Saturday, March 12, 2022

The God of Covenants weeps

Texts: Genesis 15.1-12,17-18

Luke 13.31-35

Our faith is a world-changing faith. But we didn’t start it.  It arises out of Covenants that the Lord of the Universe has established with his people.  The Lord established them.  It’s important to understand this.  The Covenants that God established, with Adam, Noah, Abram, Moses, and then through Jesus were not negotiated with God.  Rather, God took the initiative.  God established those Covenants – and gave us a clear choice: blessing (if we obeyed the Covenant) or a curse we bring on ourselves, if we don’t. Misery, in other words, lies at the end of the path of disobedience.

Our Hebrew Bible reading of today is one such example of a Covenant initiated by God.  The story has the rather startling description of how the Covenant was sealed – by the severing of a number of animals, and the passing of a smoking fire-pot and flaming torch between the pieces. 

This sounds all rather odd to us, doesn’t it?  Our modern-day Covenants are written on pieces of paper, and both parties get a copy.  But this is an ancient story.  It comes from a time when writing was in its infancy.  So, it was necessary to create something significant, something memorable, which would bind all parties to the Covenant being made.  One method was just as the Book of Genesis records — two people, desirous of making a Covenant, would agree to cut an animal in half, and then would walk together between the pieces.  The essential message was, “this is what will happen to us if either of us breaks the Covenant”.  There were other methods for sealing Covenants at the time – like breaking a piece of wood, with both parties retaining a half for themselves.  It could be rejoined, later, as proof of a Covenant existing. But cutting an animal in two was a rather more dramatic way to make a Covenant legal.

In this Covenant with Abram, notice that it is God alone who moves between the animal pieces, with something like a flame as a token.  Abram doesn’t walk with him.  God makes his Covenant, and then shows how serious he is about it by following the tradition of the day.  Abram will have descendants, and they will possess the Land of the Holy One – as long a Abram follows the path of faith.

God initiates his Covenants with humanity – but this is not the same as saying God ‘controls history’.  The first Covenant God established was the Covenant of free will. He gave Adam the choice to obey him over the Tree in the Garden of Eden.  God wants us to choose God, and to love God, of our own free will.  Everything which happens in the world is not, necessarily, the will of God.  War, hunger, poverty, sickness and injustice are not will of God.  We must not make the mistake of thinking God causes such things to happen.  They happen because human beings fail to live by the rules of Covenants which God has established. 

God calls us to join with him, to co-operate with him, to live out God’s mission in the world.  ‘God is working his purpose out’ through his relationship with us.  But time and time again, we do not listen.  And we make God weep.

God’s sorrow is intense.  He weeps over our wars, injustice, sickness and poverty.  In Jesus (as our Gospel reading tells us) he wept over Jerusalem – because time and again, the people of Jerusalem turned aside from the Covenants that God established.  God told them to love one another, and to welcome strangers.  But instead, they fought one another, and demonised strangers.  God told them to worship him alone, but they worshipped other Gods – the Babylonian gods, and a Golden Calf to quote but two examples.  God told them not to bear false witness, but they dragged God incarnate before the Roman Authority with false claims.  God told them not to murder, but they nailed God-incarnate to a Cross.

In one recent sermon, published in this week’s Chronicle, I said that I yearn for a politician who is prepared to take the teachings of Jesus seriously.  Let’s just think about that for a moment, shall we?  What might society look like, if leaders of nations took the Covenant of God in Jesus Christ seriously?

Let’s think about wars, for example.  The whole trajectory of the Bible is towards the unification of humanity, as one people under God.  As we sing, sometimes, ‘every knee will bow, every tongue confess him King…’.  But, actually, we human beings usually resist all attempts to mould humanity into one people.  We like our divisions, we cling on to them with nationalistic pride.  Every human project which tries to unite people, ultimately fails.  Empires fall. The United Nations?  Toothless.  The European Union?  Crumbling.  The Soviet Union?  Dead, but still twitching viciously in the hands of Vladimir Putin.  Nationalism, and the self-preservation of individual nation states always over-rides God’s nobler plan – to join humanity into one glorious Kingdom of Heaven.  Because we like our autonomy.  We prefer local control.  We will not cede our right to do what we feel like doing to anyone else.  We don’t want to share what we have accumulated with anyone else. 

I could go on (of course!).  Sickness is a symbol and consequence of our preference for developing canons, instead of cures, right in the face of God’s covenant commands to heal.  Financial injustice, worldwide, is a symptom and consequence of human greed, right in the face of God’s Covenant commands to share.  The refugees pouring over the borders of the Ukraine are a symbol and a consequence of humanity’s desire to control and conquer, right in the face of God’s Covenant commands to serve and love.

Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem.  He longed to gather them, as a hen gathers her chick under her wings.  And I believe God weeps over the state of the world today.  He still longs to gather us all in a Kingdom of Love – but we resist his call, and we ignore his Covenant. 

So, this Lent, I invite you to think about the part that you play in co-operating with the Covenants of God.  Whether that’s by your vote, or by your use of money, or by the way you treat your neighbour, or by your commitment to sharing, giving and loving, I invite you to moments of self-reflection in these Lenten days.  Please ponder how you, and I, can join in with the mission of God, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. 

And if that task feels overwhelming; if you wonder what on earth you can achieve towards the mission of God, let me offer a quote of Gretta Thunberg, commended by the new Bishop of Portsmouth, Jonathan Frost at yesterday’s Installation.  Tiny little Thunberg says – “No-one is too small to make a difference.”  You and I may not lead an army.  We may not sit on a throne.  But, like the boy who offered fish and bread to feed the 5000, we can make a difference.  Because God is working his purpose out.  It’s God’s covenant under which we live.  It’s God’s mission in which we are engaged, and he promises to bless and multiply our meagre gifts.  So we step forward in faith, to give, to love, to share.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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