St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore
Rev. Jackson H. Day, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2022

Forming the Covenant

In this morning’s reading from Genesis[2] Abraham and God make a covenant.

A covenant is a special relationship between two people or groups of people. A contract tries to anticipate all the things that could happen and plan in detail for ways of handling as many as possible. A covenant is a commitment that endures regardless of future circumstances. Marriage is a covenant: “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, so long as we both shall live.”

Like a contract, in a covenant there is an expectation of getting what you want.

As I get older, I can identify more and more with what Abraham wants. Abraham wants some kind of earthly immortality. Abraham has lived a full life, he has had adventures, he has had accomplishments, and he wants someone to carry on when he is gone. Abraham wants an heir.

At the moment, Abraham’s closest kin is Eliezer of Damascus, a cousin. That’s good, Eliezer is a relative. But that’s not like having a son who has grown up in your house and has acquired your values. And Abraham does have a descendant – Ishmael, whom he considers a slave because he is the child of Sarah’s slave woman, Hagar. Having a child is such a precious thing that I have never understood someone who could have a child, as Abraham did with Hagar, and not treat that child as a son or daughter. But there we have it in Genesis, and both history and contemporary life are full of parallels.

In today’s story, God tells Abraham that he and his wife Sarah shall have an heir, they shall have descendants. God tells Abraham, in essence, “Trust me.” So Abraham does. “He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Years later St. Paul makes much[3] of that verse as an illustration of a faithful relationship with God. That’s important, because in the end, it’s all about covenant relationships.

This morning’s story then goes on to a second promise of God. The first promise was that Abraham would have an heir by his wife Sarah. The second was that their descendants would have a land to live on. At that moment Abraham was on the land that he had been promised, but he was an alien among the Canaanites who lived there. How do I know that you will give me this land, Abraham asked?

And God said, I will make a covenant with you. Sacrifice some animals and I will give you a sign. Abraham did, and then Genesis tells us a deep sleep fell on him and a deep and terrifying darkness – but then a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the two halves of the sacrificed animals. God had given his sign, and Abraham’s relationship of trust with God was sealed as a covenant.

In a covenant is a relationship; both parties make a commitment. God’s commitment was to give the land of Israel to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham’s commitment was to trust God and worship only God. A covenant is a relationship that includes both trust and obligations.

This morning’s psalm[4] expands on what that relationship with God involves. God is light. God is salvation. God casts out fear. While God promised Abraham a land for his descendants, the psalmist reminds us that the ideal to spend our days is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.

Breaking the Covenant

Covenants can be broken. Abraham died. Time passed. 400 years later, God’s covenant with Abraham is expressed as Abraham’s descendants, who have now grown numerous under the Pharaohs in Egypt, cross the wilderness on the way to the land that God promised to Abraham.

And what happens? Life in the wilderness is hard. Many of the descendants aren’t up to the hardships that keeping God’s covenant requires. They complain.

Moses goes up to Mount Sinai on their behalf to receive a word from God. And what are the first two commandments Moses comes down from the mountain with? The first is a reminder of Abraham’s side of the covenant: You shall worship only God. And the second complements it: you shall make no graven images. Some of the commandments are just a couple of words. Don’t do this, don’t do that. But on this one God takes the time to elaborate the point.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4)

Well, I own an idol that I picked up on one of my trips to India. It’s a small bronze statue of an odd figure with the head of an elephant and the body of a young man. Technically – and this is important – I don’t think this statue is actually an idol unless we were to worship it – and I’m confident that won’t happen! But I mention it because it’s important to our understanding of how idolatry and idol worship works, and how to stay free from it.

Idols often come with an engaging story. The Hindus call this idol Ganesh. The story starts out with a woman who wanted to take a bath in private without her husband barging in. In Hindu mythology, the woman was the goddess Parvati, and her husband the god Shiva. Parvati was really irritated when Shiva kept barging in on her bath, so she created a beautiful young man to stand at the door and keep her husband out. Her husband was upset at this challenge to his authority. He tried to barge in, but the young man wouldn’t let him. He sent his guards, and the young man overcame them. Shiva went to the king and the priests, and they sent their armies, most of which were defeated. Finally the young man was beheaded. Parvati was furious and made Shiva realize he might win this war, but he was going to lose the marriage. Faced with that, Shiva instructed his servants to take the young man’s body, give it the first head they came across, and restore it to life. The first head they saw was that of an elephant, so now the god Ganesh has the body of a strong young man with four arms and hands, and the head of an elephant; Ganesh is said to help you overcome obstacles and bring wisdom, and good fortune. In India people come to little shrines that may have a statue of Ganesh, and they may lay some flowers by the statue, or even a small plate of rice, and ask Ganesh to do something for them.

People worship idols for the same reason that we share joys and concerns. We recognize that life is too big for us, and we need the support of something beyond us. All over the world people go to idols to pour out the needs and wants all humans have in common:
• bring me good luck, success, wealthy, a solution to my financial problems
• help me find a good job, a good husband, a good wife
• bring me good children who will grow up to have good lives and bring honor to the family
• preserve me from soldiers, politicians, tax collectors, and others who aren’t interested in me but only bring troubles to my life.
• preserve me from natural disasters – rains, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, landslides, wildfires
• keep me from the notice of evil people who only wish to harm me.

No sooner had Moses gone up to Mt. Sinai to get the Ten Commandments, then the very people of Israel sought out an idol. An invisible God who laid requirements on them was more than they could cope with. So while Moses was on the mountain, Moses’ assistant Aaron was in the valley below. People were anxious. Moses was gone, God couldn’t be seen – people needed something tangible. So Aaron collected their gold and melted it down, fashioning from it a golden calf, which the people then worshiped. Some people might say there’s a replica of that bull on Wall Street today! Having something tangible gave them a feeling of security. Of course, it was a false sense of security, but as the saying goes, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

The Bible’s later prophets made fun of idol worship. Isaiah (44:9-20) says, you know, this is really silly. A tree grows in Lebanon and gets cut down and sold to a carpenter. The carpenter burns half the tree for firewood and cooks his dinner on it – and out of the other half he makes an idol and worships it, expecting it to do something for him!

Honoring the Covenant

We hear stories of cancer patients who get angry at their doctors because the treatment may be painful or awkward. The stories become tragic when they elect more pleasant alternative medicines that on analysis prove to consist mainly of sweetened flour. The harm doesn’t lie in the sweetened flour – that won’t hurt you – but in the absence of treatments that stand a chance of working. The tragedy lies not in what the patient does – but in what the patient fails to do. I believe that’s a good comparison to idolatry. The real harm in worshiping an idol is that it keeps us from worshiping God.

Idols don’t answer our prayers – and they generally don’t demand much of us. At a shrine to Ganesh you might find some flowers or a little plate of rice. Not really much to ask, in exchange for the favors asked of Ganesh!

In contrast to idols, the God we worship asks a lot of us, and often we’re not happy with this. It‘s easier to have an idol that asks nothing of us except a few flower petals and a plate of rice.

God wants us to behave ethically. God wants us to offer justice to the poor, the weak, the helpless, the stranger. God has some ideas of what that justice would involve that are even today too radical for us to accept. The law God gave the people of Israel says that if you buy someone’s farmland, go ahead and enjoy it for 49 years, but then in year 50 you have to give it back – that’s the jubilee year! The Bible acknowledged the existence of slavery but insisted that slaves be set free in the jubilee year! Notice how easily we humans accepted the Bible’s acceptance of slavery, but very few American slave owners, who touted the Bible’s acceptance of slavery, accepted the part about a jubilee year in which the slaves would be set free!

God comforts the afflicted, but God also afflicts the comfortable. Our God, a real living God, brings comfort to us when the going is rough – and has demands and an agenda for us when we get too comfortable. My own commitment to you – and to God – is that in every sermon I will not only bring something which is good news to us – but something which will cause us to stretch our minds, to extend our horizons, to unplug our ears, to listen for things from God that perhaps we weren’t prepared to hear. Because worshipping a real, living God means being aware that a real God will say things we don’t want to hear; an idol never will.

Some years ago the Biblical scholar J. B. Phillips wrote a book entitled Your God is Too Small. Another form of idolatry is to worship the true God – but only those parts that we are comfortable with. The problem with making a graven image is that we cut God down to size.

Phillips told a story of a little girl who came home from Sunday School. Her mother asked her what she’d learned, and she proudly said, “I learned that God is everywhere.” Mother was pleased. Little girl followed with a question. “Does that mean God is here in our neighborhood?”’ Mother was pleased that the little girl was applying what she had learned. “Yes, honey, it does.” she responded. “And does that mean that God is here in our home? “Yes, it does, mother responded, more and more pleased by the moment. “And does that mean that God is in this room? Yes, it does. Mother was so pleased at these connections her little girl was making. “And does that mean God is on this table?” Now the mother was getting a little concerned, this was an odd thought, but she felt driven by logic to agree. Yes, it does. “And does that mean that God is here in this sugar bowl?” the little girl asked. Mother was very uncomfortable, now, she didn’t know what was going on, but she felt trapped by her own logic. Well, yes it does, she responded. Quick as a flash the little girl put the lid on the sugar bowl and said, “I got him.”

If you cut God down to size enough, you can “got him” in a sugar bowl. But then you don’t have God, but an idol.

Idols don’t work for us because they don’t answer our prayers, they don’t work for us because they don’t make demands on us and fail to challenge us the way a real God does, and most of all they don’t work for us because we need to have a relationship with God and there’s no way to have a relationship with an idol.

Most of us have had the experience of a washing machine that’s gotten out of balance. The clothes collect on one side and when the washing machine goes into its spin cycle it makes the most awful noise, a thumpa thumpa thumpa and the washing machine tries to walk across the room and if it’s working right, it just shuts down, because it’s off center, and when that happens it won’t work. What’s that a picture of? When we don’t have the living God at the center of our lives, we’re like that washing machine and our lives simply don’t work.

The challenge of the covenant between God and Abraham, the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants, the challenge between God and us – is to look at our lives and make sure it is God – and not any thing or any one else – that is at the center.

[1]Adapted from a sermon preached at Grace UMC, Hampstead, March 7, 2004 and at Providence UMC, Towson, Maryland, February 24, 2011.  Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27 (UMH 758) Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

[2] Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
15:2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
15:3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
15:4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”
15:5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
15:6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
15:7 Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”
15:8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
15:9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
15:10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.
15:11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
15:12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
15:17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
15:18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….”

[3] Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:5, 4:22

[4] Psalm 27
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall.
27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.
27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.
27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.
27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!