Over the next several months I am preaching on 50 or so words from the Bible and our faith. A word a week. Words that I think every faithful disciple needs to know. Today’s word is Covenant, though you will not find that word in the text.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The word of the Lord.
What is a covenant? The simple definition is “a binding agreement between two or more persons or parties.” God chooses to be in covenant with us. Another way to say that is God chooses to bind God’s self to us.
A couple of my previous churches had monthly ministries at youth prisons in the area. Every month they would take birthday cake, balloons and streamers and games to the pisons. For a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon they would celebrate the birthdays of the month. Some of the kids came from some pretty difficult situations. Some had been involved in some nasty things. Every time I thought about our folks that made those monthly treks, I thought about the word covenant. God chooses to bind God’s self to us.
November 1, 1987 I preached and led worship at Harmony and Massies Mill Presbyterian Churches for the first time. Following worship the high school senior who had served as the youth on the search committee, with redden eyes, and boyfriend in toe, asked if they could see me that afternoon.
I welcomed them into my small office. As they sat down, she between boyfriend and door, I noticed she had been crying again. Mentally I had prepared for the meeting thinking she was being pressured to have sex and was looking for help. I was young! No sooner had they sat down than she blurted out that she was pregnant! They needed to get married before the end of the year so she and the baby could be on his insurance. In seminary I had been trained to offer nine months of pre-marital counseling. This young couple was giving me six weeks!
When I offered my first response, I asked, “Have you both thought about all your options?”
Boyfriend’s eyes lit up with excitement, he said, “Options?” A few weeks later, with an undercurrent of uncertainty palpable in the congregation these two young people set out on a journey of marriage. Six months later, the week after her high school graduation, they became parents. I couldn’t help but think of the word covenant. God chooses to bind God’s self to us.
David was an accountant for a medium sized business. The owner got into financial difficulties, he began pressuring David to cook the books. It was illegal, for months David resisted. After lots of cajoling, David gave in. When the company was caught, it was David’s signature at the bottom. He was tried, convicted and sent to prison. His wife and two boys were devastated. It got worse. While in prison, David’s teenage son was sexually abused. Visiting David in the the prison in Petersburg, his anguish over his guilt paled in comparison to his guilt in what it cost his family. God chooses to bind God’s self to us.
As I preached at Brandermill Church one blustery March Sunday, every so often the congregation caught glimpses of helicopters flying over Swift Creek Reservoir visible through the towering windows behind me. They day before two middle school buddies had taken a canoe out to do some fishing. The wind was heavy, the water choppy. But they had put in countless times before. They didn’t come home.
Their two families lived in the community, were neighbors of the church. But they had no active faith community connection. Yet as you can imagine, over the eight day search of the lake, church families, neighbor families, dozens of police and fire responders and countless folks across the region were around to help, pray, care, in any way needed.
Finally the two life-long friends were found, tangled in the underwater tree stumps that cover the floor of the reservoir. As their two families felt the anguish of long-expected grief and with two thousand others gathered for the funeral, I thought of covenant. God chooses to bind God’s self to us.
I don’t know how many funerals I’ve officiated, but over every grave I can’t help but think of the word covenant. At every baptism, every confirmation, every wedding, every ordination of elders and deacons, I can’t help but think of the word covenant.
It’s like God put an iron clasp around God’s arm with a long chain attached to a clasp on our arms. God is bound to us, on purpose, and refuses to be detached.
It’s right there in God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
This is a train driving right through scripture: God chooses to bind God’s self to us. But why?
As our Bible in 90 day graduates learned, if you keep reading, you find what some would call “a cycle of disobedience.” It’s just one thing after another. We have given God every reason under heaven to get out of the covenant, to disconnect, to abandon us.
When Israel was wandering in the wilderness, complaining and refusing to trust God, that would have been a good time for God to walk away from the covenant. Why not take off the iron clasp and be free to go?
When they got to the promised land and were continually chasing after pagan gods and forsaking the Lord who delivered them from bondage in Egypt, that would have been an excellent time for God to walk away from the covenant.
It didn’t get any better during the period of the kings; Saul, David and Solomon. David’s debacle with Bathsheba would have been a good time for God to walk away from the covenant. It would have been a great time to unlock the chain.
What about the fall of Israel and the exile? Here’s God’s chosen people, delivered from bondage, they made it through the wilderness, they set up a kingdom and then blow it! God should have turned out the lights, dropped the mic and walked away from the whole blessed business of covenant. But God would not unbind God’s self from us.
And it doesn’t stop there, We crucified the Son of God. Could you think of a better time for God to walk away from the covenant? And yet, on that third day, God raised him from the dead, forgiving the sins of all humanity and seeking to restore us to a right relationship with God.
You need to find somebody and tell them about the word covenant. Find somebody who has made a hot mess of their life and tell them this story of how God chooses to bind God’s self to us. Find somebody who is so far down in the dark they can’t even see a small beam of light and tell them about this word covenant.
There is no human condition that lies outside the boundaries of the covenant that God has made. The psalmist put it this way:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
There it is! Did you catch it? There is no prison that is beyond the scope of covenant. There is no uncertain, lost couple in over their heads, that covenant does not give them a step up. As dark and as foul as the sin might be and the consequences of it, it is not beyond the reach of the covenant. God chooses to bind God’s self to us. This is an amazing concept to grasp! There is the hope of the Gospel. This is the Good news!
Where would we see better this concept than in the love of a parent for their child? For a healthy parent, there is never an option to stop loving your child, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Perhaps that’s why Jesus chose to use the simple story of a father who had two sons when he wanted to explain the depths of God’s love for us. One son is dutiful and the other is squanderous and the father loves them both.
It would be easier to walk away when things are painful, dark and ruined but God chooses to stay. The father embraces the son who squanders his inheritance, as well as they son who stands in self-righteousness believing he deserves and has earned everything he has. Both sons are lost and yet the father’s love will not abandon either one. That’s the covenant.
How many parents have suffered watching their children squander their lives in failed marriages, numerous rehabilitation centers, criminal activity, lost opportunities? And yet, that parent chooses to bind him or herself to that child? Paul said it this way:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is covenant. It isn’t about church-lite. It’s not about how many people are on the role, what the budget is or what style of worship you prefer. This is the heavy lifting. This is the serious business of the Church. This is where we can walk into hell with somebody and not get burned. This is God choosing to bind God’s self to us.
I’m convinced that if a person can have a spiritual awakening, it will be centered on the awareness of this truth. If there is such a thing as a “conversion to Christianity” it won’t be from merely understanding dogma and doctrine. It comes from having one’s eyes opened to the unconditional love and grace God poured out in Jesus Christ. The reality of something called “salvation” is that it is not something from human effort or a lifetime collection of good deeds. It comes to all human flesh, because… God chooses to bind God’s self to us in a covenant relationship.
Find somebody today and tell them that.