Sermon May 4, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

May 4, 2014
Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan

“A Promise You Can Count On”

Hebrews 8:6-12

When someone new comes into the church one of the difficulties they have to overcome is the use of jargon. Jargon is insider talk. It’s a special vocabulary used by those on the inside of an organization that may be completely unintelligible to someone new or on the outside.

Just about every organization has their own jargon. If you work at a hospital and you say you want something stat, that means you want it right away. Teachers talk about IEPs which are individual education plans. In construction, toenailing is hammering a nail at an angle to attach an upright 2X4 to one on the floor.

Well the church has jargon too, lots of it. We have words and expressions that make sense only if you have grown up in the church and used them all your life. There are some words you understand when they are used in a certain context, but you might be hard-put to give a definition for one of them. I think the word covenant fits in that category.

Covenant is one of those words Presbyterians are fond of using, but we don’t think much about the meaning. Every time we celebrate communion the word covenant slips in there. The words of Jesus are recited – “This cup is the new covenant, sealed in my blood.” Sometimes the word covenant appears in a marriage ceremony. Just like Trinity is a popular name for a Presbyterian church, so is the word Covenant. We get comfortable with a word like covenant and we seldom consider what it means.

I started off looking up covenant in the dictionary and it listed six definitions. The first and most common definition was: “A binding and solemn agreement made by two or more individuals, parties, etc. to do or keep from doing a specified thing.” The fourth definition was very interesting: “An agreement between the parliaments of Scotland and England in 1643 to extend and preserve Presbyterianism.”

Covenant is a word with lots of meaning for Scottish Presbyterians and for Scottish history. In the center of Edinburgh, Scotland, is an old church called the Greyfriars Kirk (kirk means church). Most tourists who go there associate it with a little dog, a Skye Terrier named Bobby. When his master died in 1868 and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard, the little dog spent the next fourteen years guarding his gravesite. A tremendous story of loyalty, the devotion of Greyfriars Bobby became famous. Walt Disney made a movie of it in 1961.
When Debby and I visited that church the minister seemed a little irritated that everyone came there because of the story of Greyfriars Bobby. He took great pains to explain that this was a very historical church, maybe more than any other church in Scotland, because in 1638 the National Covenant was signed at that church. That Covenant was a vision of democracy in action, where Christians (they called themselves Covenanters) from all over Scotland swore to uphold their Presbyterian faith in the face of a king who wanted to change it. They said: We shall defend it to the utmost of that power that God hath put into our hands, all the days of our lives.

The sixth and last definition of covenant in the dictionary was the best one. It said: “The promises made by God to man, as recorded in the Bible.” That’s the covenant I want to talk about.

When the word covenant appears in the Old Testament, it describes the special relationship between God and the people of Israel. Covenant first appears early in the book of Genesis with the story of Noah and the flood. After the flood, God commits himself to Noah and his descendents. Never again would the world be destroyed by a flood, and the rainbow was to be the sign of the covenant. God said to Noah: “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Next, when God calls Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land he will give him, it is a covenant agreement. God says to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And then the covenant with Israel takes on a more formal relationship when God leads them out of bondage in Egypt. Exodus 20 is the recitation of the Ten Commandments, and Exodus 21-23 is called the Book of the Covenant. And then Exodus 24 is a formal ceremony ratifying God’s covenant with Israel. God’s message to Israel was: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” And the people responded: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

And then one more time the covenant is repeated to David. God says to David: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you … He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”

As we consider the meaning of covenant for Christians today, it seems that there are two aspects to it. It consists of promise and relationship, and these two themes are interwoven with each other. Essentially, the covenant consisted of God’s promise to his people. And the promise brings to life a new relationship. God initiates the covenant and he invites people into an enduring relationship with himself. God commits himself in love and grace to an undeserving people, who are then to respond in gratitude and love. All those who trust in the covenant are the heirs of the promises of God.

It’s important that we know that the covenant we find in the Old Testament is always a covenant of grace. Whether in the Old or New Testament, the Bible teaches only one covenant – a covenant of grace. The promise of God is consistent throughout scripture – “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

The book of Exodus records laws and rules for the people of God. However, the invitation to enter a covenant with God comes before any laws are given. Before God gives the Ten Commandments he reminds the people of the salvation already accomplished for them. The preamble to the Ten Commandments says – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Grace always precedes the law. The covenant with Moses and the people of Israel does not represent the peoples’ attempt to earn God’s favor by performing good works. Instead, it shows the peoples’ acceptance of God’s freely offered grace. Because there were ethical demands made on the people does not in any way lessen the meaning of the covenant or the free grace of God.

The covenant is the essence of what our faith relationship with God is all about. The covenant expresses the union of God and humanity. In modern times we define a host of relationships by contracts. But that’s not what God has done with those who trust in him. God didn’t establish a contract; instead he created a covenant. The difference is the relationship.

Contracts are broken when one of the parties fails to live up to his promises. If a patient fails to keep an appointment with a doctor, the doctor is not obligated to call his house and inquire – Where were you? Why didn’t you show up for the appointment? Instead, he simply goes on to his next patient and has his secretary take note of the patient who failed to keep his appointment. That patient may find it harder next time to see the doctor. He didn’t live up to his informal contract.

However, in scripture we find God asking: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” These words from Isaiah indicate that the covenant is more like the ties of a parent to her child than it is to a doctor’s appointment. If a child fails to show up for dinner, the parent’s obligation, unlike the doctor’s, is not canceled. The parent finds out where the child is and makes sure she is cared for. One member’s failure does not destroy the relationship. A covenant puts no conditions on faithfulness. The covenant promise of God is an unconditional commitment to love.

The book of Hebrews, quoting the prophet Jeremiah, wants to restore our hope in the covenant, to renew our faith in the promises of God. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, really God renewing his covenant, and this time it is written upon our hearts. This was God’s intention all along. God promises to enter our hearts and make us over again. Also, God’s covenant is intended to lead to personal knowledge, to a personal relationship. The promise of the new covenant is that all shall know God from the least to the greatest. And finally, this new covenant will rest upon divine forgiveness. The promise of God’s covenant is that his love will not let go of us. And despite our failures, God says – “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” The way God accomplishes this new covenant is through Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection.

When we see ourselves as the people of the covenant, we discover that being in relationship with God also puts us in relationship with one another. The covenant of God has been handed down to us by those who have preceded us in the faith – by faithful parents, Sunday School teachers, and youth leaders; in the preaching and teaching of pastors, the leadership of elders, and the service of deacons. The covenant is an inheritance of the promises of God that has been passed on to us. And we in turn are responsible to share the stories of the promises of God with those who come after us. The covenant relationship is not our possession, something that is exclusively ours. The covenant promises of God are meant to be shared with others.

The good news of the gospel is that God is faithful to his promises. In scripture, and ultimately in his Son, Jesus Christ, God has spelled out his love for us in glorious promises. Let us dare to be people who trust in the promises of God.

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