Hespeler, 18 March, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Acts 7:51 – 60, Isaiah 40:1-8, Jeremiah 31:27-34
ast week we talked about something unique in the nature of the God that we meet in the Bible. The people of Israel, unlike their neighbours around them, came to understand that their God was a God who made covenants. He entered into a relationship with his people where he required certain things of them and promised, in return, that he would remain faithful to them by continually s howing them steadfast lovingkindness.

      And that kind of covenant relationship is a good and beautiful thing. To be in a covenant relationship – any kind of covenant relationship – is a great blessing. I know that many of you have been blessed by such a relationship in your life, as have I. A good marriage, where each party in the marriage promises to support the other and to remain faithful and loving in the good times and in the bad, when everything is easy and when it hard, is such a covenant relationship. Many people are also deeply blessed by a similar dynamic in other relationships – enduring friendships and family ties, certain working situations and so on. Being in that kind of a relationship does more to form us, give us confidence and hope and help us to be our very best than just about anything else in life.

      But there is a potential downside to being in a covenant relationship. Anytime you enter into something with that level of commitment, there is a danger. When you only trust someone a little and they let you down, it may hurt a bit, but you will probably be alright. But when you are in a covenant relationship and somebody lets somebody down, it can be absolutely devastating and can bring some real long-term effects. And the thing is that disappointment and betrayal are almost inescapable in some ways. None of us are going to be perfect covenant partners. We will all likely fall short in some way or another sooner or later. And when we do, and when it is a serious betrayal, that hurts and wounds us in ways that often stay with us for the rest of our lives.
      That is what makes this idea that the God of Israel is a God who makes covenants so surprising. It means that, by choosing frail humans like us as covenant partners, God is exposing Godself to disappointment, pain and heartbreak that we can hardly even fathom. If God makes a covenant with people, they will let him down. That is about the only thing that can be guaranteed.
      And that is indeed the history of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel. There are countless examples of how the people of Israel disappointed God in the Bible. Even as Moses was standing in the presence of God and receiving the terms of the covenant on top of Mount Sinai, we are told that the people at the foot of the mountain were busy casting their own alternate god out of gold. Think of it – a people flagrantly violating the terms of their covenant with their God even while the covenant is being set up. That would be comparable to a bride or a groom cheating with somebody else even while the wedding ceremony is going on! Can you even fathom the feeling of betrayal that God, as a covenant partner, would feel at that moment!
      And that is, of course, not the only instance. As you read through the scriptures, the story is repeated again and again as the children of Israel repeatedly turn away from the God who has chosen them, forget the ways in which he has asked them to live and run after other gods and strange practices. Again and again in the Bible, God is portrayed as a jilted lover, a cuckold. Sometimes he speaks of his anger at the betrayal, sometimes he is just so indescribably sad, but the theme of God’s disappointment is a theme that runs through the whole Bible.
      But despite it all, God doesn’t give up and doesn’t forget the promises that he made. No matter what, God reminds them, they will be his people and he will be their God. God responds to the people in various ways. He gives them the law through Moses – not as a way of making their lives miserable by piling on rules and regulations, but in order to offer them some real and helpful guidance on how they should live out their lives. More than anything, and especially if you read the Book of Deuteronomy, the law seems to be about helping them to create a just and fair society where everyone is given the resources they need to live a decent life.
      But law seems to fail to accomplish its true intention. Rather than live up to the spirit of the law, the leaders prefer to put the emphasis on the form of the law with festivals, sacrifices and rituals becoming the focus. So God sends in the prophets to correct and challenge the people – especially the leaders. “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” the prophets say on God’s behalf. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever–flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)
      So God attempts to call the people back to the keeping of the covenant through the prophets but the prophets are rejected, persecuted and even killed. They are too much of a threat to the established order and the people who are in charge and so, despite their enduring, beautiful and poetic words, the work of the prophets cannot persuade the people to keep to their side of the covenant.
      But still God does not give up, does not walk away from what only looks like a bad deal from his side. Ultimately, the Book of Deuteronomy and the Books of the Kings conclude, God decides that he must send the people out of the land altogether. They are invaded and taken away to captivity by the Babylonians so that the land itself might have a chance to rest and recover from the lack of justice. But even there, God does not forget his promises. After a generation has passed, he relents and allows his people to return from their exile and start over again in the land that he had given to their ancestors.
      And that is the story, if you want to put it in a nutshell, of the entire Old Testament. God is the faithful covenant partner who is disappointed again and again by the partners that he has chosen. Like a longsuffering wife who just refuses to give up on her violent or abusive husband, he just keeps coming back for more. That is how it is portrayed.
      And how do you fix a relationship like that? I mean that sincerely – how do you fix it? Because Lord knows that we have all seen more than our share of relationships like that. Some partners are abusive, some neglectful, some more than a bit cruel. Don’t get me wrong, there are all kinds of wonderful relationships out there where you see a couple constantly building each other up and offering encouragement, but what about the other kind where they only seem to manage to tear each other down?
      Sometimes, of course, the sad reality is that a relationship becomes so destructive that the best possible way forward is to separate and go on and build your lives apart from each other. The only alternative is that there be real substantial change, but how do you go about doing that? Sometimes people will try making vows and promises – “I promise you, baby, this time it is going to be different, this time it is going to be better” – but in my experience those kinds of promises, often made in desperation are bound to fail sooner or later. That was what God found with the people of Israel and sometimes finds with us. We make promises and vows but too often our resolve is simply not enough to keep us faithful.
      Sometimes, in an effort to save the relationship, people will try setting up rules and boundaries. This is what God did through the Law of Moses. But, as we have seen in that case, rules can quickly lose their meaning, in any relationship, what you really need is not outward obedience to rules but inward and genuine devotion and commitment. Sometimes an outside voice is found to help the participants in the relationship to learn to see the relationship in new ways. I guess you could say that prophets coming in to speak for God carried out this function in the Old Testament.
      So basically, in the Bible, God tries the very things that we try to repair a wounded relationship. There is repentance and forgiveness and ups and downs, but everything seems to fall short at one point or another. What is a deity to do when he just doesn’t want to give up – when God absolutely refuses to walk away from the covenant he has made? God is desperate to make this work. What would you do?
      Well, what God does is opt for one dramatic act that is intended to change the entire dynamic of the relationship. His plan is to make a dramatic demonstration of just how much he cares for his people hoping that this will finally convince them of his love. You will see something like that, sometimes, in ailing relationship. I’ve heard of a person, for example, who walked away from a high paying but super high pressure job that had been slowly been killing him as well as his relationship with his family. It was a radical choice that left the whole family much poorer off financially but so much more healthy in other ways. It was a hard thing to do, but it totally changed the dynamics of a once-failing relationship. That was the kind of dramatic move God needed.
      God made that move, we believe, in the person of Jesus. God chose to enter into the fullness of all that it means to be us in Jesus Christ. That changes the dynamic of the covenant so dramatically because it means that, for the first time, God can understand the struggles of the covenant from our point of view – can understand the weaknesses we struggle with, the temptations that we face. In understanding the limitations that we face, God can deal with us with a new and powerful compassion.
      But, more than that, in Christ, God gives us the supreme demonstration of what God’s love looks like and it looks like Christ who is willing to put up with all of the pain and rejection and shame of the cross for our sake. It looks like a man who is innocent and has done nothing but stand up for what is true and right being struck down for it in all injustice. It looks like a friend who is willing to give up his life for the sake of his friends. And you could talk about the love of God and how deep it is and how wide it is forever and you will never be able to equal what was shown to us when Jesus was nailed up on that wood.
      That is what God does for us in Christ Jesus. That is the story that we will be rehearsing yet again over the next couple of weeks. And I know that none of that makes all of our problems go away. We are still weak. We still fall short of our best intentions. We still do not live up to everything that God expects of us. But the relationship has changed because of Christ. The covenant has moved beyond the mere matter of obedience to an affair of the heart.
      It has moved towards what Jeremiah was promising when he said, “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
      God took it there for us in Christ and in our hearts we will live out that covenant with hope and power. That is what is different because of Jesus.


Sermon Video: