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A Transformative Covenant

Sunday, January 20, 2019.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings:  Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11

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Living our lives inside the covenant relationship with God will transform us. We will be changed by the covenantal relationship, just as surely as the water is changed to wine by Jesus in our reading from John. Living in a covenantal relationship with God will change us into the beautiful and free people of God.

Periodically, people will try to discern if there is one over-arching theme to the Bible. You may have noticed that the Bible is a wild collection of stories and poems and songs and laws and visions and prayers. Parts of the Bible contradict each other, everybody can find different parts of the Bible that are troubling or uncomfortable, and yet the church has the audacity to continue to claim that it is, in a mysterious way, the word of God.

It is a wild book. But one theme that does seem to gather the wild variety of texts under its sheltering wings is the theme of the covenant. God has made covenant to be our God, and invites us to be God’s people. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” We live our lives inside the covenant.

When we insist on the important of the covenant to biblical faith, we are insisting that the Bible and our faith are about a relationship. We are dealing with a fundamentally relational God. With biblical faith, we are not dealing with a watchmaker God, who winds up the universe and lets it go. This is not some cold, life-less transaction we are talking about. We are dealing with a relational God who wants to be part of you and wants you to be part of God – a God who gets down and dirty with us, who takes on flesh and blood, who has a full range of emotional responses, who exults in beauty and fidelity and creativity and generosity, and who rages at cruelty and bigotry and oppression and greed. We are in a live, back and forth, relationship with God.

God forms covenants with the people throughout the Bible – with Adam and Eve, with Noah, with Abraham and Sarah, with Moses, with David, and then when Jesus sits at table with his disciples at the last supper, he draws on Jeremiah 31 and says to them, This is the cup of the … new covenant, sealed in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Covenant, covenant, covenant, covenant, covenant.

The whole thing is about what it means to live as part of the covenant people. And in the Bible, the covenant is often symbolized as a wedding. “I will be your God, and you will be my people” is essentially a wedding vow between God and the people. So whenever you come upon wedding imagery in the Bible, it is always worth seeing if the text is referring in a symbolic way to God’s covenant with us, that changes us for the better.

In John 2, where Jesus does the first of his signs, he and his disciples and his mother show up where?  At a wedding. That makes us wonder what this text might be saying about the covenant.  At the wedding, Jesus enacts a wondrous transformation (thanks to encouragement from his mother, we may notice) – turning 180 gallons of water into wine, and good wine at that. This was the first of Jesus’ 7 signs in the gospel of John, signs that point to God’s grace that changes us. The first sign that John wants us to see takes place at a wedding or a covenant ceremony, and the sign is one of transformation.

The covenant changes us.

Isaiah 62 is speaking to people who have just returned home from exile. They have known the forsakenness and desolation of being deported by the Babylonian Empire, of being forgotten and humiliated and taken advantage of. The exiles have known the humiliation of having a superpower step on their necks. Isaiah says to them, “No more. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land shall be called Married, for the Lord delights in you and your land shall be married.” The people have been forsaken and desolate, and now they will be characterized by delight and joy because of the God who has married them, is bound to them in covenant. The covenantal relationship with God will transform their lives.

When we sign on to the covenant, when we are baptized or when we have our children baptized, we are saying, “I want to be changed by God into the person God wants me to be.” We are offering ourselves to be changed by the relational God.  “Take me as I am,” we are saying to the Lord, “and summon out what I shall be.”  This is why the church wants to have a vibrant ministry of small groups, so that people can enter into this relational life in ways that are accessible to them.

And as the grace of God has its way with us, the fruits of the Spirit will begin to show forth in our lives.  I imagine that we will be, more and more, like Nathan Phillips, the 64-year-old Native American and Vietnam Vet who was mocked and taunted Friday at the Indigenous Peoples’ March at the Lincoln Memorial by a group of teenagers from a Christian high school.  Phillips said that he felt threatened, but he continued singing with dignity, and he said he could feel the spirit talking through him.  Now I do not know the details of Phillips’ religious tradition, but when Galatians 5 describes the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” I think it looks a lot like him.

We are being transformed by God. The covenant changes us, because grace changes us, into people who can stand up for what is right and do it in a way that is humble and grounded towards those with whom we disagree.  The wounds that life deals us will not leave us desolate and forsaken, but like the people in Isaiah 62, they become healed and transformed by the grace of God, so that our wounds can become places of healing for others.

This weekend we are remembering the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King’s life continues to invite us to transformation, as individuals and as a society. Dr. King lived his own life within the covenant, and the covenant changed him, too.  When King was 27 years old, he was involved in leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott against racial segregation, and was receiving death threats by phone and mail.  After midnight on January 27, 1956, he got a particularly threatening phone call.  He sat in his kitchen and he prayed, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.” King later said, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for righteousness’.” And he received a strange infusion of courage and strength to go on.

Life within the covenant changes us.  God’s grace changes us.  It does not necessarily make us successful or popular.  But it transforms us, from the inside out, so that we become agents of healing and justice and righteousness in a society that is hostile to the poor and which can seem to be unraveling.  God’s covenant of grace changes us, like ordinary water into the good wine of blessing.  To God alone be the glory.  Amen.