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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

Images of God

Second Sunday in Lent, February 21st, 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17—4:1, Luke 13:31-35

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

How do you see God? When you think of God, what do you see in your minds’ eye? Do you see Jesus hanging from a cross? Or do you see an old white guy in a bathrobe sitting on a cloud? Or Jesus carrying a sheep back to the flock? Or a judge frowning down at sinful humans? Those are probably the most common images of God that we have. And, certainly, they are good and right images for God who created us in his image, reaches out to us, who claims us as his children, who was born in human flesh, lived, died, and rose again that we might have life. But those shouldn’t be our only images of God, because they limit our understanding of who God is and what God does. The very nature of God is bigger than we can imagine—God, who created the universe and all that is in it, seen and unseen, is so far beyond us that we can’t understand it. God comes to us in human form so that we can see him and know him, but that doesn’t mean that that’s all he is. It’s tempting, looking at the pictures of Jesus, of God up in the heavens, to let our view of God get small.

There are actually a lot of different images for God in the Bible, and we get two of them I our readings today. In our first lesson, God makes a covenant with Abram, restating and emphasizing the earlier promise that he would give Abram and Sarai children. Abram, being very old and already having waited for many years, asked when it would happen. God didn’t give him a time frame, but he did make a covenant with him. A covenant is the very deepest form of promise there is. Marriage vows are covenants. Treaties are covenants. And, just like today, such deep promises got ceremonies to memorialize them and serve as a witness to them. Covenants in those days were accompanied by the sacrificing of animals. Each side made promises, and then you sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. You cut them in half, and you walked between them, and then you had a feast together celebrating the covenant—just like a wedding banquet today. But the thing is, when the time comes for God to walk through the sacrificed animals? God does not show up looking like a human being. God shows up as smoke and fire.

It’s not the only time God comes as smoke and fire. When God wanted to get Moses’ attention to send him back to Egypt to free his people, God appeared as a burning bush. When God led the people of Israel through the wilderness after freeing them from Egypt, God appeared as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. When God sent the Disciples out to preach and teach about Jesus, after the resurrection, God appeared to them as tongues of flame. This is a way God has revealed himself to us many times. So what is it about fire? What can this tell us about God? Well, life isn’t possible without fire. The sun is a burning ball of gas, and without it, nothing could live on Earth. It would be too cold, and too dark. We could not live—and neither could any other plant or animal. And the Sun’s fire is necessary in ways we don’t even realize. When we’re out in the sun’s light, the rays from that burning ball of gas help our bodies to create vitamin D, which we need. No sun, no Vitamin D, and we get very sick. On a smaller level, without fire we wouldn’t have light or heat in our homes, and we wouldn’t be able to cook. And yes, this is true even for electric light and heat—most electricity in this country comes from coal or natural gas or other things that burn. So fire is absolutely necessary for life, on a lot of different levels.

But at the same time, fire is dangerous. It’s unpredictable. It’s not something we can control, on a very fundamental level. When we take it for granted, when we don’t pay attention, we get burned. Not because the fire has it in for us, but because that much power just can’t be taken for granted without consequences. God is like fire, because without God there is no life, and God is at work in us like the rays of the sun even when we don’t notice God’s presence. And God is so powerful, he is beyond our control.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson, with a very different image of God. Jesus is warned that King Herod wanted to kill him, which he already knew. He knows that he is going to his death, he knows that he is going to die to save people, and he knows that the very people he wants to save are going to reject him. They’re not going to listen. They will turn from him, and he’s going to die for them anyway. And so he says a lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

So that’s another image right there. Ever thought of God as a mother hen, anxiously trying to shield her chicks from a big, dangerous world? That’s how Jesus describes himself here. Now, a hen is not a big dramatic animal. A hen is not something that goes around looking for trouble. Hens are small, vulnerable, ordinary things. But hens are very good at sheltering their chicks, at protecting them. And they were a common image that everyone in Jesus’ day would recognize. Ordinary love, ordinary protection, ordinary shelter from the storms of life. In big storms and gentle downpours, the hen is there for her brood, protecting them, leading them, and guiding them along life’s path. It’s not some big grand dramatic thing. It’s quiet. Ordinary. Easy for the world to overlook—and yet, it makes all the difference for the chicks who receive shelter, comfort, and guidance from their mother’s wings.

And that’s what Jesus wants to do for us. He wants to be our shelter throughout all the storms of life, big or small. And sure, we might be able to survive some of them without his help, but would you really rather struggle through on your own than face challenges with guidance, shelter, and love? It’s not just about the big, grand moments in our lives—it’s about the small, ordinary, everyday ones, too. Throughout all of our lives, big and small, God wants to wrap us with maternal love and devotion. We’re so used to thinking of God as our Father—and quite rightly, because he is our Father—but what does it mean that God is our Mother, too? And what does it mean that God is our shelter from the storm?

The way we see God affects how we understand God’s Word, and it affects who we are as God’s children. If you see God only as a stern judge, you may not even notice when God calls us to mercy and forgiveness. If you see God only as the Good Shepherd calling for the lost sheep, you may not even notice when God calls us to judgment. If you see God as some remote, far-off white guy in a bathrobe on a cloud, you may have trouble seeing God’s presence and relevance in your day-to-day life. Any one view of God can blind us to God’s nature, for God is too big and complicated to fit into the small boxes we try to stuff him into. God is the mother hen sheltering us under her wings, and God is our Father in heaven. God is the fire that lights up the world, and God is the water from which we are born. God is the Good Shepherd, and God is the sheep that was slain for our sins. God is the great judge, and God is the source of all mercy and forgiveness. God is the one who made promises to Abraham so long ago, and God is the one who still keeps his promises to us today.

Amen.

Promises

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

Jeremiah was not a very popular guy.  Do you know the story of Cassandra, from Greek mythology, the woman who was doomed to prophesy disaster and not be believed?  Jeremiah was the Cassandra of the Old Testament.  When all the other prophets in Judah (particularly those paid by the government) were predicting that Judah would defeat the mighty Babylonian army that was attacking them, Jeremiah said the opposite.  Even though the Judeans were God’s people, the Babylonians were going to conquer their tiny kingdom.  And Jeremiah refused to be bought off, and he refused to be silenced, and that’s why the king had him locked up at the beginning of today’s lesson.  When everyone else was turning themselves inside out to pretend things were going just fine, Jeremiah pointed out the obvious.  When everyone else was singing hymns to the glory of the Kingdom of Judah and insisting that since they were God’s people nothing bad could ever happen to them, Jeremiah pointed out the ugly truth.  They weren’t acting like God’s people, and bad things could and did happen to them.  And what was going to happen to them—being conquered by Babylon and deported into exile—was going to happen whether they believed it or not.  The only choice they had was whether they were going to let it take them by surprise, unprepared, or instead let God help them prepare for the trials ahead.

They didn’t want to hear what Jeremiah was saying.  They would rather follow false prophets who told them comforting lies.  So King Zedekiah, the ruler of Judah and the man who had ordered Jeremiah to be locked up, came to Jeremiah, and asked him why he insisted on prophesying that the Babylonians were going to win.  The answer may seem obvious: Jeremiah was a true prophet, and that’s what God had told him to say.  And I’m sure Jeremiah had told him that before, but apparently King Zedekiah had a hard time believing that God would allow anything bad to happen to God’s people.

Have you ever felt like Zedekiah?  Like you couldn’t believe something bad was happening, and so you’d rather keep you head in the sand than face it?  A man with his head buried in the sand.We laugh at the image of a guy with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich, but only because we’re looking at it from the outside—we’re not in that guy’s head pretending that everything is fine and if he can’t see the problems they don’t exist.  I know there have been times in my life when I’ve tried to pretend that everything was okay, as if wishing things would turn out fine would make it happen.  It’s hard to face unpleasant realities.  But pretending that everything is fine doesn’t make it true; and that’s as much the case today as it was two and a half thousand years ago when the Babylonian army sat right outside the Jerusalem city wall.  Jeremiah could have told King Zedekiah that.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he told King Zedekiah about a piece of property he’d just bought.

Property?  With the enemy at the gates, Jeremiah bought land?  And why tell that to the king?  I think it has to do with why we have trouble facing unpleasant truths.  I know when I don’t want to face the truth, it’s usually because I think it’s hopeless—that there’s nothing to be done.  I sometimes hide from the truth because it makes me feel like God has abandoned me, or no longer cares for me.  And there have been times in my life where I’ve hidden from the truth because I didn’t want to admit what I had done wrong.  I don’t want to see the truth because I can’t see a way forward.

But you know what?  Whether they were in exile or in Babylon or home in Jerusalem, God was with them.  Just as God is with us no matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us.  By telling Jeremiah to buy that property, God was telling him—and the people of Judah—that there was a future, that God would be with them, that the dark times wouldn’t last forever.  God was telling them that there was something they could do: they could follow God.  There was hope for the future, but that hope could only come through facing their problems and trusting God to guide them through.  God was telling them that the promises he had made them—to be their God and to give them land—were still just as true in that time of trouble as they had been in times of safety and security.

God has made promises to us, too.  God’s promises come to us through Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  In this broken, sinful world there will be times of trial, times when the world seems to be coming apart around us, times when it’s hard to face what’s coming.  Just as God never abandoned the people of Judah, God will never abandon us.  God loves us so much that he gave his only son to die for our sake.  God loves us so much that he is willing to take our burdens on himself, and redeem us from our brokenness, and make us whole.  God will always be our God, even when we stray from the paths he has laid out for us.  And God will always be with us to guide us back home to him.  God will never draw back from doing good to us, in the midst of our brokenness.  In the midst of our darkness, there is light, and hope.  And that light comes from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.