UPDATING THE COVENANT

August 4, 2019

Deuteronomy 5:1-6

On numerous occasions I have stood before two people and asked them a set of questions: “Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?” Then I have turned to the other and asked essentially the same question: “Will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage?

You have probably heard such words many times, maybe you have even heard them addressed to you. These are the first words that a clergyperson speaks directly to the bridal couple at a wedding ceremony. Thereafter the celebrant will ask the couple to hold hands, exchange vows, and exchange rings. Then the celebrant declares that they are wed. Through speaking a few words and performing a few simple movements, the couple is bound together in the covenant of marriage.

How remarkable that such a simple and brief ceremony has such a powerful impact. Two people, who were in the past strangers, hereafter will be kin in the eyes of the state, in the eyes of the church, in the eyes of their neighbors and families, and in eyes of God. Such a change seems magical. On one level, magical in the sense of being so wonderful that people are moved to tears, even couples that have been living together for years choke up when they say their vows. And the ceremony is magical in a deeper sense because, through simply saying a few words, something comes into existence that had not been there before. Often I feel like a magician when I perform a wedding, because I say some hocus-pocus, and then presto, I produce a marriage out of thin air. A few words bring something new into existence.

Thereafter the couple is bound together, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Their well-being and their misery are bound up with one another. Your dreams become mine. My struggles become yours. Your successes affect me. My failures affect you. I have expectations for how you treat me and you have expectations for how I treat you. Living in this magically created covenant of marriage puts people at risk, for hereafter what one does will affect the other.

That is how a covenant works: it magically creates a bond, through simply a few words, between two sides so that what one side does affects the other. That is why we spell out expectations for those entering the covenant of marriage: they must promise “to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.” Because what one side does so invariably affects the other, that both sides need to spell out their expectations, such as their game plan for arguing, their roles in parenting, their strategies for handling money. Covenants carry obligations and duties because once bonded together, what one side does invariably affects the other.

A long, long time ago, more than three thousand years ago, the great emancipator Moses officiated at a covenant swearing-in ceremony between the great LORD and a caravan of Hebrew refugees. As we heard from Deuteronomy 5:2-6, Moses recounted that the LORD had made a covenant with the Hebrew people some forty years earlier beside Mount Horeb. Ceremonies for making covenants back at that time were more elaborate than what we practice at weddings (although some weddings can be quite elaborate), but the basic ingredients for a traditional wedding and the basic ingredients for an ancient covenant ceremony were somewhat the same.

A clergyperson or justice of the peace officiates at a wedding ceremony, asking the parties if they gave consent, if they genuinely want to live together in the covenant of marriage. Moses, acting as the celebrant, asked the Hebrews if they wanted to live in covenant partnership with the LORD, and they voiced their consent. To celebrate a wedding, the bridal party and even the guests dress up in fancy clothes, then celebrate at elaborate receptions. To celebrate the ceremony creating the covenant between the LORD and the Hebrews, the people likewise dressed up in fancy clothes and the LORD put on a fireworks display.

As part of the wedding ceremony, the couple recites their vows, spelling out what expectations they have for one another. As part of their covenant ceremony, then the LORD spelled out some expectations, spelled out what vows the Hebrew people should perform if they wanted to live in harmony with the LORD. In our weddings, through simply speaking some words and performing a few simple movements, two parties are bound together in a covenant of marriage, likewise in this case, the LORD and the Hebrews were bound together in a covenant.

We’ve seen the magic occur many times. Two people, once strangers, become kin in a new covenant of marriage. But no one had seen this sleight of hand before between a deity and humanity. For never before in the recorded history of the Middle East had a deity made a covenant with a group of people. People had made covenants with one another, nations had made covenants with one another, a deity had even made a covenant with an individual, but no one had seen a covenant between a deity and a group of people. This covenant that Moses mediated was unprecedented.

Hereafter the LORD could say to the Hebrews, “You are my people.” And hereafter the Hebrews could say to the LORD, “You are our God.”

Thereafter the two were bound together, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Their well-being and their misery were bound up with one another. The Hebrews had expectations for how the LORD would treat them and the LORD had expectations for how they treated their God. Living in this uniquely created covenant put them both at risk, for hereafter what one did would affect the other.

That is how a covenant works: it magically creates a bond, through simply a few words, between two sides so that what one side does affects the other. That is why we spell out expectations for those entering the covenant of marriage: they must promise “to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.” That is why the LORD spelled out expectations for the Hebrews, detailed expectations on how to dress, how to raise their children, how to treat their elderly parents, how to get along with their neighbors, how to observe holidays. Covenants carry obligations and duties because once bonded together, what one side does invariably affects the other.

In the covenant of marriage, when one spouse receives a commendation at work, the other is pleased. When one spouse speaks out of turn, the other suffers. So naturally, when the Hebrews honored the relationship by keeping their obligations, the LORD was pleased. When the Hebrews abused the relationship by reneging on their obligations, the LORD got angry.

Covenants carry obligations and duties because once bonded together, what one side does invariably affects the other. A partnership between the Hebrews and the LORD made both sides bear a tremendous responsibility, put both sides at tremendous risk.

A long time ago, some two thousand years ago, the itinerant preacher Jesus officiated at a covenant swearing-in ceremony. Compared to the two covenant ceremonies we have considered thus far, his ceremony creating a covenant may sound peculiar.

As we read in Luke 22, Jesus hosted a meal for his closest twelve friends. During the meal he took a loaf of bread, offered a prayer of thanks to God for it, and then handed it out to his friends, saying, “This is my body which will be given for you. Do this to remember me.” After the meal, he proposed a toast. Holding up his glass of wine, he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

The ceremony was peculiar because only one party, Jesus, spoke. Normally both parties have something to say, even if only to day, “I do.” When Jesus performed the ceremony, the other party, meaning the twelve dinner guests, did not voice their consent. Jesus created the bond at his own initiative without asking for their approval.

In other ways this ceremony creating a covenant was similar to what we know about covenants from marriages and from the covenant between the LORD and the Hebrews, and in some ways the ceremony and covenant Jesus created was different.

All three ceremonies were similar in that the person officiating simply used words and simple actions to create a covenant. At weddings currently, the clergyperson and the couple speak and the couple exchanges rings. More than three thousand years ago, the LORD, Moses, and the crowd of Hebrews spoke. Two thousand years ago Jesus spoke and passed along some bread and drinks.

In all three venues, words suffice to create something new, a new bond, a new relationship. Greater than a magical incantation or wand springing a rabbit out of a hat, words somehow bring to life what had not existed before. Works can make fiction into fact. Words somehow suffice to create a covenant. What an amazing power words have. They can create friends, as well as create enemies. They can create kinship as well as dissolve families. Words can bring to life or crush to death. They have more power than we realize.

I marvel when I officiate at communion that by speaking words I somehow “conjure” up the presence of Christ. What I say as your pastor somehow changes eating these bite size pieces of bread and drinking these small drinks into a holy, sacred occasion. There is some remarkable power in speaking words that change this occasion from an exchange of hors d’oeuvres into a moving, sacred event. The mystery and power of words astound me and frighten me, for what we say has more power than we realize to affect others.

In all three ceremonies, words created a new bond, a new covenant. Words spoken at a wedding place two people into a covenant of marriage. Words spoken at the mountain placed the LORD and the Hebrew people into a covenant partnership. Words at the supper table placed Jesus and his friends, ultimately included all his friends, meaning us as well, into a covenant bond with him.

A covenant creates a bond between two sides so that what one side does affects the other. In the covenant bond of marriage, what one spouse says and does affects the other, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. In that ancient covenant bond that Moses officiated, what the Hebrews did affected the LORD’s temperament, sometimes provoking divine anger to lash out, sometimes provoking divine intervention to help. In the covenant Jesus created between his followers and him, what Jesus did affects us and what we do affects Jesus.

It is relatively easy to see how we affect Jesus. As he said, what his followers did affected him so much that he suffered a broken body and poured out his lifeblood for them. Jesus literally bleeds for us. He became what we are, feeble and mortal.

One way Jesus affects us is that by giving his lifeblood and utmost devotion toward us, Jesus prompts us likewise to give what we have to others. As he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” When I recall how much Jesus loves me, loves all, I am prompted to reconsider how I make decisions about whom or how to help.

We sing, “Jesus loves all the children of the world. Red, and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” Since Jesus loves people of all colors and races, we are to do likewise. And to that list we could rightly add others: “Jesus loves the little children. Straight and gay, transgender or queer, English speaking or Spanish speaking, from far or near, all are precious in his sight.” Since that is the way Jesus loved, I and we are to do likewise.

Being in covenant with my wife means that in my best moments when I decide what to do or say, I take into consideration how I will affect her. Being in covenant bond with my wife means that in my worst moments what I say or do affects her. Lisa and I accepted that implication of a covenant bond when we wed forty-one years ago.

Being in covenant with Jesus means that in my best moments when I decide what to do or say, I take into consideration how I will affect him. Being in covenant bond with Jesus means that in my worst moments what I say or do affects him. We affirm that reciprocal feature of a covenant bond whenever we eat and drink what is on this table. Here we see how we have affected him. This week we will see how he has affected us.