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Getting on Terms with God

For those who order goods over the internet, you will be familiar with the little box you have to tick to accept the terms and conditions. It’s easy to overlook it and then wonder why the site seems to get angry with you when you go to pay. Since the beginning of human existence, agreements and contracts have been part of life. Those in employment usually have a contract and there is concern for those working on so called zero hours contracts who have little redress when things go wrong such as the impending Corona virus. The ability of computer technology to store hold and process more and more information can make things such as guarantees for goods or insurance documents ever longer and more convoluted so that we rarely read the small print.
But the contractual arrangements which affect us the most are often the ones which are not written down. How many of us had written agreement with our parents, our brothers and sisters or our own children? If we did, I wonder what they would look like? But parents are continually making agreements with their children. ‘You won’t be going to the cinema on Friday night if you have not done you homework.’ Clear up the mess in your room or you will be grounded for a week.’ Do that again and you will be on the naughty step.’ The most significant family contract of all is marriage; a binding agreement solemnly entered into between man and woman as an intention of faithfulness to each other and to provide security for their children. Interestingly, unless there is a ‘pre-nuptial agreement’, nothing is written down. The terms of the agreement are worked out day by day throughout the course of the marriage sometimes more successfully than others.
In Christianity, this idea of contact, or covenant is important. It is all about an agreement with God. How is that worked out?
In many people’s minds, God is something or someone to be discovered. He might just be out there somewhere. Or people create God in their own minds. God is simply who they want him to be. Then there are those who believe God is out there somewhere and one day we will encounter him, so we’d better make a reasonable stab at life so that we won’t be on the wrong side of him when we really need him. We need to be good so that we’ll have enough brownie points in the bag to squeeze into heaven.
Actually, none of those ways of looking at things are what the bible teaches or what Christians believe about God. What we have rather is an almighty and holy God whose goodness can be seen in the world he has created and in the best of human nature made in his image. Human beings were made for a perfect relationship with God, sharing his eternity. There was no need for a contract, but God did look for human beings to love him, to be in relationship with him and if this was to happen, then they needed to be given the ability to make choices. Genesis tells the story of how a wrong choice was made, how the man and the woman fell prey to temptation, and thus the holy and perfect relationship was broken. Sin, like a genie was out of the bottle. Rather like a virus, it would move on to affect everything. Nothing would be the same again. Human beings could now see good and evil and all too often, evil seemed more attractive to them.
It is at this point that God looks to make a covenant, an agreement with humankind. He did not have to bother. He could have left us to our own devices. But God is love and from the heart of the loving God comes a string of contacts that make up the bible story. They can be summed up in just two: the old one and the new one. Yes, that’s the old testament and the new testament! Our readings today centre around two individuals who can help us understand these two contracts or covenants a little better; Abram who we know better as Abraham and Nicodemus.
It is through Abraham that the first covenant comes into existence. After all the events of the early chapters of Genesis which had left God’s beautiful world in a mess, God turns his attention to a particular family, Abraham’s family with whom to make a covenant. Why did he choose that family? On the face of it, it was not a good choice. Abraham was already 75 years old and he had no children and he was unlikely to have any because Sarah, his wife was unable to conceive. Yet, what does God promise Abraham at the outset in today’s reading? ‘I will make of you a great nation…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12. 2-3) What would become the sign of this covenant or contract? That Sarah would have a son! What a ludicrous idea that must have seemed. Sarah laughed at the very thought of it. In due time, Isaac was born. His name means laughter.
The covenant contract that God makes with Abraham is far more exciting than the endless terms and conditions we might sign up to when we take out an insurance policy on a new fridge! They are full of wonder, warmth, love and pathos. God promises to bless Abraham, to make him the father of nations, but Abraham must respond in faith as Paul makes clear in our reading from the letter to the Romans. Both Abraham and Sarah must trust God that this baby will be born. They must be prepared to move to Canaan but actually they end up in Egypt for a time. Abraham must even be prepared to sacrifice his precious son. God has made clear what he proposes to do. Abraham’s side of the bargain is in the words of the old hymn to trust and obey.
From these early seeds of a covenant promise with God, the whole of the old testament, the old covenant story emerges. It is a about a biological race of people whom we know today as the Jews. Upon these people God has set his heart and no amount of antisemitism can remove that promise he made with Abraham their forefather. God intended them to be blessing to the world, but they could not seem to trust and obey him enough to make that happen. So, to the new covenant.
Nicodemus was a man of the old covenant, a good Jewish man. When Jesus came on the scene, he began to wonder; perhaps, just may be this is the one the prophets were talking about, the messiah, that God is doing something new. He was too scared to be public about it. He goes to Jesus at night. They start talking about things Nicodemus understood, that Jesus’ miracles proved God was at work, just as he had been with Abraham and Sarah. But Jesus leads him on a roller coaster of discussion teaching him that the new covenant was about the heart and the spirit as Ezekiel and Jeremiah had predicted. That it was all about how he, Nicodemus would respond to God’s love. Would he allow his heart and spirit to be born anew? The climax is the verse of scripture which sums up the new covenant, the new testament: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3.16)
Our God is not a figment of our imaginations, neither is he to be placated by our attempts to be good. He knows that we have no power to overcome sin in which we are all mired; to help our selves out of the mess our bad choices have landed us in. So, he offers us himself in Jesus as the perfect lamb atonement. Only he can stand in our place at the judgement and give us the righteousness we will never earn. God’s terms do not condemn us but offer us life. All he asks is that we trust and obey, that we accept the terms he offers, click his box and allow the wind of the Spirit to bring us new life.
Lent 2 08.03.2020

Rev Jonathan Smith

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