... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Lent 2 Year B
Message March 01, 2015

Covenant: Letting Go and Letting God

Text: Genesis 17:1-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

God’s promises and mercy seem to dominate the first three readings for this Sunday, and seem to put the gospel lection in left field. Yet if we look at the theme of covenant, all four readings not only come into an alignment but the gospel reading takes on a whole new perspective regarding God’s plan of restoration for humanity. The concept of covenant, on the surface, might appear to be a simple matter of contractual agreements. However, as we began to glimpse last week, it is much more complex and demands a lot more than we can begin to imagine. To be in a true divine covenant we need to be on equal footing with God, and that can never happen. Ergo God has to somehow balance the equation – a balance which takes so much time and energy as to defy comprehension. Suffice it to say that over the millennia it continues to be formed, to be embellished and to be unfolding by Divine Plan.

So what is covenant? What does it entail? How has it been formed or embellished? And above all what does it mean for each generation? Before getting too deeply buried in these questions, I have to tell you an interesting story of my grandson, Fleetwood. Early in February, Carol and I went to Ottawa for a visit with Carrie Scott and the two grandsons. I was attending a conference. Last year when they were at our place, Fleetwood was somewhat reserved and although I had tried playing with him, there was some caution on his part. However, in Feb. when we arrived he called me ‘grandpa’ and joyfully hugged me. There was a great sense of joy, family relationship and pleasure. And I imagine that is something the same way God must have felt when our ancient ancestors – Noah in particular – recognized God and found favour in God’s sight. Thus we heard of the first covenant – a covenant not asking anything of Noah but to be in relationship.

The next covenant we heard about is the one made with Abraham, and like the former did not initially require much on Abram’s part. Later at age 75 Abram is called on for a test – to go where God would lead, and so began the journey from Haran to Canaan. But the covenant was yet to unfold and yet to be more complex. That complexity invoked the promise on God’s part to provide children for Abram and Sarai. Of course being seniors and past the age of childbearing they scoffed and sought other means which they thought would fulfil God’s promise – hence the liaison with Hagar and the birth of Ishmael. But God was patient and explained that that had not been God’s promise. For Abram’s part he was to walk uprightly before God and God would make the covenant. Some 12 years after Ishmael was born Sarai conceives and Isaac is born. The covenant between Abram and God is forged. The signs of this new covenant were the name changes, the undertaking of circumcision – neither a risk free nor painless procedure, and the declaration of Abraham’s righteousness. By the way the name changes were Abram becomes Abraham meaning father of nations; Sarai become Sarah meaning Princess and YHWH becomes El Shaddai meaning God almighty. This covenant now had several parties to it unlike the one with Noah. And as we will see next when this covenant will be re-established many times proving God’s faithfulness and mercy.

The psalm might at first come on as a song of praise and one not quickly sprouting to mind. But it is perhaps one of the most memorable ones if we recall the beginning Eloi Eloi lama sabathani; My God, my God why have you forsaken me? The words reportedly spoken by Jesus on the cross. The psalm is a psalm of lament which ends in recollection of the covenant God had made and which ultimately prevails. Even in the face of despair hope trust and faith in God’s promises propel the believer to see a broader picture than his or her own present plight. It is the beyond self that speaks to the covenant and the promises of God fulfilled.

This message of God’s design, the heavenly mission and the covenant re-established which underlies the gospel message for today. In this pivotal part of Mark’s gospel, Peter has just declared Jesus to be the Messiah. But this declaration must be seen in light of the healing of the blind man which occurred just prior to Peter’s profession. It is a two-fold healing of a blind man. At first he regains his sight, but sees people like trees walking. Jesus lays his hands on the man a second time and he now sees clearly. So Peter sees Jesus as the Messiah but still cannot see what that means. Thus when Jesus begins to teach them that he must undergo suffering rejection and be killed – Peter recoils.

Jesus admits to being the Son of Man – a direct reference to the heavenly ordained leader mentioned in the book of Daniel depicted as the Messiah who traditionally would liberate Israel and restore it to the Davidic dynasty. Peter sees the traditional and we can just imagine the scene. Peter puts an arm around Jesus’ shoulders, guides him away from the others and says, - suffering? Rejection? Death? That’s not what the Messiah is about. The Messiah is about conquering, ousting the Romans, restoring Israel as a powerful nation. It’s David’s throne and heritage which is at stake here! In response Jesus now puts his arms on Peter, returns him to the others and calls him “Satan”. You are thinking as a human might think, not what God is calling us to do. God’s agenda is not what you have in mind. That is not the covenant way God is demanding of us. In fact it is the covenant that underscores Jesus’ next words to the crowd. If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” Wanting to save one’s life is the equivalent of thinking the human way; losing it is to place one’s self in God’s trust.

In the context of the next chapter which we heard two weeks ago – the double healing of the blind man now becomes more poignant. Where Peter see dimly the first confession of Jesus, he now sees clearly who Jesus is when they go up on the mount. Unfortunately Peter’s sight much like ours is only short lived clarity. And Mark is keen to show us this fleeting insight of the disciples is indeed only like a blink of an eye.

But this passage of Mark speaks much more about covenant for it seems to link Jesus’ understanding of who he is and what his mission was to what it means to be a disciple and follower, and what that entails. Both are relational and both depend on how one views one’s standing with God. In his relationship to God, Jesus came to understand Messiahship in a totally unconceived manner that what tradition had dictated. The covenantal understanding saw that a victorious warrior Messiah would only perpetuate the human cycle of aggression, counter-aggression; sin upon sin. Another way was required to establish and restore the people to God. Precisely this re-establishment of relationship between God and the nations is the basic storyline of the Old Testament: a re-establishment begun with a specific person in a specific people and meant to spread to all nations. Jesus saw it, clearly understood it completely and gave himself to it whole-heartedly – even to the way of Calvary and the cross. It is this total giving of self that Jesus demanded of the disciples and followers if they were to be truly partners in the re-established covenant. It was a new path to be offered – a “journey” in faith trust commitment and love. In truth the way of Messiahship and the way of discipleship are intimately connected. It becomes the new covenant and opens the way for all people.

Paul saw this and hence the argument of Romans. Abraham was righteous not because of following rules and regulations but because he was beyond that, living a life of trust and faith in God. Those who live by the law have no insight into the intent behind the law. The law is the guide which can with maturity meditation and Divine nudging lead to the life of trust faith righteousness and love. Those who have that are just as much heirs and co-members of the covenant as Abraham.

And so the call to discipleship and covenant living. But what does that mean for us today? It means stepping out in faith to follow God’s call. It means being linked to Jesus’ Messiahship as disciples. It means giving up of self in favour of God’s will. Each person’s cross will be different; each person will undertake self-denial in a manner tailored to her or his journey. Our individual cross might be different than our corporate cross as a congregation. We have to be prepared; we have to see beyond ourselves; we have to see where and in what ways our skills are needed; we have to learn to let go, and let God!