March 1, 2015

Keeping Our Covenants: Covenants of Hope


Text: Genesis 17:2:  “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

Whenever the lectionary brings around again the great story of the promise once made to Abraham, the beginning of the people called Israel, I can’t help but wonder how the generations of preachers before me, who did this work in times that were considerably more inhibited, spoke about the basic facts of the story. It would take some explaining. Or, if not explaining, it would take some pretty nimble euphemisms.

We are told right at the beginning of the story the most salient fact of all: Abram is ninety-nine years old, and Abram has no offspring. Now, it is true that he married a scandalously younger woman; Sarah is all of ten years younger. Even so…there are some fairly obvious challenges here.

Preaching is a sacrament with a recorded history, and so it is possible, if these kinds of things interest you as they interest me, to go back into that record to see how preachers of an early day dealt with these, well, challenges. A pretty common strategy was to assert that back when the world was young and the time since the beginning of creation was not so great, lives of such duration were common. It is basically the idea that in the ancient world there were giants on the earth; and if you think about it you will see how there is a fairly evident parallel between our inherited tradition of legendary figures in the ancient world and the stories of gods and demigods that populate the founding narratives of other civilizations.

But even by the time of Jesus’s own day, that explanation was a little less believable than it once had been. I’ll get to the evidence of that in a minute. Right now let’s just go back to the basic conundrum of Abram.

We ourselves know some examples of people who have lived into their ninety-ninth year. So bring the example of those folks to mind, and imagine this exchange between them and God: I will make you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

I mean, really?

I think the way I might say this that is fit for the pulpit is simply to observe that we live in a historical moment unprecedented for its emphasis on extending the procreative life of the human species. You only have to watch the ads during the football games for evidence of this. But ninety-nine years? It isn’t just silly; it’s simply incredible.

And that, of course, is exactly the point.

As soon as he receives his new name, Abraham has a new covenant with God. But that covenant is not a one-way affair. God has chosen to make this covenant with Abraham because Abraham is faithful; Abraham, to hold up his part of the covenant, must remain faithful.

Said a little differently, the covenant doesn’t work unless Abraham is willing to be part of it. God has made a covenant promise with Abraham; but Abraham, for his part, has to invest his faith in God keeping the bargain.

It is a covenant of hope that gets made between God and Abraham—and between God and us. We can’t just respond to God’s offer of a covenant by saying, well, thanks, that’s really interesting, and I look forward to hearing from you again. We have to accept the offer God makes and turn it into our own deepest, most cherished hopes.

This does not come easily or naturally to Abraham. Abraham is a sensible man. In this way more than any other he is truly our ancestor; when God makes a promise to him, Abraham’s first reaction is to be pretty certain that he knows better than to fall for it.

We get a pretty edited version of the text from Genesis this morning, but this is what the rest of it says: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’”

When I read this I feel as though I recognize Abraham more clearly. Because when God offers me a promise, that’s pretty much my posture. I’m on the floor laughing.

At least that’s my first response. And it was Abraham’s, too. But it was not his final response. And on that hangs a great deal.

Abraham doesn’t become the ancestor of a multitude of nations unless he first accepts and believes the promise God made to him. And that is exactly what he manages to do. He takes the terms of God’s promise and makes them his own most cherished hope. Then—and only then—do things unfold as God has promised.

This is what Paul gets, and it’s what he’s talking about in the little bit of the epistles to the Romans we heard this morning. Abraham didn’t receive God’s offer of a covenant because he was a meticulous observer of the rules, for the simple reason that there was no Torah, there were no laws, when he received God’s promise. Abraham received the covenant because he was faithful. He had what it would take to keep up his end of the bargain.

The covenant we have is the New Covenant that Jesus speaks of at that last meal with his disciples, and which we remember whenever we gather at the altar for the Eucharist. The terms of it are simple—and to our way of thinking, they are just about incredible.

Here is what they involve: First, that we are meant to have eternal life, not just the temporary life we have in this physical and temporal world.

Second, our inheritance of that life can be taken away from us by our own sin; that something gets in the way of our path and that life with God.

And third, the death and resurrection of Jesus has given us a means for us to be separated from that burden of sin and assured the promise that was meant for us from the beginning of creation—eternal life with the source and ground of our being.

The plain truth is that when we hear all that, shaped as we are by the ideas of our own age, we have great difficulty taking it seriously. Maybe we don’t fall on our faces and laugh; but we don’t really find any handles on those ideas to take hold of. They are promises written in a language we seem not to speak anymore.

But what was true for Abraham is no less true for us. Covenants extended to us only become realized in fact when we accept the terms offered to us by someone or something else and make them into our own hopes. Because of course when we do that, then we begin aligning our own choices, shaping our own behavior, in ways that help us do our part in bringing about the realization of a covenant’s promises.

Abraham laughs when he hears God’s promise; but he accepts the terms of the promise as his own hopes, and that leads to a very specific outcome: Isaac is born.

We might ourselves laugh when we hear the terms of Jesus’s promise; but if we accept the terms of that promise as our own hope, then that leads, too, to a very specific outcome. We begin to live as people aware of the profound gift that has been given to us, and our covenant of hope bears fruit in lives of gratefulness.

But for that to happen, we have to suspend our disbelief. God has not given us this promise because we are good; God has given us this promise because God is good. We are called now to respond, by giving up what may seem hardest for us to sacrifice—our skepticism. But skeptics do not end up in the kingdom of heaven.

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Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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