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February 28, 2010

10 a.m. Service
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17 - 4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Nancy S. Streufert
“Everlasting Covenant”

‘Help us, Lord, to trust in your gracious promise.’

Some of you know that in my professional life I am an attorney. My


law practice is transactional in nature, which means that rather than
litigating disputes in court, I help people draft their legal documents so they
avoid ending up in court. The heart of transactional law is the contractual
agreement, which in its most basic form is an exchange of promises by the
parties to the contract – promises that are intended to benefit each of them
but that come with reciprocal obligations. Entering into relationships in this
way has a very long history and goes back to ancient times.

In biblical terms these agreements were called covenants. Our reading


from Genesis today is about the promises that God made to Abraham and
the forming of a covenant relationship with him. God promised that
Abraham’s descendants would number more than the stars he could count.
And God promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s
descendants. With these promises, God showed his intent to enter into a
relationship with a particular people, Israel, and that it would be through
Israel that the other peoples of the world would receive God’s blessing.

In our legal system today, a contract is not binding and will not be
enforced by the courts unless each party agrees to do something they don’t
otherwise have to do by law. But God’s promise to Abraham was gratuitous,
a gift with no strings attached, and no reciprocal promise was requested of
Abraham. So the question that came to my mind as a contracts lawyer, was
whether there was a binding agreement between the two. With that
mysterious ceremony involving the torch and the animals described in the
reading today, God was solemnly binding Himself to the covenant with a
seal, but Abraham, who did not promise anything and who did not participate
in the ceremony, was not bound at all! Under today’s laws, would a court
enforce God’s promise if God chose to default on it?

A better question would be ‘What was Abraham’s response to God’s


promise and what should be our response?

‘Covenant theology’ is a rich theme that runs throughout our Judeo-


Christian history from Genesis through the New Testament. There was the
covenant that God made with Noah: that never again would the earth be
destroyed through a flood; the Abraham covenants I noted above; and the
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covenant with David: that Israel would be a great nation governed by a line
of royal kings. Biblical scholars refer to these three covenants as
‘everlasting covenants’ in that they rest on divine grace alone and are not
conditioned by human behavior.

A different kind of covenant was the one God made with Moses on Mt.
Sinai, when God delivered the Law to God’s people. The covenant with
Moses came with obligations – more akin to our contracts today – with harsh
punishment to the Israelites for disobeying the terms of the agreement. All of
these earlier covenants with Israel were ultimately ratified with God’s
promise in Jesus Christ, the New Covenant, and continued through Paul’s
spreading of the Gospel outside the Jewish peoples to ‘the nations’.

Rather than each covenant superseding the next chronologically


through history, these covenants should be thought of in a collective way, as
overlapping and complementary, as building upon one another – because
each of them presents a valid perspective that contributes to the covenant
tradition as a whole.

Through God’s gracious commitment and faithfulness, an everlasting


relationship has been established with God’s people – Abraham and his many
descendants, which now include ‘the nations’ and ourselves. The story of
the salvation history of God’s people is a continuous one of faithfulness and
promise as told through the prophets, through the stories of the Bible,
through the experience of God’s people in history up to our present time,
and through the unfolding of our faith tradition.

A little over a year ago, my husband Dick underwent a serious


operation that required a week’s stay at St. Joseph Hospital followed by a
long recovery period at home. The surgery itself took three hours, two hours
longer than expected because of what the surgeon discovered when he
‘went in’. Most of you have had some experience with hospitals, and you
know about the bustling, often impersonal atmosphere that accompanies
hospital care. We were very grateful to the sympathetic friends and family
who called, wrote notes, raised us up in their prayers, and who stopped in
during Dick’s hospital stay. But despite the support from friends and family,
I experienced a sense of utter loneliness throughout this period.

Our immediate family members, all of whom live out of town, were
unavailable to be with us. And the person I have been able to count on most
for comfort and support, my husband, was himself incapable of giving that
support. This was the first time in our 21 year marriage that he was so
vulnerable and helpless. During those long days I sat with him at the
hospital, I had lots of time to think about the precariousness of our earthly
lives. And I realized for the first time in a direct and very profound way that
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we cannot depend ultimately on any one person in this life. But we can
depend on God! So here is what God’s covenant with Abraham came to
mean for me: that God will always be there for me. And my response to His
promise is to believe, to trust in Him, as Abraham did. And when I was able
to respond in this way to God’s promise during Dick’s recovery, I received
God’s blessing and I was at peace.

Though most contracts today involve an overt exchange of promises


and obligations, there is such a thing as a unilateral contract: one party
promises something and the other party, rather than promising something in
return in words, accepts by their actions. So in this sense, Abraham had
reciprocated God’s promise by his actions when he believed God. He asked
questions, but he believed.

God promised Abraham that through him and his descendants the
nations would be blessed. By sealing His covenant with Abraham, God
vowed that His promise was everlasting, that nothing would change God’s
faithfulness to His people. But unlike Abraham, his descendants the
Israelites wavered from time to time in their trust throughout their history
and when that happened, they were incapable of receiving God’s blessing.
So in a sense, the covenant between God and His people is conditioned on
us, but it is never broken so long as a remnant of God’s people still trusts in
Him.

If you go outside on a cold, sunny day, the sun’s rays will warm your
face until you put on a hat or go into the shade. But the sun would still be
shining whether you cover up or not! Similarly, God’s grace shines on us
continuously and eternally, but it is we who shield the way to its reaching us.
We ‘cover up’ so God’s ‘warmth’ cannot reach us.

The New Living Translation offers us a paraphrase of the Scripture


passage that Sr. Alice read to us this morning: ‘Then the Lord brought Abram
outside beneath the night sky and told him, “Look up into the heavens and
count the stars if you can. Your descendants will be like that – too many to
count!” And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord declared him righteous
because of his faith.’

Each of us represents one of those stars and each of us can be blessed


through the promise of God’s covenant with Abraham. To be blessed, to
reciprocate God’s promise, we need only respond with our trust and believe –
and allow the warmth of God’s grace to reach us.

Amen.

The Collect of the Day

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O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who
have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts
and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your
Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and
reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Old Testament Lesson – Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid,
Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said,
"O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of
my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no
offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of
the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your
very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look
toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he
said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and
the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the
Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." But he said, "O Lord GOD, how
am I to know that I shall possess it?" He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three
years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove,
and a young pigeon." He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying
each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And
when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep
and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a
flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a
covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the
river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."