“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
The Old Testament readings for Lent in this year B encourage us to think about covenants, which are special kinds of promises or commitments. Last week we heard of Noah. In that covenant God promised to never destroy the entire earth again by a flood. Today the covenant is with Abram whom God renames Abraham in this lesson to mark God’s promise to make him the father of many nations. We are told that Abraham and Sara will become the ancestors of God’s people, both the famous and the common. (Into that lineage David and eventually Jesus will be born.) As a preview, next week the first lesson will be about Moses and the Ten Commandments. In fact, each of the Old Testament stories in year B is about covenants. A common theme in these lessons is that the promises being made come first and most strongly from God rather than what human beings such as Noah, Abraham, Sara and Moses promise in return.
So, I wonder this morning, what exactly is a covenant and how does this type of a promise work? Is it like a pact or a treaty or simply an obligation? Is it the same as a contract, which my thesaurus uses as a synonym? Personally I don’t think so.
A contract carries a legal aspect to it, at least in our society. Each party involved signs on to exactly what is written on the document. In a contract each party agrees that I have to do certain things and in return you have to do certain things. If one of us breaks the contract there will be consequences which are usually spelled out in the document. We agree to exactly what is stated in the contract, nothing more. What we sign to is the minimum—we are not required to go beyond what is on the paper. You can make a contract with someone without caring for them or without really even knowing them. It is a “business” arrangement. You can sign a contract with someone you despise and still fulfill the provisions of the agreement.
A covenant on the other hand requires not the minimum effort but the maximum. I sign on to whatever it takes, always looking for another greater opportunity to further this affiliation to which you and I both agree. The specifics don’t have to be spelled out in a covenant. Covenants are about connections, not about legal requirements. It would be impossible to be in a covenant with someone without love.
In a contract from the beginning we prepare for the end of the arrangement. We speak of what we will each get out of the pact. When we finish our work, the agreement is over. In a covenant we speak of what will be the base of the relationship. It is an agreement that will never end.
In each covenant that God makes with human beings He is making a relationship statement. God desires to be connected with His people; and through Noah, Abraham, Moses and others He makes these promises, these covenants, seeking to strengthen the relationship between God and human beings. This morning’s lesson calls these promises everlasting promises. God’s promise to Abraham did not end with his death. Through his offspring, for myriads of generations actually, God’s faithfulness and promises remain.
God’s covenant with Abraham in this particular passage is actually the third such agreement with him. First God promised to lead Abram to a new land that would be his own. God would give this land of Canaan to him. Later God repeated the land promise with an additional commitment of giving Abram many heirs to inhabit that land. God’s covenant with Abraham came as a series of steps, all of them leading him into a deeper and deeper exploration of the trustworthiness of God.
Before this lesson Abram had already left his homeland and been through a great number of problems as he followed God’s command. With each experience he learned to trust God more deeply. He was alive, well and prosperous throughout all of the dangerous traveling and he had received the land he was promised. God was building a relationship of trust with Abram through fulfilling these promises.
However, in today’s lesson, we see Abram when he is very old and he and Sarai have not yet received the promised gift of a child. Tired of waiting, on their own then they had decided to use Hagar as a substitute for Sarai to achieve this gift of a son.
We learn in today’s exchange that God had not forgotten them! Is God angry with them for going it on their own? Does He withdraw his part of the covenant? No. Instead God repeats His promise to make Abram and Sarai the father and mother of nations. Added to this promise God gives them new names, Abraham and Sara, to signify their roles in what is to be. God continues to draw these two people into an ever deepening relationship of love with him. The covenant, which God made with them, is to be their God. And this covenant is everlasting. God’s love and care for Abraham and Sara will not end. He was and is their God for all generations to come. Though not stated in this passage, the implicit understanding is that on the other side of this arrangement Abraham and Sara promise to be God’s people.
This covenant that God made with Abraham and Sara has now passed on to us. We are the current offspring of Abraham and Sara and God in this covenant has promised to be our God.
And for our part, we have promised through our baptisms to be His people. God’s covenant is with us. God is our God; his promise is to love and care for us. We are on the receiving end of God’s grace. We do not earn this relationship nor initiate it. Instead like Abraham and Sara, we learn to live more deeply in this grace. No matter what happens God will not break this covenant, because what He promises is relationship with us. This is not a contract but rather an everlasting covenant.
We may not always be faithful to Him but God has been and always will be faithful to us. Make no mistake, God recognizes that humans do not always do what is best, and so reconciliation also flows from God as a part of His love. God’s people, that is you and I, are continually being drawn to Him; the direction comes from God encouraging us into deeper and deeper relationship. This is not a minimum effort from God; it is a deep and everlasting commitment.
Lent is a good time for taking small steps in trusting God. These steps are not about making ourselves feel better or holier, but about allowing ourselves to explore our relationship and our covenant with God.
May we hear these words spoken to our father Abraham today as spoken directly to us. “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
God continues to bring us his blessing and his love.
Thanks be to God.