Monday, March 9, 2009

Second Sunday in Lent (Series B: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16)

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday in Lent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, Abram and Sarai were sinful. Now, I’m sure this is not necessarily a surprise to you, though it is somewhat unusual. We would expect that the ‘heroes of the faith’ would be perfect examples of who we should be, shining stars for us to look to. But so often, we learn from them what not to do, how not to act. The Bible does not gloss over the sins of God’s followers, but in many places emphasizes them. In chapter fifteen, Abraham is given an amazing promise- his descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, as plentiful as the sand on the seashore. And this will begin with the promise of a child to barren Sarai. What an amazing promise! Only a little patience is needed, as God fulfills His promises in His own time. But patience is in short supply in Abram’s tent. God is taking too long to fulfill His promise, and so Sarai offers her servant Hagar to conceive an heir. Hagar quickly becomes pregnant, and the drama begins. She looks in contempt upon Sarai, and so Sarai drives her out into the wilderness. All the while Abram allows this to happen, he allows his impatience to create strife and conflict in his tent.
It is into this domestic mess that God enters in. “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’” In the context of Abram’s impatience and sin, God is telling him to shape up! Act like one who has the very promises of God! Enoch and Noah walked with God, they provided the example for Abram and us to follow. Walking with God involves living constantly in His presence, it includes an intimacy and communion with God that encompasses one’s entire life. Abram is encouraged to live in the promises of God! His living before God, his walking in the presence of God does not earn these promises, but it is the life he is called to as one who has these promises.
Is it any different for us? We have been given the very promises of God, promises that were only a mist and a shadow for Abram, promises founded on the very blood of Jesus Christ, and so we are called to live a life in fellowship with God. We are to be immersed in the presence of Christ, living in fellowship and communion with Him. How often do we miss the opportunities to walk in the presence of Jesus? Our Lord has given us so many opportunities to live in His presence, to walk before Him, and so often we pass them by. He has given us the great gifts of prayer and His Word, and how often do we go through a day without immersing ourselves in either? He has given us the Divine Service, where His Word is proclaimed, His forgiveness declared, and His very Body and Blood is given for the forgiveness of our sins. But how often do we deprive ourselves of these gifts, and find something else to do on a Sunday morning? Just like Abram, we are called on here to walk before God, to walk before our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and just like Abram we so often live like we do not have the promises of God.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” Even if Abram could claim that he was walking before God, even if we hear what was just said and are glad that Vicar is talking about someone else, this second command from our Lord sounds forth. In the face of the command to “be blameless,” even Enoch and Noah are reduced to tears of repentance. God is here commanding Abram, He is commanding you and me, He is commanding all people, to be perfect. The Jews who heard this command, in both the Old and New Testaments, would immediately think of the sacrificial animals, which God wanted to be blameless, without defect. These animals that bore the sins of the people were to be blameless, because the people themselves were not. And the situation has hardly changed. If Abram, you, or me had to rely on our ability to be blameless in order to receive the promises of God, we would be doomed to die in our sin.
But God has a strange, almost illogical habit of making unilateral covenants. His promises do not depend on man’s behavior, they depend on His grace. Our Lord said to Abram in our text for today, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” Despite all that had transpired since God first gave that promise, He declares His promise to Abram again! He received the great promise of many offspring, which would form nations and bear kings. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” His offspring would also bear the promise. “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” And this would begin with the gift of a son: “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her.” To be sure, God expected Abram to live like one who had the promise, but Abram’s life did not establish this covenant, it was God’s doing, it was His act, it was His promise. The grace of God does not wait for our perfection, but instead His grace is acting to destroy the source of our imperfection and deliver us from all that held us captive.
For the covenant with Abram was not to reward good behavior, it was intended for the salvation of all people, for the forgiveness of Abram’s sin and the sin of all. God did not give His covenant in the hope that we might improve our lives, but instead He gave it to do something about our sin, to wipe it away and break its shackles forever. That is why Abram received the promise, because His descendents would be the offspring of salvation, the messianic line. The promised offspring that would come from Abram’s line would be the One to deliver us from our sin, the covenant given to Abram had one purpose- our salvation through Jesus Christ. For Jesus was the promised seed, who came into the world when the covenant given to Abram was ready for fulfillment- and He did what Abram and we could not. He was the one who truly walked with God because He was God Himself, in intimate communion with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, He was the blameless one, the one who had no sin of His own. He fulfilled what God commanded Abram in our text, and He did this for us.
The covenant with Abram brought Jesus into the world, and He came to establish yet another covenant. Israel had served its purpose, Abram’s descendant had come to our fallen world to redeem it, and now a new covenant, an everlasting covenant was needed. And once again, God is in the business of making unilateral covenants. He does not wait for us to shape up before He establishes a new covenant, but instead as Saint Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ was blameless, just like the sacrificial animals in the temple, just as God demanded of us in our Old Testament lesson. And exactly like those sacrificial animals, He shed His blood and gave up His life for our sins. His blood established a new covenant with us, one that is everlasting. Jesus teaches this in the words of institution in Matthew’s Gospel: “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness and eternal life are the gifts of this covenant, they are the promises offered by our Lord through His death and resurrection. For Christ died to fulfill one covenant and establish another- He came to deal with our sin once and for all by dying in our place, the blameless and perfect in place of the imperfect and sinful. He died, and through His death you have life!
The new covenant established in the shed blood and victorious resurrection of Jesus follows in many ways the pattern of the covenant with Abram. In between the two parts of our Old Testament lesson, God instituted a visible sign to accompany the covenant, the act of circumcision. “You shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” This was a daily reminder of the great promise God made to them. We too have signs of the covenant, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the great gifts of Christ to us. But, oh, they are so much more than simply signs! They convey the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection to us, they enact the promises of Christ’s new covenant in us- through them we become God’s children, members of His family, we become part of the multitude of children promised to Abram. In them our sins are forgiven, and we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. And in them we also receive a new name. “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations… As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” We bear the name of Christ because of our Baptism into His death and resurrection. We are blameless for His sake, and we will stand blameless around the throne in the new heavens and the new earth forever. Each and every day that we live out our Baptism by dying to sin and rising to Christ, and each and every time we receive the Lord’s Supper, we receive the benefits of what Christ has done for us.
And just like Abraham, we walk with God each and every day. We immerse ourselves in His word and prayer, we come to this place to receive His bountiful gifts. We are blameless in His eyes for the sake of Christ- what else can we do but walk in intimate fellowship and communion with Him? But this path, this walk with our Lord, is not an easy one. Jesus teaches us this in the Gospel lesson. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Bearing crosses is not a simple or easy task, but we do so with the knowledge that He bore it first for us and the promise that He bears it with us in our lives. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the blameless one, continue to cover you with His shed blood so that you are blameless before the Father for all eternity, Amen.

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