God Comes Near - Remembering the Covenant

Philippians 1: 3-11       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 1: 68-79   December 9, 2018

“Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant.”

Prayer:  As you draw near, O God, let us remember your promises.  Amen.

A couple of weeks ago, I told stories of Allen Myer and Sandy Spayd as we remembered their lives and asked everyone to remember and continue telling their stories.

And, last week, many people remembered “41,” the late President George Hebert Walker Bush as his stories were told even though not one story about his shortcoming was told. I’m sure they were there.  We all have them.  I didn’t always agree with him politically, but certainly, after hearing the speeches, eulogies, testimonies, and stories, I had a deeper appreciation for him.

Memories help keep loved ones alive in our consciousness—in our heart and soul.  To remember their stories, we become mindful of them again, and we keep their spirit, their life, their loves alive in us.

In a similar way, the gift of memory also helps keep God’s word alive in our hearts and minds.  That’s what helps keep the spirit, the life, the power of God’s covenant alive in us.

Let’s see what this covenant is all about.  A covenant is a promised-based relationship, one which God promises to be our God, and we promise to be God’s people.  Both sides promise to live with each other and with one another showing values of a healthy relationship—both practice justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, and compassion.  These are the values that God loves and delights in.  And, God is always faithful to the covenant.

People, on the other hand, sometimes are not. Because of that,  all through the Hebrew scriptures, God renews the covenant with people, even though they blow it perpetually. 

And, living in today’s world, our lives are inundated with values of a different sort causing many in of us to blow it perpetually, too.  In contrast to the values God delights in, we constantly see and hear worldly values of national greatness, wealth, imperialism, security, and strength through power and violence.  As a result, it’s always a challenge  for us, as people of faith, to keep at bay the worldly values and to remember and to align ourselves with the values God delights in.

For God’s part of covenant keeping, several hundred years before Jesus was born, God made a covenant with King David and the Israelite nation that there would always be someone from David’s lineage on the throne.  Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah all foretold the birth of one who would usher in a new era of peace and safety from enemies.  This heir to the throne would have the marks of what God loves and delights in.  The coming Messiah would be merciful, just, righteous, have steadfast love, faithfulness, and compassion.  The One coming would save the people from their bondage, their oppression, their enemies.

So, the people over the centuries, were waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.  They waited, and waited and waited.  Meanwhile, the Roman government continually grew more powerful and impoverished them and oppressed them all the more.  The Jews were the minority, the under-privileged.  Some didn’t believe the coming Messiah would even come. But, some remembered God’s covenant.  A few kept it alive in their consciousness—in their heart and soul.

That’s what’s going on in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel.  About that time, the old priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is visited by the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a boy, and his name is to be John.  He will be great in God’s sight.  He will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  And, he will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Ol’ Zac has a hard time believing the angel because he and Elizabeth are well past child-bearing years.  And Gabriel doesn’t take Zechariah’s disbelief lightly.  He immediately renders Zac mute.  And, he stays that way until the day of John’s birth.  When the baby was born, the people helping Elizabeth encouraged her to name the child Zechariah, after her husband.  But, she said, “No, he is to be called John.”  They said, “But, no one in your family has that name.”  So, they asked Zechariah what name he wanted the baby to have.  With a tablet, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.”  And, immediately Zechariah could talk!  He was filled with the Holy Spirit, praised God, and spoke the words of his prophecy we heard today (see Luke 1: 5-25, 57-79).

Perhaps Zechariah is reminded of Gabriel’s words, but he mostly seems to remember the covenant God made long ago with his ancestors, a covenant he and most of Israel wanted fulfilled and were waiting for.  That God’s realm is coming near.  A mighty savior is coming to save them from enemies and from all who hate them.  And, they would be able to worship God and serve God in peace and in safety.  Thus God showed the mercy promised to their ancestors and remembered the covenant made long ago.

As Christians, we believe and understand that God renews the covenant again—a new covenant is made through Jesus Christ.  That covenant is God’s promise to fulfill the old covenant by granting salvation, to give us abundant, holy love, to always be present, and to free us from the consequences of sin—which is death of our inner spirit and to have Christ Jesus forever our Lord and our God—that covenant is still active today.  It’s still at work today.  That covenant begins with the birth of Jesus Christ.

As we get ready for Christmas, as we shop, as we decorate, as we have holiday get-togethers, for our part of covenant-keeping, I encourage us to keep in our minds that God faithfully remembers the covenant made to humanity… God comes near us in the birth of Jesus Christ.  God comes near us now, right where we are, in our circumstances in our adversities, and in our joyous moments.

Now, it’s not enough that we are mindful that God remembers the covenant with us.  We have to remember our responsibility to the covenant, as well.  We can use God’s faithfulness to the covenant as a role model for our faithfulness to the covenant to God and with each other.

And yes, I think God comes near as we remember the covenant.  When we live it, when we let love overflow, when we grow in knowledge and insight, then we realize God comes near.  We become the harvest of righteousness for someone else, God comes near. When another person experiences the beauty and holiness of God’s covenant because we’re living  it our, God comes near.

A chaplain named Jeanne Olsen was forewarned by the nurses not to go into a hospital room because Butch, the patient was an angry, obnoxious, rude man who loved Harley Davidson motorcycles.  “So be it,” Chaplain Jeanne said.  “I’ll be the next one booted out, or not.”  She went in.  She saw Butch was wearing a Harley T-shirt and started talking with Butch about motorcycles.  About the annual Harley gathering.  She made the connection with him.  In conversation, she found out he had AIDS, how he got it, why he is angry about it.  At the end of the visit, Chaplain Jeanne said, “I’ll check back tomorrow.  If you want me to come in, say yes.  If not, say no.”  He said, “You can come back.”  She did, for several days.

One day, Butch asked, “Do you know what I do when the pain is so bad I can hardly stand it?  I turn to him,” he said pointing at a crucifix.  “I didn’t know you knew him,” Chaplain Jeanne said.  “Oh yes,  I went to Sunday school as a kid.  He comforts me.  He does.  I guess I’m returning to my childhood faith.”  “Yes, Butch,” she said as she put her hand on his very thin arm.  He died two days later.  A nurse said that his last expression was a smile (Olsen, Jeanne, Christian Century, November 21, 2018, p. 24).  Butch was remembering the covenant.  So was Chaplain Jeanne.  And God came near.  Right there.  In that hospital room.

Friends, we have the basics of a covenantal faith, one that we’re invited to remember, to practice to live out.  I close with one last acknowledgement of the late President George H. W. Bush.  When he began is presidency, a the beginning of his inauguration speech, he began with a prayer.  I totally forgot that!  President Bush’s prayer thanked God for God’s love.  He asked for God’s help in keeping peace through faith, to do God’s work and will, and to use power not for our own purposes, but for the purpose of helping and serving people.  At the end he prayed, “Help us remember, Lord.”

Let us be quiet and remember the covenant.