This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 16, 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 17: 1- 7 , 15 – 16, Romans 4: 13 – 25, and Mark 8: 31 – 38.
Last week we heard of the covenant that God made with Noah and were reminded of the covenant that God made with Adam. This week, the Old Testament reading focuses on the covenant God made with Abraham. Our history is marked by the covenants that God has made with mankind. So perhaps we should understand what a covenant is.
God’s covenants with Noah and initially with Abraham were considered unconditional covenants. Such covenants were made to a loyal servant for faithful or exceptional service. They were normally perpetual and unconditional but the servant’s heirs benefited from the covenant only if they continued the loyalty and service.
Since Abraham had been a loyal and faithful servant, God promises to make him the father of many nations and that God would give them the land of Canaan. Now, the covenant that God made with Abraham in the reading for today was both an unconditional and a conditional one. On the one hand, it was unconditional because God said that he would do it. But it was also a conditional one because it depended on Abraham and Sarah holding to their faith. For the second covenant to be fulfilled Abraham and his descendants must remain faithful to God and obedient to his commands; one of which was that he, Abraham, move from his homeland to the Promised Land.
I think it is hard for us to understand what this second covenant involves, especially from our viewpoint. But, as Paul points out, Abraham’s rewards came through his faith, not through his obedience to the law. Paul also points out that simply obedience to the law, the means by which we live, is not the same as living by faith. And living only through the law will not insure or guarantee salvation by grace, which can only come by faith. It was Abraham’s faith and not obedience to the law that allowed him to believe that God would hold to his promise, his part of the covenant.
Peter also had problems with the differentiation between faith and the law. Though he clearly understood what Jesus was saying about his death, he could not or would not accept it; hence, his rebuke of Jesus. Though well intended, Peter’s thoughts were born of fear and concern and did not take into consideration God’s eternal purposes and plans. Satan was not a part of Peter at this time but was certainly suggesting his thoughts. If Peter had his way, then Jesus’ mission would not have been accomplished.
If we feel that the law is what will save us, then we are going to be sadly deceived later on. The gain we realize from following the law will be short and without reward. Only through our faith in Christ will our efforts be realized.
It is one of those interesting paradoxes that it is through our faith and our faith alone that we are saved. We have to believe in Christ for the gates of heaven to be opened for us. And if we do not believe, then salvation can never be ours.
But we fail to realize that the covenant that was made between God and Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (which include us, as Paul points out) require loyalty and faithfulness on our parts. And that is the part of the covenant put forth by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading that is the most difficult. For we are not always willing to carry the cross that Jesus carried; we are not always willing to lose our life so that we can gain. We have trouble seeing how gaining everything insures nothing; yet losing all will insure final victory.
We try to make our side of the covenant conditional, by detailing what it is that we will do. One of his earlier disciples came to Jesus and said that he would follow him after he had buried his father. Jesus told him, “Follow me now. Let those who are spiritually dead care for their own dead.” (Matthew 8: 21 – 22) Another came but left when Jesus told him to give up everything he owned. It was something that he was not willing to do. But the nature of the covenant does not allow us to dictate the conditions of the covenant.
Jesus came to make a new covenant with us. It was a covenant of the present and not based on the past. It was one that would close the doors of the past and set a new order to life. Just as life changed for Abram, who became Abraham, Sarai, who became Sarah, and Saul, who would become Paul, so to does this new covenant changed our lives and our relationship with God.
In Isaiah 48: 6 – 7, God tells a stubborn people, “Now I am revealing new things to you — things hidden and unknown to you, created just now, this very moment . . . of these things you have heard nothing until now, so that you cannot say, ‘Oh yes, I knew all this.’ ” In Jeremiah 31: 31 – 33, God says, “I am making a new covenant with you — not like the covenant I made with your fathers. No — this one is with you.”
Jesus made a covenant in the present because he knew that is where the true power resides — in the perfect moment of the here and now. God is I AM, not I USED TO BE, or I’M GOING TO BE. We are now here with everything waiting for us right now. When Jesus constantly declared, “In the past it was written . . . BUT I SAY . . .”he was declaring his covenant with the present, and thus with a new future, built upon a new relationship with God.
God made a promise to Noah and then with Abraham. God has kept the promises He made. As each day brings us closer to Easter and the Resurrection we are asked to reflect on the promises that we have made, to be faithful to God, to be his servant and to work to make His presence known more clearly in this world. The season of Lent is meant to remind us that the promises God made through his covenants with us, He has kept. This is a time to remember and to think about how we have kept our part of the covenant.