I have a terrible memory. Well, I argue, I do not have a terrible memory, but I am asked to remember so many things that they get lost. I call it the ‘post box syndrome’ – there are only so many letters you can push through the slot in the post box before you can’t pull any out again. Please, if you want me to do something for you, no matter how small, write me a note, or give me a chance to write myself a note. For this reason, I commend to you the care and communication cards that are available in the foyer of the church.
My wife will ask me to so something and I will agree to do, even reluctantly – although I confess, it may be because of the reluctance that it gets buried by other tasks. Somewhere down the track, however, I have forgotten to do that which was asked. ‘I did ask you, didn’t I?’ she will say. Of course she did, it was only in the asking whether I had done what I was asked to do that I remembered that I was meant to do it.
I now find, if it is possible, when I have been asked to do something, I will do it immediately. To which my wife will say, ‘You don’t have to do it now!’ And I respond, ‘If I don’t do it now I might forget.’ When my computer works well it sends me messages reminding me of things that I need to do, ‘You have a communion service at Kalkee in 15 minutes,’ or ‘Pay the mobile phone bill,’ or ‘Mum’s birthday in one week.’ Each day the computer provides for me a to-do-list for the day: Link Notes, Fringe Benefits Reconciliation, Update Baptism Brochure, advertise Confirmation Preparation, etc.
The reading from Genesis this morning tells us that God is bound by his promises – God must keep his promises.
I have set my bow in the clouds… When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember the covenant that is between me and you… When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant. (Gen 9:13, 14-15, 16; NRSV)
I am encouraged that my need to have reminders of the promises I made, is in the image and likeness of God. God uses reminders for himself of the promises he has made and these reminders for him are also reminders for us of those promises. Because God wants us to trust in his promises and undertake whatever we need to do according to those promises. That we do not trust in God’s promises to us is calling God unfaithful and an expression of our sinfulness.
The difficulty with all this is discerning the difference between what God has promised and what is simply our hope.
One of the things that is important in this process is the difference between a covenant and a contract. In human terms, a contract is a promise to fulfil some expectation as long as the other party fulfils what is expected of them. If one party fails to meet their promise, their obligation, then the second party is not obliged to fulfil their promise. Covenant, however, is not like this. God does not operate on contract, but on covenant. In the covenant, a promise is a promise is a promise, and, even though a second party fails to live up to their obligations, God is still obliged, still duty bound, to fulfil his promise.
Even though Adam and Eve fell from grace in the garden and the world became filled with evil to the point that there was only one person left whom God considered faithful, God was obliged by his covenant to save his creation. And, through it, a new covenant was created, that he would never deal with the evil in the world in the same way again. He set a rainbow in the clouds as a reminder to him of this promise. Much more majestic than tying a piece of string around God’s finger!
When God called Abram and named him Abraham, along with his wife Sarah, he made a covenant with Abraham that his offspring would become a great nation and the promise of Canaans the land in which this nation would dwell. The sign of this covenant would be circumcision, not just of the male offspring, but also of the male slaves who were not of his offspring. This is a reminder of the promise set in the flesh. Just between you and me, I think I would prefer the string around the finger on this one. Circumcision is both a reminder to God of whom his people are and of the covenant he has made with them. It is also a reminder to God’s people that God has promised something – and you can’t miss it or forget it. So those who carry the sign of this covenant will be reminded that God is faithful and by making decisions and taking actions that are consistent with the promise of God, God’s promise will come to fulfilment.
We get a clear picture, however, that we can get our attempts to bring God’s promise to fulfilment terribly wrong. We know that Sarah, because of her age, doubted God’s promise that she would bear a son, so she gave her handmaid to Abraham to bear a son for her – what a mess that turned out to be. But a covenant is not a contract, and still Sarah bore a son in her old age.
It was understood by the Old Testament writers that a covenant, rather than a contract, did not mean that there was no punishment. The covenant was for the promise, heaven help any who got in the way of that promise being fulfilled.
But if you will not obey me… and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you… I will set my face against you… I will cause life to pine away. You shall sow seed in vain for your enemies shall eat it. (Lev 26:14, 16, 17; NRSV)
This is not the end of the promise, but the end of those who will participate in the promise.
In Luke, it is Zechariah who comes to understand the fulfilment of God’s promise, in Jesus. Having doubted the promise that his wife, Elizabeth, would give birth in old age to a son John, who would become the baptiser, he is punished with speechlessness until the appearance of Jesus. Then, confronted with the baby Jesus he declares prophetically, his mouth now opened,
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’ (Lk 1:72-75; NRSV)
Punishment, yes, but the promise continues.
It seems that amongst the New Testament writers that there is some difference of understanding regarding the continuation of the original covenant. Zechariah, in Luke, seems to understand Jesus as a continuance of the same old promise. The writer to Hebrews seems to understand that the old covenant has come to an end and, in Jesus, a new covenant has come to be (Hebrews 8). Paul, in Galatians, seems to be expressing that there were activities and duties to be fulfilled under the covenant, that is, the law, which has been replaced, but not the covenant itself. (Gal 3:15-18)
It seems to me that what God has promised us, as children of Abraham, has not changed, but in Christ has been fulfilled and, in Christ, the way that God has brought the covenant to fulfilment has changed. As we participate in Lent, our great preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we acknowledge the change in method. Jesus came amongst us and removed the aspect of punishment through his own death on the cross and gave us a new freedom to enter into the covenant of God with his people.
Our sin, then, is the expression of the ways we would get in the way, obstruct, hinder, our need to, and the need of all, to be known by God and to know God; doubting the promise God is making us to be and become whatever he sees in us. So, if we believe that God is saying to us, ‘This is what you will become,’ then we better participate with God in enabling that to happen. The real punishment is that we will miss out on the promise he has for us.
In Jesus Christ the covenant itself has not changed, but has been fulfilled, and it is our task, as those who continue in the covenant, to enable it be shared by everyone. If God can change the way he enables the covenant to be fulfilled, then we also acknowledge that how we proclaim the covenant can be done in a variety of ways and can be changed.