People of the Covenant
Topic: Biblical Verse: Genesis 3:19
February 17, 2021
“People of the Covenant”
In many of the neighborhoods and communities where we live, there are covenants that go along with living there. This is often part of the homeowners association (HOA), and many of you probably know what this looks like from personal experience. These covenants usually involve things like home maintenance and upkeep; parking; color choice for siding, doors, and shingles; what you can and cannot have in your front yard; and a host of other things as well. Sometimes we may be very grateful for these guidelines, and at other times, we may find them to be restrictive and nit-picky. When all is said and done, covenants serve as a baseline for how we will be in relationship with one another. Covenants guide how we will live and treat one another. This leads us into our theme for Lenten preaching, “People of the Covenant.” By the grace of God, that is what we are. On the vertical dimension, we are called to be in relationship with God, and on the horizontal dimension, we are called to be in relationship with one another. This is not an either/or kind of arrangement; it is both/and. The horizontal flows out of the vertical. As we begin this Lenten season with a cross of ashes on our foreheads, we go back to God’s original covenant with our first parents in the Garden of Eden. The words spoken today on Ash Wednesday as that cross of ashes was traced on our foreheads remind us of how that covenant was broken and of the consequences that followed as the Lord God said to Adam: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19b). Those haunting words come down to us across the ages and remind us of our own mortality. As sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, those words will be fulfilled for each of us. But those ashes are traced in the form of a cross, reminding us that it is through the cross of Jesus that death is transformed into life. Through the cross of Jesus there is forgiveness for our sins. Through the cross of Jesus the covenant which we broke has given way to a new covenant of forgiveness, life, and salvation sealed with the blood of Jesus. By the grace of God, we are people of the covenant. That becomes the theme for preaching on this Ash Wednesday. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Covenant is a very rich word in the theology of the Old Testament (בְּרִית) as well as that of the New Testament (διαθήκη). There are two types of covenants within the Old Testament: divine commitment and human obligation. In the covenant of divine commitment, the Lord God pledges himself to be in relationship but asks nothing of those with whom he is in relationship. The best example here is God’s pledge of covenant blessing to Abraham in which the Lord promises to make of Abraham a great nation, and that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). God’s covenant with Abraham had to do with one-way promises from God to Abraham. The second type of covenant within the Old Testament is that of human obligation in response to what God had done for them. The best example here is God calling his chosen people to live in relationship with him and with one another through the covenant at Sinai. After God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 1-14), then and only then did he say to his people: “This is how you are to live and be in relationship with me and with each other.” We call this the Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:1-21). God’s people were to reflect his care, mercy, and love in how they lived so that other peoples and nations would be drawn to know and love God also. This second type of covenant was contingent on how God’s people responded. If they followed the Lord God and obeyed him, blessings would abound. If they chose to walk away from God and run after other gods, they would bring down curses upon themselves. Covenants were often sealed with blood in order to emphasize the sacred oath being set down. A sacrificial animal would be offered, and that animal would be cut into two parts. Both covenant parties would then walk between the two animal halves to illustrate the point: “May this same fate overtake me if I go back on what I have pledged in this covenant.” That would indeed be a graphic reminder to everyone in this solemn and very sobering ritual.
So what about us today? We, too, are people of the covenant – the new covenant sealed not with the blood of sacrificial animals, but the blood of Christ the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). With this cross of ashes upon our foreheads, these 40 days of Lent remind us that the cross of Christ was first traced upon us in our Baptism where we were united with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11). This cross of the new covenant reminds us who we are and whose we are. We are not our own; we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) – the blood-bought price of forgiveness, life and salvation that comes only through Jesus as Paul the apostle tells us in today’s Epistle lesson: “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10). Lent is a call for Christ’s people to go back to that covenant of grace first given to us in the cleansing waters of holy Baptism. No matter what we may think of ourselves, no matter what we have done or where we have been, God reminds us of our true identity: we are God’s beloved sons and daughters through the cleansing blood of Jesus. We are people of the covenant. Like covenants of old, there are holy obligations that flow out of this new covenant for how we are to be in relationship with God and with one another. The prophet Joel tells us in today’s Old Testament lesson: “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” (Joel 2:12-19). And this returning to the Lord our God, this humbling of ourselves, is repentance – a Spirit-led change of heart and mind that causes us to walk in a new way. This change of heart and mind that causes us to walk in a new way is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). Here, the three traditional disciplines of the Lenten season are found: works of love (almsgiving), prayer, and fasting. People of the covenant, redeemed through the blood of Jesus, are not trying to impress God or others by outward shows of piety. People of the covenant give to those who are in need, not for love of show but to show love. People of the covenant are not about praying in order to be seen by others. That’s not the point at all. To pray is to come before the Lord God in all our need, both for ourselves and for others. People of the covenant fast from things that get in the way of our relationship with God and with one another. To let go of such things, to do without them for a time, can help us assess whether these things are life-giving or not. What is it that we will fast from? Chocolate? Alcohol? Social media? There are many things that can clutter and clog our heart and mind, making us sluggish and self-centered. This Lenten discipline of fasting can take many forms, but whatever it may look like, it’s not about calling attention to self, but seeking to empty ourselves of self so that God might fill us.
Each Sunday throughout the Lenten season we will look at different examples of people of the covenant that rise up from the appointed Scripture lessons. As we begin this journey together, our prayer is that we may all be renewed in faith toward God and in love toward one another as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, through whose blood we are people of the covenant. Amen.