God of the covenant

St Barnabas and St Michael’s 27th January 2013

Readings – Genesis 12:1-9; Luke 1:67-80

It’s always frustrating not having the big picture.

Perhaps you have tried to assemble a piece of furniture and all you have to guide you is a badly printed diagram with a few random letters which allegedly are supposed to tell you which bit of wood goes into which hole.

Or perhaps you’ve found the pieces of a jigsaw all neatly bagged up but with no picture showing how you they all go together.

Or perhaps your teacher has set you a piece of homework and you realise she hasn’t given you enough information to answer the question.

You try for a while to figure it out. You make a few attempts to work out what you’re supposed to do. But in the end you just have to give up. It’s all too difficult.

That’s how many Christians feel about the Old Testament. They feel they ought to read it because it’s part of the Bible. They make sense of some of the individual pieces, and they love some of the key passages. But as for the rest, well, if we’re honest, there are times when it all seems far too difficult. There are all those long names and endless family trees. There are those endless regulations about sacrifice and what to do with dead bits of animals. And what about those bloodthirsty battles and the wholesale slaughter of other nations? It’s not too surprising that when it comes to the Old Testament many believers quietly and perhaps even somewhat guiltily leave it unread, unopened – rather like that awful medicine I was given as a child which I knew was good for me, but if I’m honest, I tried as far as possible to avoid.

So today instead of looking closely at one piece of the Old Testament jigsaw, I want to take some time to look at the bigger picture, to give us all some tools to realise how this particular passage of Genesis fits into the overall plans and purposes of God. Because I believe it’s when you start to see how the Old Testament comes together, when you gain an insight to how everything builds up to the coming of Jesus, it’s then that the Old Testament comes alive and you are able to wonder at and worship this amazing God who so carefully works out everything for the good of those who love Him.

How then do we begin to make sense of the Old Testament? Well, let’s for a moment lift our eyes away from Scripture and think about something completely different – a wedding service. Here is the bride, coming down the aisle in a beautiful white dress. At the front of church she is met by her groom who stands beside her proudly, immaculately suited and booted. Soon they will be husband and wife, committed to one another for life, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. But before we get carried away by the joy of the occasion, let’s just stop for a moment and ask ourselves – what kind of relationship are they entering into?

There’s an important clue in these words I use to bless the rings:

Heavenly Father, by your blessing, let these rings be to N and N
a symbol of unending love and faithfulness,
to remind them of the vow and covenant
which they have made this day through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now of all the couples I have prepared for marriage over the years, I don’t think there’s been a single one who has been able to explain what a covenant is. Yet the very idea of a covenant is at the heart of the marriage service, and it’s really so important to understand what it means.

You see, when two people get married they are not entering into a contract. A contract is an agreement when two parties agree to do something in return for something else. For example, you go into a shop to buy some sweets. When you buy them, you pay the money over and the shop gives you the goods. If it turns out later that they contain cyanide, you, or your family, can sue them. If the bank rejects your payment, the shop can in turn sue you. A contract is about doing something in order to get something back, and there are penalties when the conditions are broken.

But marriage isn’t like that – at least I hope not. At the heart of marriage is a covenant. That is, an agreement to do something not because you expect something back. It is an agreement to do something because that is what you have decided to do. So when you marry someone, you don’t say, “I will marry you, on the understanding you will put the rubbish out on Wednesdays” or “You can be my husband, provided you cook the lunch every Sunday”. No, you give freely of yourself out of love and goodwill and respect for the person you are marrying. That is a covenant.

And just as a covenant relationship is at the heart of the marriage service, so it is at the heart of God’s dealings with us. In fact if you want to sum up the big picture of the Old Testament, you can do so in one word: “Covenant”. It is a book which reveals how God enters into relationship with the people he has made, not because we are good enough, or because we are able to perfectly please Him, but quite simply because He loves us and wants the very best for our lives.

As you can see from the diagram on the screen, there are four main covenants in the Old Testament. The first one is with Noah. Now we all know the story, how Noah builds an ark, the animals go in two by two, and then the Lord sends a devastating flood. But what happens afterwards? The Lord gives Noah a very special sign – a rainbow – and with this rainbow he says these words: Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth. (Gen 9:16). Now God didn’t make this covenant because any of the creatures deserved it – let alone us. But in His love and mercy He decided that He would never again destroy life on earth by flood.

God made a promise out of what we would nowadays grace. But this didn’t mean that Noah and his descendants were free to do whatever they like. In fact God gave them a clear command to: Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth (Gen 9:1). And it is true of all the covenants in the Bible, that when God makes a promise, we are called to respond in faith and obedience, and actually do what He wants. Not so that we can earn His favour, not so we can gain extra blessing, but out of sheer love and thanks for what He has done.

Of course it doesn’t take too long to realise that obeying God isn’t something that anyone of us are particularly good at doing. There is a huge gap between God who is pure and holy and perfect and ourselves who have this perpetual habit of doing wrong things. So if the first two themes of a covenant in the Bible are promise and obedience, then the third theme is sacrifice. Sacrifice is about giving God something costly to demonstrate our commitment to Him and our readiness to accept we fall short of His standards.

And do we have sacrifice in the story of Noah? Yes, we do. If you look closely, you will read how when he came out of the ark, he sacrificed some of the clean animals he took with him into the ark. Now at this stage how these elements of promise, obedience and sacrifice aren’t closely tied together, but as the Old Testament unfolds, they become three tightly woven strands which become key themes running all the way through.

The covenant with Noah is important because it shows God’s commitment to preserve life on earth. But it still didn’t deal with our tendency to go our own way, to disobey His commands, to live as if He was not there. We saw last week how soon after this covenant with Noah mankind was busy building a tower in Babel to make a name for themselves. The last thing on their mind was glorifying God.

So what was God going to about it? Well, this is where our reading from Genesis this morning comes in. As so often, God’s big plans begin with the call of one person. Think of Mary receiving a visit from the angel. Think of Paul out on the Damascus Road. It is one of the constant wonders and mysteries of God that He entrusts His purposes to weak, frail human beings.

And here he chooses Abram. There’s no indication, yet, that Abram is anyone particularly special, anyone particularly worthy of God’s attention. Yet here is God once more making covenant promises, this time introducing His great plan to save the world.

We don’t have time to look at these covenant promises in great detail but in many ways they set the agenda for the rest of the Old Testament. There is the promise of a land. There is the promise of a great nation. There is the promise of blessing. There is the promise of an offspring. I could easily preach another spend a sermon on each of these four subjects in turn, and I would still only be scratching the surface.

But the point to realise is that at this stage there was no human way for any of them to be fulfilled. Abram had no land. He travelled from place to place, and in any case the land God promised was already occupied. Abram had a wife and a nephew, and some people they owned, but it would be stretching it to call him a great nation. Then there was the whole question of offspring. I don’t think it makes a lot of difference whether you believe Abram was literally 75 years old when he set out. The main point is, he and his wife were thinking more about the retirement home than the maternity home. Yet here God quite clearly was saying that one day they would have a son.

So did Abram respond? Look carefully at verse 4: So Abram left, as the Lord had told him. Or again in verse 7: The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him. Abram may not have understood, he may not have seen how God’s word could be fulfilled, but he was prepared to trust God’s word and to act. This doesn’t mean he perfectly understood obedience. The story goes on after the end of our reading down into Egypt where Abram passes off his wife as his sister and she ends up in Pharaoh’s palace.

But we see here a man learning to understand God’s will for his life and staking everyone on what God’s says. It can’t have been easy for him to leave behind his father, his friends, his security and go 400 miles to a place where he had never been before, but he went. Yet as a sign of his commitment, a sign of his determination to follow the Lord wherever he went, he built an altar. We don’t know exactly how Abram worshipped at this altar, but we know his worship would have involved sacrifice. Once again we have those three elements of promise, obedience and sacrifice.

And really that sets the agenda for the rest of the Old Testament. Much later on, you have the promises of God confirmed and expanded for the people of God at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments we are so familiar with comes out of this covenant God makes through Moses there. And much later on again, you have the promises God makes to David that he will have a son to rule over the house of Israel forever. Although we think of the Old Testament as being all about law and regulations, in fact just like the New Testament it is a record of God’s faithful, persistent and overwhelming grace. We might sometimes have to look quite hard to find it, but scratch beneath the surface, it is always there.

Of course, as the story of the Old Testament wears on, the question of how God fulfils these promises becomes quite critical. Yes, God promised the land to Abram. But in the end the people of God forfeit that land, and are taken into exile. Yes, God promised Abram offspring, but Israel, his descendants, end up scattered, isolated, exiled. So what of this blessing God promised? Had God somehow given up on His people? Could He no longer be trusted?

That was the question the historians and prophets of the time grappled with and I guess it’s one many of us can relate to today. It’s all very well talking about God as the God of grace, but sometimes the evidence can lead us to question, or at least to wonder. But as the writers of Old Testament got to grips with the issue, the more they realised that the problem lay not with the nature of God, but with our own selfish, human nature. The fault lay not in the promises of God, but in our inability to obey.

After all, just think for a moment about these four covenants. After each and every covenant was given, we find some act of disobedience. Noah plants a vineyard and becomes blind drunk. Abram tries to pass his wife off as his sister. The people of God make a golden calf and start a rave, even as Moses is up the mountain. David goes off and commits adultery and murder. There is a pattern – and I can recognise it in my own life – where God is amazingly faithful beyond measure. And what do we do in response? We turn our backs on His love, His faithfulness, His goodness.

So the question becomes, what kind of sacrifice can ever pay the price for our sin and wrongdoing? In his mercy God gave a series of sacrifices that His people God could offer for their sins. But as you read on through the Old Testament you find a growing realisation that these sacrifices could never effectively deal with the problem of the human heart. Last week at St Michaels, Graham quoted these words from Psalm 50:

I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

It’s not surprising that in the end the prophets begin to look forward to God making a new covenant with His people, where His promises would be fulfilled in a radically different kind of way, when He would work in such a way that we could obey Him more fully, where there would be a sacrifice to deal with our sins once and for all.

And this takes us straight to our second reading this morning, the words which Zechariah prophesied at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. Let’s just take a moment to read them through one more time:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us –
to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Why does Zechariah mention Israel, David and Abraham? Because after many, many years of waiting, the promises made in the Old Covenants are about to be realised fully and perfectly in the life and death of Jesus Christ. From now on God’s grace will be seen abundantly and clearly in the wonderful mission that Jesus undertakes to save and rescue us. He becomes a source of blessing to all who believe and trust in Him, and in Him we find the ultimate proof of God’s love for us.

But there’s more. Because not only does Jesus reveal the promises of God, He also deals with the question of our obedience once and for all. In the words of Zechariah, Jesus comes: to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. How? Through the power and work of the Holy Spirit who can touch and change even the darkest human heart, through changing our relationship with God from fear to love.

For, you see, Jesus came not only to fulfil the promises of God, but also to fully provide for the depths of our sin. Jesus comes to be our sacrifice, so in Him we are fit to stand in God’s presence. In the greatest and most unequal exchange the world has ever known, Jesus takes all our sin and wrongdoing and bears them on the cross, so that He can give to us His goodness, His holiness, His righteousness.

It’s little wonder, then, that Zechariah is filled with praise, worship and adoration. You see, once you get to grips with the Old Testament, you begin to see just necessary is the cross, and you learn a whole depth to your adoration and your praise. So what about you this morning?

You may be wondering if God really loves and cares for you. The cross of Jesus gives you an emphatic “Yes”. Every promise of God has been fully and wonderfully revealed through the death of His Son for you. God’s grace is for you, and He wants to bless you more abundantly that you can ever imagine.

You be wondering if you can ever live the way God wants you to live. You find the whole issue of obedience just so difficult. The cross of Jesus tells us that Jesus has already paid the price for your disobedience, and if you are willing, He will fill you with the power and the presence of His Holy Spirit to dwell in your heart and change you for good.

You may be wondering if you can ever be forgiven for the wrong things you have done, whether a fresh start is ever possible. Once more, look to the cross. Because on the cross Jesus paid the price for every single wrong thing you have done. All you need to do is trust and believe, and you will find in Him that peace you have been seeking.

Now I realise I’ve taken a long time to put together the big picture of God’s salvation. We’ve covered a lot of ground and I know I’ve gone for longer than usual. But sometimes we need to step back and get that big picture so you can start to see just what God has done, to glimpse just a little of His might and power and grace and love. God has the most, amazing wonderful plan for your salvation, prepared from the very beginning, and no matter who you are, no matter you have done, He wants you to be included in His covenant purposes. So the question I need to ask is: Do you believe that? Will you respond in faith to Him? Will you come to the cross with a thankful, willing heart and commit yourself to Him this morning, to love and to serve Him all your days?

Covenants for web

(click on image for larger view)

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