Keeping the Covenant

Posted on 17 Mar 2019, Pastor: Adam Yates
  • Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

    The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

Abram was a little fed up with God. It had been a long time, many years since God had first spoken to him. It had been many years since Abram and Sarai had followed God’s call to leave their homeland so that God might make them into a great nation. Abram and Sarai had become nomads at God’s word, leaving behind everything. And they waited.

The years passed. Abram and Sarai travelled far and wide. They grew quite wealthy. And they waited. Slowly, they grew old, yet still they had no land to call their own. Still they had no children to sit upon their knees, to tell their stories too, to carry them forward in memory. Then, finally, God at last breaks the silence and speaks with Abram again, assuring him that Abram is going to receive something really great. But Abram is having none of it. When God reiterates the promise that started the two of them on this journey so many years ago, Abram’s response is simply, “Prove it.”

The rest of our reading this morning is essentially a contract negotiation. Once all the details have been established, God seals the covenant with Abram, using a ritual that would have been common in the ancient world. At God’s instruction, Abram sacrifices several animals, cutting them in two, and placing the halves side by side. Then, in the depths of the night, Abram has a vision and sees the presence of God pass between the carcass halves, and the contract is sealed.

It is interesting to note that this practice is where we get the phrase, “Cutting a deal.” The animals that are cut in two symbolize the fate of the party that would breach the contract.

There are two things remarkable about this. First, the covenant asks nothing—it requires nothing—of Abram and Sarai. It puts all the requirement, all the action, all the commitment on God alone. Second, it is only God who signs the deal, as it were. In practice, when cutting a covenant, both parties would pass between the halved animals. But in Abrams encounter with the divine, it is only God who does this.

It is a bit like someone saying that they will build you a house for absolutely nothing in return, and they agree that, if they fail to do so, you can sue them for everything that they have. So, either Abram is an exceptionally good negotiator and God is an exceptionally bad one, or there is something else going on here.

Why would God make such a one-sided covenant? Why would God promise so much with the expectation of nothing in return? One possibility, and a very Protestant answer that would make Martin Luther proud, is that, God being God, there is nothing that we have—nothing that we can do—that God needs. But there is another possibility, one that is not mutually exclusive. Why would God make such a one-sided covenant? Because God knows that we cannot keep our end of a covenant, that we are utterly incapable of it. Indeed, the story of scripture is the repeated establishing of covenant between God and humanity [today’s story is simply the first covenant, the foundation of the covenant, and the ones built upon it would be more two-sided]. The story of God’s people is the story of our repeated failure to hold up our end of the agreement.

But the story of God’s people does not end where scripture leaves off. Our inability to keep the covenant was not just back then, in the times of the old stories. It is now, too.

After all, what does the Lord require but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God? But instead, we have detention centers where we lock up children, separated from their parents, as a stated policy to deter people from crossing our border. And what does the Lord command but to show compassion and care for the foreigner and the alien in our land, remembering that our ancestors were once foreigners and aliens in a strange land. But instead we use the foreigner and resident alien as a political scape goat and whipping boy. And what does the Lord demand but that we love our neighbors as ourselves? But instead we allow hatred and fear of our neighbor to fester and flourish in our midst. We allow evil, like white supremacy, to have voice and a place at the table, so that fifty are now dead in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; so that eleven are dead in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pennsylvania; so that nine are dead at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina; so that six are dead at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Wisconsin; so that three are dead at the Overland Park Jewish Center in Kansas; so that six are dead at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center in Canada—all while gathering to study sacred scripture, to pray, and to worship our God.

And it will keep happening. The evil of white supremacy will continue to strike out and strike down the faithful of God until we put our foot down and cast out that evil from our midst.

Until then, we continue to fail at our end of God’s covenant, just as our ancestors did before us, and their ancestors did before them, all the way back through the long arc of history of God’s people. As God forged that very first covenant, the one upon which all others would be built, it would seem that God did indeed know what God was doing. God did seem to know that we would be wholly incapable of holding up our end of the covenant.

But there is also Good News in this. God knew that we would fail at our end of an agreement, so the first covenant, the foundation of God’s covenant with us, does not depend on us. God’s covenant is founded ultimately on God and God’s grace alone, and nothing else. God struck the covenant with Abram not because we could ever live up to it, but because God loves us and God chooses us, again and again.

That does not absolve us of any responsibility, thought. It does not release us from trying to make the world a better place, of trying to be faithful to the covenant that God has given us. Rather, it frees us. It frees us to confront the suffering and brokenness of the world and to stand tall before the evil that is in our world, secure in the knowledge that when we fall short and fail, that God will still keep the covenant. Because we will fall short. We will fail. And God will still love us. God will still choose us, so that we can dust ourselves off and stand once more.

Preached by Adam Yates