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A Covenant in Blood

A Year in Genesis  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Today we come together to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is risen! How did we get here though? How did the story get from Abram and Sarai, a barren couple of nomads, to the Son of God stepping out of the grave one Sunday morning? On this day many years ago, Christ ratified a new covenant between God and man, signed in his own blood. Before he died, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” When Christ arose, and his followers witnessed the empty tomb, they knew that this knew covenant had been ratified. The blood of Christ, the atoning sacrifice, had been accepted. Christ’s living body, walking around in the world as if he’d not just been crucified three days earlier, was all the proof they needed that the new covenant had been ratified.This new covenant, however, presupposes a much older covenant. And in order to truly appreciate the new covenant, we have to learn to appreciate the old covenant, the very same covenant we see described here in this bizarre passage in Genesis.

God’s Proclamation

This passage begins by painting the father of faith, Abraham, in a light we’ve not yet seen before. Abraham is shown as prophet of God, and the passage begins like many of other books of prophecy in scripture, “The Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision...” Unlike many prophets that we’re familiar with, however, Abram actually gets good news, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” I’m sure Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah would have loved to hear that word, instead of the typical, “Israel will be destroyed, everyone will go into exile, you’ve disobeyed me, everyone has sinned!” Any of these prophets would likely have leapt for joy at the sound of this word from God.

Abram’s Protest

Yet, shockingly, the prophet Abram seems a lot more like Jonah than Isaiah, Ezekiel or Jeremiah. Because when he receives this good word from the Lord, he responds in protest. God says, “Abram, I am your shield and protector. Follow me and your reward will be great,” to which Abram responds, “O really? What reward? You haven’t given me anything yet! You promised me a son, but I don’t see one!” This is, of course, a very valid complaint against God. Abram and Sarai have traveled some 700 miles by now, through wilderness and desert, they’ve fought in a war, they’ve gone through a famine, and all because Yahweh had promised to provide them with a son, a hope for the future. Yet, after all that time, there’s no son in sight. And they’re not exactly getting any younger!

Promise and Faith

But God, listening to this complaint from Abram, does something rather unexpected. So often we have a picture of God as some mighty, out of touch, pompous king. To question God seems blasphemous, treasonous, totally taboo and out of bounds. Yet God far from crying, “How dare you question me!”, seems to hear Abram’s complaint and understand. God responds not with indignation, but with a request for Abram’s trust. “Look to heaven and count the stars, if you can. That is how numerous your descendants can be.” Perhaps, in this moment, Abram was the first to ponder something like :
The New Revised Standard Version Divine Majesty and Human Dignity

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Seeing the beauty of the heavens, the stars that God created, Abram seems to find the faith to trust in this God once again. If God can make all of this, then surely he can also make Abram a son. God is able, he has the power. And so we get that famous line echoed by later writers, like the apostle Paul, “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This word here, righteousness, is sometimes thought to mean “good”, or “just”. It does have that connotation, but it’s really more about upholding your end of the deal. “Righteousness” is a covenant term. God has made this covenant, this agreement, with Abram: I’ll give you a son if you believe in me. Receiving God’s promise, then, is predicated on Abram’s faith and trust in God. There is no promise if there is no faith. God needs Abram’s trust in order to carry out this plan he has. And in this instance, Abram finds that faith by looking at God’s beautiful creation.

Proclamation and Protest Round 2

So, we’ve got the issue of an heir out of the way. Abram has faith that God has the power to produce an heir for him. God moves on to the second part of the promise: the land. God declares to Abram, “I am Yahweh, the God who brought you out of your father’s land to give you this land your standing on.” God has not only promised Abram an heir, but also this land in Canaan. So when God reminds Abram of this promise, “Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness,” right? Wrong! Abraham once again shows that he has his doubts about God. “You say you’ll give me this land, but how do I know I’ll get it?” Previously, Abram seemed to be doubting God’s power, but now he seems to be doubting God’s character. So, once again, God acknowledges Abram’s very legitimate complaint. The land has been promised to Abram, but he certainly doesn’t possess it yet. So how is Abram going to trust in God?

A Covenant in Blood

This objection to God is going to require a bit more than getting Abram to look at the stars. So, hearing this, God comes up with a plan. He is going to sign a covenant with Abram, an official one this time. While oral covenants were a common thing in Abram’s day, if you were really serious you’d perform a ritual to seal the deal. And so God tells Abram,

A Covenant in Blood

“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”  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.
At this point, most of us are probably totally lost. What’s the deal with this strange ritual? Couldn’t God and Abram just made a pinky swear? Or signed a contract? What’s the deal with killing these animals? This form of covenant making was actually not uncommon in Abram’s day. It’s a form of covenant known as a suzerain-vassal treaty. Abram had probably seen it performed at least a few times before. When a strong king wanted to make a covenant with a weaker king or someone else beneath him, he would have them bring out some animals and cut them in half, just like Abram did. They would lay the split carcasses in two rows, making a kind of pathway between them: a bloody, grotesque, walkway covered in blood and entrails. Then the weaker king would be forced to walk through the middle of these mutilated animals. The message was pretty clear: the stronger king was saying to the weaker king, “If you break this covenant, you’re going to end up like these animals. If you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, you’ll regret it.”
So God has Abram go get these animals and set up this covenant ritual. Then something totally unexpected happens. See, as the clearly weaker party in this covenant deal, it should have been Abram who walked through the middle of these animals. But it’s not. After Abram cuts these animals in half, he is struck with a vision, and he sees God himself walking through these bloody animals. By doing this, God is taking on the consequences of failure to uphold the covenant. God is saying to Abram, “I’m so committed to this covenant that I will go even unto death to uphold it.” This is a truly powerful sign of God’s character and faithfulness to Abram. I’m sure Abram got the message: there’s absolutely nothing that would stop God from fulfilling his promises, even if that means death. Death metaphorically, I’m sure Abram thought. God, after all, can’t really die, can he?

The New Covenant

Yet, here we are. Thousands of years later, here we sit, celebrating the God who died. The God who came down to earth in the flesh, who took on human skin and bones, and who allowed himself to be crucified for his creation. We celebrate Jesus, the only son of God, who became like one of those animal corpses: not just dead, but mutilated. Flogged until his flesh hung from his back. A crown of thorns thrust onto his head, the barbs cutting into his flesh. Nails driven through his hands, hung upon a cross to be humiliated as he died a slow and painful death. The God of Abram promised that he was willing to go even to death to fulfill his promises, and, as it turns out, he was quite serious.
And, just as that grotesque ritual with the animals served to ratify a covenant with Abram, this bloodied man, nailed to a cross, is the sign for us of a new covenant. And the sign is, after all, for us and not for God. Because God knew, though Abram doubted, that he would provide an heir for Abram. He knew that he would provide the land he had promised for Abram and his descendants. But Abram needed a sign. He needed the stars to show him God’s power to keep his promises. He needed the blood ritual to show him God’s faithfulness. Abram had concerns, questions, and doubts, and God responded with a sign so that Abram could trust him, so that Abram could believe in God and be reckoned as righteous, so that Abram could receive God’s promise of life: a son, and of new creation: a land to call his own.
Likewise, God has provided us with a sign this morning. When we have doubts, questions, and fears, God points us to the Passion of Jesus Christ our Lord. When we struggle with the problem of evil in this world, and we ask, alongside Abram, what kind of God it is that we’re following, God points us to Christ Crucified. It is this kind of God that we worship, a God who so deeply loves his creation and creatures, who loves you, so much so that he is willing to die the most gruesome kind of death.
And if we have questions, doubts, fears, like Abram, as to God’s power. Can he do what he says he will do? Can he truly raise us from the dead? Does he really have the power to make all things new? To create new life in this world of sin and death? We have only to look at the empty tomb. God has done it. He has shown the world that his words are not empty. The resurrection of Jesus is a clear sign that God’s words are not empty,
it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Living in response to the Cross

Even as Abram witnessed God taking on the full responsibility of keeping his promises, walking through death, he was told that the promise would not be something he lived to see. He would receive his son, Isaac, but the land would not be given to his descendants for many years. First the children of Abram will be slaves in Egypt, and only then, many years later, will they return to the promised land to see God’s promise fulfilled. Yet, having seen the sign of the covenant God made with him, Abram is enabled to trust God. To live by faith, and go to his grave comfortable and assured that God would stay true to his word.
As Abram
As Christ’s apostles witnessed the resurrected Jesus, they too were warned that they might not live to see the promises of God come to fruition in their lifetime. Just before Jesus ascended, he had a last conversation with Peter.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter knew that he would suffer on Jesus’s account. That God’s promise of resurrection and new creation wouldn’t be something he would see in his lifetime. Far from it, he would experience the same kind of tortures, abuse, and death that his Lord Jesus had experienced.
We too must come face to face with the reality, even on Easter Sunday, that we might not live to see the promise. We might pass away and face death long before Jesus returns again, before the trumpets sound and the dead are called back to life, before the world is made new once again. Easter is not a day to forget these things. It is a day to face them head on,renewed in strength by the great sign of the covenant God has given to us. Easter is not a day to forget the perils we face in this life, or to pretend we won’t see the grave. It is a day to renew our faith and God, the God who loves us so much he was willing to go even unto death, our Lord Jesus, powerful enough to raise himself back up from the grave on the third day. So as we go out from this time of worship, from the high mountaintop of Easter, let us keep our gaze on the cross and the empty tomb. They are the sign of God’s covenant, the sign that reminds of God’s goodness and power, and his faithfulness to his promises. Not to forget our troubles don’t exist, but to give us strength and faith enough to face them, to go to the grave comfortable and confident that God will do as he has promised. That Christ’s victory over death is also our victory. And that the life he was raised to will also be our life.
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