As we consider the Covenant that God keeps, I thought it was important to include both of this morning’s readings from the Old and New Testaments. (Ezekiel 16:59-63 & Luke 1:68-75)
On the one hand we have a message delivered by Ezekiel, a prophet sent to a disobedient people almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus, and on the other we have Luke, one of the Evangelists who documented Jesus’ life for everyone who is willing to take Christ to their hearts. But if we are going to understand the Covenant God keeps, let’s start but considering what a covenant is.
What is a Covenant?
Well firstly, a covenant is an agreement. It’s a solemn promise between two parties to do, or in some cases, not to do something. But, in a biblical context, a covenant is much more than that, because it is actually a contract with God based on love, trust and respect, sealed by our word.
When we speak of a Covenant with God, we are describing a foundational agreement for our relationship with him, something which underpins our relationships as we accept him as our Lord and Father and the source of all truth and life. But whilst there are blessings that emanate from that covenant if we maintain our relationship, there could also be penalties if it becomes broken or abused.
Scholars have identified six covenants in the Bible but this morning, I would just like to refer to two so let’s start in the Old Testament.
Speaking to a people who had been taken into exile, Ezekiel wrote: ‘The Sovereign Lord says, “I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant”’, and the covenant referred to is that which God first made Abram.
What was God’s Covenant with Abraham?
Abram lived in a polytheistic age, an age when people believed in and worshipped many different gods. Yet when called, Abram answered and accepted the reality of there being only one true God. It was at that point that God entered into a covenant with him, but what was it?
Well, God’s covenant with Abram first appears in the 12th Chapter of the Book of Genesis which says:
1The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
In other words, God promised Abraham that he would provide him with a new home, a place which we refer to as Israel, or the Promised Land. He promised him that he would give him a son and large family, another miraculous statement considering the age of Abrahams wife. And God promised Abraham that he would bless him and through him all the peoples of the world would also be blessed.
So far that covenant is unconditional: God had promised to do things but had asked nothing in return, however, when it becomes fleshed out further in Chapter 17 conditions are applied. Here God says,
1‘I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’
Suddenly, God has added, ‘if you walk before me faithfully I will increase your numbers’ and later he adds,
7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.’
And so we see that original covenant, established with Abraham almost 4000 years ago, wasn’t time limited but was to last for all time.
The ultimate test of Abraham’s obedience and faithfulness, to make sure that he was keeping his half of the bargain, comes in Chapter 22 of Genesis when he is asked to sacrifice his precious son, Isaac. God had originally said that Abraham’s descendants would come through Isaac, so the level of faith Abraham displayed by his willingness to kill Isaac is quite astonishing. Abraham trusted God to keep his word and at the very last minute, God intervened to spare Isaac’s life by providing a ram for the sacrifice. When the test had been completed, God once more reiterated his promises to Abraham of land, descendants and a personal relationship finishing with the words, ‘because you have obeyed me.’ And so we return to the words of Ezekiel to see how the covenant is progressing some 1000 years later.
God’s Everlasting Covenant
We heard earlier that Ezekiel said that God was threatening to deal with his disobedient people in way they deserved, but even in the depths of this dark time of exile, God offered them an olive branch of hope.
‘“I will [still] remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth [the covenant made with Abraham], and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you … then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation,” declares the Sovereign Lord.’
Even though the people of Israel had all but shattered their first agreement with God, he still hadn’t given up on them.
Now let’s fast forward again to St Luke’s Gospel for another prophesy and the fulfilment of all that that has gone before, not through the covenant of Abraham this time, but through a new everlasting covenant, one that supersedes the first and is definitely intended to last for ever — I would suggest that this is an agreement we would not want to tear up this time.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel is commonly referred to as the Benedictus, it’s a hymn of praise uttered by a priest called Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist who was married to Elizabeth who in turn was a relative of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
You may recall that when Zechariah was visited by an angel who announced that Elizabeth would have a baby. Because of Zechariah’s inability to believe he was struck dumb but, after the birth of that baby, when Zechariah had consented to call him John and not Zechariah Jr, his speech was miraculously restored and he knew that something great was about to happen.
Suddenly, through the intervention of God’s Holy Spirit, Zechariah understood that Abraham’s Covenant was about to be fulfilled and re-established, the new ‘everlasting’ covenant, which had been promised for so long, was about to be written. A mighty saviour, descended from a line of kings, was going to be born. The atonement promised for God’s disobedient people, spoken of by prophets like Ezekiel, would soon be at hand. And Jesus was born, he died, and he rose again to make amends for the sins of the people and for our sins today.
God’s everlasting covenant, made flesh, is as relevant for us today as is was two thousand years ago for those who were even then willing to trust, and believe, and obey the words of our one true God.
God’s love for us is unconditional, he will keep the promises he has made to us, but let’s do our best to keep our part of the agreement by walking in his ways, in faith and in obedience.
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