A New Covenant
Genesis 15:1 – 21
A New Covenant
It’s OK to ask questions of God
God, Church & Me, is a group we run for new members here at Trinity. If you’ve joined us in the last few months, we’d love you to be part of the next one, which is being planned at the moment.
You can use that Green Communication Card to find out more about that, but God, Church & Me consists of some Bible Studies, and some discussion about the life of our church, and one of my favourite parts, is the Bible study question that asks, “What would your prayers sound like, if God were like:
A super-strict school headmaster?
A laid-back, friendly grandfather type who loved to spoil children?
Or C. A credit card company who constantly offered you a higher credit limit.
It’s just fascinating listening to people reflect on how their understanding of God, shapes their prayers, and in particular, what they ask for in prayer.
Because there’s no doubt is there, our understanding of what God is like, will influence what we ask of him, and how we ask it.
As Genesis 15 opens, Abram is living in the light of God’s promises, and yet, Abram can’t see how God’s promises can possibly come true.
Did you notice there in verse 2, he states what he sees as the problem, twice, Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
In all of the story so far, this is the first time that Abram speaks to God. And what are his first words? A question.
If you’re a parent, You probably remember your child’s first words, Probably something like “No” or “Mine!” I imagine,
But Abram opens with a question.
See he knows that his God, is a God who’s happy to take questions.
He’s not like a politician under pressure, that damage-control press conference, “I’ll read a statement but I’m not taking any questions!”
Abram’s understanding of God means he’s able to ask a question of clarification,
“How can I be the Father of this great nation, when I don’t even have a child?”
It was fairly common for couples with no children to adopt one of their servants, primarily to make sure you got a funeral and you got buried properly, but after that, they got your estate, sort of like an early version of the pre-paid funeral plan
And God, because he’s OK with people asking questions, and he wants Abram to understand the significance of his plan to bless all of humanity,
God confirms the promise, and as well as giving Abram some more of the picture.
A promise expanded
This man will not be your heir, God said, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
See if Abram ever wondered, in the years that followed, “Is God really going to keep his promise to make my descendents into a great nation?”, all he ever had to do was walk outside his tent at night, and look up at the stars, and remember how God was only too happy, to answer his question.
See we needn’t be afraid of asking God, for understanding,
Asking the “How can this be?” question?
“God, I don’t understand how I’m going to get from where I am now, to where you’ve promised I’ll get to,
Can you make that clear to me?
This isn’t the doubting question we sometimes hear, Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who is rebuked for doubting the word of God.
This is, “I believe, but, help me understand”.
Believing your way to a right relationship with God.
See the author makes it perfectly clear, Abram did believe.
Verse 6, Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Abram believed God and the promises of his Word.
When I was much, much younger, my evangelistic efforts, basically consisted of me asking people, “Do you believe in God?”
But that’s not really what Abram is commended for here, is it?
It’s not that he believes in God, but that he believes , God.
Probably all of you believe in me, even if we’ve never met!
For you to believe me when I speak, well that’s altogether different isn’t it?
Simply believing in me doesn’t bring us into relationship, does it?
But if you believe me, well there’s something for a relationship to be built upon.
And that’s exactly what is said about Abram. He believed the Lord, and God credited it to him as righteousness.
My dictionary, the New Bible Dictionary, if you have $24.95 go to Koorong and buy a copy, it is an excellent book to have on your shelf, the dictionary says The gift of God’s righteousness involves entry into the new realm of divine salvation,
That is, righteousness is about being in a right relationship with God.
Most people I know, think that the way to getting into a right relationship with God, or for God to think well of me, is by doing things.
Clayton served God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Clayton made sure he stayed away from really really bad behaviour, and God credited it to him as righteousness,
Clayton made sure that he lived a better life, than, well, let’s not name names, but, some other people that he knew, and God credited to him as righteousness.
My non-Christian friends think that’s what I spend my life doing, in order to gain righteousness.
So Asad, my friend who’s a Muslim, he thinks that God is going to weigh his works,
And if and only if, his good works , outweigh the bad, well then he will have righteousness, he will be acceptable to God.
And if you’re not a Christian, perhaps that’s how you think getting right with God works,
But also, for plenty of Christian people, while that might not be how we say it works, we sometimes live as if that is what living in a right relationship with God is like.
The, constant drive, to be involved, to do things, so that God might be pleased with me.
I’ll give financially,
I’ll turn up on Sundays, I’ll put my name on a roster, just to be sure that when I eventually face God, he’ll welcome me in.
Abram obeyed God, when told to leave his homeland, and God credited it to him as righteousness, ?
Abram was a much nicer guy, than the king of Sodom, and God credited it to him as righteousness?
No, Abram was just counted as righteous through his faith in God and God’s promises.
The original language has an ongoing emphasis. Abram believed, and kept believing, it wasn’t just a one-off.
At a high point in his life Abram believed,
After a great day in church one Sunday, Abram believed.
No, Abram believed, he continued to entrust his future and his relationship with his creator, to God, and not to his own efforts.
This verse is quoted in full 3 times in the New Testament. And the authors there take this statement about Abram, and they tell us that’s how it works for everybody. This is the way that any person at any time, can be considered right in God’s eyes.
Abram had just a few words from God to believe in.
Significant words, sure, but nothing like the full picture of exactly how a perfect God could make sinful imperfect people right in his eyes.
As we look back to the cross of Christ, we see exactly how God does it.
We see exactly what we need to believe: That we deserved what Jesus suffered, but that his standing in our place is enough.
And so that song, that we’ve resisted singing, each of these week’s, Father Abraham, had many sons, many sons had father Abraham, It might be the most annoying song in the world, but it’s absolutely true!
Since he is the model for a right relationship with God, he is presented in the New Testament, as the father of everyone, whom believes, in Jesus as God’s solution to the problem of sin.
Does that seem , hugely liberating? It’s supposed to be.
I don’t know if you’ve ever worked hard, to earn your way into someone’s good books? Some of us, I imagine, did it when we were trying to capture the attention of our future spouse!
How do I get them to think well of me?
How do I know how much is enough?
Some of you remember those , turbulent days!
Or in a completely different kind of scenario, I was speaking to a husband once, who had betrayed his wife’s trust, and love, and had almost completely destroyed that relationship, and he had set about trying to , well, earn his righteousness, prove his worth in that relationship again.
And do you know what he said?
He said “It is exhausting! I actually don’t know if I can do it”
He said, “It is consuming every ounce of energy in my being, to try and put things right, to appeal to her, to be acceptable to her again.”
Imagine trying to do that, to God.
Genesis 15 teaches us, it’s not about effort or works, but faith.
The great church reformer John Calvin wrote It appears that in all ages, Satan has laboured, at nothing more assiduously, unrelentingly , deliberately, Satan has laboured at nothing more assiduously, than to extinguish, or to smother this gracious assertion, righteousness coming by faith.
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
God’s covenant is not in response to faith
But even though Abram’s right standing before God is by faith, and nothing to do with his work or efforts, it’s important we realise that his relationship with God didn’t start with his faith.
Now, I may have just confused you! So let me put it a slightly different way, God’s covenant and promises are not made in response to Abram’s faith.
See we might read verse 6, Abram believed God, and then verse 9, God says, bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram and so on, and proceeds to make this covenant with Abram.
So, for all your Latin scholars, Post hoc ergo propter hoc right?, after it, therefore because of it?
Because the covenant is made after the declaration of Abram’s faith, is the covenant because of , Abram’s faith?
But if you’re looking carefully, you’ll see there’s a line there that it’s easy to skip over. Verse 7, doesn’t seem to add much to the story, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
But where did Abram’s relationship with God start? Not with his faith.
It started when God chose him, from among a family of idol-worshippers somewhere in southern Iraq.
The relationship starts with God’s gracious call, his election.
Before Abram has faith, God chooses him.
Before Abram hears God’s promises, God chooses him,
Before Abram obeyed, left his country, his people, his father’s household, chapter 12 verse 1, and started out for the Canaan,
God had chosen him,
God had made promises to him,
God had made this covenant of blessing with him.
And the promises of land and family we find here in Genesis 15, are not the first statement of these promises, so they don’t in fact come after Abram’s faith,
The relationship starts with God’s gracious call and election of Abram.
2000 years later, the Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Ephesus, says the exact same thing applies to all God’s people.
Which means that once again, we find Abram, although standing so long before Jesus, and looking forward, rather dimly, to how God’s promise to bless all the world through one of his descendents might work, despite the huge gulf between him and us, Abram is the model for God’s choice and election of his people.
Ephesians 1, For he, that’s God, he chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace,
Most of you, I know are Christians, you’re already in this kind of relationship with God. You’re trusting in the Word of God and the work of Christ, and some of you, I know, will be able to name the date on which you came to Christ.
So a friend of mine, 24th of May, was the day she came to Christ, 4 years ago. And this year she even made a cake to celebrate her “spiritual birthday.”
Some of you will be like that, you can name the date and the time.
Others of us, can’t quite put our finger on it.
Maybe it was a bit more of a process,
Or our parents brought us up as disciples of Jesus, there was never a time when we didn’t think of ourselves like that.
But none of us can actually point to the day, when the very first building blocks of our relationship with God were put into place, because just like Abram was chosen by God in a far-off land before he even knew who God was, God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world.
So it wasn’t Abram’s faith, that was the first step to a relationship with God.
It was God’s gracious choice and election.
God chose Abram because it pleased God to choose Abram.
He chose you because it pleased him to choose you.
A relationship with God starts , with God’s gracious choice, and is worked out, through the faithful living out of God’s promises.
God’s kind of covenant
And in the second half of this chapter we see this strange covenant ceremony, as God seeks to demonstrate to Abram, the seriousness he attaches to these promises.
God’s promises are “core-promises”
Do you remember the “non-core promises” of the 1996 Federal Election campaign? Well God wants to show that these promises are core promises. Of course all God’s promises are core promises, and one of the ways that he can show this to Abram, years before there’s any real fulfilment, is through this formal covenant ritual.
“How do I know I’ll get possession of this land?”
“Let me show you how sure you can be,” God says.
The last big covenant ceremony I was involved in was my wedding, That was 10 years ago. I had a quick look back through the photos to refresh my memory, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t any animals slaughtered down at Trinity City that day!
Apparently when Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were married in Bali in 1990 there was some sort of ritual like this, with chickens being slaughtered and stuff!
But in the ancient near east, this was the way an agreement or a covenant would be formalised.
Some animals would be cut in half, and the halves would be arranged in a bit of a pathway, and the two people, the two parties to the covenant, would walk down this little path, as they spoke the terms of the covenant.
The term used was “to cut a covenant”, because very literally, cutting was involved.
They obviously hadn’t yet invented the handshake or signing on the dotted line!
God’s covenant has consequences
But this covenant ceremony tells us a few important things about the covenant God made with Abram, an in fact the relationship with God that all people since Abram can have.
First of all, we see this covenant has consequences attached to it.
The point of cutting the animals in half, was to say “If I break the terms of this covenant, may what’s happened to these animals, happen to me!”
One ancient writer describing these rituals, observed: The fate of the animal is explicitly projected upon the violator.
In the book of Jeremiah, that prophet brings a message from God, who says, chapter 34 verse 18,
The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.
Taking part in this ritual says, If I am unfaithful, may I be broken like these animals are broken.
If I can’t hold up my end of this relationship, then let my life become like the life of these animals, snuffed out and gone.
What did you say as a kid when you wanted to underline the fact that you were telling the truth?
“Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”
We said stupid things when we were young, didn’t we?
But this is that same idea, just , magnified.
When such drastic promises are attached to the agreement, it really drives home the seriousness of the promises being made.
So imagine you strike a deal with your kids, if you’ve got kids in your household, they say they will do the dishes every day for a month, and you’ll buy them that new bike, or new Play Station or whatever it is.
And so to show just how serious we are about keeping our promises, let’s go and get Fluffy the cat, and the circular saw, and MEEEAAAOOW
I actually don’t mean to be , flippant about the lives of your family pets, but it would sort , raise the level of commitment somewhat wouldn’t it?
Let this happen to me, if I break my covenant pledge.
We’ll come back to that in a moment.
God’s covenant has a long time-frame
But there’s another good thing for us to learn from this covenant ceremony, and that’s that God’s covenant has a long time-frame.
Abram’s given the warning, It’s going to take a long time for these promises to be realised.
Verse 13, Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years, and then 16, In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
But it’s not kind of “set and forget”, God makes the promise, and then there’s just silence for thousands of years, before , out of the blue, suddenly he makes it all happen.
The way this promise works towards its fulfilment, is a bit like when you record a whole series of some TV show on your set top box.
You say “I want to record every episode of”, I was going to say The Simpsons, but none of us would watch that!, “I want to record every episode of Songs of Praise”, And so you get a little bit of what you’re waiting for this week, 11:30 Sunday morning, on ABC 1!
And you get a little bit more next week.
And then you get a slightly different version of the same thing the week later,
And as time goes on your understanding and appreciation of English cathedrals and organ music and whatever increases,
And so you see and know and appreciate much more than you did when you first started out.
Yes, it’s going to be a long time,
Yes, it will be 400 years until Abram’s descendants take possession of the Promised Land,
And yes, it will be another 1500 years or so until God’s greatest and final covenant will be confirmed, not with the bodies and blood of animals, but with the body and blood of Jesus,
But all the way along, God keeps revealing more of himself, and more of his plan, bringing partial fulfilment to his promises.
One of the significant steps in fulfilment of these promises, is the making of another covenant, between God and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
The language is such that we can’t miss the parallel, with that later partial fulfilment.
So God says, verse7, saying I am the Lord, Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans,
And then at Sinai, he speaks I am the Lord, Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt
The smoking firepot and the blazing torch of Genesis 15, are replaced with the fiery cloudy pillar of the Exodus,
In fact, the deep sleep, the dread, the darkness are all kind of famously attached to making of the covenant at Sinai.
And even that strange line in verse 11 where birds of prey come down, but Abram drove them away, again, that’s looking forward to those nations who would try to devour the people of Israel, but then it will be God who defends them, from those who would seek to do them harm.
This episode constantly drives our eyes forward,
This isn’t the end of the story.
God answers the question from Abram , “um, what am I going to do about kids?”, and he answers it in a way that says, “Look forward to what I’m going to do,
This is the beginning of the story, not the end.”
God’s covenant is unilateral
And so this little covenant ritual continues, and I’m sure you noticed as we read through it, that unlike how I described a typical covenant ritual, the two characters in this story, don’t walk down the covenant path together.
Verse 16, As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him
The New Revised Standard Version says there in verse 16 that “ a deep sleep fell on Abram”, and I once heard someone read that in church, and they accidentally read that “a dead sheep” , fell on Abram!
But that translation, a deep sleep fell on Abram, with Abram a bit more passive, is probably more helpful. It’s the same Hebrew word, as is used in Genesis 2 when God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, before taking one of his ribs to form Eve.
God is taking Abram out of the equation,
Because this covenant is a unilateral covenant.
Jump down to verse 17 with me When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
The firepot and the torch are symbols of God’s presence, like the smoke and fire at Sinai, and here, what do they do?
These symbols of God’s presence, walk the covenant path.
God, seals the deal on his own.
Abram doesn’t walk through the pieces, he doesn’t have any obligation to God to bring these promises to reality
See it’s all God.
Which means that the covenant consequences are also, all God.
By not walking through the covenant path, Abram doesn’t call upon himself the consequences, of breaking the covenant.
And you think, “hang on, surely there’s , at least 2 problems with that”!
One is, if we trust that God is reliable, then surely there’s no way that God would break his promise,
And secondly, how could God possibly be broken like the animals were broken?
Have his life snuffed out?
But since God , signs the deal, if you like, for both parties, he takes responsibility for the covenant failure of both parties.
That is, when Abram and his descendents disobey,
And demonstrate their lack of faith,
And try and take things into their own hands,
And then ultimately turn their backs on God altogether,
God says, well I made this unilateral covenant, and so I’ll take the consequence for your failures,
And instead of you being broken, like these animals, I’ll be broken.
And of course, it’s centuries later, when Jesus Christ, God come in the flesh, suffers exactly that, for the failure of Abram’s children, and all the people of the world, to live by faith in response to God’s Word.
Jesus’ death is very much a fulfilment of this covenant ritual.
A life sacrificed,
A body broken,
For our failure to live as God’s people.
“What would your prayers sound like, if God were A, B, and C?
Well, how does a God like this, shape the way you approach him?
How does a God who answers questions of faith in this way, How does that influence your life?
How does a God, who makes a covenant, and then keeps both sides of the bargain, because we have no hope of keeping ours,
How does a God like that shape your life?