The idea of Covenant has intrigued for a long time. As a youth I often heard the word. My parents called themselves ‘Covenant Children’. I grew up in the Netherlands during the war 1940-45 in the midst of a serious theological dispute concerning the Covenant and Baptism. This ecclesiastical controversy was so severe that families split, congregations were torn apart, new denominations emerged. I had a first-class seat in all this, as in the school I attended the sons and
daughters of the ministers most intimately involved in this hair splitting, were my classmates. This experience gave me an early taste of religious intolerance when teenage boys refused to be exposed to the prayer of teachers who attended the church whose synod had not approved of the actions of the dissidents.
In my time Covenant applied only to baptism. I remember that in my church, whenever a child was baptized we would automatically sing after the ceremony Psalm 105: “Jehovah’s truth will stand forever. His covenant bonds he will not sever… The Covenant made in days of old, with Abraham he does uphold.” That covenant had a meaning beyond generational significance never entered into the picture.
Yet the Covenant has aspects we seldom explore. God too has characteristics we seldom point out. Both God’s sense of humor and his humility are evident in the Covenant.
That God has a real sense of humor is not a trait that the church has discovered. If ever it does, the church might become a more saleable commodity. Perhaps I should call this essay “The Comedy of the Covenant.” Why? God made a covenant with Abraham and the first child born under the Covenant God made with Abraham, is called “Laughter.” Laughter sets
the stage of the Covenant. It means that we, as children of the Covenant are also children of Laughter.
And we have a lot to laugh about. Suppose that Queen Elizabeth, reputedly the richest woman in the world, worth perhaps 20 billion dollars, would tell your extended family, all 20 of them, including spouses, children, grandchildren: “I will have a contract made up, a Covenant. All my possessions, my castles, my land holdings, my stocks, shares, and crown jewels, everything I own, I will share with you. One condition I will make however, you must also share all that you own with me.”
Not a bad deal, we would say and we would be utterly foolish not to take her up on it; because suddenly each one of us would have a net worth of $1 billion. In addition, we all would be princesses and princes and wherever we went we would travel free and others would pay our hotel bills and meals.
This unlikely situation would certainly be a cause of great merriment and laughter.
Well, that is the Comedy of the Covenant. And it is no fiction but reality. God made such a contract with us. With all of us. He first made it with Noah, extended it through Abraham twice, then with Moses, David, and finally renewed and sealed it in Jesus Christ. In this contract with us God promised to share with us, as rightful heirs, as his daughters and sons, this whole universe, the entire creation, the gold it contains, the diamonds, the lakes and rivers and sea front. The
mountains and meadows, the houses and forests, the birds and the animals. All that the world contains. A gift much more valuable than the Royal $1 Billion. And in addition, things the Queen cannot give: perpetual peace of mind, eternal life amidst loving people, a life without disease or death, no dead lines, only life lines to pursue. The only condition on our part is that “We do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the God Creator.”
The Covenant. What is it, actually? As is plain from the example, a Covenant is a treaty, a contract, where two parties agree to do something together. A Covenant is thus a sort of bonding, a welding together of lives, a promise to be faithful to each other no matter what comes. A marriage is thus a Covenant. Ideally a marriage is a life time arrangement between a woman and a man to stay together, whatever comes, to share the good and not so good times, in riches and in poverty, till death part them.
Curiously, the word ‘Religion’ also means ‘binding together.’ Thus, in essence, Covenant and Religion, are one and the same thing. And is Religion like a comedy? You must be kidding! It’s more like a tragedy the way we witness it. The religion we usually experience is solemn and serious, a matter of death and sickness more than life and enjoyment.
Yet, both Covenant and Religion are like a comedy.
The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman, and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-months drought. What’s so funny about this?
Let’s retrace our steps a few thousand years. The scene is the area of present-day Israel, or, as it was called in those days, Canaan. This woman, pushing 91, is laughing. She is laughing because she has just been told by an angel that she is going to have a baby, she who never had had a child before. Now, we may have heard about that woman in
Romania that had a child at 61, thanks to the products of modern technology. But certainly not through the common way of husband- wife intercourse. Even though it was God’s angel who told her, she can’t control herself and her husband can’t control himself either. He keeps a straight face a few seconds longer, but he ends up cracking up, too. They are laughing at the idea that their baby will be born in the geriatric wing. They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it but seems to expect them to believe it too.
They are laughing because laughter is better than crying and may not be all that much different. They are laughing because if by some crazy chance it might just happen to be true, then they really would have something to laugh about.
Abraham, so goes one account, laughed until he fell on his face. and Sarah, she hid behind the door of the tent. Actually it was her laughter that got them all going.
According to Genesis, the Bible book which records this story, God then interrupted and asked about Sarah’s laughter. Sarah was scared stiff and denied the whole thing. But God insisted, “No, but you did laugh,” and, of course, he was right.
The most interesting part of it all was that God, far from getting angry at them for laughing, told them that when the baby was born, he wanted them to name Isaac, which in Hebrew means ‘laughter.’ So you can say that God not only tolerated their laughter, but blessed it, and, in a sense, joined in, which makes it a very special laughter indeed. God and humanity laughing together, sharing a glorious joke in which we all are involved.
What is all this laughter about? The laughter is about the Covenant. Some 25 years earlier, when Abraham was 75 year sold and Sarah , his wife, a mature 65, barren and thus childless, they were both living in Mesopotamia, the present Iraq.
God, out of the blue, called Abraham and said, “Abraham, I have something special in store for you. You see the world around you? People are doing well. They are growing rich and comfortable and somehow this causes them to forget me and go their own way. I want you to be different and treasure my way and I want you to leave your family and
friends and cozy position and go to a country where I will make a great nation out of you, even though you have no son as yet. I will make your name great and will bless those who bless you and all people on earth will be blessed through you.”
God, in other words, made a contract with Abraham, a Covenant. Remember , he then was 75 years old, Sarah 65, and incapable of having children. Even for those days, when people did live long, this was a pretty advanced age for child bearing. And, I’m sure, Abraham figured that, once he had settled in Canaan, the present day Israel, matters
would soon fall into place and his heir would come along.
But God’s time-scale is different to ours. So the years rolled by until finally, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90, 25 long years after God called them, the angle arrived with his shattering announcement. Then they laughed. They were going to have a baby after all. The stranger who appeared at the door turned out to be not a man who sold cemetery plots, but an angel. Who could have possibly grabbed an angel by the wing and pulled him out of the sky and arranged it to give such astonishing news? It all happened so freely, so hilariously. What could they do but laugh at the craziness of it all. So they laughed until tears ran down their cheeks.
And so the child born under the Covenant God made with Abraham is called laughter. And because we are all part of that covenant, we too are children of laughter. I think the joke is on us.
God chose us. That’s quite comical to start with. I don’t know about you, but I do know that God made a pretty foolish choice to include me as a child of the Covenant.
And if one party breaks the covenant? Marriage, of course, is a covenant. Covenant is a matter of the heart. So is marriage. In a marriage we also make vows to be faithful. Often a name change is involved as well, as was the case also when God made a covenant with Abram who became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah.
Why did God choose the Jewish people? Again God’s sense of humor. Why not the sophisticated Greeks, or the clever Egyptians, or the dominating Romans? I think he chose the Israelites because, as somebody has said,
they are just like everybody else, except more so – more religious than anybody religious, and when they are secular, being secular as if they invented the concept. What applies to the Israelites then, and the Jewish people now, certainly applies to contemporary church people as well, I am sure.
Also, if you look at the Christian Religion a bit more closely. it really is a ridiculous affair. The Bible tells is about a king who
tramps around the country side with a bunch of uneducated fishermen as his bodyguards. The Prince of Peace, as he calls himself, looks more like a Prince of Fools, who, in spite of his miraculous powers, is not taken seriously at all, and ends up being hanged as a common criminal. Today it’s no wonder that people find Christianity a ridiculous affair, and I can well see their point. Just listen to these lines taken from Luke 6: “BLessed are you when you are poor.” Tell me, do you want to be poor? “Blessed are you when you weep.” Who wants to be unhappy for Pete’s sake? “Blessed are you when people hate you.” Well, don’t we all want to be liked and respected?
Yet, there is comedy in all this. Comedy is being different. We laugh not at the usual. What is common place is not funny. Says one text book for aspiring reporters: “If a dog bites a person, that’s not news. If a person bites a dog, that must be reported because such an event provokes laughter.”
God invites those, he makes those part of the Covenant, who are not afraid to stand for justice, justice in creation, justice in the nation, who place communal interests above personal desires, all for the coming of the Kingdom. God does not want people who, in the eyes of the establishment, do the commonly accepted thing. God wants atypical people. Just imagine Abraham going out on a limb, leaving friends and relatives, on a promise to become a father of a great nation. People who met him 20 year later reported that he had sired a son by his wife’s slave. “Some heir!,” they reported. Today, all of us would call Abraham a fool.
Talking about fools. How about Noah. There’s a crazy man. He starts to build an oceangoing ship in the middle of the prairies. Noah, who did not know a rudder from an oar, who had never seen a ship or an ocean in his life, this fellow, a farmer, a wine grower who loved to imbibe of his own vintage, started to build a ship in the middle of nowhere. Hilarious. Just something you expect from a wine-bibber. He became a tourist attraction and you should hear him thundering to the people: that if they did not turn to the Lord Creator and ask for forgiveness and mend their ways, there would come a flood. There is where everybody burst out laughing: the punch line. Best show in town! And when it all happened, and it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, Noah knew he had been right.
Both Abraham and Noah possessed a curious thing, a thing we all have, but not in the same way. Noah had faith in God’s promises. All people have faith, but usually in finite things, such as science or money or or their own sense of superiority. Because Noah believed in God, his family was chosen to make a new start in creation. For that purpose God made a
Covenant with him.
Basically this Covenant, as related in Genesis 9, is a Covenant with Creation. Six times in this short passage God repeats that the Covenant made here with Noah, is with every living creature and with the earth. In essence God says here: “People of the earth, I am the Creator. Here I now pledge to form a triad, a Covenant with three parties (1) With the
Earth, (2) With you as my image bearers, and (3) With me, as the Head of the Covenant.”
“Remember,” God said, “the line of the Covenant is not vertical: first me, then you, then the earth, with the earth not really in touch with Me. No, the earth, the trees, the rocks, the bees and buffaloes, all are my creatures, the works of my hands.”
Picture a triangle: God occupies the top and on the other corners are we and the earth, with lines both extending to and from each corner as we all are inter- dependent. The Earth gives life to humans, but also receives input from them. We are dependent on the earth, but can also enhance it. God gives life to us and the earth and praise God in return.
In other words, if we look after the earth and after ourselves and our fellow creatures, caring for the crocodiles in the jungle and our cousins next doors, then God will look after us.
This Covenant, said God to Noah, will endure throughout eternity. God, People, the Land. An inseparable Triad. To seal it all, God sent his Son, as the New Head of the New Covenant. Jesus, God’s Son. Jesus, the heart of our religion. The Head of the Covenant.
Covenant. Some people call it the Blood Covenant, because in the old days a Covenant between people was always sealed with blood. Here is a Davidic example. In 1 Samuel 18 we read that David and Jonathan made a covenant. As a sign of the Covenant Jonathan, the crown prince, took off his clothes and gave them to David. Also his sword and
other weapons, even more personal and valuable than clothes. And David did the same. They completely exchanged their personal belongings, as a sign and symbol that they were one. They also did something else, not related in the Bible, but part of the general rule of personal Covenant. This ritual required an incision in their wrists. Both parties would then raise their wrists to heaven and let the blood mingle. In the incision they would rub dirt to leave a scar as a permanent sign of
their mutual allegiance. They then would sit down, make a list of their possessions, exchange those lists with the promise that whatever the one part owned would become the rightful property of the other. In order to seal all this they would walk in the figure of an 8 around two altars as a sign of eternity. Then the two parties to the covenant would eat a
special Covenant meal, a lamb and unleavened bread, with each party bringing its own bread and offering it to the other. And the same with wine, pouring the wine of the one into the goblet of the other. Jesus, as Head of he Covenant, did the very same thing. His blood flowed for us. His wounds are still visible as an eternal sign of the Covenant, an everlasting scar on the God of the Trinity, that whatever is God’s, is also ours. The Lord of Creation gave it all to us. He is the God of
the Universe. He signed over the ownership of this cosmos to the people of the Covenant, those who confess Jesus to be their Lord. What a comedy! The comedy is that through Christ, God and God’s people – you and I – come together, become equals. The comedy is that God shares God’s Infinity with our finite being. There is an unfathomable even greater contrast between God and ourselves and between, say, the Queen of England and us.
Yet God and us have become one in Jesus Christ. Look at the Lord Supper. There Jesus says the familiar words: “This is my body, given for you, and this cup is the New Covenant in my blood poured for you.” Now not God, but Jesus us the party of the Covenant. God has disappeared from the scene and Jesus is now at the centre. Paul tells us to clothe
ourselves with the cloak of righteousness, with the Lord Jesus Christ, and so become a new creation, for God has reconciled the cosmos to himself in Christ’s full-bodied Covenant language.
So the Covenant idea is woven throughout the entire bible. In essence the Bible is the Covenant story. God made a covenant with us and with all creation. The covenant between God- Jesus- and humanity, all of us men and women, is therefore the intimate foundation, the meaning and purpose of creation. Creation is the visible basis of the Covenant, its ultimate realization. Creation is there because God in Jesus desires to enter into a Covenant with humanity. We, as human beings, exist because God continuously calls us to the Covenant. God makes us discover our existence more and more as the daily experience of living in the Covenant, in his creation. All this is derived from the loaded expression of “ created in God’s image and likeness.” Our day-to-day life refers to God. Our life resembles God because we, as men and women, as conscious persons, experience our living as participants in the Covenant. We realize the meaning of God’s self-revelation in creation through the Covenant. In the created world, we are the visible representatives of the invisible
Christ is the First born of creation. He was the first human being: the perfect creature, after who we have been fashioned. Yes, physically we look like Christ. The Image is real. Colossians 1 relates how all things exist in him.
He is the original human pattern, the prototype of all human existence. God, in his plan of salvation, revealed himself fully in Jesus, who represents humanity for us and in this way completed creation and attained the perfect life in God.
We are created after the pattern of Christ. Through the Covenant we experience that likeness to God in a personal response of love. As Children of God, as his heirs, through the Covenant with God we share our humanity with the Son, who is the Lord of all that exists, and through whom the universe was made. The entire creation is there because
it is permanently willed in Christ by the Father, because the Father loves it as the Christ.
And what would happen if the Covenant was broken? Genesis 15 gives an illustration of what happens then. There it is related how God and Abraham covenanted. Abraham is asked to cut animals in two and both God, in the form of fire, and Abraham in person, pass through these severed animals. The cutting of these beasts illustrates that if the
covenant is not kept the bodies of the parties concerned would be cut in half as punishment. Later when the Israelites abandoned the agreement, the 10 tribes were banished from the earth never to be heard from again. In essence the people of Israel were broken up for ever.
So the Covenant is not for all. Those who abide by its terms, will, when Christ returns, share in his glory and complete the work of creation. An eternal assignment, because Creation is Infinite as God is Infinite.