between the carcasses? It’s not Abram; it’s God. Abram at this point is a bystander. God is the only one, in the symbolic form of fire and smoke, who passes between the pieces. God is not just making a covenant with Abram, God is cutting a covenant with him. The Hebrew word used here is berit and it literally means to cut a covenant. God cuts this deal and seals it with the shedding of blood. And God alone will bear the penalty if this covenant is broken all of which points us to directly to the cross.
Most relationships today are established by means of a contract: contracts of employment, contracts for renting or buying a home, maintenance contracts, contracts for services, financial contracts, and so on. Contracts are binding only long as both parties keep the agreement. If one party fails to abide by the agreed upon terms, the contract is void. That’s the way most contracts work.
God does not relate to us like that. God does not offer his people a contract. God creates a covenant. This covenant is one-sided and unilateral. Think about the story. Who initiates the covenant? God. Who sets the terms? God. Who cuts the deal? God. This covenant will not ultimately be kept by us; it will be kept by God, just as the covenant God made with Noah was also a promise that God originated and which only God can keep. “I will never break my covenant with you,” says the Lord in Judges 2:1.
God’s covenant is not only unilateral, it is also unconditional. God’s covenant does not depend on our faithfulness. If we don’t honor the contract, God does not abandon us or become unfaithful himself. In this sense, a covenant is more like a family than a business relationship. If a child disobeys her parent, the parent does not stop loving her. Family ties go deeper than that. As parents we may be disappointed in some of the choices our family members make, but we don’t stop loving them, and so it is in God’s relationship with us.
That is not to say that what we do does not matter. As both scripture and our experience bear out, our actions have consequences. Sin hurts us and hurts our relationships. But God’s covenant with Abram reminds us that God will never stop loving us. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or love us less. God loves us because God is love, and it is out of love that God invites us to trust God’s promises and be active participants in his covenant with all creation.
God is a covenantal God which means that God keeps God’s promises. But there is something else you need to pay attention to in this story. The lectionary skips verses 13-16 of Genesis 15, keeping the focus on God’s promise to Abram. But that section contains an important and honest warning about the difficulties Abram’s family will face. Abram’s descendants will be “aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for 400 years.” It turns out that faithfulness to God is no guarantee that life will be free of hardship, nor is it a panacea for suffering and pain. Abram’s people will undergo generations of pain, not only as slaves in Egypt but also a result of their own apostasy and sin that will eventually lead to their exile in Babylon.
It’s also obvious from this story that while God always keeps God’s promises, often we have to wait for them. One of the big challenges of faith is the waiting. Let’s tell it like it is: we hate to wait. We are the land of high-speed internet, instant cash at the ATM, and microwave-ready meals. We don’t wait well, so like Abram, when God’s promises are delayed, we have two options. We can either do the hard work of waiting or we can take matters into our own hands. We saw last week the mess Abram got into when he chose the latter.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached an Advent sermon in 1928 in which he said, “Waiting is an art which our impatient age has forgotten. We want to pluck the fruit before it has time to ripen…Learn to wait; for [the Lord] promises to come. No one can wait for God who does not know that God has been waiting for us. How long has Christ been knocking at the door of our hearts?” The prophet Habakkuk puts it this way: “If the promise of God seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come; it will not delay” (2:2-3)
Here in Genesis 15 God initiates and ratifies a covenant with Abram. Later, God will initiate and ratify through Jesus Christ a new covenant. Listen to the words Jesus pronounces at the Last Supper: “This is my body, broken for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Like the old covenant, Jesus takes the initiative and seals the new covenant by the shedding of his own blood.
You might wonder, if God’s covenant is unilateral and unconditional, what is left for us to do? First, we are invited to trust God’s promise, that it is true and that it is for us, so that our faith might be reckoned to us as righteousness, as Abram’s was. As we know, faith requires making a leap—actually making several leaps over the course of our lives. Living in covenant with God means that we choose to live counter-intuitively, not solely based on logic. Consider this:
- Common sense told Abram that he and Sarai were not going to have any children. But’s God’s promise said something else
- Common sense told Abram that he was a desert herdsman, not the father of a great nation. But God’s promise said something else
- Common sense said that the divine God of the universe couldn’t be held accountable to an unconditional guarantee to humans. But God’s promise said something else
- Common sense said that there was no such thing as a “free lunch” so Abram should expect to pay for the land somehow. But God’s promise said something else
- Common sense told Abram the divine Creator of the universe didn’t walk between halves of carcasses. But God’s promise said something else
Our common sense will tell us all kinds of rational things, but who and what will we believe when God’s promise says something else?
Having made the leap of faith, the second thing we can do is seek to keep covenant with God by the way we live our lives, knowing we won’t be able to maintain it by our effort alone. A good place to start to understand a covenant-keeping life is to look at Jesus’ two great commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36). God’s Spirit, given to us at Pentecost is the source of the power that equips us to do the hard, self-sacrificing work of love.
Finally, live with gratitude. As we grasp the magnitude of the gift God has given us in making covenant with us—covenant to love us, to forgive us, to empower us by his Spirit, to give us the ever-present comfort of his presence and peace that passes all understanding, to make us partners in bringing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven—when we really start to get it, gratitude will be the easiest thing we’ve ever done. Or, as the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhardt once said, “if the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘Thank you, God, thank you,’ it will be sufficient.” Amen and amen.