God Chooses a Covenant

Rev. Kim Gilliland
Lent 3
SCRIPTURE: Romans 5: 6-11 and Genesis 17: 1-7
Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.
Genesis 17:2

TOILET PAPER

Who knew that there would be such a fuss about toilet paper? I hope that you have enough. I really do. We do in our house. It’s not unusual for us to have package of twenty-four rolls in the closet. But that’s what we always have so it’s really no big deal. But I must confess that I do wonder about the people who have a closet full. I wonder why. There is no danger of the economy running out of toilet paper. It’s made right here in Canada. Paper companies will continue to make it.

It’s not as though people are going to be using anymore toilet paper than before. We just use so much every day. So, in two weeks, when the shelves are full of toilet paper again and no one’s buying it because they need to go through their stash, people are going to be wondering why they have a six month supply in their basement. Same thing goes with paper towels. Same thing goes with hand sanitizers. There is no shortage. The real problem is people hoarding the stuff.

But why do they hoard it? Why are so many people panic buying? And the better question is this: How do we, as followers of Jesus Christ, respond to such things? How does the Bible inform our behaviour and what does that mean for us especially as we journey through Lent? We’re going to take a stab at that this morning and see where it goes.

But before I do that, I want to teach you a song that I hope is helpful during this season of stress. It’s goes to the tune, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

If Coronavirus scares you – wash your hands! *splash splash*

If Pandemics make you nervous – wash your hands! *splash splash*

If an epidemic scares you

Then my friend I’m here to tell you

That the flu’s more apt to kill you –

wash your hands! *splash splash*

GOD MAKES A COVENANT

We continue our journey through Lent. On this journey this year we’ve been looking at the Old Testament passages that laid the foundations for the New Testament stories of the crucifixion and resurrection. God made choices about how to reconcile us back to him. Two weeks ago, we saw how God chose obedience when he insisted that Adam and Eve obey the commands he had given to them.  Last week, we saw how God chose a people through whom he would work. He chose Abraham and Sarah. Today, God is going to choose something else. He is going to choose to work through a covenant and that covenant is key both then and now.

If you were here last week, you will have heard of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, that they would have many descendants and become a great nation and that all of the world would be blessed through them. The only problem, of course, was that they did not have any children and they were very old – well past the usual child-bearing age. But God got past that and blessed them with a son which started the ball rolling.

Today, God will establish a covenant, an agreement between God and Abraham that will set the stage for the relationship between God and his people for the rest of time.

Let’s see how it begins in Genesis 17:1-2 (NIV):

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

In these verses, Abraham is still called Abram. God has not yet changed his name but he will before we’re finished today. Suffice it to say that God is making a covenant with him.

Why is God doing this? God is making a new covenant with Abram because the first contract that God had with Adam and Eve was broken when they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that was growing in the centre of the garden. Note that I did not call what went on between God and Adam and Eve a covenant. I called it an contract. That’s an important distinction because contracts and covenants are two very different things.

A contract is an agreement between two parties that says that each party will do such and such. In the case of Adam and Eve, God’s agreement with them was that God would allow them to stay in the garden as long as they did not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that grew in the centre of the garden. In fact, then they could stay there forever as long as they left that one tree alone. If they thehy ate from that tree, then the agreement would be broken and Adam and Eve would have to leave the garden and eventually die. We all know what happened. They were tempted by the serpent, they ate from the tree and were banished from Eden.

That’s a contract. Either party can break the contract and, if they do, it becomes null and void.

But that’s not a covenant. A covenant is very different. A covenant, like a contract, has terms in it that both parties are expected to fulfill. From that standpoint, contracts and covenants are both the same. The difference lies in what happens when one party or another does not keep the covenant, when they break the prescribed terms. If that happens, the covenant does not become null and void. It is always in effect, and even if one party breaks the terms of the covenant, the other party is still obligated to hold up their end of it.

That’s an important distinction and it is key to understanding this new covenant between God and Abram. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve broke the contract, they were turfed out of the garden. But with this new covenant, even if Abram fails to live up to his end of the bargain, God still has to fulfill his.

We see the same thing in marriage. I know that not all marriages make it. I know that 38% of marriages end in divorce. That rate actually peaked in 1986 when it was 41% and it has actually been declining slightly since then. As someone who was once divorce myself, I also acknowledge that there are some really good reasons to end a marriage. Abused people, for example, should never stay in a marriage. Safety should never be compromised. Nonetheless, marriage is supposed to a covenant. I’ve never yet led a couple in marriage vows that say, “I promise to love and accept you as long as you do what you’re supposed to do.” I’ve never done that and neither will I. I have also never led a couple in vows that end with, “as long as we both shall love.” That isn’t a covenant. That is a contract. That’s why there is, in every marriage, according to biblical tradition as well as the laws of the province of Ontario, something that is called “the intention of permanence. It is often expressed in terms such as, “as long as we both shall live,” or, “until death do us part.” That’s the intention, that this relationship be permanent. That means that even if one party breaks the covenant, the other part is still obligated to fulfill their part.

That is the kind of covenant that God is entering into with Abram in today’s reading. And the word “covenant” is used very intentionally. It’s not just a throw away word. It’s there on purpose for a purpose.

ABRAHAM’S RESPONSE

We read Abram’s response in Genesis 17:3-7 (NIV) which says this:

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

When Abram falls facedown, it is both an action of respect and submission. It’s his way of saying, “Yes,” to God. In falling facedown, he accepts the covenant that God wants to make with him.

Next God states his part in the covenant. Once again, he repeats that Abram will become the father of many nations which means that he will have lots of descendants. But then God does something unexpected. In verse 5, he changes Abram’s name. He changes it from Abram which means “Exalted Father” to Abraham which means “Father of Many”. This is huge because, back then, names were more significant than they are now. Back then, your name helped to define your character and spoke of who you were and what you were to become. So for Abraham to be called Father of Many is extremely significant. It’s God’s way of saying that he will fulfill in Abraham what he promised. Abraham will become the father of many nations because that promise is now etched in his name.

Finally, in verse 7, God finishes up with his part of the covenant. He says, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Remember what we said a few minutes ago about the difference between a contract and a covenant? This is where that whole thing comes into play. God says that he will establish this covenant as an everlasting covenant. That means it will last forever and it will apply not only to Abraham but also to all of his descendants after him. Even if Abraham’s descendants break the covenant, God has promised to keep up his end of the covenant until the end of time.

And so, Abraham and God are in agreement. They have a covenant between then that will last forever, throughout all generations.

KEEPING THE COVENANT

So what does this say to us, especially in the wake of Covid-19? It says first of all that, as spiritual descendants of Abraham, God still has a covenant with us. That covenant is from everlasting to everlasting. It cannot be broken and is just as effective now as it was when God first spoke to Abraham.

It’s interesting that, in Genesis 17, the covenant remains undefined in terms of what is expected of Abraham and his descendants. God’s terms are there but not Abraham’s. That was to come later in the Mosaic law that God gave to Moses during the Exodus. I could not possibly go through all of the points right now but suffice it say that the covenant eventually contained two parts. The first part was how we are to interact with God, what is expect of us when it comes to our relationship with God. We see a summary of that in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. The first four are about our relationship to God. The very first one is to have no other god before God. That means that there is one God and he alone is to be worshipped. Second, God says that we are not to make any idols to worship. Third, we are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. And finally, we are rest on the Sabbath and keep in holy. That’s the first four.

The next six have to do with how we are to be together as people of God. They are to honour our parents, do not murder and do not commit adultery. Do not steal, bear false witness against another person, or covet what is not yours. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the covenant between God and Abraham and most of us, if you were to ask us, would agree that those are all good things.

So here’s my question. Why are so many people having trouble following some of these commandments when they respond to Covid-19? Let’s look at the first part, the God part. What does it mean to have no other God before God? What it means is that we trust in God for all things. That doesn’t mean that none of us are going to get sick. It does not mean that Christians won’t die, especially those who are more vulnerable. But it does mean that we trust and to trust means that we do not fear. Psalm 91:5-7 (NIV) puts it this way:

You will not fear the terror of night,

          nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

          nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side,

          ten thousand at your right hand,

          but it will not come near you.

Does that mean that the arrows and the pestilence and the plagues will not come near to us? No it doesn’t mean that. What will not come our way is found in the fourth word. That word is fear. We are called not to fear these things, not to fear arrows or pestilence and plagues. They may well come but we have no need to fear them because of God’s promise to us through Abraham. And even though these things may kill ten thousand who fall by our side, we are still called not to fear them.

And yet, people are so fearful. They may not realize it but they are. We see it in the panic buying and the hoarding. We see it in the desperate way people are scrambling to get things that they perceive they need but really don’t. I was out for run yesterday morning and some friends. Some of them are committed Christians. And one of them was talking about how he was at the Superstore on Friday night and they wheeled out a pallet of toilet paper all still wrapped up in stretch wrap. And people noticed this and started to gather around that pallet like vultures just waiting for the now anxious stock boy to unwrap it. And my friend noticed himself doing the same thing. Walking around the pallet and eyeing it. And he knew he was being caught up in the frenzy and the need. And he didn’t even need toilet paper. They had enough at home. And so he gave himself a head slap and walked away.

And God said, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below,” including toilet paper. Do not bow down and worship it but put your trust in me. Do not fear the terrors of the night nor the arrows that fly by day, not the pestilence, nor the plague. And yet we fear even when there is no need to fear because we are not going to run out of toilet paper.

We need to put our trust in God. That’s what the first part of the covenant says. The second part tells us how we are to live with each other. Do not steal. Do not covet. Do not bear false witness. How many times have these commandments been broken by those who take more than they need to the point where some don’t have enough? So far, no one has been murdered over toilet paper but I understand that there have been some close calls at Costco.

Who are we as people? How are we to be together? I don’t recall anywhere in the Bible where God says it’s okay to hoard those things that are needed by your neighbour. We are called to share what we have and look after one another. In fact, in James 5:3 the wealthy are chastised for hoarding what is needed by others. “You have hoarded wealth in the last days,” writes James. And then in verse 5, he tells them how they have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence and fattened themselves in the days of slaughter. The Bible is not kind to those who take more than they need especially if it is at the expense of others who do not have enough. That’s because it goes against the covenant that God established with Abraham so many years ago.

But listen to the words of John the Baptist in Luke 3:11 (NIV) where he says, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” I’m sure that he would also add, “Those who have two hand sanitizers, give one to someone who doesn’t have any and if anyone needs toilet paper, share what you have with those who ask.” This is the word of the Lord. This is an expression of the everlasting covenant that God made with Abraham and all of his descendants after him. This is God’s desire for us, how we are to live together in love and faith and peace.

And there is Jesus who took it all one step farther. As Ruth read from Romans 5:6-8 (NIV): “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus did not just share his shirt and his food although he certainly did that just as he would share his hand sanitizer and toilet paper today. But he also shared his life. He gave it for us. That was the ultimate sacrifice for us on the cross so that, through faith in him, we might be with him in God’s kingdom forever. This is the fulfillment of the everlasting covenant that God made with Abraham, the one who became the Father of Many. It is that covenant that we are called to live, especially in times of terror, fear, pestilence and plague.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Holy God, Source of Life, you have graced the earth with an abundance of living breath. You have provided all that is needed to sustain us. The land is covered with mighty forests and tiny insects. Mammals and reptiles roam the majestic mountains, the deep valleys and peaceful plains. The lakes, rivers and oceans support many wonderful creatures from single cell amoeba to the giant and powerful whales. In the skies overhead, the birds and flying creatures live and play out their existence. How great are your works. How mighty are you deeds. How gentle is your caring and compassion.

In the middle of your Creation, you have placed us, your people, to be caretakers of all that you have made. We regret that sometimes we misuse the resources and spoil the work of your hand but we thank you for giving us more chances than we deserve. Thank you for being a Loving God who forgives and seeks to reconcile us with you and with one another again.

Thank you especially for Jesus, the Suffering Servant, who gave up his life as the perfect sinless sacrifice. In him we have new life not only here but also forever in eternity.

We pray for our world as it confronts the Covid-19 virus. Help us, O God, to be save and to follow best practices toward each other. But also calm our hearts and help us to trust in you in all things.

We remember those who need your healing touch this week. We pray for Jacqui, Mary, Mark and Gary. Give them the courage to reach out in faith and grasp the new life that is theirs in Jesus Christ our Saviour. As we pray for others, we become aware of the areas in our own lives where we are in need of healing. Touch us in those innermost places and make us whole.

Holy Jesus, hold out your hand that we may grasp it in ours. Reach down to us from the heavens as we reach up to you. Reach up to us from the earth as we search for roots and a firm foundation. Reach out to us as we reach out to you, our friend and brother.

Bless our living, our dying, our rising, our falling, our health and our sickness. Bless every aspect of our lives and our being as we call to you in faith.We pray all of these prayers in the name of your glorious and humble Son Jesus. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

March 15, 2020 / Lent 3

SCRIPTURE

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; John 4:5-42; Romans 5:1-11.

CALL TO WORSHIP

ONE:   Come, let us sing to God.

ALL:   Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation

ONE:   Come, let us praise God;

ALL:   Let us enter God’s presence with thanksgiving.

ONE:   God is alive in Jesus Christ,

ALL:   and we are the people of God’s pasture.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

We come before you, O God of Majesty, with excitement and anticipation. You fill the heavens with songs of joy and provide our feet with a firm foundation. Your angels spread your love to the farthest reaches of Creation. How great you are! We lift up our voices to give you praise, honour and glory. Delight us with your touch. Inspire us with your presence. Come, renew our lives. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

We come before you in this season of Lent with an awareness of our own sinfulness. Despite your great goodness, we often chose to turn away. We turn from the ugliness of the cross with the knowledge that it is we who should hang there, not your sinless Son. We stand at the stone-covered entrance of the tomb and remember that it is our dead bodies that should be shut away in the cold and lonely rock. Forgive us, O Christ, for believing too little and too late. Have mercy upon us. Amen.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

The cross of Jesus reminds us of our sin. But let us not forget that the story of Lent does not end on Calvary. The stone will be rolled away. The tomb will be empty. In Jesus, we are made whole.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

With joyful hearts, we bring our gifts, held in hands prepared to do your work to the glory of Christ and the good of Creation through the Church of your calling. Amen.

COMMISSIONING

Go forth in the name of Jesus to offer the refreshing living water of the Spirit which quenches the thirst of all who seek after the holy way God. Go in peace.

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