Genesis 15

Promise Maker – Promise Keeper

I, Timothy, take you, Elizabeth,
to be my wife,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer;
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part;
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.

That was what I said just over 17 years ago as I entered into what I reckon is probably the most widely experienced covenant relationship. When two people marry each other, it is a classic covenant. There are three aspects that make a covenant. Firstly there is more than one person involved in making the covenant. Secondly, it is an agreement that both parties are going to do something or behave in a certain way. And, thirdly, of course, there is the sign and seal of the covenant, in this case: a ring.

This evening we are going to be thinking about the covenants made with people in the Bible.

Last week, Michael started us off in our gallop through the Old Testament, exploring with us the Creation of the good earth, reminding us that before we think about “original sin” we need to remember to start, as the Bible does, with “original goodness”. Following the disastrous events in Eden, when humanity decided to turn away from God, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden. They were created to live in the presence of God, and are separated from God. They were created to be fruitful and multiply, and child bearing become an agony. They were created to have authority over creation, and handed that authority to Satan. They were created to steward and bless creation, and became a curse to it.

The consequences of these curses becomes clear over the following chapters of Genesis which some of us have been reading through this week. By Chapter 6 the corruption of the earth is so vile that God can only find one righteous man, Noah, and repents of creation. God sends a flood to wash it all away and start again. When this flood recedes something new happens. In Genesis 9:9 we have the first use of the word “covenant” in the Bible. In this covenant the parties are God and the whole of creation. In this covenant only one party makes a commitment – God promises not to destroy all living things again. In this covenant the sign is the rainbow. It is the beginning of a hint of the way back for creation. God commits to a rescue, a redemption, a re-creation.

The next steps in God’s plan for a way back are found in the promises and covenant to Abraham. At the beginning of chapter 12 we read of God’s call to Abraham,

“Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

In this call and set of promises to Abraham God reverses the curses of Eden, marking the way back for humanity.

God will show the way, that is, Abraham will live in God’s presence. Abraham will be a great nation, he will have children and be fruitful. God will give Abraham and his descendants a land, an inheritance for all time where they will have authority. As a result of God’s blessing, Abraham will be a blessing to others, to the whole earth.

Having received these promises and call from God, Abraham sets out to leave home and head for the land that God had promised. He uproots his family and starts the trek to his new home. Having arrived in Canaan he builds an altar, receives another promise from God that his offspring will inherit this land and continues in an adventurous nomadic life, including a disastrous trip to Egypt, a falling out with Lot, his nephew, and getting dragged into a war of some of the local kings. Which brings us right up to our reading from Genesis 15.

God comes to meet Abraham and reaffirms his commitment to reward Abraham. But Abraham is not convinced. He argues with God. He points out that most of the promises: the land, the blessings, the family, the nation, the inheritance, all the promises depend on an heir. An heir which God has not yet delivered. Abraham doubts God’s promises on the very strong grounds that so far God hasn’t delivered on most of them. The only one God has delivered on is God’s presence with Abraham.

God repeats the promise and then tells Abraham to look at the stars. Abraham looks up and sees the magnificence of creation and believes. Abraham’s faith is so often held up as an example in the rest of the Bible, that I think that it is worth us just taking a moment to think about this. Following Breuggemann it seems to me that there are three elements to Abraham’s change of mind.

Firstly, he has repented. Rather than relying on his own experiences and senses he has chosen to rely on the promise maker who can deliver a fruitful future that is not over ruled by the barren present. Secondly, Abraham has received the sign of the stars. This is not a logical proof – what logical link is there between there being a lot of stars and Abraham having a lot of descendants – it is instead a sign of God’s power and creativity, revealed in the extraordinarily ordinary realities of life. Thirdly, much as Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus, “You are the Christ” was described by Jesus as a revelation directly from God – revelation which creates faith where there was none, so Abraham’s faith is created by God by means of revelation.

In the second half of chapter we get a reaffirmation of God’s promises, this time explicitly in the form of a covenant. The parties are God and Abraham. God commits to give Abraham’s descendants the land, again there is not yet any duty imposed on Abraham. In this covenant the sign is a sign of blood sacrifice. An important feature of God’s revelation to Abraham is that the waiting is not over. God talks of the time that will be spent in slavery in Egypt. It is almost as if God is picking up Abraham’s doubt from earlier in the chapter, doubt prompted by the wait for the delivery of the promises, and is saying, “You think you’re having to wait now, but you need to realise that there is a longer wait ahead.” Don’t lose faith.

In chapter 17 we see the promises reaffirmed, again in the form of a covenant, this time with the sign of circumcision introduced as the sign and seal of the covenant.

The next iteration in God’s covenantal rescue plan for humanity is revealed on a mountain. As God promised, Abraham has had many descendants, and they have been to Egypt in slavery and are now on their way to the land that was promised. On the way God brings them to Mt Sinai and gives them the law. In Exodus 19, the covenant promises of God’s presence, of nationhood and fruitfulness, of eternal inheritance, and of being a blessing to the world are reaffirmed, with the condition that the people keep the law.

The rest of the Old Testament can be characterised as the serial failures of God’s people to maintain their part in the covenant and of God’s ongoing faithfulness to the covenant promises.

And so, skipping a bit, we come to Jesus and to Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth and probably the first written account of Jesus’ last supper with his friends and disciples. At that last supper he shared bread, “This is my body, given for you”, and he shared wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

This new covenant has the same form as the others. There are two parties, God and God’s people. There is a sign and seal, Jesus’ blood. But what of the commitments? God’s commitments are still focussed on undoing the curses of Eden, they are promises of rescue, redemption, recreation. They promise a way back.

We are promised that God will be present with us always. When Jesus died the curtain that cordoned off the holiest parts of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom to demonstrate that in Jesus’ death we have gained access to God’s throne room. God sent the Holy Spirit to abide with us as God’s living presence with each of us every day. In Jesus, God walked in the garden once more, and continues to do so by the Holy Spirit.

We are called to and promised fruitfulness. In Jesus’ parable the sower goes out to sow and some seed falls on the path and never grows. Some falls on rocks or among weeds and fails to thrive. But some falls in good soil and bears a harvest, 30, 60, 100 fold. In Jesus’ parable of the vine, the branch that stays connected to the vine bears fruit, and even when there is pruning that is done so that even more fruit can grow.

We are promised an eternal inheritance as adopted children of God. The Holy Spirit is the witness to and guarantee of this adoption. We will be restored to a place of rightful authority, the usurper will be defeated once and for all, and we will fulfil our creation destiny in the new creation as stewards and rulers.

It is promised that we will be a blessing to the world around, we are blessed to be a blessing. By one man, Jesus, the curse of one man, Adam, has been defeated. Through Adam all humanity and creation was cursed, and so through Jesus, flowing through his people, all humanity and creation is blessed. It seems to me that this is both a promise and a command. We are commanded to fulfil our creation purpose in blessing the rest of creation and promised that God will provide the resources we need to obey that command, in the face of great need and painful challenges.

And what of our side of the new covenant? Well, there is no clear statement of these in one place in the New Testament. However, it seems to me that if we take the key summaries of Jesus’ teaching we could come up with something like this: We are to have faith, as Abraham did. We are to love God and to love each other. We are to submit to and confess Christ as Lord.

It is also important to remember that, as it was for Abraham, there is a wait involved. Jesus was very clear about this, he said that no one but his Father knows the day or hour when all will be fulfilled. We do see signs of the kingdom beginning to break through, but the promises have not yet been fully realised. In the meantime we are to be prepared, ready to welcome Jesus on his return. We are to hold faith in the promise maker and not be dismayed by the evidence of our experience or senses. We have have a promise keeping God who can create a fruitful future that is not over ruled by the barren present. God has revealed a new covenant to us in Jesus and that revelation is one that can create faith.

As we come to the communion table to share the sign of the covenant, let us hear anew and receive with faith the promises of God and let us commit ourselves once again to live as people of the new covenant.

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