Sunday, June 8, 2014

Covenant Maker

 Forever and ever. Amen. 

How familiar are you with this word, covenant?
It is not a word that finds it's way into our everyday use.
It is a very spiritual and religiously used term.

The area where most people get to experience the idea of this term the most would be in the moment of ceremonial bliss. The joining together of two people in holy matrimony. Here is special place where two people have come together and have stated that they want to spend the rest of their lives together. They love each other so much that they can't imagine being without one another. When two people come together in such a way, vows are taken. Scripture is read and recited and repeated. Blessings are given upon the parties involved and upon their families. Such steps that are taken should be decided upon with the utmost thought and commitment. This is a decision for the rest of our lives upon this earth. Do you really see yourself with this person for all your days? Is this simply a means to an end? Is this joining together of two people simply a way to get some thing you want?

This time of year is perfect to think about covenant making and to use marriage as the stepping stone to get there. Many people have their wedding in June or early spring. It's a time of newness with life returning to the earth. Everything is green and lush and full of beauty. That's what we want ofr our lives. In the Old Testament, God wanted to be in covenant with his people, Israel, in order that they might have a deeply committed relationship with each other. God promises to watch over them, take care of them. In return he wants their complete devotion. In the New Testament, we find that those same words spoken nearly two thousand years prior are still at the forefront of their spiritual and religious lives. One person decided to question Jesus about those words.

Matthew 22:36-40

New International Version (NIV)
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Are you a perfectionist?
Do you find yourself trying to get every little thing just right? If you're a teacher, maybe your perfectionism surfaces in the classroom, trying to make sure that every child does exactly what they are supposed to do and learn exactly what they need to learn in order to succeed in this word. If our a farmer, maybe your perfectionist mindset comes out in how you take care of your field and your animals. If you work in an office, the numbers and the paperwork have to be just right so that the ebb and flow of all things office related work and rhyme so that the people can get their jobs done.

If you've read anything from the gospels it should be easy to see that Jesus is dealing with a bunch of perfectionists. They have taken things to an extreme level in their spiritual lives, however. They have added their own explanation to how exactly the law is to be lived out. They have burdened the people and themselves down with unneeded weight of keeping this covenant with God just so. They have defined in strict regulations what "work" is how many hands it takes to do work and how often it can be done. They have regulated who they can associate with and whether or not it's proper to eat with this person or that. Regulations have been put in place to make sure that everybody does exactly what they need to do and how they need to do it in order that the relationship between God and man is at the correct ebb and flow for religious life to be at an all time high.

I remember my old Nazarene days very fondly. I recall old timers talking about all the regulations that had been put on the people back int he 60's and 70's. It had come down to how exactly we should express our Christian faith. How we should live our lives in this world while telling others about Jesus. Something as simple as drinking a can of pop should not be done in the front window of one's home because somebody driving by might look over and see you standing their drinking from said can and improperly think it was a beer can and that you, in turn, were drinking alcohol.

In our Gospel account on this day, Jesus comes along and shows the people that there is one issue they have over looked in this covenant. One word that should define all that the people do. Before we delve into that word, maybe it would help us to know exactly what a covenant is.

Definition of COVENANT

1:  a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement :  compact
2 a :  a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action
   b :  the common-law action to recover damages for breach of such a contract

You can see where someone might get a little off track. It's legal and binding.
If something was put into contract and stated formally for all to hear and see then maybe it's so important that we need to make sure it is never broken or changed.

Where else in the scriptures do we see covenants being made?
Maybe Genesis 15 would be a good place to look.

God comes down to speak with Abraham and to make a covenant with him.
The Lord has called Abraham "the father of many nations". The Almighty has tols him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore. But, Abraham wants to know, for sure, how this will happen. How can he know that God will truly bring this into being?

The account at Genesis 15 is the only place we see something like this.
Now, sacrifices are made all through the Old Testament. Animals are slain and then offered up on an altar to remove sins and bring forgiveness. But, this sacrifice is strange. God asks for specific animals to be brought. He wants Abraham to find a place where to hills come together. Abraham sacrifices the animals by cutting them in two and places the halves on either side of the crevice so that the blood can run together, forming a stream and a path. Maybe you can see what is coming.

In Abraham's time, if two parties wanted to make a covenant with all the binding agreements, this was how it was done. Blood has always played a significant role in the covenant making process. We see throughout the discourse of scripture. When Adam and Eve sin, an animal is sacrificed and the skin of the animal is used to cover them. The entire religious system for Israel is built on the sacrificial blood of a lamb that would cover the sins of a family for the year. Bulls, rams, lambs are given in such a way as to say to the Lord that he matters more than all we have or want or need.

This covenant with Abraham is special because of what is done. In a normal covenant made of this kind both parties need to walk through the path of blood. In making this covenant, both parties are saying, "If I don't keep my end of the bargain, if i don't do what I say I'm going to do, then you can do this to me." The blood, the animals sacrificed here, is a gruesome image to bear. It is quite a sight to take in or even imagine. The strange thing here is that after Abraham does all the work of preparing this path of blood, the scripture says he "falls into a deep sleep". God causes his to be taken out of the equation here so that the Lord can do something special.

God walks the path.

1500 years before Christ comes, more than a thousand years before it becomes clear that Christ would come and give his life in the sacrificial act as the Lamb of God, God makes a covenant with Abraham that says exactly this, "If I fail to make this promise true, this promise that your descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, If I fail to remember you and fulfill my promises, then you can do this to me." But, it goes deeper than that. Both parties are supposed to walk the path. Both parties are supposed to take this agreement upon themselves. Abraham fell asleep, remember? God is the only one who walks the path. SO, what is God is saying? "You can do this to me if I don't keep my end of the bargain here. AND, if your family and your descendants don't keep THEIR end of the agreement, someone will need to be punished. And, you can do this to me."

God agrees to take the punishment upon himself. To cover not just his end, but our end also.

Would the people keep their end the agreement? What is their end of the agreement?
If we are reading carefully, we see that there isn't much laid upon Abraham's shoulders here.
A promise is given. What Abraham and his descendants do with the promise? Believe in it.

In believing in it, they need to live their lives according to the promise.
In the days ahead, God would rescue the people from their bondage in a place called Egypt.
Would they listen? Not all the time. Would they continue to believe in the promise? Many fo them would complain and bicker and gripe. At one point, on one day, three thousand of them would be lost to their sins in the desert. A sign that God would not continue to put up with the sin and their disobedience. But, the course of history would show itself to be true. By the time we get to the Gospel account and this person questions Jesus about the greatest commandment, Jesus knows he will be heading to the cross for that sacrificial act. The people seem to have lost their way. They seem to have missed the central point of the covenant.

SO, Jesus shows them through the giving of his life.
He allows his life to given for the sins of the world, for not keeping their end of the covenant, for not believing and staying true to the promises given.

On this Pentecost day, we remember a great message given. Peter and the disciples standing on a balcony. They share the message of what Christ had done. The crowd that masses itself around is said to be around three thousand, that day. A covenant is made here.  Someone in the crowd asks, "What then shall we do?" And, Peter clearly states, "Repent and be baptized, everyone of you".

Join into covenant with God. Show God how much you love him. Put him first in your life.
Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength. Give God everything you have.
And, love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. If God is first in your life, then it shows.

It shows up without all the need to make everything perfect.
Love is perfect. It is the defining characteristic that God wants to see in our lives.
God loved us so much that God gave all in the form of Jesus, the one and only son, the sacrificial lamb, so we could be forgiven.

How much do you love God today?

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