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Testwood Baptist Church - Old Testament survey - Session 2 - Covenant

Contents


Covenant

This week we are going to be looking at one of the most important Biblical themes. It emerges in both Old and New Testaments, but as with so many things the NT version comes more alive if we are familiar with the older variations. The topic is Covenant - the formal basis for a relationship with God. We often, especially at communion times, refer to the work of Jesus as the New Covenant, but are perhaps a little vague on what the Old one was and why it might have needed change. The Hebrew word Torah is often translated "Law", so we then set up in our minds an artificial distinction between law and grace, and perhaps come to think that the Old Testament - or Jewish life in general - is only about keeping strictly to laws, and the New Testament - or Christian life in general - only about receiving Godís grace.

Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses:

 

they last while they last.

But, as we talked about last week, the same God is the driving inspiration of both Testaments, and his character does not change. A covenant is basically a treaty, and this quotation, from the French leader Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s, expresses something of mankindís world-weariness with treaties. Indeed, a brief survey of history shows us that peace treaties between nations - even if carefully and justly enacted in the first place, which of course many are not - simply do not last very long. Recent events in Northern Ireland, or Afghanistan, or Israel and Jordan should convince us that making a treaty is a hard thing to do, and keeping it over a span of even a single generation harder still. I hope youíll go away from tonight convinced that Godís treaties are not like that - they really do have the capacity not only to endure, but to continue to be meaningful.

So this is what weíre covering tonight - a short introduction to what Biblical covenants meant to the people at the time and can mean to us today. I said a few minutes ago that Torah is often translated Law, but this gives a slightly misleading impression to a modern reader. When we use the word Law, we tend to think of a system of rules that ought to be followed. But this is not what the Biblical word Torah means. The underlying idea is not that of a rigid list of instructions that must be followed, but more of a way of life harmonising with a pattern set by another. A lot of military units have what they call their Code - an unwritten law held as central to their lives and conduct. Any family has a similar sort of code - the way the family members know that things work. In a military unit, or a family, the Code is sometimes constraining rather than liberating, but this idea of the Code is crucial. It is the idea of Torah. Lifestyle is a better word than Law, and the idea of a code of conduct established within a loving family is closer than pictures of a judge or policeman. Covenant in the Biblical sense is the formal framework within which both law and grace flourish.

Last week we skimmed rapidly in an introduction though the Old Testament. I picked out a number of key threads, which I believe are not only important to remember when reading the Old Testament, but are crucial life-issues as well. What I selected was:

  1. That the national life-history of Israel is often mirrored in our personal life-stories.
  2. That there were only a few times in the history of Israel - or the life-story of a person - when really big, history-making decisions are faced, and that life between these critical points is shaped by these choices.
  3. That to "remember" something in an Old Testament sense requires that we renew and relive it, not just bring it to mind in a passing way.

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Covenant-making

Now today, with the theme of covenant-making, weíre looking at the moments of big choices. As we shall see, both for the nation of Israel and for us as individuals, this particular choice is one of the great, life-changing moments.

Modern covenants We are in fact all familiar with covenants. One of the great innovations of the closing years of the 20th century was the idea that legal contracts should be phrased in plain English! Weíve all seen things like this - most of us have probably entered into a variety of agreements with organisations in which the rights and responsibilities of each party are carefully set out. You get to be entitled to certain things - provided you use them in a lawful and responsible way. A covenant is basically a promise binding two parties together, like a marriage, or a work contract, or a financial agreement. A treaty between nations is much the same - as de Gaulle observed, most of them have in fact not lasted very long. Here in England, weíre quite proud of the fact that there are certain nearby countries with whom we have not fought a war for - oh, a couple of hundred years!

Ancient covenants Treaty-making is such a regular activity of mankind that it is not surprising we have many examples preserved for us from the ancient world. This one represents one of the key moments of ancient history, when the Egyptians and Hittites officially ended many years of warfare and agreed mutual terms. Uniquely, we actually have both sidesí copies of this - the one you see is the Hittite copy, inscribed on a fairly small clay tablet. The Egyptian version - typically for them - is carved on a huge temple wall for all to see, surrounded by striking pictures of the Pharaoh defeating his enemies. Although the style of presentation is quite different, the content is in fact the same. The finder of this tablet, a German called Winkler, in what we now call Turkey, said "Rameses is identified by his royal titles... exactly as in the Karnak text... the content is identical... written in beautiful cuneiform and excellent Babylonian". This treaty was between equal partners, but most of the examples we have are between unequals - a superior party, called the suzerain, and an inferior one, called the vassal. Sometimes the superior party was offering assistance in case of future trouble - at its best a genuine gesture of support, at its worst a sort of large-scale protection racket. At other times the treaty came about as part of terms of peace after conflict, and was essentially forced on the weaker party by the stronger.

Biblical covenants What about in the Bible? Well, the history of Godís plan of salvation is the story of how the covenant relationship he seeks with men and women is steadily amplified in detail and scope. I have picked out here the key stages in this process, from the initial arrangement with Adam, through Noah and Abraham to Moses, through David and Jeremiah to the complete exposition and fulfilment in Jesus. Through Adam and Noah, the whole world was invited to participate. Abraham was promised that all peoples would be blessed through him, but given special instructions for his descendants. The expression to Moses was more specific - it outlined a detailed code of behaviour for a particular people - the Israelites, cradle for the humanity of the coming Messiah. What David received was not a different promise, but the assurance that his family would be the immediate vehicle of redemption. Jeremiahís contribution was again not so much a new covenant, but recognition that a dramatic renewal of the covenant would take place. Finally, in the person of Jesus, as foreseen by Jeremiah and others, the covenant-maker himself came to seal the bargain by his own death.

The books of Moses give us the most comprehensive description of what it means to be a covenant people, as we shall see in a moment. But I want to start a little earlier in the Bible, because it is the description of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 that gives us one of the most vivid glimpses of the cross. God encounters Abraham at the setting of the sun, in a thick and dreadful darkness. Abraham prepares sacrificial animals - a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon - and divides them in two, forming a corridor between them. So far, this is a quite normal covenant ceremony, and at this point the lesser party - the vassal - would expect to walk between the animal halves. As a symbolic gesture it says - "as I have done to these creatures, so you may do to me if I break the agreement between us". We do in fact have a record of a treaty-breaking vassal who was treated in exactly this way, slaughtered and butchered like a sacrifice as punishment for his transgression. But something very radical happens here. In this case, not Abraham but God passes between the halves - the suzerain, not the vassal, offering to take the punishment for breach of the covenant. He comes in the form of a blazing torch - light of the world, fire of holiness, illuminator of our souls. From this point on, the sacrificial death of the suzerain Jesus, in exchange for the failures of his vassals - not only the nation of Israel, but also all of his vassals including you and me - is an event waiting to happen. The fact of Jesusí sacrificial death to restore relationship with God is already written, here in Genesis 15. God has graciously taken upon himself the cost of restoring the broken covenant, instead of placing the responsibility on us.

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Standard covenant forms

Covenant types 1 Now, the ancient world had a number of standard covenant forms that were used, and we can see each of them in different parts of the Old Testament. The parity treaty, made between equals - like the Egyptian-Hittite treaty I mentioned earlier -- is mirrored by the agreement between Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre described in 1 Kings 5. The two are evidently on good terms, making gifts of various kinds to each other and cementing the relationship by means of marriage alliances. It seems that when the kingdom divided after Solomonís death, it was the northern kingdom of Israel that maintained the alliance for many years. I mentioned last week that, although this treaty was politically and militarily expedient, it was one of the ways in which worship of foreign gods came into Israel and so in spiritual terms was more questionable.

Covenant types 2 The suzerain-vassal treaty, made between two unequal parties, is the one for which there are most examples both inside and outside the pages of the Old Testament. I have said that the arrangements made by God with his people are largely of this form - there is no sense in which we are his equals, and so the Biblical authors mostly used this style of treaty to make the fact of dependence on Godís gracious provision evident. Aside from this, the arrangement that the Israelites made with the Gibeonites during the Conquest, in Joshua 9, also fits this pattern. The Gibeonites lived in the central area of the Promised Land, a little north of Jerusalem. They were fearful of the approaching Israelites under Joshua, and sued for peace, offering to become their slaves - their vassals. When they were attacked by the rulers of other Canaanite cities, they called for help from their suzerain, and this led to one of Joshuaís early victories and the start of his successful southern campaign. The pattern of servitude on the one side but obligation to provide help on the other is quite proper.

Covenant types 3 The final main treaty form is the Royal Grant - a gift made for loyal service. It was normally in the form of land, and most of the non-Biblical examples we have are in fact written on the boundary stones of the land involved. The gift was made to descendants as well as the person in question, and was essentially unconditional - loyalty had already been rendered, so there is no question of requiring service in exchange. The description of God giving land to Abraham is of this kind, and we also see Joshua giving a town to Caleb in the same way. The prophet Nathan speaks these words from God to David: "The LORD himself will establish a house for you... When your child does wrong I shall punish him... but my love shall never be taken away from him... Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me..." - these are classic Royal Grant promises. The words that Jesus will say at the end of all things "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your masterís happiness!" are part of the same royal line of gifts. It is a wonderful picture of gracious generosity, and recognition that faithful service deserves a reward.

Before we go any further with the details, I want us to step back and take a look at what is here. Learning about covenants is not just something of passing interest. Every person who has already become a Christian has in fact signed up on the dotted line of Godís covenant. Often the ways in which we enter into kingdom life are very varied, very informal, but the reality behind what we have done is that we have entered into a covenant-relationship with the Creator of the Universe, the High King above all the kings of the world. Every person who is on a journey towards becoming a Christian must - at some stage, and in some way that is meaningful to him or her - choose whether to sign up or not. It is a choice - no-one is automatically a Christian, everyone starts out life not being a signatory to this particular treaty. Godís part of the covenant is already written and signed - in picture, in symbol, in instruction, and in sacrificial blood. The human side, the crux of the decision for every person, is - am I going to sign my part of the contract? Until both parties have signed their acceptance, the contract is not valid. The deal God offers is available on open show - there are no hidden clauses or agendas, although most Christians find that God is actually much more serious about certain parts of the contract than we are. But thatís another story...

One of the themes of this series of seminars is this: that the Old Testament - and life in general - is made up of two kinds of experience. There are the moments of decision, the very high or really low points, in which life takes a new direction. The Israelites almost always hit these decision-points away from life in the Promised Land. They were out of their normal environment, faced with big choices, and made historic decisions that shaped decades or even centuries of their future. Then there is - well, the rest of the time. Things are pretty much normal; life goes on at work, at play, with the family, with friends. How the Israelites conducted themselves during these times, and how we conduct ourselves during these times, depends on the extent to which decisions made at the key points really took root. How deep did that moment of choice go? How whole-hearted were you in your response to the choice set before you? How far will you let that decision really shape what happens in the everyday times? And remember, the everyday times are the majority. In comparison to all the moments of a personís life, the big decision points are quite rare. Big decisions are few, but the time spent living in the aftermath of those decisions, for good or ill, is long. Making that relationship, that covenant with God is in fact a key moment in a personís life, though for some people it does not feel it at the time. For some of us - including me, in fact - it is very matter-of-fact, and only later, looking back, do we appreciate the depth of it. Thatís why weíre looking at covenants tonight - not just because they are a key thread, a golden thread running through the whole Bible, but because on a personal level it is a cross-roads, like a gear change in a car or a key change in a piece of music, marking the movement from one pattern of life to another. In the next two weeks weíll be looking at how we live our lives during the everyday periods, away from the heights and the depths. But that is another story.

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The changing face of Covenants

Dating covenants So, back to covenants in the ancient world. As we have seen, each of the main treaty forms that we know from the ancient world is present within the pages of the Old Testament. But there is more. Covenants between God and his people are mostly of the suzerain-vassal kind. God is our superior, and is entitled to make whatever arrangements seem good to him. The most elaborate expression of this is found in the books of Moses, especially Deuteronomy. Now, the way in which these treaties were written changed over the years. Around the time of Abraham, about as many years before Jesus as we live after him, the few treaties that have survived through the years for us to read are quite short, and tend to give just an overview of responsibilities.

By the time of Moses, things had changed. The treaties from this time are quite different. Relationships between the two parties are expressed in different terms. The suzerain begins the treaty by reminding the vassal of all of the benefits arising from the relationship, just as the book of Deuteronomy opens with God reminding the Israelites how he has led and cared for them over the years, before they ever went down to Egypt as well as the immediate past events of the Exodus. The treaty requirements are expressed in terms of mutual benefit. The vassal is offered blessing for keeping the terms of the covenant, not just curses for breaking it, and the rights and duties of each party are carefully set out. Such treaties would normally be regularly renewed; copies would be deposited in the main religious centres of the two nations, and from time to time, at public ceremonies, the vassal population would reaffirm the terms.


Deuteronomy analysis If you think back to the arrangements Moses made, we find the same. After the retelling of Godís past provision, we find the terms and conditions of living as Godís people, starting with big issues - "you shall have no other gods before me, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy", and so on - and then moving to lesser topics - when to hold festivals, construction details for the worship area, and so on. The tablets with the details of the covenant were to be kept inside the Ark of the Covenant, which was the religious focus for the people during the desert and in their early life in Israel. The establishment of the covenant was at the holy mountain, amidst awe-inspiring displays of Godís sovereign power. We read about this in the book of Exodus. The book of Deuteronomy, delivered as a series of sermons by Moses on the Plains of Moab, just outside the Promised Land, marks the occasion of the first renewal of the covenant by a new generation, approaching 40 years later. Another similar event was arranged a generation later at Shechem by Joshua. Each time, if you read the terms carefully, there were minor differences in content, as appropriate to the changing situation the people found themselves in. When after many years the nation of Israel wanted a king, one of the conditions was that the ruler would copy the scroll when he took the throne, and read it regularly. The Israelites were promised blessing in their national life if - as a nation - they kept their part of the agreement, but warned of the terrible consequences if they neglected it. All of the standard elements that we see in the ancient human treaties are present here.

Later still, in the time when the great Mesopotamian empires were arising, around the time of Jeremiah and the other prophets, the form changed again. Powerful rulers were less concerned with mutual benefit, and more concerned with maintaining hold over their buffer states by fear. The treaties from this era are written in a harsh way, emphasising the inferior role of the vassal. Blessings rewarding the vassalís obedience have gone, and the list of curses for failure has grown, sometimes to make up half the document. The pattern is one of cruel domination, where the responsibilities previously accepted by the suzerain have been reduced to a bare minimum.

So not only are the books of Moses written in one of the standard international treaty forms, the style confirms for us an approximate time of composition. This is actually profoundly important in confirming the truthfulness of the Bible accounts. But of more importance to us tonight is, what is the significance to us, in the early 21st century, of the ancient treaty form that God chose to use to express himself to us?

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The main thing

When you read through the books of Moses, it is easy to become rather overwhelmed by the details he gives. Does it matter for us today, for example, whether we make our clothing out of mixed fibres? Plant different seeds together? Does it matter, men, if we do or donít clip the corners of our beards (those of us that have them...)? Do ladies who have just had children need ritual purification about a month later? Why do some of the requirements seem to be aimed entirely at an ancient agricultural community, with no relevance to 21st century England, while others come down to us as eternally relevant truths? We look at the regulations about sexual relations, about marriage, about justice, about protection for the weak, and we easily see the relevance of them. What was Moses trying to get at with these books? Of course, we have the same problem with some New Testament passages - should women cover their heads in church, for example?

I said earlier that in this era of history, setting up a covenant was a way for the superior party to establish a desired pattern of lifestyle for the vassal. Issues of central importance, such as loyalty or military assistance, were stated first, followed by other, less crucial ones. So if you want to know which bits were being presented as really important elements of a covenant lifestyle, start at the beginning of the requirements - and you will find the list that we commonly call the Ten Commandments. When we teach each other about these, we should never - not even in an Old Testament setting - be saying "if you do this you will be saved" but rather "being Godís covenant people means living like this", or "living like this helps our relationship with God". Keeping the rules was what you did after the covenant had been established between the two parties.

So, beyond the individual requirements Moses, inspired by God, sets down for us, there is another, more important issue. What does it mean to be a covenant people? When you look at it like this, the details of the regulations are less important. What is important is, am I living faithfully to my suzerain, my lord? Am I building up the covenant relationship, or am I demolishing it? When in later years, prophets of Israel came to challenge the nation about their lifestyle, they did not say things like "you have worn clothing of mixed cloth", or "you have failed to correctly enact the regulations concerning leprosy". Rather they said "you have neglected justice in the land" or "you have failed to make the true God the centre of your life". In New Testament times, one of Jesusí complaints about the Pharisees - of all the religious groups in Israel, the one with whom his teaching had most in common - was that they were too particular about details at the expense of the central issues.

So, what is the main thing? The great thread running through all of the covenants, the basic theme common to all of them from beginning to end, is Godís promise "I will be your God ... you will be my people". At the end of the book of Revelation, "he who was seated on the throne says ĎHe who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God, and he will be my soní". God, in a great and gracious action, gives himself, and in return he expects us to give ourselves. Everything else he gives - the specific promises of peace, eternal life, land, and so on, all are secondary to the giving of himself. Everything else we are asked to do in response - the particular regulations we read in both the Old and the New Testaments - are simply developments of the central idea that we are his people. The Jewish Pharisees and rabbis over the centuries, both before and after Jesus, tried to set down what the particular requirements of the Law of Moses actually meant in a changing society. It is easy for us to just say, this is legalism, this is making rules for no reason. But throughout their history they sought to do two things: first to summarise Godís law in as short and easily memorised way as possible. Jesus stands in this tradition when he sums up the whole law and prophets in two commandments, to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Second, they explored how a collection of ancient, short commands could be lived out in practice, in a different culture. Jesus stands in this tradition when he gives advice about conduct - this is how to behave towards the Roman occupation army, this is how to pay your taxes. The motive of the rabbis and of Jesus was the same as ours - how do we put it into practice?

When God spoke those words to a wandering people surviving by herding and farming about 3500 years ago ... how did he want us to enact them in our society, living here in Hampshire rather than the stark beauty of Sinai? How do the principles of Godís Torah apply to cars and credit cards, mobile phones and multinational firms, to international debt? The wealth of the Israelites, from which they made offerings, was in crops, in flocks and herds, growing or shrinking in a yearly cycle - how do we apply these principles to our weekly or monthly wage packet? Their commerce was carried out by individuals or family groups - how are we to apply principles of fair buying and selling in a world where most trade is impersonal and tends to exploit others? How are we going to arrange our church leadership, or our nationís politics, now that we donít have tribal leaders whose qualities are evident to all? How do we work together on great collaborative projects, now that Godís people are not all marching in a small group together through the same terrain? The Jewish rabbis and we face the same problem - if the main thing of the covenant is "I will be your God... you will be my people", what do we do about it?

Main points Now, out of this central idea flow both Law and Grace. Law - or responsibility if you prefer - binds God as our protector and guide, and binds us to obedience and faithfulness. Grace - or undeserved benefit - gives God endless ways to enact his creativity and divine purpose, to carry out his work as a master-craftsman, and gives us a secure and blessed environment to appreciate and grow up in. So, the main thing about all the covenants is that we are, in fact to be a covenant people, with God as our suzerain, our sovereign. This means he gets to expect certain things of us, and we get to expect certain things of him - but never in a relationship of equality. He is entitled to insist on certain actions on our part, or to overlook our failings or the failings of other people as and when he chooses. He gets to set the rules... but he has graciously bound himself to uphold them at any cost.

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The New Covenant

So how does the New Covenant, the one Jesus outlined in the New Testament, fit into place along with the others? I said earlier that we often make life easier for ourselves by simplifying the matter - we say that the Old Covenants were all about following rules and the New Covenant all about receiving grace. But this really isnít true - grace is central in all Godís Old Testament dealings with humanity, and rules are present in New Testament life. Both receiving grace and living the family lifestyle are part of being Godís covenant people in every era of history. But there are differences, and I want to pick out three.

First and foremost, the New Covenant arrangement is made directly with the suzerain himself. With the Law of Moses, the Israelites dealt with God through Moses as an intermediary. He was the go-between for them. Although God was behind all of the dealings, the people were by and large insulated from direct contact. They expected the appearance of God to be a fearful thing, and so delegated the face-to-face contact to a few select individuals. If they encountered God, they didnít expect to live. Throughout Old Testament history, the main way in which people at large related to God was via a human priesthood, who could only imperfectly represent God to the people and vice versa. All of that changed after the birth at Bethlehem that we remember at Christmas-time. For us, the go-between is Jesus, himself God, the second person of the Trinity, but now and through eternity clothed in perfect humanity. Our great high priest is Jesus, perfectly able to lay his hand on both God and man, and bring the two together. There is still a priestly role for Godís people, but it is no longer in arranging the covenant between God and man. The priestly role for us today has more to do with how we help one another manage everyday life, with enabling others to live covenant life more fully, more accurately, more faithfully, more willingly.

Secondly, there is a difference in the sacrifice on which the covenant was based. Covenants always rested on a sacrifice of some sort, drawing the attention of the gods worshipped by each side to the agreement and showing the seriousness of it. Normally, of course, animals of various kinds were sacrificed - as Abraham did in Genesis 15. Each side would offer something of value. Now the sacrifice on which the New Covenant is based is that of Jesus himself - not the blood of goats and calves, but that of Jesus, eternal creator of the world. That is the value of the offering that God brings to the negotiating table - what are we going to bring? What thing of value are you going to bring to the table, the altar, to sacrifice for Him?

Thirdly, there is a change in the scope of the arrangement. The Old Testament covenants allowed people from other nations to join, but did not really encourage them to do so. Israel was expected to be a good example in demonstrating how a nation could live as Godís people, but there was no real requirement to go into all the world and introduce others. Of all the prophets, only Jonah was commanded to go to a foreign land and preach forgiveness - and he was most reluctant to do this. In contrast, the New Covenant is, right from the outset, an arrangement which is all-inclusive, and which places an obligation on Godís people to make this known to others. The standing orders of the church, given to us at the end of Matthewís gospel, are to "make disciples by going into all the world". Certainly there is a duty on us to be a good example, to make our personal and church life reflect the character of God - but it is set in a context of actively going out into the world, not just being a fine example in a back-water.

Last week I talked a little about what it meant for an Old Testament person to remember the past. Memory was not just recollecting past events, like looking through the photo album. Memory was a reliving of the experience, bringing the past into the present to be vivid again. The Passover ritual includes the words "in every generation it is a manís duty so to regard himself as if he himself had come forth from Egypt", and the ceremony itself, with special food and drink, eaten in a particular way, is intended to help the participants to place themselves in the position of their ancestors, eating in haste as the angel of death passed over their house on the night before their departure. Now of course the Lord Jesus left us a ceremony by which we were to remember the Exodus he accomplished for us - not freedom from earthly rulers or difficult circumstances, but freedom from guilt and the consequences of sin. I hope tonightís communion was more of a reliving and less of just a recollection. It is, after all, the way we have been given not only to remember the covenant, but to celebrate it and to renew all over again. It is our very own covenant-renewal ceremony, carried out frequently, not just once a generation or when a new king or queen comes to the throne.

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Being a covenant people

Being a covenant people involves obligation to each other as well as to our ruler, and I want to pick out a few consequences. First, we have to say that the Bible shows us that God likes to deal in this way. He likes to have things set out so the relationship is clear. He likes a setup where people know where they are with him and with each other. So, if he likes it, we should learn to like it too. When we deal with other people, are we open with them? Do we have hidden agendas for our relationship with them? If we are in a position of authority, whatís our covenant model? Are we vague about responsibilities, or harsh concerning failure, or do we offer mutual benefit to both parties? Do people know where they are with us? Do we offer general principles for resolving uncertainties and conflict, as well as specific issues that are important to us? Do we remain faithful to our end of the bargain even in difficult conditions? Are we prepared to defend those for whom we are responsible? If we are the weaker party, are we genuinely looking for ways to promote the good of the other? Are we seeking out ways to show loyalty? You see, all of these are not just Old Testament principles - they are New Testament ones as well. "Slaves, obey your earthly masters... just as you would obey Christ... not only when their eye is on you, but... doing the will of God from your heart... Masters, treat your slaves in the same way... He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven". This is covenant living, New Testament fashion, and there are plenty of other examples. Husbands and wives, parents and children, difficult colleagues, conflict situations, associates who fall into sin, using time wisely - all of these are covenant lifestyle issues that the New Testament letters tackle. We may well find that some of the specific recommendations Paul and others make are not applicable today, but if we remember the basic principles - He is my sovereign, my suzerain, my overlord, and you are my brothers, my sisters, my fellow-workers answerable to him and not to me - then perhaps the details of behaviour become a little easier. The human problem is usually not that we donít know what to do - itís that we donít actually want to get on and do it.

And lastly, being a covenant people means that we are entitled to expect things from our suzerain. I approach this subject with some hesitation for two reasons. First, modern western Christianity has something of a "God owes me a good time" mentality which I have no desire to add to. Secondly, it is an area that I personally find very difficult to get to grips with. Perhaps like many of you, I look back at some parts of my own story and do not understand what God was doing in it, and in what ways he was being generous.

But, if Godís use of the covenant treaty to express his relationship with us means anything - and I believe that it does - it includes the fact that He is a kind giver and a faithful keeper of his promises. So, regardless of our personal experiences, letís proceed. What sort of things can we expect? Well, first and foremost we are to look to him for protection in the face of adversity. When the Gibeonites were attacked by their enemies, their first response was to call for help from Joshua. Now, they still needed an army, they still needed to take action to protect themselves, but they now had access to resources outside of their own strength. So it is, I believe, with us. We still need to take precautions to defend ourselves against temptation, against disinterest, against wrong-doing. The fact that God is our suzerain does not exempt us from being responsible. But it does mean that his resources are available to us.

Secondly, he gives us freedom. Handing over our lives to him, choosing to accept his offer of covenant relationship, means that he can liberate us from things that need not concern us. Certain things are no longer our responsibility, they are his, and we do not need to expend nervous energy over them. The more we are able to sort out which responsibilities are his and which are ours, and allow him to take away and give accordingly, the freer and more productive our life will be.

Third, he has plans for our development. In those plans, we are not supposed to remain as we are, but to move on, to participate in greater, more significant ways in his kingdom. These plans may well be demanding of us - of our time, our abilities, of the things we value - but they are grand plans, unfolding over a span of many years. We are usually a small part - but to be a small part in a great plan is exciting, and itís better than being a big part in nothing at all! Along with that, and to help us make the right choices, he also gives us a new system of values. This, he says to us, this is of value to me, and this is not. This is worth spending your strength and your time on, and this is not. Living a covenant life means that he gives you new values and new priorities. And finally, he equips us for participating in these plans. All of us have talents that we have grown up with, through our family background or upbringing. All of us also have the capacity to do new things, to be given new talents for new tasks. As he brings new things your way for you to do, he will also draw out of you the ability to tackle them, like a man who draws old things and new out of his storehouse.

Now, because he is the suzerain and you the vassal, he gets to choose the way for you to follow. He may well take something from you, but always in the interest of giving something better in the long run. As we said last week, what he means by "the long run" is on a bigger scale than we can understand. His giving to you may well seem like a taking, and I suspect that many things will only really make sense when we look back from the perspective of eternity. In the meantime, "let us spur one another on towards love and good deeds".

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Participation exercise - setting SMART goals

As we have seen, the covenant God has made with us involves benefits and responsibilities. We need to do things for God, and we can expect him to do things for us. Each of us will find one of these more difficult than the other, depending on your personality, experiences during life, and so forth. Some of us find it easier to dwell on our Christian duties, and risk drifting towards a view that Jesus is a stern task-master. Like the man in the parable Jesus told, our inner picture of the Lord is "I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man". Others fix more readily on the privileges of the Christian life, and risk settling towards a sort of Father Christmas picture, in which the precious riches of Godís grace are cheapened. The reality, of course, is that we need to steer between, as it were, the devil and the deep blue sea, and keep both duty and privilege in tension with each other. What is a SMART goal? Many of you will have met the idea at church, or at work. It is a way of identifying a goal that is positive in making progress. So often, the targets we set ourselves are, simply, not smart. Theyíre vague, or unrealistically large, or something we hope to get round to someday. Iíve listed there what a SMART goal is - all of the points are important, so set yourself goals that meet them. However, only you can tell what each one means. A goal that might be ludicrously hard for me might be absurdly easy for you. So be challenging with yourself, but be SMART as well.

Setting SMART goals about covenant

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bounded

Set yourself two SMART goals:

One to do with your actions towards God
One to do with your hopes for God's grace towards you

What I want you to do is the following. Each of us should set two goals. One should be to do with your behaviour towards God. All of us will have some way in which we know our habitual actions are not consistent with being members of Godís covenant community. It may be an attitude towards God, or towards other people, or towards yourself. It may be something that other people see in you, or it may be something that you see in yourself and others do not know about. But it should be something that is important to you, so you are motivated to seek change. Pick something of this nature, and set a SMART goal where you can expect yourself to make measurable progress over, say, the next few months.

Second, we will all have some way in which our expectations of Godís dealings with us are not in line with what we read in the pages of the Bible. Perhaps we donít expect him to answer prayer, or to forgive us one more time, or to protect us in ways that are for our ultimate good. Perhaps we donít expect him to be actively cultivating change in us to be more like Jesus. Again, this is something that is personal between you and God, some way in which you really desire to experience him more fully at work.

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Sundry items