The Covenant

Sermon preached at St James the Great, Colwall on Bible Sunday, 27 October 2013

Luke 4. 16-24

I’m helping a friend to sell her house and am fascinated by the legal language of the documents I’m reading. There are lots of bits about covenants, and it struck me as odd that these were all restrictive covenants, so the poor owner is not allowed to erect advertising hoardings in her front garden! But that’s not what I associate with the word covenant. We’ve probably all entered into covenants of a much more important type than those restrictive ones. If you are married or have been married, if you’re in a civil partnership, or in a less formal but long-term friendship, then you know about covenant in that fuller sense. If you have children or were fortunate enough to have had loving parents, then you know about covenant. And, as is the way of things, many of us know about broken covenants. Maybe you have broken your covenant with an important person in your life, or perhaps that person broke the covenant with you. Either way, you will know what pain follows on the breaking of a covenant. Were you able to repair it? Sometimes you can, sometimes the break is seemingly irreparable.

That snippet of St Luke’s gospel I read just now today describes in short compass a dramatic event to do with the keeping or breaking of a covenant. For the author, the event he describes has two faces. On the one hand it described the opening of the public ministry of Jesus, an itinerant Jewish teacher whom today two billion people regard as not only a memorable man but the son of God. Well, that’s one view, certainly a traditional Christian view.

But there is another, equally orthodox, view of this story. It is, in short compass, the story of a tragedy of global significance. For its author, Luke, it marked a terrible turning point in the history of God and God’s covenant relationship with God’s people.

Much of that history is to be found in the Bible. Have you looked at your Bible? looked perhaps at the Contents page? It’s a book the size of an American novel and most of it is made up of what the compilers called the Old Testament, or, sometimes and with only a little inaccuracy, the Jewish Bible. This Old Testament, together with some intertestamental documents which Christians call The Apocrypha, is an account on one theme. That theme is the covenant between God and God’s people: how it started, how it was established, how it has been repeatedly broken from the human side and always repaired from the divine side. It takes up about nine tenths of this bulky volume.

Then comes the New Testament, and that again has a single main theme. The New Testament presents Jesus as a continuation, a renewal and a fulfilment of all that precedes it in the Old Testament. In the New Testament as in the Old, there are a number of different types of literature – principally the four gospels focussing mainly on the character and person of Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection; and the epistles, some of which are letters supporting new church groups, others of which are books of theological discussion.

But for the writers of the New Testament, there is a major underlying question. If, as they – and we – believe, Jesus represents a turning point in the long story of God and people, what should these writers make of God’s covenant? The major question underlying the New Testament is this: what happened to God’s relationship of promise with the Jewish people? Again and again, the question is asked: does Jesus mark the end of God’s covenant with the Jews? Or does he renew, refresh, and extend that same covenant to the rest of the world – to the goyim, the gentiles.

If you argue that this is a new covenant – as we say it is in today’s Eucharist (this is my blood of the New Covenant) – what are we to make of the old covenant? That was the tragic moment that Luke faced as he wrote today’s gospel text. The Jews of Jesus’ day had not recognised Jesus as the fulfilment of the covenant, the next chapter in God’s intimate relationship with God’s people. They rejected him. Did God then reject them? Christian history is full of people who believe that God did reject them. It is a dangerous road to travel. It has led for two millennia to anti-semitism and ultimately to the Holocaust. This rejection was what Luke feared, Paul feared (read especially his epistle to the Romans, the first fully worked book of theology in Christian history).

It’s not just a question of does God have favourites. It’s more fundamental than that. To this day, Jews believe that God cannot contradict God, and that the covenant once made will stand for ever (even through the Holocaust) and God cannot renounce it and still remain God. This memorable pact was sealed with the sign of the rainbow after the great flood receded and Noah survived. However, the Jewish prophets warned that the covenant has two sides, and if God’s people break their side of it, there are consequences which can be terrible. God operates by endless, generous gifts of love; but if you break the covenant, you can put yourself out of that loving relationship, to your great loss.

Christians, or at least most Christians, take a different view. We acknowledge Jews as God’s own people and ourselves as relative newcomers to God’s covenant. That covenant was renewed in Jesus, refreshed and, most of all, extended. When those Jews in Nazareth rejected Jesus, they could only see him as one of their own, respected initially and perhaps the object of local pride, but with ideas far above his station. So much was that so that they drove him out of the town and some even wanted to kill him for his claim to represent the fulfilment of that special relationship with God.

Most Christians nowadays take the view that the covenant with God has been extended to all people: all are welcome for all are God’s children and all can enter the covenant relationship. That’s what the Bible promises us. Of course, many people will refuse the offer, not recognise it for what it is. Muslims, for example, have a profound respect for Jesus as God’s prophet, but do not recognise the invitation to that covenant relationship so central to Jesus’ ministry, but have other ways of characterising the direct, loving relationship of God with those who serve God. Hindus, for another example, revere Jesus as a great teacher inspired by God. Indeed, one of their own great teachers of the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi, based much of his teaching about non-violent opposition to human wickedness on the teaching of Jesus, but they do not see Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love for God’s creation.

Today we are observing Bible Sunday. We keep it to mark our celebration of, our joy in, a great resource of our faith for our daily lives. It is the story of God’s relationship with God’s people, of whom we are only a few in this place and at this time. But we are part of a mass of humanity and of God’s wider creation whose story goes back at least to the origins of our universe and which stretches out beyond time and space into the everlasting arms of God.