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Second Sunday of Lent

We don’t use the word “covenant” very often any more. As I said last week, we talk more about promises or contracts but rarely about covenants. Actually, the settings in which I’ve heard the word covenant most frequently have been in faith circles. Members of a church covenant with each other to work toward a common goal or support a project. Parents of Confirmation students covenant to be supportive of their child’s active participation in a Confirmation program. Youth or adults covenant with one another that they will make attendance a high priority oron the way they will behave toward one another in a small group or Bible study.

The concept of a covenant seems to have two facets that make it less popular for everyday use. The first is that it is communal, it requires individuals to put more energy into what is best for others as a group than in what we as the individual are thinking or feeling at any moment. Once we covenant with others, it doesn’t matter if our thoughts or feelings changed afterward…we entered into a covenant, others are counting on this covenant agreement, we must stick with it for the sake of the others. We have a lot of trouble with valuing the collective good over our individual wants in this society.
The second facet is that there seems to be a holiness to a covenant. There’s something about covenant agreements that invite God into the whole proceeding, which certainly makes the whole agreement even more binding. It isn’t only about making this agreement with other people…it’s also doing so with God as our witness. We’ve kinda lost that concept…of God being our witness…in the larger society. We’ve even lost it somewhat in some of our faith communities as well, forgetting that whether we are in the house of God or not, God IS our witness.
But this week we continue our look at covenants in the Bible. Last week, we learned of the covenant God made in front of Noah with all of humanity and all of creation…God will NEVER destroy God’s whole creation again by flood. This was a covenant made by God alone; it was an unconditional covenant that covered all of humanity and all of creation for all of the life of this world. The sign of this covenant, as God’s reminder, was the bow in the sky. God said, never again will God destroy all of God creation by flood. And I know that some might be thinking,yeah, but what about by other means BESIDES a flood…this covenant only mentions by flood. My response to that is, it is missing the whole point of the covenant. The point of the covenant is that God has decided that wiping out God’s creation is not the answer to human sinfulness. God’s covenant is that God will not fight the sin and wickedness of humanity with mass destruction.
We heard what God has in store next in the reading from Genesis today. This is God’s second covenant, the covenant with Abram and Sarai, or Abraham and Sarah, as we know them. This second covenant is obviously different from the first in a few ways. THIS time, THIS covenant IS with specific people. THIS time God decided to establish a relationship with this couple, Abram and Sarai, and all their descendants.
Notice what God is doing in this covenant…establishing a relationship with people. God is going to give these people…Abram and Sarai…some special blessings: descendants and land. God also promises to be their God. Think about the difference in the way God has related to humanity in these two stories of Noah and Abraham. In the flood story, God wipes out creation because humanity hasbecome destructive, though God preserves Noah and Mrs. Noah, Noah’s sons and Mrs. Noah’s sons. God’s first covenant was to prevent God from ever wiping everything out again.
In this covenant, God establishes a relationship with this couple. God promises to be their God, to bless them with land and descendants. Instead of a distant God unleashing the waters upon creation, God will walk with God’s creatures and be their guide in life. God makes this covenant with both Abram and Sarai…this is actually the second occurrence of God’s promise to Abram of descendants and land. Apparently God had to go over it with Abram again after Abram passed Sarai off as his sister in Egypt in order to protect himself and then tried to ensure that he would have a descendent by having a son Ishmael with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar…two instances in which Abram did not trust God’s promise. But in this second announcing of the promise, God makes a covenant and reminds Abraham that Sarah is a big part of the covenant promises as well.
This covenant, however, does require action on the part of Abraham. It appears that, whereas the sign of the bow was for God’s benefit in the firstcovenant, the sign for this second covenant is for the benefit of man. The verses that were omitted contain the sign of the covenant, and that sign is circumcision, the cutting of the foreskin. This would allow the men to carry that reminder on their bodies no matter where they went. God Almighty is their God and they are God’s people.
In this covenant God decides to bless the lives of two human beings, adopting them and their descendants as God’s people and giving them a place to call home. This covenant was a life-changing event for Abram and Sarai, so life-changing that God gave them each a new name to begin this new life and new journey. The experience from that point on probably did change them so that they no longer were the old Abram and Sarai. That’s not to say that they became perfect, but that whenever anyone encounters God and lives in God’s promises, we are bound to be changed by that experience.
Could that be why God chose to relate to sinful humanity through relationship? God understood the power of relationship long before we did. The impact of a negative relationship on a person is negative…shame, fear, despair,even selfishness. The impact of a positive relationship on a person is positive…peaceful, loving, caring, inspiring, brave. We were all taught that when you hang out with people who do bad things, you are likely to be pulled down to their level. But if you hang out with people who do good things, you are likely to be inspired to do good.

God covenants with Abraham and Sarah to be their God and the God of their descendants. Back in Chapter 12 when God first makes this promise to Abram, before the formalized covenant, God tells Abram that he will be blessed, “so that you will be a blessing.” With this covenant is God’s intention that Abraham and Sarah and their descendants will be a blessing to others. God invites Abraham and Sarah, not only to enjoy family and land but to be part of God’s efforts to impact the world in a positive way, to help God reach out and touch the world with God’s blessing.

This reminds us too that this is how God operates…God blesses so that those who are blessed may be a blessing to others. The blessings of God change us into people who DO care about the collective good over our own individualpreferences…people who DO recognize that God is our witness, all the time, everywhere. The blessings of God’s love and mercy are promised to you and me so that we might live out those blessings and impact the people we encounter and the places we go throughout our lives.

You may not have experienced a name change, per se, but we do become sons and daughters of God in our baptism. Maybe your parents did add a new middle name at your Baptism or Confirmation. The point is, as spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, as baptized children of God, you and I are blessed with these promises so that we may touch the world around us with these blessings…

Forgiving when we have been wronged…

Contributing to peaceful efforts where there is conflict…

Loving those who seem unlovable…

Listening to and speaking up for those to whom no one listens…

Witnessing to the fact that there is more to life than what we can buy, sell, consume or be entertained by…

This week, think about some of the ways you already are or could be a blessing to those around you in your everyday, and give thanks to God that God has invited us into this important work. Amen.

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