“Unsure of the Covenant”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, March 17, 2019, SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
Text: Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35; Genesis 15:1-18
It’s an interesting, if ultimately unanswerable, question to ponder , just exactly how much the human Jesus understood of what God was doing with and in Him. Different of the gospels seems to indicate different degrees of such an understanding. In John, for instance, Jesus seems to be much more aware of exactly what is going on and why, appearing to have a pretty much God’s-eye view of everything that happens to Him. On the other hand, in the Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that awareness is more limited—while He is aware that He is doing God’s work and will, the specifics whys and hows are not always clear to His human mind—He freely admits at times that what the Father will ultimately do, as with the final judgment, for instance, is not information to which He has access. I tend more to the latter view, that His perception of what the future holds for Him and what God is and will be doing through Him is always somewhat mixed—as God incarnate, as the full and only begotten Son of the Father through the Christ of God that dwells in Him, He is at one hand fully God with at least some understanding of the will of God for Him. Yet as also fully human, fully us, knowing the full end game of God may not always be His prerogative—He may wonder about it—He may even, at times, when He is at His most human, doubt it, unsure of whether God’s intentions for Him are going to work out.
Whether this is the case for Jesus or not, it is certainly so of Abraham—fully human and not at all fully God—he undoubtedly has those times of doubt and lack of assurance, one of which we are given full view of in Genesis 15. From the beginning of the story of Abram and Sarai, later on Abraham and Sarah, God has made promises to them—has assured them that they are the receivers, by God’s grace, of His covenant. But they’re not always so positive on this point. For part of that covenant includes the promise of many children—of their becoming the parents of a great family, even a great nation with a great name. They are, however, at the time of Genesis 15, three chapters and a number of years later, still without one child let alone many. And Abraham is beginning to wonder.
Some parts of God’s word to them have come to pass just as God said. He and Sarah have prospered and done very well as regards material goods under God’s blessing. But the ultimate disposition of those material goods after their death is still a question to Abraham, yet Abram, as God addresses him at the start of chapter 15—“Abram, I am your shield—your reward shall be very great.” Of this, Abram, is not in doubt, for God has already shown this much to be fact. What he wonders about though, as he ponders aloud to God, is the identity of the inheritor of his reward—“But, O Lord God, what will You give me, for I continue childless?—the heir of my house who will get all our goods is a servant in my retinue, Eliezer of Damascus.” And God responds to Abram’s questioning with a clear answer—it will not be any servant, God assures, but a child directly from Sarah who will be the inheritor. And to drive home this point, Abram is taken outside under the skies for an object lesson. “See all those stars?” God asks Abram. “Can you count them,” a rhetorical question which demands an obvious answer of “no” from Abram. “Well, that’s how many children will be descendants to you,” says God—
“I promise.” And for the moment at least, Abram is convinced—in a verse later alluded to by Paul, “Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Bu then God goes on with more promise, and once again Abram falls behind. “I am the LORD your God,” God asserts, “who called you here out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and I will give you this land to possess.” To which Abram asks point blank, “But LORD, how will I know that for sure?” And God, in answer, does a very remarkable thing—He pledges the divine Self as guarantee.
The ritual described being performed by God in Genesis 15 seems to most scholars to be a kind of covenant-binding ceremony. As shown, a number of sacrificially-appropriate animals, birds and mammals, are either sacrificed in pairs for the smaller, or killed and cut in half for the larger. Then the pairs and the body halves are laid out in a line with a path between the bodies and body parts. The one making the promise then walks up through that sacrifice-created pathway, and by doing so, swears him or herself to what is promised. If it is not done, scholars again assume, the promising one is saying, in essence, “Let me be like these sacrifices—split apart—killed—sacrificed myself for the covenantal incompletion.” And what is remarkable about this particular ceremony as it is described, as Abram makes the sacrifices and creates the path and the line, and then goes into a dark, terrifying vision of future revelation, is that the One who walks the path in this case, unseen but for a “smoking firepot and a flaming torch” is God—it is God who swears to this covenantal promise on the guarantee of the divine Self. “Such shall it be for your descendants and this land,” God promises, and then seals with the collateral of God’s own life.
Abram received quite the guarantee against his own doubts—if he had been unsure of God’s covenant—as later events will show that he still is, at least a little, the stars above him and the sealing ritual are provided to and should be enough to bring him to certainty. Abram gets a lot to calm and assure his unsure mind. Jesus, however, as He makes His way toward Jerusalem where either He knows or suspects He will be in danger receives no such assurances.
Toward the end of chapter 9 in Luke we read that “when the days drew near for Him to be taken up, Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Whether He would face danger there or not—whether He knew He would face death there or not, He went nonetheless. So, chapter 13 is set in the context of events taking place along that pathway as Jesus comes closer to what will be His final Passover in Jerusalem. And one of them, as He is traveling, is a meeting up with a group of Pharisees, typically no friends of Jesus, who warn Him to stay away from Jerusalem for “Herod wants to kill You.” Now it’s not necessarily the case that these are hostile Pharisees—there were some, like Nicodemus, who felt a sympathy for and even an attraction to Jesus. But we’re not sure. Perhaps their warning is not so much driven by care as by a desire to keep Jesus the troublemaker away from their home territory. Or perhaps, as one commentator has suggested, they are even taunting Him a bit. At any rate, Jesus seems to perceive their warning to be less than sincere as He responds by telling them to take a message back to Herod with whom they may be in league. “Tell that old fox,”—no compliment this, but a pointed insult—“tell Herod this—’Listen—I am casting out demons and performing cures today, tomorrow, and only on the third day will I finish.’”—in other words, “I can’t waste time thinking about Herod. I have work to complete And when I am done with that,” Jesus continues, “I will head to Jerusalem to meet whatever I meet there.” But it doesn’t seem likely that He expects His reception to be too good describing the city as He does— “Jerusalem who kills the prophets and stones those sent to it by God.”
And then, seemingly caught up in emotion, Jesus cries out a lament—“Jerusalem, Jerusalem—How often I wanted to gather you under my wings like a hen does her chicks, but you would have none of it. So you are left to your fate, you and your house. And until you are ready to say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, you will not see Me.” Which is not entirely true, at least not literally. Jerusalem and its leaders, and influenced by its leaders, its people, will see Jesus come with physical eyes, but not with spiritual ones—they will not see Him well enough to accept Him as the One whose coming is blessed by God.
Now it is usually assumed by commentators, and is certainly true here that, at least in part, Jesus’ cry of lament shows His pained pity for Jerusalem and its inhabitants, the city and its blindness and the hurt they will suffer for it—He weeps for them. But one also has to wonder just a little bit here, if Jesus is also feeling a little pain for Himself—a little confusion. Is Jesus here perhaps beginning to second-guess the likely end of His trip to Jerusalem, as well as the fate of His mission for God? Has He begun here to doubt the likelihood that the plan of God, of which He thought He was the Deliverer, can be achieved? Jesus does seem to have had, in all the gospel accounts, the belief that He was the Messiah promised by God, the One God had sent to bring the divine covenant to fruition for humanity and all creation. What He may not have known was exactly how that would work. And here perhaps Jesus is beginning to wonder, “Will it work? And will it work through Me? Am I really the Messiah? And if so, is God going to see Me through?”
The idea that God would send a Messiah was not accepted by all Jews, and even those who accepted the idea disagreed on what that Messiah would be like or do. But one thing was pretty much assumed by any those who did expect a messianic appearance of some sort—that the Messiah would be a victor. There was no one looking, as far as we know, for a suffering Messiah. And although Jesus seems to have told His followers that He would have to suffer, did He really understand Himself how that would all work out to the good? He knew that among God’s desires was the reclamation of Israel for God. Then how in the world was that going to happen if Jerusalem, the capitol of Israel, refused Him? Did Jesus wonder, as He lamented that Israel would never see Him until they welcomed the One blessed in the name of the LORD, whether that would ever happen, or was He unsure enough about it to fear that all He had done would come to nothing, that God would desert Him and let the covenantal plan for Him and the world come to nothing?
We don’t know. We don’t know for sure exactly how either Jesus or Abram, yet to be Abraham, felt at any given moment or whether they might have been plagued by an unsure confidence in God’s covenant with them. We aren’t given access to their thoughts—all we see are their actions. What we see in Abram’s, despite God’s graphic assurances and the self-vowing rite, is that even after all this there was still enough doubt to make him attempt on his own, in his own wisdom and that of his wife Sarai, the accomplishment of what he was afraid God had failed to do, attempting to provide a son for himself by his wife’s servant, Hagar. And that didn’t work out well. This, of course, is what we always tend to do if we start to feel that we can’t really trust God to really be God. If we can’t trust God to protect us, we will protect ourselves, using whatever tactics we might come up with, blessed by God or otherwise. If we don’t feel that God will bring about justice, we go after it ourselves, sometimes becoming just as unjust in our seeking as those we act against, fire fighting fire and igniting a firestorm. If we don’t feel that God will honor His covenant with us, we will seek to make covenants with other powers and gods, and so doing become blind to God’s active presence where it is and insensitive to God speaking to us when He does. Like all humans do sometimes, Abram to be Abraham fell prey to this temptation, seeking to do what he was afraid God wouldn’t do by means that were less than wise. But fortunately for him and for Sarah and for us, God did not ever doubt His own covenant nor give up on erring humans.
And as for Jesus, even when He might have wondered, might have feared that the Father had given up on Him, had failed to honor what had been said before, “This is My Son, the Beloved in whom I am well –pleased,” Jesus did not give in to His fears. He certainly could have. As He looked at Jerusalem in pain, He could have chosen a road to walk which was less painful, but also not the way of God. When on the cross, crying pain “My God, My God,” He could have chosen to forget the plan, forget the covenant , and lash out in anger and hate at those who tortured Him and killed Him. But He did not. As He did not give in to temptation in the desert, or at the cross, He did not give in while on the road. Rather, although sometimes unsure of what God was doing in Him, Jesus chose to believe with the psalmist that “He will hide Me in His shelter on the day of trouble—God will lift up My head above My enemies—if mother and father and friends forsake Me, God will lift Me up, and I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
And because He did—went to Jerusalem, even unsure of the plan, but trusting surely in God, He became for us the self-giving of God for our salvation. In Him, the assurance of God’s presence was guaranteed, not through a sacrificial ritual involving birds and rams, but in the cross of God’s Son. For it is in Him, that we are promised—and in Him that the promises are sealed.
Not that we will still always be sure. Not that we will still always be confident, and certainly not that we will ever always understand everything going on about us and in us. We will be sorely tempted as were Abraham and Sarah, and as was Jesus to forsake the path and go our own way, secure ourselves by our own means, interact with the world in our own broken wisdom and fragmented strength. If we do, we will go wrong, although God may well bring us back. But if we refuse with Jesus to let loose of
covenant –faith, the faith for which He has become our Rock, we will be able with the psalmist to “Wait for the Lord—be strong and take courage! Wait for the Lord!” And the One who came in the name of the Lord will carry us into Jerusalem and through it, God’s sure sign and seal that we will see, come what may, the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. +++