Sunday, February 24, 2013

God's One-Sided Bargain

Texts:  Genesis 15:1-18; Luke 22:14-30

TWO VERSES FROM OUR READINGS this morning sound the keynote for today's sermon.  The first is Genesis 15:17 and it says,

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 

The second is Luke 22:20, which says,

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 

One verse that's familiar, one verse we may find to be obscure.  But both have to do with the covenant of grace that the Lord our God makes with us, not counting the cost to Himself, that you and I might be saved.

The making of covenants is fundamental to Biblical history.  Our God is a covenant-making God.  But let's not think that the making of covenants was some special Bible thing off in a category by itself.  No, it was basic to human life and civilization back in ancient times and it still is today.

People make different kinds of covenants with one another, for different purposes.  Treaties.  Bargains.  Marriage vows.  Contracts.  You name it.  All of these involve the parties promising to do certain things for one another.  Very often they stipulate the penalties the parties will face if either of them fail to live up to their side of the bargain.  The general form was, "Do this, and this benefit will follow.  Fail to do this, and this penalty will follow."  As you might expect, if one party to a contract was more powerful than the other, the weaker party incurred most of the obligation and most, if not all, of the penalties.  But what would you think of a covenant where the stronger party took all the obligations and all the penalties to himself, and all the benefits came to the party that was weaker?  That's not how it happened in the ancient world, and it's not how it happens today.  But that's exactly what the Lord God Almighty does for us in the covenant of grace He has made with us for our salvation.

Genesis chapter 15 begins with the word of the Lord coming to Abram in a vision:

"Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward."

At the outset, we see God conferring a benefit on the man Abram.  And who was Abram?  Was he some hero or demigod who had the right to deal with the Lord God Almighty as an equal?  No, he was a nomadic herdsman of Syrian descent whom God out of His own free grace had elected to be the one through whom all the nations of the world should be blessed.  God of His own choice gave Abram the right to expect something of Him.  So to this wonderful assurance Abram basically responds, "How will I know that You will keep your promise to me?  You've promised to make me into a great nation and look, I still have no children and a servant of mine looks to be my only heir."

  And does the Lord say, "Trust Me?"  He could have.  But in grace He responds that indeed, a son coming from Abram's own body would be his heir, and He gives him the sign of the stars of heaven as His testimony that His promise is firm and sure.

Does Genesis say, "Abram did this or that to deserve that God should favor him"? or "God required these actions and good works from Abram as his part of the bargain"?  No, it tells us that upon seeing this sign,"Abram believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  All the action was on the Lord's side; all the passive receptiveness was on Abram's.  Abram simply received God's grace, and by that grace he received the righteousness of God that made it possible for him to walk with God in friendship and peace and receive His blessings forever.

But God has not finished making His one-sided bargain or covenant with this man.  The Lord says,

"I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."

Again, as in verse 2, Abram asks for a sign that this indeed will take place.  God, being God, had every right to say, "Abram, you trusted Me before; go on trusting Me now.  Isn't My word enough for you?"

But the Lord doesn't do that.  Instead, the Lord God of the universe condescends to a man and grants him signs and seals to ratify the bargain, exactly as if it were one man making covenant with another.

The Lord commands Abram to bring certain animals of a certain age, along with two birds.  Abram obeyed, cut the animals in two, and arranged the halves opposite each other, with the birds opposite each other, though not cut in half.  Then Abram sat down to wait, driving the birds of prey away from the carcasses, waiting to see what the Lord would do, waiting to see what the Lord wanted him to do.

This strange procedure was a standard way of ratifying and witnessing to a covenant in the ancient Near East.  What could it possibly mean?  It might help if we turn over to Jeremiah 34.  There the leaders of Judah have made a covenant before God to free their slaves, but they've broken it and taken the freedmen into slavery again.  So the Lord says,

The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.  The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.

The covenant was sealed in the blood of the animals.  The idea was that the parties making the covenant would walk between the severed animal pieces, in effect saying, "If I break this covenant, may I be like this slaughtered animal.  May my dead body be food for birds of prey, with no one to drive them off."  Typically, it was the weaker party who passed between the pieces.  A weaker king.  The debtor who needed the money.  The people of a god.  The powerful party merely witnessed that all was done properly, to his benefit.

But what is this in Genesis between God and Abram?   It had been nighttime with the stars shining when the Lord first came to him in this vision.  It was now sunset of the day after   As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and "a thick and dreadful darkness came over him."  This was no ordinary darkness and no ordinary sleep, it was a sleep from the Lord.  Abram would not be asked to walk between the pieces; he would not be asked to do anything.  In fact, God wanted to make sure Abram wasn't capable of doing anything.  This treaty, this bargain, was going to be totally one-sided, and the one party making the promises, the one party obligating Himself to them was God and God alone.

In verses 13 to 16 the Lord sets forth the terms of the promise:  That Abram's descendants would indeed inherit the land, but not until the sin of the present inhabitants (here known collectively as Amorites) had reached its full measure and their judgement was due.

Now, we might think that doesn't exactly count.  If you tell me I've won the Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes but then tell me you'll make the check out to my great-great grandchild who hasn't even been born yet, and I'm getting on in years and don't have any kids in the first place, as a modern individualist I'm likely to say, hey, that wasn't what you promised before.  But our ancient ancestors were much more family and clan oriented than we are, and they understood that they lived on in their descendants.  A man like Abram would have taken no pleasure in receiving a blessing that would die with him.

So as Abram lies in deep vision-sleep, the Lord unilaterally declares what He will do.  And then, wonder of wonders, when the sun had fully set there appeared (verse 17) a smoking firepot with a blazing torch passing between the severed animal pieces. This was none other than a vision of the Lord God Almighty swearing an oath against Himself, saying, "May I be like these dead animals if I do not keep my promise to Abram my friend."

God Almighty Himself is conferring all the benefits!  And taking on all the penalties and obligations!  Most covenants then as now say, "Do this in order to receive that."  But God's covenant of grace says, "Believe this and receive that."  Or maybe putting it better, "Believe Me and receive this." God was witnessing blood against Himself if He should fail in any of His promises to His friend Abram.

What is this to us?  Everything.  Because in His grace, God's one-sided bargain with Abram set in motion the divine plan for our salvation.   He promised him a land to call his own, but the physical land of Canaan was only a sign of the kingdom of heaven that we, God's covenant people, will receive.  He promised him heirs like the stars in the sky, and physically, this came true, but even more numerous are those who are children of Abraham by faith, for all who, like Abraham, believe God and have it counted to us as righteousness.

But the greatest fulfilment of God's covenant with Abram came in the greatest of his descendants, who is Jesus Christ our Lord.  And so we see Him in the Upper Room, sharing a meal with His disciples shortly He is to die, and like God His Father so many centuries before, God the Son of God makes a one-sided covenant with those He loves and seals it in His own blood.  "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you," Jesus said.  For us He became those animals whose bodies were cut in two.  For us He walked the road to Calvary   Jesus did not bleed and die because He failed to keep His covenant of grace with us, He bled and died so that covenant could be put into effect.  His resurrection from the dead proves that this is true; because He rose, we know that we will rise with Him.

In this season of Lent, as we look forward to Easter and Christ's resurrection, let us remember that there is nothing we can do to deserve God's blessings of life and fellowship and forgiveness.  His covenant with us is like His covenant with our father Abraham, totally one-sided on God's part where it comes to action and obligations, totally benefitting us whom He has called to be His own.  Indeed, our new covenant in the blood of Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises to Abram, who believed the Lord and to whom that was credited as righteousness.  For as St. Paul says in Romans 4 says,

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

By faith we are the children of Abraham, the friend of God.  But even better, by faith in the shed blood of Christ, we are the children of God, who makes His extraordinary promises to us, and keeps them all.

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