A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 16, 2012.
But through all the troubles which beat against and broke the marriage covenant between Jehovah and Israel, there was one factor which never changed. This was God’s sure love for Israel. Because of this sure, unswerving love, the Covenant can never be finally and completely broken. It takes two to make a covenant, and it also takes two to break it.
—Norman H. Snaith in The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament
When our younger daughter, Jordan, was five she graduated to what in Baptist churches is called Big Church. That means instead of being back with the children, she was with everybody else in the sanctuary. Of course, most sanctuaries are pretty intimidating to little children so they think of it as Big Church. Jordan had been in Big Church for a few Sundays when she told Cherry, “I need to tell you a secret and please do not tell daddy because I do not want to hurt his feelings.”
Cherry said, “What is it?”
Jordan replied, “Sometimes church can be boring.”
For those of you who are afraid to tell me that, I just want you to know that I was informed of that almost a quarter of a century ago. When I read through the Order of Worship today and I see that the sermon topic is about Great Themes of the Bible and the selection for today is Covenant, I know that very few people came because they were really excited about that particular subject. Here we are, three Sundays into the sermon series on Great Themes of the Bible and already we have come to one where people think, Oh my, I am really not sure what this is going to say to me.
If it were hope, you could come in and think, Good. Maybe there is going to be something that will lift me up today. If the Great Theme of the Bible would be faith, you might think, I might hear something to help me be stronger in my relationship with Christ. But when we come in and see covenant, I know how you feel. You think, Whose idea was this?
If you came in today and reacted that way or realized you acted that way after I reminded you of it, I need four minutes to try to get a running start into why any of us would care about covenant.
Does anyone have a favorite passage of scripture that includes the word covenant in it? If you have not already read the scripture for this morning, could you have found a chapter and verse in the Bible where a passage on covenant existed? So just give me four minutes of running start and then see if it matters.
I want to start with the idea of choice. Choice is a part of everything we do today. There are so many more choices in the world than when I was young. For instance, there used to be a time when you could go to a restaurant, and if you wanted to order ice cream for dessert, you had three choices: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Today, that sort of menu would be a guarantee for failure. Everybody wants 28, 31, 43, or 108 flavors.
If you want to do banking, it used to be that you would go inside the bank. Now you can go inside the bank, you can drive through, you can go to an ATM anywhere in the world, you can use your computer, or your iPhone. There are so many different choices. For us, the idea of choice is that nothing restricts us, we have absolute freedom. I can choose one thing today, and if that does not please me, I can choose something else tomorrow. One of the most unpleasant situations to be in is when we have no choice. Explain to a friend, someone you supervise at work, or a family member that there is something that must be done, and they will give you that look and say, “Do I have a choice?” When the answer is “no,” we feel we are really pressed down and restricted and might as well be in jail as to not have a choice. We like variety. We like possibility. Do not limit my choices.
Have you ever thought about what choice means for God? God has the ability to choose freely as we choose freely. The one difference is that God has made a choice that will last forever. It is not one choice today, another choice tomorrow, and another choice in the next century. It is one choice that lasts forever. God chooses to love his people. This is a thread that weaves through Old Testament, New Testament, through the law, through the prophets, through the Gospels, through the Letters or wherever you want to look. God has made a once and for all free choice that will not change. God has chosen his people. When God chooses people, scripture tells us in a variety of different places that he makes a covenant with them. The covenant is a sign of that relationship.
At Mt. Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given, the Ten Commandments were part of a covenant, what we think of as the old covenant. The words were etched on stone so the people would know that God had delivered them from Egypt. This is the way we are supposed to live in relationship to God.
Things change and things evolve. By the time we get to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the prophets are saying that God has a new way, not a way that is for the whole nation but a way that is about the individual heart. By the time we get to Jeremiah, God said, “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and the people of Judah . . . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” No longer will everybody have to say, ‘You should be part of this covenant and you should know God,’ because everybody who accepts the relationship (everyone who accepts the relationship and has chosen to love) will know and be a part of it. When God makes this choice once and for all, it is so different from how we make our choices.
A covenant is a formal expression of a relationship. There are reciprocal things (I have done this; therefore, you will do that. I have delivered you from Egypt; therefore, you will live this way. Christ has died for us in faith; therefore, we will serve Christ.) Covenants in the ancient world were usually sealed by some kind of sacrifice and blood. That sounds nasty to us but think about the fact that blood always communicates seriousness. Sometimes when you watch a Western, there will be people who have been enemies who decide to be blood brothers. They cut each other’s hands and shake hands together. Supposedly, they mix their blood and now it is serious.
If someone asks you for a firm commitment and they keep pressing you, you say, “Do you want me to sign it in blood?” Even though none of us would do that, it is an expression to say how serious it is. In the Old Testament times, they would sacrifice animals. Actually, the Old Testament expression is not make a covenant but cut a covenant. If you were to translate it literally, it means we will cut a covenant.
As we always note when we observe the Lord’s Supper and break communion together, we say “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” All of you drink from it. It is serious, and it is an expression of the choice that God has made to love us and God’s love never fails. Do you realize that God has a perfect record of keeping covenants? God has a perfect record of keeping that relationship.
There are two things that I would bring to your attention today—two things that may have made it worth listening past those four minutes and to stick with the idea and understand that God has established a covenant with us. The first is this: I do not know a Christian who, at some point, does not have a sense of failure in their part of the covenant. I do not know a Christian that does not have a sense that, in some way, they have lived, acted, or harbored in their hearts thoughts or feelings that they feel have damaged the covenant with God beyond repair. Can God still love me? But remember, God has a perfect record of keeping the covenant. God made a choice once and for all—to love us. Faith in Christ is our covenant and God is faithful in that, no matter what we do.
I like the meditation test for today. Norman Snaith says, “It takes two to make a covenant, and it also takes two to break it.” Whatever we have done and however far we have fallen, moved away, or alienated ourselves from God, God has not changed his mind. This is not about “I will love you as long as you please me” or “I will love you if you please me.” This is about “I love you always.” That decision never changes.
If you want to know what covenant might have to do with you and why we should take time in worship to consider it, it is because God’s faithfulness means that the covenant has never been broken. This does not mean that we should go out next week and see if we can stretch it further. What this really means is when we recognize God’s love and what God has done, our reaction is that we want to draw back closer to God. Our reaction is that we want to do what we said we were going to do and live for Christ. This is our desire. When we recognize it is a covenant that is still in place, we are pulled back.
It is not about emotion. It is not about feeling a certain way on God’s end of it. It should not be on ours either. It may contain emotion and might even be supercharged with emotion, but it is beyond that. It is a choice that God has made. We are loved.
The second thing is this: In Hebrew in the Old Testament, the word for God’s covenant love sounds something like “hesed,” God’s faithfulness, God’s loving kindness. In the New Testament , the love of God is expressed as “agape.” In both cases, they mean God has made a choice that is directed towards us that will never cease and will never end. Because God has directed this love toward us, it is our call to love each other the same way—with love that is a choice even when the emotions drift away.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard lived in the 16th Century but it is amazing how contemporary some of his thoughts still are. He said, “It is possible to say, ‘I once was rich, lost my money, and now I am poor.’ It is possible to say, ‘I once was heavier, now I am thinner’ or ‘I was thinner, now I am heavier.’ It is impossible to say, ‘I once loved.’” If we love as God loves, we may have cared and done a lot of things, but if it ceased, it was not love. We are called to reflect the same kind of love towards others in the world, love that may be supercharged with emotion but love that is beyond that which is commitment in choice and will. It is a decision that this is my choice that I will keep. We are to reflect that love as well.
When I start thinking about the implications of that, I wish I had preached on something boring because that is enough to keep me challenged and moving to want to be like Jesus Christ. God has a perfect record of keeping the covenant. God has established a covenant, through Christ, with all who have faith in him. No matter where we have been or what we have done, the covenant still holds because it takes two to break a covenant. God still loves us all.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.