A Remarkable Covenant I: Being God’s People
Text: Genesis 17:10-16
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
March 11, 2012
Within the Bible there is the concept of covenant that occurs time and time again. There are minor covenants and three very major covenants.
Covenants are things we make and use all the time without necessarily calling them covenants. A covenant is an agreement between two parties.
If you go out for pizza and you pay for the pizza you are making a covenant that if you give the person money, that person will give you the pizza.
When we purchase a car or a house, we sign a contract that is, in essence, a covenant. If we get married or committed to someone, that is a covenant. When we join churches, it is a covenant. And God has made covenants with us; and we make covenants back, to God.
The Bible has minor covenants that were made with God and people such as Noah and David. There are also agreements, covenants, made between people. There are, however, three over-arching covenants in the Bible. This week I will examine the first of the three, between God and Abraham.
To do this, however, first we need to ponder God and how we view God.
First, we need to see how people viewed God back in Abraham’s day.
In the time of Abraham people perceived the concept of God very differently than we do now. For most people in that era, gods were considered to be regional and functional. There were gods for the sun, the moon, the sea, the sky, the moon, the earth, for war, for love, etc. Cultures saw gods as being tied to distinct geographic areas and were limited to certain powers.
Suddenly, into this mix enters God making a covenant with Abraham. The revelation of God was that there was only one God and the God of Israel was the one God, and God was making a covenant to Abraham and his descendants. God was going to be their God and they were going to be God’s people.
This first major covenant between God and God’s people had one amazing thing taking place. God was, in essence, announcing to the world that God was bigger than they had ever conceived.
The amazing thing about all of this, however, was that people still struggled with how they perceived God. As a result, in Hebrew, there were a multitude of names for God with often different meanings.
Elohim - strong One, divine
Adonai - Lord, indicating a Master-to-servant
El Elyon - Most High, the strongest One
El Roi - the strong One who sees
El Shaddai – literally, God of the Mountain,Almighty God .
El Olam - Everlasting God
Yahweh - LORD “I Am,” meaning the eternal self-existent God.
People took the concept of multiple gods and gave all those qualities to the one God of Israel. God became one God with many names most of which came from the attributes people saw in God.
In contemporary times we don’t always have a vast array of names for God, but people maintain a vast array of theological opinions about God.
For some, God is a cosmic judge looking to condemn people for every and anything they perceive to be wrong. This past week a minister in Minnesota preached a sermon about the tornadoes in Indiana and said that this was a lesson to everyone about repenting from their sins. God is perceived as an angry and cosmic judge.
Others see God as a something of a cosmic puppet-master controlling each and every aspect of our lives with detailed plans laid out for us each and every day of our lives. We’ve probably all heard sermons or people speaking about God having an explicit plan for their lives from who will be in their family, where they will live, and what kind of career they will have.
For some God is a cosmic Santa Claus waiting for our prayers, and seeking, diligently to provide for our every want or need. Much of what we read and hear about with the prosperity Gospel is based on this. If we pray hard and have faith, then all our dreams will come true.
Others see God as a cosmic observer who sits back and simply watches the universe do its thing with no intervention. God listens to prayers, but does not act until, perhaps the end of life or the end of time. God is something of a removed observer.
Some see God as one who creates, observes, gently guides, and allows life to take place. God is a combination of passive and active, but generally allows life to take place without a great deal of intervention.
All of this, of course, has the addition of the character and personality of God. Some see God as angry and vengeful; others as loving and kind; others as a being with an amazing sense of humor who finds our efforts to be, if nothing else, amusing and entertaining.
Now that I have laid a whole host of things about God, we are left with the fact that God made a covenant with Abraham, and upon this covenant much has been built. It also forces us to ponder what it is we believe about God and what attributes we believe are important about God.
I have three. The first is that God is transcendent.
The word transcendent implies that God is ‘out there,’ great and almighty. God is one who is beyond perception, independent of the universe, and “other” when compared to us. In fact, the word ‘holy’ is, at its core, ‘other.’
It means, in essence, that God is magnificent beyond our perception, comprehension, and understanding. No matter how hard we try, we cannot truly understand God.
In the movie O God there is a wonderful scene between God and Jerry, with God being played by George Burns and Jerry being played by John Denver. Jerry and God are standing in Jerry’s bathroom and God is standing there and they are chatting. Jerry asks, “Is this how you really are?” and God’s response is, “No, if I came as I really am, you couldn’t have gotten it.” This is statement of a transcendent God. God is so beyond our compression we could not stand in God’s presence and fathom what we are experiencing.
On the other hand, God is also immanent. An immanent God, is one which exists within — within us, within the universe, etc. — and, hence, very much a part of our existence. God as immanent is God looking like George Burns in Jerry’s bathroom. When we sing hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” that is a reference to an immanent God, one who is our friend. When we attend a funeral and sing “In the Garden,” pondering images of God walking and talking with us, that is a vision of an immanent God.
These are the first two but you may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. A view of God as transcendent and a view of God as immanent are opposites.” Yes, they are, and that is part of what makes God, God. God is both greater than we can imagine, and here in our midst. The fact that we can’t perceive it is part of the magnificence of God.
The last attribute of God that really moves me is that God is Eternal. I usually begin prayers with the phrase, “Eternal God,’ because it’s an image I love.
Many scientists say that the first dinosaurs walked the planet 542 million years ago. To give you a point of reference, Jesus lived 2000 years ago and Abraham lived around 4000 years ago.
This means, if we repeated the 2000 years between the time of Jesus and us, here and now, we’d have to repeat it 271,000 times with Abraham’s time needing to be repeated 135,500 times! Geologists tell us that the earth began to take its shape 4.5 billion years ago which means that the era between Jesus’ time and our time would be repeated 2.2 million times and change. The average 80 year old person would live their life over again better than 56 million times.
I’m throwing all these numbers out because I think it gives some perspective on what the word “Eternal” really means. God as Eternal means that God is God in every age and every era. Philosophers tell us that God’s eternity is not linear, year to year, like ours, but one moment. The formation and destruction of the earth is one moment, to God. The dinosaurs and the year 2525, from the song, are one moment. Our sins and Jesus dying on the cross for sin are simultaneous.
Going back to the covenant between God and Abraham, there is something amazing and mind-blowing to acknowledge. This God, this one God, this God who is so magnificently ‘out there,’ this God who is so lovingly ‘in our midst,’ and this God who is God for all eternity, chooses to make a covenant to people, literally and profoundly simply, being our God. It is, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It is magnificent and it is beautiful.
I am reminded of one of my all-time heroes in Christianity, Thomas Aquinas. He was a Dominican Friar in the 13th century, very much a Pre-Reformation Reformer who spent half his time being charged with heresy. He was for theology and philosophy what Galileo was for astronomy, Newton was for science, and Einstein was for math----brilliant beyond brilliant. He was an amazingly prolific and profound writer. Yet, later in his life he had a profoundly intimate experience of God and he stopped writing stating that, compared to God, everything he had ever written, was little more than straw.
This God, this God of all eternity, this God of distance and closeness, this God who can render geniuses silent, is the God of the covenant with Abraham and now with us.