The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity
The Rev. Edward W. Fowler
I’m going to do something exceedingly dangerous and I’m going to do it without apology. I understand the grave risk I’m taking and I’m pressing on anyway. The deadly consequence could be a riot of snoring. It might be so loud it keeps all of you awake.
So here goes: I’m beginning today with a theological term: “self-maledictory” oath. It’s such an exotic term that if you type it into your computer your spell-checker will draw a squiggly line underneath it. So it sounds gnarly, but in fact it’s really not that complicated.
Let’s think first of benediction. It means literally to “say good over.” A benediction is a blessing. You receive at least one from your priest each Sunday morning: “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding . . .”
We all covet a blessing . . . or we should. It’s better’n jamoca almond fudge.
Malediction – to “say bad over” – is a curse. A self-maledictory oath, then, amounts to a promise to curse oneself. How very odd. Who would swear a curse upon himself?
God would. And He does – in Genesis 15.
He does so in the context of creating a covenant with Abraham. In the broadest sense, a covenant is “a solemn commitment guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both . . . parties” (Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch 139).
Whether we use the term or not, we rub up against covenants every day. We live in a nation established by one, called a constitution, which sets out the relationship of government and governed.
Those of us who are married live under a covenant arrangement that sets out “promises or obligations” and has been blessed by a priest or a magistrate. Over and over, in Old Testament and New, the Bible uses marriage as a picture of the covenant relationship between God and His people.
When we buy a car, use a credit card or join a club we engage with another party in a covenant.
In the ancient world, equals entered into a parity covenant, negotiated for the benefit of both, usually in a military alliance. The parties called each other “brother.” When one party was stronger than the other, a different arrangement was in view.
This one was a suzerain-vassal treaty. The stronger king provided protection for the weaker, who contributed troops in time of war and paid tribute. The two called one another “father and son” or “lord and servant.” Often, the suzerain gave the vassal a grant of land, on penalty of revocation if the vassal failed to perform according to the agreement.
As the Bible applies the word to Yahweh’s dealings with Israel it falls into the second category. It is not an agreement between parties on a more or less equal footing but an arrangement God initiates and under which He lays out the terms.
To simplify, we often speak of multiple covenants; in fact, the Bible gives us only one, and it is progressive as God’s revelation is progressive. He enacts it through a series of mediators, beginning with Adam and proceeding through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and, finally, Jesus Christ.
Each version expresses God’s grace upon His people in some way. Each sets out terms and conditions, blessings for the people’s obedience and curses for their disobedience, an oath that establishes it and a provision of succession that extends it to generations to come.
Each has a distinct sign, a real form that communicates God’s promise. In His covenant with Adam the sign is the Sabbath. With Noah the rainbow is added; with Abraham circumcision; with Moses the Passover; with David the throne; with Christ the eternal throne.
In the final version, often called the “new” but more accurately the “renewed” covenant, baptism replaces circumcision – both signify cleansing — and the Lord’s Supper replaces the Passover – both speak of God feeding His people. Christ’s cross becomes the temporal sign, that to which we look as long as we are in this world.
To give you an idea of how central this concept is for our understanding of Scripture, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, uses the Hebrew word 82 times. That word and its Greek counterpart occur 309 times in the Bible overall.
We have before us today the covenant with Abraham, which is stated and restated in Genesis. I want us to consider the form it takes in chapter 15. As elsewhere, Yahweh, as suzerain, provides Abraham, His vassal, with a grant of land – the Promised Land.
We also find mention of seed, or descendants, and blessing, God’s assurance of protection of His covenant people and the nation’s growth in power and prestige.
We happen upon a scene that on the face of it is not at all unusual for it was a common way of sealing such an arrangement. It involved the sacrifice of animals and because it did the precise language used referred to “cutting” a covenant.
The sacrifice served a dual purpose, in the first place sealing the deal and in the second providing the vassal with a bloody picture of the consequence of disloyalty. The vassal walked between the parts of the slain animals as he recited his oaths. In the prophecy of Jeremiah, Yahweh tells His disobedient people:
“I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it– the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf– I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life.
“Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone back from you.
“Behold, I will command,” says the LORD, “and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant” (34:18-22).
Walking between the parts of the animals was no trifling undertaking. It was the way through the valley of the shadow of death. Don’t take that walk if you don’t mean it.
Now we hear God say to Abraham, “’Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, down the middle, and placed each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds in two” (Genesis 15:9-10).
Even by the standards of Holy Scripture, this is a moment pregnant with meaning. The drama heightens as God causes a” deep sleep” to overtake Abraham. The last one to fall into a divinely induced sleep was Adam, when God removed a chunk from his side and fashioned Eve from it.
Next, Yahweh covers Abraham with “horror and a great darkness.” In the Old Testament, overwhelming darkness signals a theophany, an appearance of God in His creation. It shrouds Mount Sinai as He prepares to descend to meet Moses and communicate with His people.
Now we find, “And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces” (15:17).
The covenant partners are present, the sacrificial animals have been killed and laid out, darkness has closed in.
“On the same day the LORD made a covenant with (Abraham) . . .” (15:18).
Now the covenant is in place . . . but something is amiss. It should be Abraham, the vassal, the weaker party, who passes between the bloody pieces. Instead it is God, for the smoke and flame represent Him, as they will when He leads His people on their wilderness sojourn as a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.
It is not the vassal but the suzerain – the Creator of the cosmos, King of kings and Lord of lords – who invites the curse of bloody destruction upon Himself if the terms of the covenant are violated. And God does not renege on His promises. He is guaranteeing not His own faithful performance but that of Abraham and his descendants. With His life.
Well, I don’t need to draw you a map . . . a map to the cross. It is God Himself, God the Son, God the Messiah, who will take that walk. The walk through the valley of the shadow of death is the way of the cross. On the cross, Jesus Christ will offer His torn and bloodied flesh as payment for the rebellion of Abraham and his covenant seed.
We have violated the oath, you and I. And God has taken our penalty upon Himself.
That was God’s promise in Genesis 15, as it was in Genesis 3, when we first learned of the Seed of the woman and His role in redeeming the fallen creation. Here is the gospel, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the opening chapters of the Scriptures.
To know who we are in Christ is to grasp the meaning of covenant loyalty, for that is the aim of the stipulations, the oath, the blessings and curses. Will you be faithful to God? Will you be faithful to God on His terms?
Let me ask the same question in another way: Do you love God?
The concept of covenant is bound up with an idea expressed by a Hebrew word some of you may have come across, chesed. We can translate it “loyal love” or “covenant love.” God’s love for His people is not amorphous. It is focused and defined, expressed in His law, which is an outpouring of love on His people.
God’s law lets us know how to remain in right relationship with Him, how to come under His benediction, or blessing. If we love God, truly love Him in the full sense of that word as Scripture uses it, we will obey Him. And He will bless us. Blessing us is the fervent desire of our Father’s great heart.
So chesed refers to love, but not any old kind of love. It’s not mushy love – not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Song of Songs is all about mushy love, which is God’s wondrous gift to His people so that they might rejoice and be glad as they be fruitful and multiply.
I’m a great believer in mushy love. My wife likes flowers well enough, but she has allergies so giving her flowers can be a little dicey. Besides, what she loves even more than flowers is chocolate. She has a T-shirt that reads, “Chocolate: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Any More.”
Because she has such a craving for chocolate I surprise her every now and then with a special gift. I bring her a big bag of peanut M&Ms.
Now, I realize that by revealing what a romantic I am I may have put some of you other married guys in a bad spot. Your wives are wondering right now, “Why doesn’t that lunk ever bring me peanut M&Ms?” Well, you’re on your own. Work it out for yourselves.
So, mushy love is good but chesed is a horse of a different color.
From this point forward, mankind divides neatly into two categories, covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers. And the Bible maintains throughout the language of international relations in the Ancient Near East:
The vassal who remains faithful to his suzerain loves him. And he who rebels against him hates him. God has become Israel’s suzerain, Israel His vassal.
Our Lord Jesus does not shrink from this language. He says, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).
It sounds harsh to our ears but God doesn’t stutter. We must hate anything or anyone who comes between us and the Lord we claim to love. What is hate? In this context, it is rejection of all that is not good and true as God presents the good and the true.
We must of course continue to embrace our unbelieving relatives and to do our utmost to win them over, to love them even as we hate the lies they have accepted. When Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan,” He was not speaking anathema upon His dear disciple but on the infamy that poured out of his mouth.
When we enter into covenant with God we agree to live by His law. But you and I once again have an advantage over Abraham. Jesus Christ has by now come long ago not to abolish that law but to fulfill it.
He has given His body, allowed His flesh to be torn, to satisfy our debt of covenant disobedience to our Suzerain. He has presented Himself to God as our bloody sacrifice.
It should be easier, after the fact, to be covenant-keepers. Yet because our flesh has been corrupted by sin we continue to struggle. I have an ongoing dialogue with a relative by marriage. He is a few years younger than I and a lifelong member of one of the mainline denominations.
I can’t reveal which one, but he tells me I have a bias against the United Methodist Church. I tell him he’s absolutely right. I have a bias against the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church and every other body that has corrupted the faith once delivered to the saints.
“We love our church,” he insists, and I do not doubt his sincerity. But what I must communicate to him – in terms a bit gentler than I am using now – is that to love a church that has broken covenant with God is to hate God.
To advocate for abortion and same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals is to smash the covenant and invite God’s curse – and the fact that someone called “bishop” or by whatever title is leading the charge to apostasy is no mitigation in God’s eyes.
Beloved, this is not a glad season for the conflict-averse. The Christian author Os Guinness said Christians need “hearts that can melt with compassion, but with faces like flint and backbones of steel who are unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable, without ever losing the gentleness, the mercy, the grace and the compassion of our Lord.”
I am not exhorting you to get in anyone’s face. I am exhorting you to hate every lie that proceeds from the mouth of someone you love. To refuse to call good evil and evil good. To pray without ceasing for those dear relations and friends. To remain resolute in the faith as you have learned it and are learning it.
Martin Luther said it well centuries ago: If we do not stand in the gap where the line has been breached we may be professing Christ but we are not confessing Christ.
To profess is easy. To profess is simply to speak. We can stand behind the line that still holds and join in the chorus. To confess is a trial. To confess a thing is to own it as true. It is to stand alone in the breach and say what no other is willing to say. It is to keep covenant with the Lord who took our curse upon Himself. Amen.Posted on: August 21, 2016Ed Fowler