12.24.2017 Preaching Text: “[According] to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed…” (Romans 16:25-26)
The theme that stands out in our readings this morning is a prominent feature of biblical theology, yet one ignored by many modern-day Christians.
It has to do with covenant. A covenant, biblically speaking, is like a contract, but different. It’s analogous to the kinds of pacts found in the ancient Near East whereby a powerful king would enter into an agreement with a lesser power to protect them and provide for their welfare.
In return, the lesser power would agree to observe the conditions set by this greater power. Thus it was like a contract except that it wasn’t a contract among equals. It was not a quid pro quo in which one party gives something desired by the other in return for something of commensurate value.
A biblical covenant, thus, is an agreement initiated by the greater power, God, who agrees to care and protect, first, the nation of Israel, and then, by extension, the church and world. In return, we agree to abide by God’s expectations for us, which, we understand, are meant for our good.
This is at the heart of the Bible. Beginning with Abraham, God makes a covenant, an oath, a promise, to save the whole world from the perils and predations of sin and brokenness, things begun in the Garden of Eden, things having despoiled the perfection God intended for Creation.
This covenant, renewed along the way with various biblical figures, remains the subtext of the entire document and, as such, our faith.
The Christian church, of course, as we see in Romans, understands Jesus Christ as the final covenant made with humanity. It is through Christ that God shall effect, finally, the renewal and restoration of Eden’s perfection.
As I’ve said many times, the idea of the covenant, or the Promise, forms the basis of virtually every story in the Bible. In the Old Testament, perhaps especially, the entire narrative revolves around whether God’s covenant will stand against human assault.
Time and again, Israel appears to jeopardize this covenant by failing their end of the bargain. Their lack of faith repeatedly endangers the covenant. Yet when all seems lost, God reasserts his covenant and his Promise, and achieves the impossible. For what is impossible for humans is not impossible for God.
Implicit in this covenant is the belief that God has a plan for you and me. In a world that often appears random and chaotic, the hidden truth is that God is forever with us, all the while faithfully effecting his plan.
This is difficult to accept. Our perception of the world, after all, is increasingly defined as random and without meaning. Modern philosophy says there’s no underlying core to life. Things just happen. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Everything’s in flux. Nothing is stable or perennial.
This mirrors ancient pagan beliefs which Israel and their God, Jahweh, stood forthrightly against. Until Israel came along, the events of life were thought to have been caused by the random actions of the gods, who, be it noted, were both capricious and utterly indifferent to human well-being. At best, one might attempt to placate these gods in ritualistic fashion in the faint hope that the worst just might not happen.
The Israelites believed differently. Their genius was in discovering that God not only created the world as good, but that this same God was also intimately involved in all human affairs, in history. What happens in your life matters. God is not some distant or dispassionate divine being but passionately interested in you. God has a plan for each and every life.
This belief, as I say, is a hard sell given all that goes on in our world today. Add to this the claim that science has explained everything, or is about to anyway. Such a concept appears both antiquated and nonsensical.
Last week I talked about how Christianity differs from Stoic thought in that Christianity does not believe that everything that happens is God’s will. This is because God has given us free will.
So how do we square this circle? I mean, how do we make sense of these two competing ideas – God’s sovereign plan vs. human free will?
Over the years I’ve suggested that Christian life is a kind of “fate with a choice.” God indeed has a detailed plan for each of our lives, yet we can freely choose to ignore that plan.
Take, for example, our vocation, or calling. Each of us is imbued with specific, God-given gifts, ones intended to play a specialized role in God’s overall plan for life. When used in godly fashion, these gifts bless life. When used wrongly, they, not surprisingly, produce the opposite.
When I was growing up my father used to annoy all four of his children by repeatedly saying: “You should look forward to going to work on Mondays.” Our response, as best I can recall, was to roll our eyes. Yet how correct he was. If you’re using the gifts God gave you, your work should be a blessing and a joy.
Recently I was talking to my oldest brother who retired from banking a couple of years ago. I told him I had to end the conversation because I needed to be at my very last official church meeting across the street.
His response was telling. One would have thought that I was about to be released from prison. Having never really enjoying his work (though he was good at it), his perception of retirement is that of an unalloyed good.
But for me, as I explained, retirement is bittersweet. As much as I’m ready to enter the next phase of life, I’m sad to let go of certain people and things. Retirement, for me, is not the freedom that comes after serving time!
Years ago, at the ecclesiastical council convened to assess my fitness for ordination, I was asked how I knew I had a calling from God.
“I know this,” I said, “because I backed through every door. I never chose to become a pastor. In fact, I tried to avoid it like the plague. I resisted it every step of the way. I went kicking and screaming.” God, in other words, had a plan.
Today I can’t imagine having done anything else.
Over the years people have commented on how difficult being a pastor must be. My pat answer is that it’s no more difficult for me to do my job than it is for you to do yours. That’s because God gave me certain gifts for ministry. Had I stubbornly pursued some of the other things I once thought I really wanted, I’d have been miserable. For instance, I’d have made the absolute worst businessman…ever! Why? Because I simply don’t have the gifts for it.
Then again, our biblical faith also tells us that despite how effectively we follow the plan God has for us, God will intercede and save us, even from ourselves!
God’s plan, in other words, is not ultimately dependent on how faithfully we live it out. Does our faithlessness, like Israel’s, cause hardship and suffering? Surely. But God uses all of life, both our successes and failures, to ultimately draw life closer unto himself.
We might fail, but God? Never.
In looking back over the years, I am grateful for the ways God was able to use me. On the other hand, I’m also aware of those times I failed both God and others. This is the fate of every human life.
But the Good News is that God uses every aspect of our lives, both the good and the bad, in effecting his overarching plan. God shall not be moved.
As we assess our lives through the lens of timeless God’s plan, we take comfort knowing that God in the end will make all things right. It is this that helps us place our shortcomings in proper perspective, even as it encourages us to place an ever-renewing trust in God’s steadfast, holy beneficence.
This past week, Linda and I signed papers to have our cremains buried in the Memorial Garden (only to discover that the Cabinet had already voted to give these plots to us as a gift!).
In this we are staking a claim on God’s future for Christ’s church here in Harwich Center, confident that God will continue to bless this congregation and its faithful witness to our world, even as we await God’s final act in Christ.
In the end, we all are staking a claim on this one basic truth – Immanuel – God is with us.
And forever shall be. Amen.