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  • Covenant, Part 2 – 2015/03/01

    Scriptures:
    Psalm 22:23-31
    Romans 4:13-25
    Genesis 17:1-8; 15-16

    Sermon:

    My sophomore year of high school, I had the worst English teacher in the world – Mrs. Bosley. Mrs. Bosley was one of those teachers who believed that there is exactly one way to do anything, and even a slight deviation from that one way makes you a tremendous failure as, not only a student, but as a human being. Since she was a really mean and hated teacher, all sorts of rumors about Mrs. Bosley persisted – for example, she hated all girls’ tennis players at my school, because her husband supposedly ran off with his tennis partner. Now, no one had any idea if that was actually true; but it made for a good story, and at least gave the girls’ tennis team a reason why she was so mean to them – the rest of us just had to chock it up to pure nastiness.

    Anyway, Mrs. Bosley was the chair of the English department at my high school, which meant that this wicked, student-hating teacher had a tremendous amount of influence over what we were taught. One of her favorite things to explain to us was that it was “very important” that we learn how to write a five-paragraph essay on-the-spot, anytime, on virtually any topic. So we’d have these days in class where, unexpectedly, she’d take us down to the computer lab and we’d have to write these, as she called them, “impromptus.”

    Now, looking back on those days with the wisdom that comes from experience, these impromptus were probably supposed to help us prepare for standardized tests (which do expect a five-paragraph style essay, with an intro paragraph, a concluding paragraph, and three paragraphs of supporting details in the middle), and standardized tests were very important to my high school. But when Mrs. Bosley talked about these five-paragraph essays, she always talked about them as if this was something we might be called upon to do in our normal, adult lives one day.

    I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I’ve never been asked to write a five-paragraph essay on the spot, in the span of 50 minutes, as an adult – not even in college. Hopefully, I’ll be alive a few more years, so maybe my opportunity is still down the road. But for now, I haven’t had it.

    Anyway, the thing about these essays is that she had an extremely specific format we had to follow. We had to start with a VERY general topic sentence – universal, even. Then, you moved from this general topic to a very specific topic in the final sentence of your introductory paragraph. General to specific. General to specific. I can actually see her angry, old face (she was also my dad’s teacher her first year at my high school, when my dad was a senior – 35 years earlier) mouthing those words: “General to specific.” Then we were, of course, asked to do the opposite in the concluding paragraph.

    Now, this lesson of “general to specific” may be something I talk about negatively, but to Mrs. Bosley’s credit… well, I remember it, don’t I? I may never have to write a five-paragraph essay, but I still remember what she taught me.

    Anyway, I was thinking about Mrs. Bosley this week because of this little sermon series I’m doing this Lent about covenants in the Old Testament. The lectionary has us reading different passages for the first five Sundays in Lent, and each is about a covenant that God makes with the people. For a quick refresher, in case you don’t remember from last week (or you weren’t here), when the Bible uses the word “covenant,” it means, “a promise God makes to the people.”

    Last week, we talked about the covenant with Noah that God makes following the flood – the promise that the world will never again be destroyed as it was in those days. Today, we read about the second of these promises – God’s promise to Abraham. And, just like Mrs. Bosley taught me it should be, the first promise was general (to the whole world – all people and all animals, too), and next we get more specific (to one people, about living in one land, and about one man’s descendants).

    Now, I’m going to do as quick of a recap as I can. You’ll probably recall that, at the beginning of this passage we read today, Abraham’s name was not Abraham, but rather Abram. God gives him this new name. Instead of Abram (which means “exalted ancestor”) he would be Abraham (which means “ancestor of a multitude”). We have to keep in mind that, in biblical times, names and naming were extremely important. A name was not just what people called you; it revealed your identity. This name change occurs because even though he is an old man, God promises offspring – Abraham is supposed to be the father of a multitude of nations – not just one or two children with a line to die out, but rather the spiritual ancestor of many peoples. Since Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their origins back to Abraham, I would say that God has lived up to that little promise!

    But there’s more to this covenant than just Abraham’s new role as the father of many nations. The rest of the promise given to Abraham ends up being a pretty important, too: it’s a promise to have the land of Canaan – the “land of milk and honey,” the “Promised Land,” for Abraham’s descendants. In fact, it’s called the “Promised Land” because of this very promise – God is promising it to this one particular people.

    This is a fascinating thing about these covenants, to me. We start with a promise that’s made to everyone on earth – including animals, as well. That’s the promise given to Noah, and which we discussed last week, that the earth would never again be destroyed. And it’s pretty easy to see that God’s end of the bargain has been upheld – we’re all still here, after all, so that’s worked out pretty well for us.

    But this promise to Abraham starts to be a little more specific. This one is not just about what will happen. It also has a role for Abraham (keep in mind, Noah got no job as a part of his promise), and it involves a land transaction, which is an aspect I’ll talk about more in two weeks. But there’s something more important that happens here, and I think we’re apt to miss it on our first read-through of this passage, because there’s so much going on.

    In the midst of God changing Abram’s name to Abraham and while this land is promised to Abraham’s descendants, God adds this a little item, so short it would be easy to miss. And this short item, even though it’s actually repeated, is often forgotten as a part of this promise. It’s this – God promises: “an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God says again later “I will be their (meaning Abraham’s descendants’) God.”

    The first promise that we saw with Noah was a promise about what would happen. And this promise contains some elements of that, too, with the descendants and the land. But “what will happen to everyone” is an awfully general way to start – thanks again, Mrs. Bosley, since we’re starting with the most general – but there’s something deeper here, too.

    This promise, at its heart, is about having a relationship. What’s interesting here is that all God asks in return is a marker identifying people as Abraham’s descendants. God doesn’t ask for love or devotion or to follow rules or anything. This covenant, much like the one with Noah before it, it about what God is doing; has done; will do. God is the actor; we are the acted upon.

    This covenant is extremely important, because it’s the one in which we see how God feels about us. The one with Noah can be read with God as a character in a story who makes a screw-up and promises not to do it again. But this covenant with Abraham is made with a man in the desert, whom God has no reason to think of as special. It’s made with someone who has basically nothing asked of him in return. And it’s made purely on God’s behalf, and purely out of love.

    For us as Christians, I don’t think there is anything more hopeful or truer than this. The relationship we have with God doesn’t come from us; it comes from God. God is the one who initiates it. We’re recipients of love from above.

    To me, at least, there is nothing more hopeful than remembering that it’s not up to me alone to build a relationship with God. God is not a distant deity, whose attention we have to try to get. That would be horrible, wouldn’t it, if we all had to try to compete to be the squeaky wheel to get some of God’s grease? I am glad to know that God is already reaching out to me, whether I call out for it or not. God is constantly coming to us. We don’t believe in a distant God who doesn’t care about us, and only listens if we yell loudly enough. We believe in a God who is intimately caring about the events of our lives, and who desperately wants us to draw nearer and nearer.

    And like last week, I’m going to tie this back in to Jesus, because that’s what we do as Christians. Friends, of course there were people hoping for a Messiah before Jesus came. But when people hoped for a Messiah, they were not asking for Jesus; they were asking for a political figure to free them from oppression. Those are good things, I suppose – to be free from oppression of a harsh government. But Jesus came with more than that. He came, like Abraham, as a poor man. And he came, not to liberate one people in one time, but to liberate all people in all times. Jesus came to remind us what we see in this promise to Abraham today: that God is the one who initiates our relationship by constantly calling out to us, and begging us to draw nearer to God.

    As we approach Good Friday, which is what we do in Lent – we march to the cross – it’s important to think again about the nature of this promise to Abraham, and what it tells us about God. This is a gift from God, to be ours – to be the initiator of the relationship. “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you,” says, the Lord, “to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” And where do we see that better than the example of Jesus? We didn’t ask for someone to come down and do that – to free us from sin and death. That’s not what we hoped for. At our best, we hope to get out of one bad situation or another. And yet, we need so much more than just to get out of one bad situation; and so that’s what God provides.

    So, brothers and sisters, as we think back to Abraham, we must remember that in this covenant, God was coming forward to us; reaching out to us with open arms, and trying to draw us into relationship. I would ask that you remember that those hands and arms are always there, always wanting to draw you nearer. I ask that, in this season of Lent, you discover where those arms are pulling you, and that you embrace them as much as they seek to embrace you. Amen.

  • Covenant, Part 2 – 2015/03/01

    Scriptures:
    Psalm 22:23-31
    Romans 4:13-25
    Genesis 17:1-8; 15-16

    Sermon:

    My sophomore year of high school, I had the worst English teacher in the world – Mrs. Bosley. Mrs. Bosley was one of those teachers who believed that there is exactly one way to do anything, and even a slight deviation from that one way makes you a tremendous failure as, not only a student, but as a human being. Since she was a really mean and hated teacher, all sorts of rumors about Mrs. Bosley persisted – for example, she hated all girls’ tennis players at my school, because her husband supposedly ran off with his tennis partner. Now, no one had any idea if that was actually true; but it made for a good story, and at least gave the girls’ tennis team a reason why she was so mean to them – the rest of us just had to chock it up to pure nastiness.

    Anyway, Mrs. Bosley was the chair of the English department at my high school, which meant that this wicked, student-hating teacher had a tremendous amount of influence over what we were taught. One of her favorite things to explain to us was that it was “very important” that we learn how to write a five-paragraph essay on-the-spot, anytime, on virtually any topic. So we’d have these days in class where, unexpectedly, she’d take us down to the computer lab and we’d have to write these, as she called them, “impromptus.”

    Now, looking back on those days with the wisdom that comes from experience, these impromptus were probably supposed to help us prepare for standardized tests (which do expect a five-paragraph style essay, with an intro paragraph, a concluding paragraph, and three paragraphs of supporting details in the middle), and standardized tests were very important to my high school. But when Mrs. Bosley talked about these five-paragraph essays, she always talked about them as if this was something we might be called upon to do in our normal, adult lives one day.

    I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I’ve never been asked to write a five-paragraph essay on the spot, in the span of 50 minutes, as an adult – not even in college. Hopefully, I’ll be alive a few more years, so maybe my opportunity is still down the road. But for now, I haven’t had it.

    Anyway, the thing about these essays is that she had an extremely specific format we had to follow. We had to start with a VERY general topic sentence – universal, even. Then, you moved from this general topic to a very specific topic in the final sentence of your introductory paragraph. General to specific. General to specific. I can actually see her angry, old face (she was also my dad’s teacher her first year at my high school, when my dad was a senior – 35 years earlier) mouthing those words: “General to specific.” Then we were, of course, asked to do the opposite in the concluding paragraph.

    Now, this lesson of “general to specific” may be something I talk about negatively, but to Mrs. Bosley’s credit… well, I remember it, don’t I? I may never have to write a five-paragraph essay, but I still remember what she taught me.

    Anyway, I was thinking about Mrs. Bosley this week because of this little sermon series I’m doing this Lent about covenants in the Old Testament. The lectionary has us reading different passages for the first five Sundays in Lent, and each is about a covenant that God makes with the people. For a quick refresher, in case you don’t remember from last week (or you weren’t here), when the Bible uses the word “covenant,” it means, “a promise God makes to the people.”

    Last week, we talked about the covenant with Noah that God makes following the flood – the promise that the world will never again be destroyed as it was in those days. Today, we read about the second of these promises – God’s promise to Abraham. And, just like Mrs. Bosley taught me it should be, the first promise was general (to the whole world – all people and all animals, too), and next we get more specific (to one people, about living in one land, and about one man’s descendants).

    Now, I’m going to do as quick of a recap as I can. You’ll probably recall that, at the beginning of this passage we read today, Abraham’s name was not Abraham, but rather Abram. God gives him this new name. Instead of Abram (which means “exalted ancestor”) he would be Abraham (which means “ancestor of a multitude”). We have to keep in mind that, in biblical times, names and naming were extremely important. A name was not just what people called you; it revealed your identity. This name change occurs because even though he is an old man, God promises offspring – Abraham is supposed to be the father of a multitude of nations – not just one or two children with a line to die out, but rather the spiritual ancestor of many peoples. Since Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their origins back to Abraham, I would say that God has lived up to that little promise!

    But there’s more to this covenant than just Abraham’s new role as the father of many nations. The rest of the promise given to Abraham ends up being a pretty important, too: it’s a promise to have the land of Canaan – the “land of milk and honey,” the “Promised Land,” for Abraham’s descendants. In fact, it’s called the “Promised Land” because of this very promise – God is promising it to this one particular people.

    This is a fascinating thing about these covenants, to me. We start with a promise that’s made to everyone on earth – including animals, as well. That’s the promise given to Noah, and which we discussed last week, that the earth would never again be destroyed. And it’s pretty easy to see that God’s end of the bargain has been upheld – we’re all still here, after all, so that’s worked out pretty well for us.

    But this promise to Abraham starts to be a little more specific. This one is not just about what will happen. It also has a role for Abraham (keep in mind, Noah got no job as a part of his promise), and it involves a land transaction, which is an aspect I’ll talk about more in two weeks. But there’s something more important that happens here, and I think we’re apt to miss it on our first read-through of this passage, because there’s so much going on.

    In the midst of God changing Abram’s name to Abraham and while this land is promised to Abraham’s descendants, God adds this a little item, so short it would be easy to miss. And this short item, even though it’s actually repeated, is often forgotten as a part of this promise. It’s this – God promises: “an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God says again later “I will be their (meaning Abraham’s descendants’) God.”

    The first promise that we saw with Noah was a promise about what would happen. And this promise contains some elements of that, too, with the descendants and the land. But “what will happen to everyone” is an awfully general way to start – thanks again, Mrs. Bosley, since we’re starting with the most general – but there’s something deeper here, too.

    This promise, at its heart, is about having a relationship. What’s interesting here is that all God asks in return is a marker identifying people as Abraham’s descendants. God doesn’t ask for love or devotion or to follow rules or anything. This covenant, much like the one with Noah before it, it about what God is doing; has done; will do. God is the actor; we are the acted upon.

    This covenant is extremely important, because it’s the one in which we see how God feels about us. The one with Noah can be read with God as a character in a story who makes a screw-up and promises not to do it again. But this covenant with Abraham is made with a man in the desert, whom God has no reason to think of as special. It’s made with someone who has basically nothing asked of him in return. And it’s made purely on God’s behalf, and purely out of love.

    For us as Christians, I don’t think there is anything more hopeful or truer than this. The relationship we have with God doesn’t come from us; it comes from God. God is the one who initiates it. We’re recipients of love from above.

    To me, at least, there is nothing more hopeful than remembering that it’s not up to me alone to build a relationship with God. God is not a distant deity, whose attention we have to try to get. That would be horrible, wouldn’t it, if we all had to try to compete to be the squeaky wheel to get some of God’s grease? I am glad to know that God is already reaching out to me, whether I call out for it or not. God is constantly coming to us. We don’t believe in a distant God who doesn’t care about us, and only listens if we yell loudly enough. We believe in a God who is intimately caring about the events of our lives, and who desperately wants us to draw nearer and nearer.

    And like last week, I’m going to tie this back in to Jesus, because that’s what we do as Christians. Friends, of course there were people hoping for a Messiah before Jesus came. But when people hoped for a Messiah, they were not asking for Jesus; they were asking for a political figure to free them from oppression. Those are good things, I suppose – to be free from oppression of a harsh government. But Jesus came with more than that. He came, like Abraham, as a poor man. And he came, not to liberate one people in one time, but to liberate all people in all times. Jesus came to remind us what we see in this promise to Abraham today: that God is the one who initiates our relationship by constantly calling out to us, and begging us to draw nearer to God.

    As we approach Good Friday, which is what we do in Lent – we march to the cross – it’s important to think again about the nature of this promise to Abraham, and what it tells us about God. This is a gift from God, to be ours – to be the initiator of the relationship. “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you,” says, the Lord, “to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” And where do we see that better than the example of Jesus? We didn’t ask for someone to come down and do that – to free us from sin and death. That’s not what we hoped for. At our best, we hope to get out of one bad situation or another. And yet, we need so much more than just to get out of one bad situation; and so that’s what God provides.

    So, brothers and sisters, as we think back to Abraham, we must remember that in this covenant, God was coming forward to us; reaching out to us with open arms, and trying to draw us into relationship. I would ask that you remember that those hands and arms are always there, always wanting to draw you nearer. I ask that, in this season of Lent, you discover where those arms are pulling you, and that you embrace them as much as they seek to embrace you. Amen.

  • Come Join Us!

    Sunday Church Service: 9:30 am
    Adult Sunday School: 10:30am
    Wednesday Youth Service: 6:30 pm

    102 East 1st Street
    Marion, SD 57043
    Phone: (605) 648-3876
    Email: emmanuelpc@goldenwest.net
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