I have been talking with a lot of people recently about covenants.
I have been talking with the retirees and nearly retired pastors in the conference about pensions and health care, and how the Conference has had some very heated discussions the past few years about what our responsibility to honor the covenant made to them is. On the other side of the coin I have been talking with Youth and Young Adults about worship and how it has grown stagnant and doesn’t fit their worldview, or their worship styles. The covenant to be a church ever present to the present generation seems to be broken. Clergy and laity alike are concerned that the covenant for building self-sustaining churches is broken, that churches cannot find the ways to bring people in and continue on into the next generation. Young clergy are also in arms as salaries are unable to keep pace with the indebtedness required to become ministers, One has to be independently wealthy to afford a seminary education and then go into ministry. In each of these the covenant of old seems to be broken.
I take heart in the matter, even in the midst of all the grumbling, because I find solace in the words from our texts this morning. They remind us that it is inevitable that the old covenant will go away, and that a new covenant will rise up, and that God is infinitely more faithful to us than we could ever imagine. I am reminded that even though the old covenant is very hard to give up, God only asks us to give up the old for the new because God knows the new covenant is so much richer.
Let us begin with our text from Joshua.
The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
The Passover at Gilgal
While the Israelites were encamped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Joshua reminds us that it is natural for one covenant to end and another to begin. Take a look with me if you will. The green are where the new covenant is made. The red where the old covenant is broken (ended) and the blue a sustained covenant. (Highlighted in my sermon notes and I can forward that along to you if needed, but study for yourself first;] )
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable:
The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
Joshua reminded us that the natural course of things is to have the covenant change. We saw that once again in the text from Luke. Resentment is the human response to changed covenant, whether it is the covenant, the weather, the relationships we have. We have to look ahead and see that the covenant that is new is going to cause some troubles. I am reminded of a little lesson my sister taught me this month, using scriptures to show something in a new light.
He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.” ’
The end of the passage reminds us that those who have had the old wine (experienced the old covenant) do not want the new wine, and says instead the “but we’ve always done it that way” oh, whoops no she says “The old is good.” However someone must be making new wine for another generation. Someone must be willing to test the new wine and see whether it is going to be wine. Someone has to take the chance and be willing to find the new wine good. It means taking new vats (new buildings, new programs) and allowing the new wine to age properly so that others may drink as deeply as we did. At some point it also means realizing that the old wine is going to run out and we are all going to have to drink the new wine.
God’s new covenant in Joshua and in the story of the prodigal son does the unthinkable and requires us to work – to till the soil and grow new crops, to produce new wine, to extend the gift of hospitality to those who are “beyond redemption” The prodigal son was dead. He had killed the father by asking for his inheritance and was therefore dead to the father and the family. The father ran out to give the son new life.
There is a richer promise for the lost and for the one who remained as long as we recognize that maybe the time for the old covenant is run out and it is time to establish a new covenant, recognizing that God is infinitely more faithful than we can imagine.