February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

“Covenant Love”

This morning I want to talk about “Covenant Love.” It’s a pervasive theme throughout the Bible, and it shows up in our reading today from the Book of Genesis about God’s covenant with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants.

We should remind ourselves that a covenant is a promise or a vow made between people. It’s not quite the same as a contract that is signed as an agreement for services rendered and payment required, with legal consequences when it is broken.

But a covenant is a serious vow or promise made between people to live together in committed relationship with faithfulness and love. And “covenant” is the primary way that God establishes relationships with human beings.

During the Season of Lent in Year B, the Revised Common Lectionary provides us with texts from the Hebrew Scriptures each Sunday that highlight God’s covenant relationship with us as God’s people.

Last Sunday’s text (which we skipped in order to highlight PWS&D Sunday instead) was about God’s covenant with Noah. Although human beings had become so terrible and evil that God flooded the earth to wipe them out and start again, God promised that he wouldn’t do that again.

Recognizing that humans would undoubtedly make more mistakes and do wrong things, God nonetheless determined to stick by us in faithfulness and mercy, covenanting with us, making the promise not to destroy the earth.

Today we heard about God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham, inviting them to walk before God and be blameless, and promising to make them fruitful, to become the ancestors of a multitude of nations.

The next couple of Sundays will highlight God’s covenant with Moses and the Hebrew People. God provides the Law for the people to live by, and promises faithfulness to them in return.

And then the prophet Jeremiah describes a “new covenant” with the houses of Israel and Judah. Now God will put the law within the people’s hearts, saying, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Of course, we know that in the New Testament Jesus renews and affirms the covenant relationship between God and God’s people once again. As he breaks bread and pours wine at the Last Supper, he tells his disciples that this meal, this offering of himself in love, is the “new covenant” of God with the people. In Jesus Christ – in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, all represented in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – God promises a perfect love that is freely given though it is undeserved.

So, what do these covenants mean for us? What are we supposed to learn from the fact that thousands of years ago God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants?

Well, first we might notice the simple, but profound, message that God wants to be in relationship with human beings. God wants to be in loving, faithful, committed relationship with us. God didn’t just create us and let us go to see what might happen. But God made us for relationship, desiring to love us and walk with us through our lives.

And second, we should notice that God has expectations of us in that relationship too. God promises Abraham, “I will make you fruitful… I will make you exceedingly numerous.” But God also asks Sarah and Abraham to participate in the covenant, to make a promise to God as well. God asks them to “walk before me, and be blameless.”

Of course, we know from the covenants in Scripture, and we know from the vows and promises that we make in our own lives that covenants are hard for people to keep. God is very good at it. God is perfectly faithful and steadfast in his love. We are less consistent, even when we have the best of intentions.

When God asks us to “walk before [him], and be blameless,” we might argue that it’s just impossible for us to do that, so why make the promise at all?

It reminds me of my marriage vows. And it should, because that’s what marriages are. They are covenants between two people, made in the presence of God and the witnessing community, establishing relationships of faithfulness and love that are comparable to the relationship between God and God’s people. Keeping the marriage vows is hard work for us, but we make those vows and strive to live by them because the relationship brings great blessing.

When I got married, part of our vows included these words: “I promise and covenant with you that I will always be faithful to you, and always walk together with you, wherever our lives should lead us, as long as we both shall live.” And that kind of faithfulness is hard for us as human beings.

Not long ago, there was a story in the news about a divorce party that was held here in Regina. One young woman had recently gone through a separation and divorce, and her friends wanted to do something to support and encourage her, so they threw her a party.

It seemed a little odd to me that they all put on their wedding dresses for the party, including the woman whose marriage had just ended. I wondered how that would make her feel better to have a party with everyone wearing wedding dresses.

It wasn’t all that clear in the news story, but I later learned that all those women at the party, all her friends that gathered with her that day were also divorced. And that made me sad… that all those women in their white dresses had entered into covenant relationship with someone, but each marriage had come to an end.

In each case, the promises to love, and be faithful, and to walk together forever could not be fulfilled. Oh, how difficult it is for us human beings to make and keep our covenants with God or with each other!

Yesterday, I was driving home from a meeting in Moose Jaw and I turned on the radio. The song that was playing was “Every breath you take” by Sting. And as I listened and sang along, I pondered “covenant love and faithfulness.”

Now, I know that “Every breath you take” was written about a relationship between a man and a woman. In fact, when I looked up the back-story for the song, I found out that it was written by Sting in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from Frances Tomelty, to whom he had been married.

Apparently, he was the one who had an affair with another woman, but then he wanted to get on with his new life and next relationship. The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching everything he does. Sting insists that the song is about one person’s obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow.

But when many people listen to the song, they hear something very different. They interpret it as a love song, with the words of the singer expressing deep love, faithful commitment, and perfect steadfastness towards their partner.

The words of the song are clear about the fact that the partner has not been faithful in return. Vows have been broken. The singer has been abandoned. And the song expresses the longing and heart-ache of the one who has been betrayed.

Well, as I listened to “Every breath you take” yesterday, I heard it as if it was being sung by God to us. Because while human beings struggle to be faithful to one another and to God, God shows us what perfect covenant love looks like. I heard it as if it was the love song of the Lord who has covenanted with us human beings over and over, only to be betrayed and abandoned again and again.

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you

Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I’ll be watching you

O can’t you see
You belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I’ll be watching you

I wonder if you could hear those words as coming the God who has promised us love and faithfulness, from the God who sticks by us, never giving up on us, despite the fact that we so often refuse to return that love and faithfulness to God.

The song continues with these words:
Since you’ve gone, I’ve been lost without a trace
I dream at night, I can only see your face
I look around, but it’s you I can’t replace
I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace
I keep crying, baby, baby, please!!!

Perhaps it is hard to imagine the Almighty God being so deeply affected and grieved by our lack of interest in relationship, by all the other things that we love more than we love God, by all the ways that we turn away from God in favour of other priorities and desires.

But our God is the one who loved us so deeply and fully that he sent his Son into the world to live as one of us, to draw close to us, to reach out to us in love. God is the one who was so committed to us that even when we betrayed, rejected, and killed Jesus, God still did not give up on us.

God is the one who has made a covenant of love with us – a covenant that is not dependant on our ability to be perfectly faithful in return, but a covenant that rests on the faithful love of God, and the mercy and grace offered to us in Jesus Christ.

During this Season of Lent, as we acknowledge our human frailty and sinfulness, we are nonetheless invited into renewed covenant relationship with the God who will not give up on us. We are invited to return to God and place our trust in him.

May we walk before God, as Abraham and Sarah did, and be blameless… not because we can manage that faithfulness on our own, but because in Jesus Christ we are fully loved, completely forgiven, and made righteous before God. Amen.