This sermon was preached on February 25, 2018 by Rev. KJ Norris as part of the Lenten 2018 sermon series on Covenant. The following manuscript is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
As soon as you hear “Duh, Duh, du-duh… [Hear comes the Bride],” you know what to do. It’s ingrained in us as children from the very first wedding we attend. Perhaps we were dressed in a little white dress and were told to deliver flower petals down the isle. Or perhaps someone tied a tie around our neck for the very first time, or even clipped a tie to our shirt and then handed us a pillow with a couple of rings on top and told us how it important it is for us to not drop it. We all know that when we hear that musical cue, we should stand because the bride is about to walk down the isle.
But did you ever wonder where that tradition comes from? Why does the bride walk down the isle?
The tradition actually grew out of a Biblical tradition of Covenant. Though the way that Covenants are made in the Old Testament is actually much more gruesome than our modern day wedding celebration…
You see, if two people, or usually two groups of people, two tribes of the Ancient Near East, wanted to make an alliance to one another, they had a ritual for making it. They had a ritual for saying: I will come to your aid when you need me most. When you are in trouble, when death threatens you, I will come to your aid.
They would do something called Cutting a Covenant. They would take animals and they would cut them in two pieces. They would literally cut them down the middle. Then, the two people would walk through the dead animals. They would, as you might imagine, walk down the isle between the two halves of the animals.
This had a very important and symbolic meaning. It meant, if I ever break this alliance between me and you, let me be like these dead animals. If I ever break this covenant, if I ever refuse to come to your aid, may I be split down the middle. Yeah, gruesome isn’t it. Puts quite and image in your mind for the next time you see a bride walk down the isle.
This kind of alliance wasn’t just an agreement like we would say is a handshake agreement. It was something much more binding. These agreements, these contracts made in blood called Covenants were promises–the strongest kind of promise one could ever make to another. A promise that a person would rather die than break.
And today we are looking at one of the Covenants given in Scripture. One of the promises God makes to humankind. One of the binding agreements God is willing to make in blood.
It comes from the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, but truth be told, the story of God making this Covenant is not something we can realistically read together on a Sunday morning. The whole process starts in Genesis Chapter 12 and in many ways the story continues throughout the rest of Scripture and jumps right off the page into the rest of history and on to today. We see Abraham’s name used again and again in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Paul makes it clear that the Covenant God makes with Abraham is still alive and at work in those who have faith in Jesus Christ today.
Don’t worry, we are not going to start in Genesis 12 and read the whole rest of Scripture today but I would encourage you to go home and start at Genesis 12 and read at least to chapter 21 where Abraham finally has a son named Isaac. But for today, let’s take a look at a few things.
First, remember, it is back in Genesis 12 when God first calls Abram. (Read Gen 12:1-3). And Abram does as the Lord calls and goes. You can read in chapters 12, 13, 14 all the troubles Abram gets into as he seeks to follow after God. Anyone who says life gets easier when you start following the Lord God clearly has not read Genesis. For the vast majority of people following after God’s call, life is full of trials and tribulations.
But despite the challenges, God is still walking with Abram. And God calls Abram a second time in Chapter 15. Read 15:1, 5-6. At this point, Abram is an old man and sure that he cannot have natural children of his own, but God promises him descendents, promises him family, and even though this seems to be impossible, Abram believes God.
And it is here that God makes a Covenant with Abram. Let’s continue with verse 7. (Read 7-11). Okay, everyone got the image in their heads…now what do we expect to happen. (Both people walk through). BUT, that’s not what happens. Let’s pick it up in verse 17 (17-18a). What passes between the parts of the animal? A fire. Symbolically, God alone goes through the pieces of animal. God the God who will later appear in a burning bush, the God who is called a consuming fire, God the Holy Spirit who is represented as a tongue of fire. God walks through the animal, down the isle if you will, alone. God makes a Covenant with Abram and Abram doesn’t make it back.
Now this is weird. And I know it. Probably at this point you are thinking: “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t bring a guest today. Our Pastor is off the rails, talking about dead animals and God as fire. What have I gotten myself into.” I know. It’s odd. But it is so important. Why? Because God doesn’t change. And God’s promises are still alive and active in our world today. So we want to understand the promises, the binding Covenants God made with humanity so we can understand God’s work in us as well. So hang with me for one more minute.
Okay, so Abram gets ready to make a Covenant with God, and then when the moment comes, God alone makes a promise. And what is God’s promise? It’s the same promise that is given in Chapter 12 and made binding here in 15 and then restated in our Scripture for today in Chapter 17. God uses different words for it, but basically, it can be summarized as a blessing. From Genesis 17:7 we get a summary of the blessing (Read).
God promises to be God.
God promises to be with Abram.
And not just with Abram but with many generations after Abram. With as many people as we can possibly imagine, more than the number of the stars in the sky.
God promises God’s ownself to humanity.
God makes a binding agreement in blood to be with humanity. And those of you who have been around in the church for a while may realize that we are in the season of Lent. We are in a time of anticipating Jesus’ work in the cross. We are in a time of remembering another time when blood was spilled for all of humanity. This matters because God’s promises are still alive and at work today in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We can give praise and glory and honor to God because God did not just create humanity and then leave us to our own demise. God did not just recreate after the flood of Noah and then leave us to our own demise.
No, God, first covenanted with Noah to never again nearly destroy all of humanity. And then God went a step future. God promised to bind his ownself to humanity. God made an alliance with humanity. An alliance cut in blood. A covenant made where God promises to be God. To be bound to humanity. To come to our aid.
This is incredible stuff. And notice, God doesn’t expect Abram to make the Covenant back. It’s not mutual. Humanity cannot come to God’s rescue. That’s ridiculous. There is no way that humanity can keep Covenant with God. Who are we to make a promise to come to God’s aid? God doesn’t need our aid. But God, in God’s infinite love and grace, God chooses to make it with us anyway. God chooses humanity, even though God already knows that we are weak and frail. God already knows that we can be downright evil as we saw with Noah last week. But God promises to rescue humanity anyway. God cuts a Covenant.
This is only the beginning of Lent and Good Friday and Easter are coming so we will save some of the teaching about Jesus for then. But if you are hungry to spend some time in the New Testament this week, consider reading Galatians. It’s a really skinny letter in the New Testament, only 6 chapters, you could read one chapter a day and be done before church next week. In it, Paul is going to talk about this promise God made to Abram who God renames Abraham.
Paul says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings’, as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring’, that is, to one person, who is Christ.” So, this promise God makes to humanity, the New Testament explains, was always about what Christ was going to do. It was always about Jesus and Jesus’ work on the cross. And Galatians goes on, “faith has come…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
If the Lord Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, you are a child of God. This promise that God made to Abraham to be his God. It’s a promise to you as well through Jesus. You are no longer a human a drift left to your own devices, left in your own sin. Instead, you, like those dead animals of the Covenant ceremony have been killed. And you have been made alive in Christ. A totally new creation.
And that new creation gave you a new family. Not a family based on your family of origin or your social status in this life or your gender. A family that reaches beyond all of these earthly constraints. There is no division between people. In Christ, we are one family. The family of God. Praise the Lord.
Three points of application before we close today.
If you are holding on to something from the past. Something that you did. A sin you committed, or even an accident but the guilt of the circumstance binds you. Or something that happened to you, a way that you were sinned against. Let the guilt go. Confess whatever it is, give it to God, and recognize that you have been forgiven. God knew from the very beginning that we could not be perfect. God never expected that we could be. And so God provided a way for our salvation. God made it possible for us to know God despite our sinfulness. God made a way.
And you are part of a new family now. This is the season of Lent. If an old sin or a current sin is binding you, let it go. Give it to the Lord. Live as a new creation for that is what you are. And live a life of love to all humanity because there are no divisions in Christ.
Second application: Marriage. If you are married, remember walking down the isle. Okay, I know, only ladies walk down the isle traditionally. That’s a strange American version of this ceremony. Yes, you, too, men should consider that you made the covenant and walked down the isle, too. Symbolically walking between the two halves of the animal. Marriage is a Covenant. It too is a symbolic promise of death until you part. That’s what we say in our vows.
And if you are considering divorce, realize that divorce is a kind of death. Those of you who are in this room who are divorced as I myself am can testify to this. There is no easy divorce. It is a kind of death. Our marriage covenants are very serious and we should do everything in our power to keep them.
Now, we are not God. And while God establishes an everlasting covenant with us, we know that humans are sinful. God makes it clear in the Bible that God hates divorce. In Old Testament times in particular, if a man divorced his wife (and in that culture, women could not divorce men, it was only the men who had that power), if a man divorced his wife his wife would often end up on the street. She had no home, no income—jobs outside the home were rare for women—and basically would even up destitute. God hates this. That is very clear.
We need to keep our marriage vows and be faithful to them understanding the seriousness of covenant we make.
And, understand that our world is a broken place. If your marriage has become an unsafe place for you, that is not what God intends. God makes it clear that he hates violence. That’s why he sent the flood, right? Because people had become violent. That kind of behavior is not to be tolerated. And the Bible makes it clear that the tongue can be a weapon as well. Threatening speech is not the way of God.
If you are in a bad situation, come and talk to me or see a counselor or talk to a trusted friend. Marriage vows are serious. And so is your safety. You matter to God. You cannot stay in a situation where you, who are made in the very image of God, are in danger.
Or if you are feeling like you cannot control your anger. If you have forgotten that your marriage vow is a serious one where you pledged to give your life to your partner. If you find yourself trying to control him or her rather than giving yourself up for him or her, come talk to me or see a counselor. We are called to more in this life. We are called as a new creation. We are called to a new beginning in Christ.
Our marriage covenants are serious and we want to live into them in love. This takes practice and hard work and none of us will do it perfectly, but let us understand that we are called to love one another.
And third: If you are in a time of trial and tribulation. If you feel abandoned. If you feel like God’s promises in your life will never be fulfilled. If you keep praying and waiting, but nothing seems to happen. If that is you today, go back and read Abram’s story. Start in Chapter 12 and read all the way to the end.
Abram was loved by God. God made a promise to Abram that was bonded in blood. But that doesn’t mean that Abram, or Abraham even after the name change, had it easy. The journey of faith is not an easy one.
But it is not a journey that we have to live alone. You are a part of God’s family. You are bound to God. And we are bound to one another as God’s children. If you are having a hard time, don’t go it alone. You don’t need to. You have family. We are one church family. Share your struggles with one another and lean into one another. God has given us the promise of family.
A life lived with God. A life of blessing. A life that lives eternally. Let us rejoice in the God who keeps his promises.