2nd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18;
Luke 13:31-35; Phil 3:17-4:1
THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM AND SARAH:
WITNESSES TO THE JOURNEY OUT OF BLOOD SACRIFICE
The covenant that God makes with Abraham and Sarah is so important, so fundamental, that there are no less than three accounts. The first one comes in Genesis 12, as God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their own country and travel to a new land, where God will give them many descendants. The third instance is in Genesis 18, where God sends three messengers to re-iterate the promise of a son, since both Abraham and Sarah have gotten quite a bit older and are still childless. In today’s First Reading, from Genesis 15, we have perhaps the most official account of the covenant, the one that is not only a promise in word for many descendants and land but the one that is also sealed in blood. From early days of humankind, the most official way to “seal the deal” was to spill some blood — either through a few drops of blood from the contracting parties, or with a ritual blood sacrifice. Here, we have the latter, a pretty spectacular account of blood sacrifice.
I believe there’s a great irony with a blood sacrifice to seal this particular covenant, but let’s hold off on that a few minutes. First, let’s try to further understand this business of making covenants. We know about them because marriage is the most fundamental covenant in all human cultures. Why make a covenant to spend a life together with another human being? Since the dawn of our species, a main reason has been to care for children in a family, which continues to be true even though we have only in recent years diversified our understanding of what it means to be a married couple.
Another long-time reason for marriage covenants, one that is less true in recent cultures and generations, involves the politics of bringing two families together. At the top, princes were matched with princesses from other realms in order to facilitate peaceful relations between clans, tribes, and nations — in general, between cultures. Within a culture, there was seldom a mixing of classes, but arranged marriages was still quite common, especially in the upper classes. Wealthy families looked for matches with other wealthy families. Before the egalitarianism of our more recent cultures, marriage almost always had an element of bringing together two families within the same class.
But I think that the centrality of the covenant with God in the Bible has also had a lot to do with shaping our experience of covenants down through history to our own time and place, and so we also note the following benefit of covenants — illustrated through this story.
One of Ellen’s and my favorite movies is Shall We Dance?, with Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere as a middle-aged married couple. Between Ellen and I, she’s the one who loves to dance. In the movie, it’s Richard Gere. And he has trouble telling his wife that he misses dancing more. They are happily married, and it seems to him not right to complain about not dancing enough. But in his daily commute on the el-train, he constantly passes a dance studio for learning ballroom dancing. One day he walks in and signs up for classes on his own. Jennifer Lopez plays his teacher. Now, it’s crucial to know that their relationship stays completely proper. They don’t have an affair. But the unexplained time away from home begins to raise suspicions for Susan Sarandon’s character. The fact that he keeps it secret from his wife is the problem that eventually needs to get ironed out. She eventually becomes supportive of his ‘hobby’ and even joins in a bit. But there’s a scene along the way when Susan Sarandon’s character says something quite profound about the marriage covenant (which is one of the reasons why Ellen and I like this movie). She says this:
We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet. . . . I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things . . . all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.’
So let’s get back to God’s covenant with the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. What does God get out of it? Answer: People who are witnesses to God’s actions in the world. Not just one person for a lifetime, but generations of people for centuries and even millennia. Think of how often our Sunday morning readings from the Hebrew scriptures recount God’s mighty deeds on behalf of God’s people. They are witnesses to God’s faithfulness throughout all the ups and downs of Israel’s history as a nation.
But there’s more. We might ask, Why does God need witnesses? The answer, I believe, comes through reading the Hebrew scriptures holistically through the lens of Jesus the Messiah. God needs special witnesses because human beings have been a species who, since their very beginning, have been completely wrong about who God truly is. Before that covenant with Abraham and Sarah came centuries and millennia of human beings who thought that the gods, in their wrath, demanded blood sacrifice.
Here’s where we get to that great irony I mentioned at the outset. The Bible shows us the journey of the true God making a covenant with the people of Israel so that they might finally witness to the fact that God has never wanted blood sacrifice. Yet it begins, ironically, with a covenant solemnly sealed by blood sacrifice. As I said: humans had been wrong about the gods for centuries, so now it was going to take centuries more for God to correct the situation. It began with Abraham himself learning that God wanted them to stop human sacrifice, which was still commonly practiced. Abraham heard the false gods commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, but then he hears the voice of Yahweh at the end telling him to stop. The journey of witnessing God’s life with God’s people continued with a shift to the Torah, the Law, as a new center to gradually replace blood sacrifice. It picked up steam with all the prophets who began to proclaim that God doesn’t want sacrifice but instead — as the prophet Micah put it — God requires doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
Finally, it came to full revelation in the cross of Jesus, who let himself become victim to our sacrificial rut. As John the Baptist proclaimed, and we sing on Communion Sundays, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the sin of thinking God wants blood sacrifice. And on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us something in its place. Instead of sacrificing living beings on an altar, or hanging them on crosses, we eat a meal together of bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus giving his body and shedding his blood for us, so that it might be the last sacrifice — a self-sacrifice that turns into sacrament. Followers of Jesus finally fulfill the covenant made to Abraham and Sarah by witnessing to a God who submits to our sacrifice rather than demanding us to sacrifice others. Followers of Jesus become the first known worshipers of God to cease blood sacrifice altogether. Period. Stop. Done.
Two centuries later, now that religions rarely practice blood sacrifice anymore, we have turned that impulse into other things — like the current war in Ukraine. We sacrifice others with our weapons of terrifying destruction. And the gods of war continue to be the same old gods of ancient sacrifice — namely, gods who command a sacred, sanctioned violence in order to stop our enemies. Implied in today’s Gospel Reading is that Jesus’ own Jewish people continued to want a lion to take care of the fox Herod or the eagle Rome, and instead he gave them a mother hen who sacrifices herself to protect her children. Christians over the centuries, I’m very sorry to say, have not done significantly better. We’ve lapsed back into worshiping those same gods of violence. At times of war, we want a lion god who helps us win, not a hen.
We’ve even fallen into interpreting the cross in order to justify our gods of violence. On Wednesday nights, we are unpacking the wrongness of the popular atonement theory of the cross which first became popular in the Twelve Century as Christians were about to embark on the First Crusade. That’s not a coincidence. Please join us on Wednesdays as we seek to get the original meaning of the cross correct, as God’s full revelation of the wrongness of our sacrificial violence. We’re taking our time over a number of weeks to ponder the deep wisdom of the cross as that which frees us from our dependence on violence
What we can take away this morning is the overall importance of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. I believe that the long biblical journey is all about a God of love who needs to break through humankind’s insistence on gods of violence. God needs witnesses. God needs those who carry on the witness of God’s Messiah submitting to our violence in order to forgive it and to turn it into love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 13, 2022