COVENANT AND BAPTISM
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Isa 55:1-9; Ps 63:1-8; 1 Cor 10:1-13; Luke 13: 1-9.
The Third Sunday in Lent in the Orthodox church is celebrated with the Adoration of the Cross. I would like to begin today by sharing with you a prayer from its Vespers service:
Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross, O bright paradise of the Church, O Tree of incorruption, thou who didst bring forth for us the enjoyment of glory everlasting, through whom the hosts of devils are driven out, the ranks of angels rejoice together, and the congregations of believers celebrate, O unconquerable weapon and impregnable foundation, the triumph of kings and the pride of Priests, grant us to apprehend the Passion of Christ and his Resurrection.
Let us pause for a moment to consider six features of this prayer:
- In the Protestant world, Adoration of the Cross is not a familiar practice. This prayer, however, gives us an inkling of the beauty that the ancient practice displays through its focus on the participation of all creation in salvation history. The cross, for instance, is celebrated as a “Tree of Incorruption,” that is, The Tree of Life.
- The church is described as a “bright paradise.” We should always remember that those of us who live in the church live in paradise.
- In the supernatural reality of the Christian world, we need to take notice of the activity of devils and angels in the created order. We can hardly do so while denying their existence.
- The cross is an “unconquerable weapon,” if we know how and where to use it. The cross is also the “impregnable foundation” of our belief.
- When we hear the word priests, we should remember that we are the ones being talked about, for all believers belong to God’s holy priesthood (I Pet 2:5).
- We apprehend “the Passion of Christ and his Resurrection” by the grace of God, not by our own efforts.
I hope you will agree that this one prayer, from a different branch of the universal church, says a good deal about the faith we hold in trust for each other and for our heirs. Lent is the natural occasion for us to consider the treasury of good things we hand down from generation to generation, because Easter is the day when traditionally candidates for baptism come into the church and receive from us these treasures.
One of the first of the treasures “handed on” during preparation for baptism is the expression of our faith in the form of the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostle’s Creed is familiar to us: we say it here in our church every week. Repeating this simple act of recitation as our response to the Word is one way that we preserve and pass on our faith: the creed is a rich storehouse of the beliefs of the church and will reward a lifetime of study. Among its many virtues is its doctrinal reliability as a guide to reading the Bible.
Today I want to focus attention on how we read the Bible. We say the Bible is the Word of God, by which we mean, when we read the Bible, God speaks to us. The printing press was a wonderful discovery, and many copies of the Bible have been printed over the past 500 years. Still, as the priesthood of all believers, we need to know how to read it. God, as is true of all authors, organizes his narrative, and his narrative moves forward, from beginning to end. We need to know where we are in the narrative to know the meaning of what we are reading.
One series of signposts used to mark the way is the covenants God makes with his people throughout the course of salvation history. We recall last week the imagery of the covenant being sealed in Genesis 15: 7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away… 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
The role of the covenants is significant, perhaps central to understanding the unity of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but seldom well explained. Familiarity with the progress of covenants will make “handing on” of our faith all the more complete.
A covenant is an agreement made between two parties. It can be a treaty or a land grant. Treaties come with conditions tied to them; grants are generally irrevocable. The Lord’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:5-21; 17:1-14) is one of at least five covenants God entered into with his people: he also entered into covenants with Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:9-17), Moses (Exodus 2:24; 33:1) David (2 Samuel 7:12), and the New Covenant announced by Jesus the Messiah (Luke 22:20, Matt 26:28). Some include in this list an Adamic “covenant of works” and a future covenant of the Kingdom, making for a total of seven. Others, John Calvin among them, recognize only one covenant that is confirmed, renewed and ratified on several occasions. Calvin argues that “the faithful mercies of David” carry across changes in outward form, such as sacrifices, the temple, or circumcision. The way of salvation, Calvin says, is the same throughout salvation history; this is why we can make the identification of the nation of Israel, when it includes Jew and Gentile, with the church.
Nevertheless, over the several thousand years of salvation history, the outward form of things significantly changed, as did the covenants. The covenant made with Abrahm was a grant covenant, an everlasting covenant, made on the basis of one person’s faith; the covenant with Moses was structured as a treaty: its blessings were conditioned and granted to a nation, regardless of the faith of its people. Failure to keep the Mosaic covenant results in the withdrawal of blessings and their replacement with curses. The blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, however, remain in effect, being passed down by inheritance, and God maintains a remnant of the righteous to inherit these blessings.
Let us now turn to Isaiah 55:1-9 and the abundance of God’s provision, where the prophet invites “All that are thirsty” to “come to the waters.” John Calvin comments, “under these words, “waters, milk, wine, bread,” Isaiah includes all that is necessary for spiritual life; for the metaphors are borrowed from those kinds of food which are in daily use amongst us. As we are nourished by “bread, wine, milk, and water,” so in like manner let us know that our souls are fed and supported by the doctrine of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, and other gifts of Christ.” This is unmistakably a New Covenant text, in which Jesus invites us to “listen carefully” to him, so we might receive its blessings.
The gift of the Spirit is a New Covenant blessing. The Spirit is given to Jesus, the Davidic king, who is the Messiah; it is the Spirit who leads Jesus out into the Wilderness of Lent, and the Spirit who remains with him through his ministry and resurrection. Jesus, following his Ascension, in turn hands on the blessing of the Spirit to his church, on the Day of Pentecost. The Spirit has been active throughout creation history, but it is uniquely bestowed by Jesus to both Jew and Gentile. The promise – an everlasting covenant – “is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:39).
To what extent this covenant varies from the previous covenants of God to his people is a topic of much study. God has shared his grace with his people throughout all of creation history, yet the Jerusalem temple and its sacrifices, the very center of the Israel’s religious practice, take on a different, more “spiritual” meaning in the life of the church. Certainly the sign of circumcision, commanded in Genesis 17, is followed in the church of the new covenant by the sign of baptism. Jesus himself inaugurates the practice of baptism in the Great Commission, when he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
The Abrahamic circumcision was a sign unconnected to the spiritual condition of a person’s heart. A person had to born to Jewish parents or brought as a servant into a Jewish household in order to be circumcised. Every male meeting one of these two conditions was circumcised, regardless of his righteousness. In contrast, the New Covenant extends to all who believe and is necessary to participate in the life of the church (Acts 16:31). Infants are baptized in the presence of a community whose promises hold their place in the New Covenant until they grow old enough to confirm belief for themselves. This belief is accomplished by the Spirit, which resides in the person’s heart.
Individual righteousness is stressed in the New Covenant. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, addresses our need for continual repentance, even though we have been baptized. Paul makes the point that we often fail to satisfy the covenant conditions put in place by God. He uses the illustration of the Israelites who followed Moses: they underwent blessings analogous to our sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, crossing the Red Sea and receiving the heavenly manna, but still sinned. In their case, judgment followed blessing, “as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.” As Paul warns, “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Luke’s gospel brings together the “abundance of good things” that the Prophet Isaiah recounts and the need for “repentance” taught by Paul.“Unless you repent, you will all perish,” Jesus says, and “then he told this parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.
So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’
He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.
If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
Through God’s grace, we are individually able to repent, and produce good fruit, as we live out what it means to turn our habits away from barrenness and death and toward life-giving discipleship. As we embrace the way of Jesus, as we turn to the church in this age and the eternal kingdom of the age to come, it becomes our joy to learn as much as we can about the faith we strive to live out, endeavoring to satisfy its standards of righteousness, with all who have come before us. And it becomes a joy to hand on our faith through the richness of discipleship!
Let us conclude with two thoughts: First, the ordered structure of the covenants should not be viewed as antithetical to “religion of the heart.” Pietism is as integral to authentic Christian practice as is the theological understanding necessary to hand on the richness of our faith. Both are beautiful expressions of the living tradition we participate in. Second, human nature will doubt that God really keeps the promises he makes through his word. Abrahm, we remember, had doubts; but when God spoke to him and gave him his Word, Abrahm believed, and his belief was counted as righteousness. Likewise, God has given us his word. And he has given us the Spirit, that we might listen to his word. The Spirit, for instance, enables us to hear and take to heart the words of Psalm 63, which is a Psalm of trust: “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you… my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, my mouth praises you with joyful lips.” Therefore, let us believe, and be blessed, by the grace of God. Amen.