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God’s Eternal Covenant
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18 Luke 13:31-35 Psalm 27
The two readings this morning cover a lot of history. The reading from the Old Testament is the very first covenant made with the Israelites. It is a promise to Abraham that his descendants will be as numberless as the stars. And our reading from the New Testament is almost a final reflection on the way the Israelites have responded to God’s covenant. Jesus laments over the city of Jerusalem. He mentions how in the history of Israel, the people have turned away from God, broken His covenant, and murdered God’s prophets when they sought to bring the people back to God. Jesus wishes to bring the people of Israel under His care like a hen does her chicks, but instead He finds only rejection.
The covenant made with Abraham is the very beginning of the Israelites. It comes before Moses and the laws given on Mount Sinai. It is before the Israelites take the Holy Land and make it their own. It is before King David and King Solomon. It is before the destruction of the northern kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity. It is before the restored Israel when the nation becomes a theocracy governed by priests.
The story of the Bible reflects a person’s spiritual journey from earth to heaven. The call to Abraham represents the very first awakening of our spiritual consciousness. It represents that moment when we first realize that there is a God. Realizing that there is a God is just the beginning of spiritual life. Afterward, there follows the quest to learn spiritual truths and to govern our life by spiritual principles.
The covenant with Abraham is a very old passage in the Bible. There is an ancient covenant ritual in it. Abraham divides in two a heifer, a she-goat, and a ram. He also sacrifices a turtledove and a pigeon. Darkness falls over the sacrifice site and a mysterious fire pot and flaming torch pass between the two halves of the animal sacrifices. This constituted the covenant ritual binding Abraham and God together.
This covenant began with God’s action. Out of nowhere, God calls to Abraham and says that Abraham’s reward will be very great. The beginning of Israel’s relationship with God was totally the result of God’s activity. Abraham didn’t ask God to come to him. Abraham didn’t pray for God to come into his life. Rather, God called Abraham into covenant out of pure grace. Abraham had done nothing to earn God’s gracious covenant. Abraham had done nothing to deserve God’s favor.
This story of God coming to Abraham out of pure grace is the way God operates in our lives. God calls us into communion in the midst of our daily work-a-day lives. It is God’s effort to save us that lifts us upward from worldly cravings into heavenly joys.
The call of Abraham is like the very first day of creation. In the beginning, the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep. Creation begins by God’s activity to bring into being the world and all living things. It begins when God says “Let there be light.” This is so like the call to Abraham because the two stories represent the very beginning of our spiritual life. The whole story of creation is a symbol for our growth into a heavenly being. This journey is also figured in the course of the whole Bible from Creation through the descent of the Holy City in the last chapter of Revelation.
But Abraham responded to God’s call. God called Abraham into relationship, and Abraham responded by performing the sacrifice confirming the covenant. So God forms us into a spiritual being when we respond to His call.
The history of Israel is a tumultuous one. This brings us to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. In the course of Israel’s history, there were many times when Israel broke this early covenant with Abraham. They broke the covenant by worshipping other gods and by breaking the laws of good will and love for the neighbor. When Israel strayed from God’s laws and His covenant, God sent prophets to the Israelites. The prophets’ mission was to preach the way of God to the Israelites and to urge them to return to God. But often the Israelites resented the words of the prophets. They told the prophets to go away, threatened them, and in some cases—as in the case of Elisha—actually tried to kill the prophet.
But in all this, God remained constant in His call to community. Though the Israelites turned their back on God, God never turned away from the Israelites. Chapter 31 of the book of Jeremiah has that lovely passage in it about God forming a new covenant with Israel and writing it on their hearts. It captures the history of Israel’s relationship with God beautifully. It begins with God stating clearly His constant, everlasting love,
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you (31:3).
God then recounts how the Israelites had turned away from Him, comparing His relationship with them to a husband-wife relationship.
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (31:31-34).
I said earlier that the story of the Bible is symbolic of our relationship with God. I don’t think that spiritual growth for most of us is straight up always. I think it spirals, circles, drifts near and far from God. Like the Israelites, we can fall away from God.
But as in the case of the Israelites, God is ever calling us back into communion. Just like the first call of God, when we begin to enter into relationship with God, so God calls us always throughout our journey. God’s love is so great that He always forgives, always works to save us.
When humanity fell desperately away from God, God Himself came to us to save and redeem us. And as happened so often in the past, humanity rejected God. In fact, humanity was so depraved that we thought we could silence God’s Word.
But we could not. Though Jesus was murdered, He rose from the grave. The Word of God cannot be silenced. The power of love cannot be squelched. We live in challenging times for organized religion. It looks like religion is fading from society.
But in these trying times we need particularly to consider the story of Abraham. When God promises Abraham a great reward, Abraham protests in desperation. He says,
“O Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Elie′zer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3).
It looks to Abraham that a great reward would do him no good, he has no heir to pass it on to. But God reassures Abraham that he will have a child of his own and that his descendants will be as numberless as the stars. God promises further that Abraham’s descendants will own land from the Euphrates River to Egypt.
And Abraham believed. They thought they could silence God’s Word when they executed Jesus. And more recently, South Africa thought they could silence dissent for Apartheid by imprisoning Nelson Mandela. But the whole world rose up against Apartheid and Mandela ended up prime minister of South Africa. Bigots in the US thought that they could silence Martin Luther King, Jr’s voice calling for freedom and justice by assassinating him. But the movement continues and opportunity and power are now part of the African-American experience. Society rebelled against religion in the ‘60’s. And now it appears that society is growing increasingly apathetic toward religion. But the voice of God cannot be silenced. Like Abraham, I believe.
Lord, you call to us out of your infinite love, to come to you and into heavenly joy. Help us to hear your call. And give us the grace to respond when we hear your sweet call. We have times when it is difficult to hear your divine voice. We have times when responding to you seems hard. But we know that you never cease in your saving works. You never turn your love away from us. You always call to us, you always lift our hearts upward, you always lead us into heavenly delight. We thank you for your unfailing love. Come, Savior, come.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. We pray for Linda, and for John, and for Irene, and for Vera, and for Erik. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.