Texts: Genesis 15.1-12,17-18
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.