Gen 12: 1-9
John 8: 51-59
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Tonight’s readings tell of two promises made by God. The first, from the Old Testament, is to Abraham where God promises; ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you’ after you ‘leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. In the second reading from John’s Gospel in the New Testament we have a promise from Jesus that; ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death’.
These are two wonderful promises from God but what is the difference between a promise and a covenant? We had a lively discussion about this very subject at last week’s meeting of the ‘Lent Course’ and it got me thinking. Covenant is a word rarely used these days in day to day conversation, out side of the legal profession or by students of theology. Unless you discover there is a legalistic covenant placed on your property or you read your Bible, you will rarely run into the word these days. And that’s a shame because there is a great difference between a promise and a covenant and that difference is hugely significant to us as Christians.
First of all let’s look at a promise. If you look on any bank note you will see a very good example of a promise. It says; ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of’ – the value of the bank note. It is a simple contract between the bearer and the Bank of England. It is a contract but it’s not a covenant. So what is it that makes this a contract and not a covenant? For a start it is emotionless! A covenant is much more and I believe that emotions and especially love in an essential part of the Biblical meaning of the word covenant.
Now lets look at what happens to two people when they fall in love! First of all a relationship is formed, eyes meet across a crowded room, a bond is established, and if allowed, the relationship will grow and flourish. Before the altar vows and promises are exchanged. But that isn’t the end. In time the relationship grows and matures between the partners as their faith and trust in each other becomes an ever deepening love for each other. A love that can put up with the differences between the two individuals and that can survive the tests and tribulations that life throws in their faces, a love that will stand the test of time. In the biblical sense of the word a ‘Covenant’ has been formed between them. So you can see that a covenant is so much more than a promise to ‘pay the bearer on demand’. It is the sum total of many things, but its main ingredients are trust born of faith and love.
So to deepen our understanding lets take a closer look at that intangible ingredient faith. Faith is defined in the Letter to the Hebrews as ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. I like the translation from the ‘Good News Bible’ which translates those words like this: ‘To have faith is to be sure of things we hope for; to be certain of things we cannot see’. I am afraid modern science, with all the blessings it has bought us, has done us a disservice also, by muddying the water with how we look at the word truth. In popular science, we are told that a thing can’t be called true unless you can see it, measure it and prove its existence by logic and controlled experiment. That just does not tell the whole story, many scientific theories are believed because they are the most reasonable explanation of our observations, though it may be a practical impossibility to ever prove. To us mere mortals try asking our two lovers for an inductive proof of their love for each other. No, we believe many things to be true because we have faith in and trust the person who tells us so.
Just as there two sorts of belief – believing that and believing in – there are two sorts of faith. The first is ‘the Christian faith’, the collection of teachings which are the official belief of the Church, found in the creeds and based on the Scriptures. We believe that they are true. The second sort of faith is ‘faith in God’, which is a relationship. When somebody believes that Jesus is trustworthy, they can surrender their lives to Him in faith and trust. It’s not necessary to understand all the teachings of the creeds and scriptures before coming to faith. But if we can learn to trust Jesus then we will come to believe that He would never willingly mislead us, and enter into our own covenant with him. Jesus said:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’
If you trust Jesus, you can be sure that the afterlife, which He promised us and that we hope for, really does exist; that what He told us about God His Father and the Kingdom of God really are true, even though we can’t see them with our own eyes yet. ‘To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.’ Now there are many things in life that we can’t prove. On some of them you can keep an open mind, but on others you need to come to a decision. You can’t prove that your partner loves you; you can’t prove that honesty is the best policy; but on the evidence before you, the probability is that these things are true. So you weigh up the probability, plump for the most likely alternative, and act on it. We call this a ‘leap of faith’ – it’s something every couple does when they decide to spend the rest of their lives together. Faith doesn’t mean certainty; faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. It’s not a question of proofs; it’s a relationship of trust in the unseen – a covenant.
‘We live by faith, not by sight,’ said St Paul. Your eyes will show you that the world is a wonderful place; but only faith will show you that God loves you. Pray for faith, then trust God and make ‘the leap of faith’ by believing in Him and His covenant with us. Remember how lucky are we that God enters such a relationship with us, and every day in that knowledge, step out in faith to serve God and your neighbour.