Covenant: David


Covenant: Abraham and Sarah

Lent 2, Year B, February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.  Last week we heard of God’s covenant with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how broken and sinful the world got, no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  This week, we get God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the first inkling of what God is going to do instead.

Let’s give some context.  Abram and Sarai started out as a well-to-do couple in Ur of the Chaldeans, the region that would later be known as Babylon and today we call Iraq.  They were part of a large clan or tribe, and pretty important within that tribe—Abram was the oldest son of his father, set to inherit everything and become the new patriarch of the tribe.  Like all people in that region, they were polytheists, worshipping a wide variety of gods and spirits, who were imagined to be capricious but powerful beings who didn’t care much about humans but could sometimes be bribed into helping them.  Abram and Sarai had wealth, power, status.  There was only one thing their society valued that they didn’t have: children.  In a world in which having descendants to inherit your wealth and position was supremely important, Abram and Sarai had none, and were well past the age of even the faintest hope.  But even there, Abram’s clan was large and wealthy, and as the future patriarch he probably had nephews he could adopt who would be thrilled to be his heir.

But that was not what God had in mind for Abram and Sarai.  God called them to leave their family, their country, their culture, and all the other gods they believed in, to follow him into Canaan.  And so they followed God into an uncertain future, a future that was radically different from anything that anyone might have expected.  A future where they couldn’t depend on the way things had always been, where they couldn’t just coast along with old certainties and familiar ways of thinking and acting.  They were strangers in a strange land, constantly facing new challenges.  They brought with them a whole household of servants and livestock, but following God’s call brought them to a world much different than the one they had left behind.  Instead of certainty and sameness and the protection of being leaders of their people, they were led into uncertainty and change and, sometimes, danger.

I sometimes wonder why God made them leave.  Why they couldn’t have built a relationship with God in their homeland, where they were.  Among other things, their old homeland was a far more fertile and prosperous place, with a correspondingly higher population density.  If God was looking for getting numbers, surely that would have been the place to start, not Canaan.  And yet, in their old homeland, would they have listened to God as well, or would God have stayed just one voice among many in their culture, just one god of a whole host to be worshipped and feared?  Without that shock of a new place, would they have taken the time and effort to rethink their lives, or just gone on much as they always had?

God called them, and they came.  God was building a new kind of relationship with Abram and Sarai, a deeper relationship.  This wasn’t just a trading of favors, or an offering of sacrifices in the hope that the deity would do what you wanted.  This was a friendship, based on love and commitment and communication.  God talked with Abram and Sarai, and it wasn’t just a matter of God telling them what to do.  Abram even argued with God, and sometimes caused God to change God’s mind.  This was a relationship that changed Abram and Sarai, that changed how they saw the world and how they acted and what they did.  And God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai, that God would always be with them, and with their descendants.  God would give them children, and God would have this special relationship with their descendants to the end of time.  God would keep speaking to them, keep guiding them, keep walking with them, showing them how to live and how to be the good people God had created them to be.  And as part of that relationship, God gave Abram and Sarai new names, names that would forever after remind them of what God had done and would continue to do for them, names that would remind them that God had changed them.  Abraham, father of many nations, and Sarah, princess or queen.

Now, even with this new relationship, even with God calling them to be new people, Abraham and Sarah were not perfect.  Their descendants, too, the ones God gave them, were also imperfect.  The wickedness of the human heart that had so enraged God in the days of Noah was still present in them.  And if you read through the stories of Genesis, you will find many examples of them falling short of the good life God called them to.  Deceit, treachery, jealousy, greed, fear, all lead them astray many times.  Human nature was not changed by this covenant.

What changed was God’s nature.  What changed was God’s commitment to be there with them even when they fell short, even when they willingly chose to do evil, even when God stood aside to let them experience the consequences of their bad behavior, God was there with them.  No matter what happened, from then on to the end of time, God would always be with them.  This was the first time that God had made such a promise, the first time that God had made such a commitment to any creature.  The God of the universe, creator of everything seen and unseen, greater than any human being could ever comprehend, was going to be there for them and with them, in a relationship that would bring them closer to God.  Even if they fell short, even if they strayed, they would follow God and God would be there for them and with them, forever and ever, world without end.

In the cross of Christ we are grafted into that covenant.  Through Jesus Christ, we are made spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, called to follow God just as they were called to follow God.  And that call may keep us in our daily lives, and it may lead us out into the world, but wherever that call leads us it is a call to conform our lives and our hearts to God, trusting that God will always be with us.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him.  And sometimes we trivialize that command by thinking that any trying thing that happens to a Christian is a cross to bear.  Sometimes, people even use it to justify trapping people in abuse, by claiming that the abuse is the cross God has given them to bear.  But that’s not what Jesus meant.  We focus so hard on the ‘taking up the cross’ part that we forget about the second part of Jesus’ command, to follow him.  When we follow God, we find, as Abraham and Sarah did, that the way is not always smooth.  That there are challenges and heartaches and problems that we would not have had if we stayed safely on the easy path.  Those are the crosses we have to bear.

Just as God called Abraham and Sarah out of their easy, predictable lives, called them to follow him into a new life and a new land, God now calls us, through Jesus Christ, to follow him.  And like Abraham and Sarah, the path won’t be easy, and it won’t be predictable, and we’ll go astray.  But like Abraham and Sarah, God promises to be with us, now and always, our Savior and friend.  Thanks be to God.


Covenant: Noah

Lent 1, Year B, February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Covenant.  It’s an important word in the Bible, an important concept, but it’s not one that we really understand today.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage … but in a world in which half of all marriages end in divorce, we might view such promises with jaded eyes.  We can also think of covenants like a code of conduct, a set of agreements about how a group is going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.  This Lent, our Old Testament readings go through the covenants in the Bible, and the first one is the covenant with Noah after the flood.

Well.  It’s called the Noah Covenant, because Noah was the only human there.  But it wasn’t just a covenant with Noah, it was a covenant with every living creature.  All humans, but also all animals, every living thing on the planet.  It’s the foundation for how God deals with us.  And it’s a promise of mercy.

But to go back to see why we need that mercy, let’s go back to the beginning.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and all the plants and animals on the earth.  And Genesis 1 tells us that when God created each new thing, it was good.  Last of all, God created humans … and humans weren’t just good, humans were very good.  Life was a paradise and all of earth was a garden.  God had created a world in which everyone had enough, and no one had too much, in which everyone received everything that they needed and nothing profited by preying on other creatures.  The humans had work to do to maintain the garden, but it wasn’t hard work.  There were no weeds, no need for backbreaking labor.  It was all the fun and satisfying bits of working with your hands with none of the frustration or heartache or physical problems that come with it.  And even the animals were safe.  No preying on each other or on humans.  All things—plants, animals, humans—living together in perfect harmony, together, no pain or fear or any other problem.

Then came the fall.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and everything changed.  It wasn’t just that they knew about evil, after eating the forbidden fruit; it was that the possibility for evil corrupted all of creation.  The land became hard to work.  Plants and animals became dangerous, just as humans did.  People and animals started preying on each other, so that one might benefit from the pain and destruction of another.  Weeds sprang up, not just in gardens but in human hearts.  And it wasn’t just a few bad people, either.  Even the best humans had jealousy and fear and hate in their hearts.  The question wasn’t “is there evil in this person’s heart?” but rather, “how much evil is in their heart?”  And evil thoughts and inclinations lead to evil actions.  Murder, abuse, violence, injustice of every kind.  And then we get to Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.  The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.”  God had created the world to be good—God had created humans to be very good!  But that goodness was completely overcome by evil.  And God grieved.

Imagine yourself in God’s shoes.  You made this wonderful world with everything in it set up perfectly for the good of all.  You created everything in it to be good and wonderful.  The only thing anyone needed to do was maintain the existing good order.  But humans failed even at that!  And so now not only is creation not good, it’s pretty thoroughly bad.  Even when someone or something looks good on the surface, you know there’s rot beneath it.  And every time you get your hopes up, they’re dashed.  And if humans couldn’t keep doing the right thing when everything was perfectly set up, what hope do they have of staying on the right path now, when everything is so messed up?  Put yourself in God’s shoes.  What do you do?  What do you do, with everything and everyone that you love bent on destruction?  Imagine that, for a minute.  How you would feel.  How God must have felt, grieved, and heart-sick.

Everything was all screwed up.  Humans most of all, but also the rest of creation.  So God decided to start all over again: destroy almost everything, and keep just enough of the best of creation—human and animal—to restart things.  You know the rest of the story: God found Noah and his family, who were righteous and good and the best people in the entire world of their generation.  And God told Noah to build an ark, and gathered animals to go on the ark, and then God flooded the earth and everything that wasn’t on the earth drowned.  Human and animal and plant, if it wasn’t on the ark, it was gone.

But even as angry as God was at all the evil in the world, God still loved the world.  And as God watched the destruction, God realized that God could not and would not do it again.  That the gain was not worth the cost of all the lives.  And yes, every one of those people and animals that died was marred by sin.  Yes, there was wickedness in the heart of every human who perished.  But they were still God’s children, and he loved them, and he couldn’t just write them off and start over.

And even though Noah was the best man of his generation, the most righteous, and his family were just as righteous as he was, they were still full of sin.  You know what the first thing Noah did, after everything with the flood was all over?  He planted a vineyard, made wine, and got drunk.  And then one of his kids mocked him for it.  The most righteous humans of their generation, and the first thing they do once they’re through the flood is go off the rails.  The flood did not solve the problem of human wickedness.  Even watching the destruction of everything they had known did not remove the evil from the hearts of Noah and his family, and it didn’t scare them into doing the right thing, either.

So God made a covenant, a promise, a new type of relationship, not just with Noah, but with all of creation.  God promised never to destroy the earth again.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much wickedness there is in the world or in human hearts, God will not just write us off and start over.  I’ve heard some people talk about this promise like it’s just about a flood, that God’s covenant here means that next time God will use some other method to destroy the world and humans, but that is missing the point.  God regretted the death.  And God promised twice that he would never again destroy the earth.  This covenant isn’t about the method of destruction.  This covenant is God changing God’s mind about how he’s going to restore the good creation he made.  Not with destruction … but with redemption.

Human nature did not change because of this covenant.  We still have wickedness in our hearts.  We still hurt ourselves and one another.  We still destroy when we should be building; we still wound when we should still be healing; we are silent when we should speak and speak when we should be silent.  We let hatred and suspicion of people who are different lead us into all kinds of evil thoughts and deeds.  All of that was true before Noah, and it was true after him as well.

What changed was God’s reaction.  God promised to live together in relationship with us even though we are sinners, even though we fall far short of the good people we were created to be.  God promised to find other ways of dealing with human sin … and that other way turned out to be Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.


The True Love of God

Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our culture has a fairly shallow view of what love is, have you ever noticed that?  We elevate romantic love as the most important, as if the love of friends and siblings isn’t also deep and true, and then we reduce romantic love to that overwhelming first flush of feeling, as if the commitment of living your life together isn’t just as important a barometer of the depth of love.  And every Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love … with clichés and mass-produced cards and candy.  And then we judge relationships based on the ‘specialness’ of that one day’s plans and gifts.  It’s not that candy and flowers and dinner and such are bad, but when we’re talking about love, they only just scratch the surface of what love is.  And sometimes, we use the word “love” when we really mean uglier things, like obsession or jealousy or abuse or selfishness, using the word “love” to paper over and excuse terrible things we do to one another.

As Christians, we are supposed to learn what love is from the love of the Lord our God.  We should not let the world’s shallowness dictate our views of love.  We should not let the way the world twists things to shape how we understand love.  We should learn how to love from our creator, redeemer, and friend.  God, who in the Old Testament is often described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet Joel tells us in our Old Testament reading.

What does that mean?  ‘Gracious’ is not a word we use often, but it means a kind of generous compassion, a good will towards someone even if they are not worthy of it.  Merciful we know, it’s about forgiveness and bringing relief from something unpleasant.  Slow to anger, well, there are some people who think of God as some frowning, hotheaded tyrant just waiting to smite anybody who slips.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  God is like a parent who has set boundaries but tries to guide and discipline his children without punishing them, using harsh measures only as the very last resort.

You can see that in Joel’s words.  In Joel’s time, God’s people had turned away from God.  They had abandoned his ways, and pursued selfishness and injustice, bigotry and greed.  Instead of the merciful and just society God had shown them how to create, they had set up a system in which the rich prospered and everyone else suffered.  People cared only for their own good, and let others suffer.  In other words, they were acting exactly the opposite of the love God had shown them and called them to live by.  And how does God react?  He pleads with them to return to him, to follow his example to live in love, so that they can avoid the consequences of their actions.

More than anything, God wants all people to live together in harmony.  God wants us all to follow his example and be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God does not want love to be a surface thing, a thing of presents and dates, but rather the core of how we treat ourselves and all of humanity.  All kinds of love—the love of family, the love of friends, romantic love, love for strangers and those who are different than us.  God wants good will and compassion and mercy to form the basis for us as individuals and as a community and as a species, because in that way each and every one of us will be free to grow and prosper and blossom as the good people God created us to be.

When God punishes, it’s always because we have forgotten that love.  We human beings have an awful tendency to hurt one another, to let selfishness or fear or anger or hate or jealousy or pride dictate our actions, and then justify our actions with all sorts of different ways.  We hurt others, and tell ourselves they deserved it.  We do bad things and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people, so we must have been right.  We look away when others abuse people, and then blame the victim.  We bully people and say it was just a joke, or they’re just too sensitive.  We shrug uncomfortably when someone’s partner manipulates and beats them, and then say it’s okay because he loves her and he didn’t really mean it.  And it’s not just atheists who do this: we do it, too.  We, the good, God-fearing people, have fallen so far short of who God calls us to be.  We make a mockery of the healthy, life-giving love that God calls us to live by, and in so doing walk further and further away from God’s presence, and increase the destruction and violence and death in the world.

But even as far from God as we stray, even despite the violence and destruction we allow and condone, God will not let us go.  God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins, to save us from the unholy, hate-filled mess of a world we have created for ourselves.  God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  God loves us so much that he will never stop calling from us to turn from our sins, receive God’s love, and live.  This Lent, may the love of God fill our hearts and minds.  May God create in us clean hearts, ready to love as God has loved us.


On Unclean Spirits

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1, Mark 1:21-28

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a real exorcism.  Not one in the movies or other fictional story, a real, live exorcism.  Nobody here has seen one.  Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone who was possessed by a demon or unclean spirit.  And, again, nobody including me has seen someone who was possessed by a demon.  I mean, I’ve seen TV shows about demons and such, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and such, but I’ve never seen one in real life.  And most real-life cases I know of where someone has thought that they or someone else was possessed by a demon, the real cause turns out to be mental illness, or something like that, instead.  No exorcisms necessary, just a good therapist, the appropriate medication, and understanding and support from family and friends.  That’s why a lot of people today look at many of the exorcisms that Jesus performs and assume that what really happened was that the person was mentally ill, and Jesus healed them.  Still a miracle far beyond anything modern medicine can even dream about, but not an exorcism.

There’s two problems with that.  The first is that it’s not taking the witness of the Bible seriously—nor the witness of our ancestors in the faith, nor the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters of other cultures, who often tell of encountering demons.  And, I mean, we believe in spirits.  It’s one of the core parts of our faith that we confess every Sunday: we believe in the Holy Spirit of God, one person of the trinity.  That is absolutely not up for debate.  And if there’s a Holy Spirit, it’s not a big leap from that to wondering if there might be other spirits, too.  Un-holy ones.  Or, as the spirit in today’s lesson is called, “unclean” ones.  Ones that don’t come from God, and don’t lead us closer to God, but rather lead us away.

Consider the liturgy we use in baptism.  It’s ancient.  Christians have been using that same liturgy since the very beginning of Christianity.  Every generation puts their own spin on it, modifying it to fit their times, but the core of it is the same.  Which is why so many churches from different traditions have baptismal rites that sound very similar, even if nothing in the rest of the worship service does.  And part of that liturgy is to renounce all the evil spirits.  “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”  If the baptized is old enough to speak for themselves, they say it.  If they’re too young, their parents say it for them, and when they are confirmed, they will renounce other spirits as part of the Confirmation rite.  There would be no need to pointedly renounce evil spirits if they weren’t floating around.  We may not talk about unclean spirits much, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the possibility they’re out there.

There’s a Christian spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” where you pick a Bible passage and meditate on it.  But before you start meditating, you pray.  And one of my professors in seminary was very adamant that you had to specify, in that prayer, that you were asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for God to protect you from other spirits, because you don’t want to be opening yourself to just any old spirit that might be wandering by.  You want to open to the Holy Spirit.  Given all of these aspects of Christian worship and devotion that deal with spirits other than the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to assume that any “unclean spirit” or “demon” in the Bible is merely a mental illness described by people who don’t know what it is.  I mean, it may be, but we don’t know.

The other problem with assuming that all Biblical exorcisms are actually healings of mental illness is that this guy is very different from the other people possessed by spirits in the Bible.  See, I don’t think anybody knew he had an unclean spirit until Jesus cast it out of him.  This guy seems like a normal guy.  He’s going about his ordinary life just like everyone else in the village, and unclean spirit or not he’s in the synagogue, the place of worship.  He’s a member of the congregation.  Other people with “unclean spirits”—the ones who are visibly different, the ones who act like they have schizophrenia or other mental illness—they’re excluded, shoved out of the community, ignored, pushed aside.  This guy isn’t.  So his friends and family probably think he’s fine.  They probably think he’s normal, ordinary.  He’s got an unclean spirit so fully in control of him that it can speak through his mouth, and there he is, in the middle of the congregation, and not one person has noticed.  Except Jesus.

I wonder what else the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.  I mean, it can’t have been outright blasphemy; these people know the Scriptures, they know the traditional interpretations, if this guy tried outright heresy they would have noticed.  But there have always been people who twisted Scripture to fit their own desires.  For example, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is love, that the deepest core of God’s character is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  From the beginning of Genesis right on through to the last page of Scripture, we are told that God’s deepest concern is for the kind of justice where even the weakest person, even the outcast, receives good treatment, and the kind of mercy that works to reconcile people with God and with one another.  But people have always taken pieces of Scripture out of that context and used them to rationalize unjust and unmerciful treatment, too harsh on the people they don’t like and too lenient of themselves.  Maybe that’s the sort of thing the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe the unclean spirit didn’t say anything spiritual at all.  Maybe it just sort of was there, stirring the pot.  You know the type.  The ones who add to the drama of any situation so that it’s harder to find a good solution because everyone’s so upset they can’t think straight.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the type to whisper poison in peoples’ ears, the sort of comment that sound innocuous on the surface but always has an edge that hurts.  Someone like that can do a lot of damage, cutting people down and making them suspicious of one another.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the self-righteous type, filling the man full of the conviction that he was always right and therefore anyone who disagreed was wrong and the enemy, so he could treat them accordingly.  If you think about it, there are a lot of ways an unclean spirit could have done serious damage not just to the person it possessed but to the whole community, if it managed to go undetected as this one evidently had.

I wonder what the man who was possessed thought.  I wonder if he felt like a prisoner in his own body, helpless to stop the spirit from acting.  But even more, I wonder if he even knew.  If he just listened to the voice of that unclean spirit influence him and thought, “that sounds like a pretty good idea I just had.”  And that may be the scariest thing of all.

Thank God Jesus was there to free him and cast out the unclean spirit.  But it raises the question: what about unclean spirits here, now, today?  I mean, Jesus isn’t walking around physically in the flesh any more.  He’s not just going to walk I into one of our churches and command an unclean spirit to leave.  And yet, we are not alone.  We don’t face spirits or demons—whether actual entities or mental illness—alone, for God is with us.  In our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that is the deepest reality of our lives.  Even if other spirits trouble us, they cannot stand forever against the power of our Lord and Savior.  We renounce the powers of the devil and of all unclean spirits, and we are right to do so, because they can do a lot of damage.  But it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives that renunciation a force greater than we could ever manage on our own.  I don’t know what other sorts of spirits are out there, nor how often we might encounter them.  But I know this, for certain and sure: the Holy Spirit is greater than they could ever hope to imagine, and the Holy Spirit is active in us and among us.  Thanks be to God.