Have you seen the weather forecast for this week? Temperatures will be dropping to – 60 degrees centigrade. Winds exceeding 100 mph. No sunlight for months on end. Imagine surviving in those conditions without shelter, without heat, without clothes. Its hard to believe but some do, indeed they have adapted and thrive in such conditions. Every aspect of the Emperor Penguin’s life is tough, for the bird is the southernmost species and breeds on the ice-bound Antarctic land mass. What it takes to do this is remarkable.
At the end of the Antarctic summer, in March, the birds flop out of the Southern Ocean where they have been assiduously stuffing themselves, and begin a long trek to their mating grounds, up to 70 miles away. Thousands gradually come together, tramping over the ice in long single files like patrols of infantry. But that’s only the beginning. After courtship and pairing, the female bird produces a single egg, and then one of nature’s great curtains comes down.
A six-month [winter] dark descends, and the temperature drops with it, to minus 60 and [lower] – and the female bird departs. She has gone without food for so long – and the effort of producing the egg has been so great – that she must return to the sea to feed. The task of incubating the egg, in the harshest conditions on earth, falls to the males. When blizzards arrive, with 100 mph winds in a nightmare of [24 hour] frozen dark, [they] huddle round together in great groups to keep a minimum of warmth…
Most survive, and so do their eggs, kept secure and warm in a fold of abdominal skin just above their feet. After 60 days of this, the eggs hatch. The male then feeds the tiny chick at first with a milky substance, then eventually the female returns to take over, recognising her mate by call. How do the penguins survive 100 mph winds and -60 degree temperatures? By taking turns at standing on the outer edge of the crowd where it is coldest, and then moving back in to the relative warmth and shelter of the huddle.
It seems to me to be a vivid natural illustration of what God intends human society to be. A supernatural window on what his Covenant people, the Church, have been called to be, to show those who are spiritually cold, lost and alone in the dark, how to find the way home to the warmth, the comfort and light of the Father’s embrace.
God’s rescue plan for the world began a long time ago with Abraham. From Abraham, God was going to build a family of faith who would become an entire nation who in turn would lead the whole world back to God. That is the context for the covenant God makes with Abraham in Genesis 17. Our series is entitled “What Abraham Discovered” and today our theme is “El Shaddai – the God who Covenants.” Lets explore the passage and ask three questions:
- What did the Covenant mean for Abraham?
- What did the Covenant mean for God’s people?
- What does the Covenant mean for us today?
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:1-8)
The covenant God made in Genesis 15, which we explored last week, is here renewed and expanded. Nine times the Lord refers to it as “my covenant”. God initiates it (17:1), God confirms it (17:2) and God establishes it (17:7). The language also echoes the covenant God made with Adam and Noah to serve him, multiply and fill the earth. God is revealed by the name El Shaddai – “God the Mountain one” emphasizing his invincible power to accomplish his will. He is El Shaddai – the God who can. And God gives Abram a new name as well, Abraham, and promises three things:
1. Children: “the father of many nations” (17:2-4)
2. Significance: “Kings will come from you” (17:6)
3. Inheritance: “The land of Canaan” (17:8)
And notice in verse 5, God uses the past tense “I have made you a father of many nations” (17:5). This is not describing a future aspiration but an established fact. This is because it is an eternal covenant – “an everlasting covenant” (17:7) – a covenant that God will keep for eternity. But notice also it was a conditional covenant “Walk before me and be blameless” (17:1)… “you must keep my covenant” (17:9)… failure to do so would result in them being “cut off from his people” for they would have “broken my covenant” (17:14). So this covenant is everlasting but it is also conditional, requiring personal, individual adherence. This is what the covenant meant to Abraham. A new relationship with God that warranted a new name, the supernatural promise of a son, Isaac, and through him, the birth of a nation, a homeland, and ultimately, a world-wide family of many nations. We addressed the promise of an inheritance last week in Genesis 15. Today I want to develop the idea of the covenant God made with Abraham and ask,
2. What did this Covenant mean for God’s People?
In the progressive revelation of God’s will, we see hisl covenant with his people was intended to be inclusive and evangelistic. The prophet Isaiah amplifies the promise God made to Abraham.
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
A little later through Isaiah, God promises his people,
“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6).
In Acts 13 the Apostle Peter quotes from Isaiah 49 as the justification for the Apostles taking the gospel to the other nations, something Orthodox Jews saw as incomprehensible.
“’I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” (Acts 13:47).
This was necessary because Israel had taken their relationship with God for granted, their residence in the land as a right, and circumcision as a sign of their superiority over the other nations. And so they lost the plot – they lost sight of their purpose. That is why through the prophet Jeremiah, God pronounced that radical surgery was necessary to deal with their waywardness, indeed their wickedness.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
This New Covenant was inaugurated through the death of the Lord Jesus, and announced the night before he died at the Last Supper: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20).
And when Jesus declared “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12), he was asserting that he would accomplish what God had intended Israel to be. Jesus chose 12 Apostles to bring the light to the Gentiles as the 12 tribes of Israel had failed. Far from having an exclusive relationship with God, Peter warned the Jewish people, soon after the Day of Pentecost, if they refused to recognise Jesus as their Messiah, they would cease to be the people of God,
‘Anyone who does not listen to him (Christ) will be completely cut off from among his people.’ (Acts 3:23)
In the New Testament the term ‘chosen’ and ‘chosenness’ is exclusively applied to those who believe in Jesus Christ.
‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.’ (Colossians 3:12)
The promise made to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations was literally fulfilled in and through the Church of all nations.
The Apostle Paul amplifies this in Romans 4.
“It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. … so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring… He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God.” (Romans 4:13-17)
As we saw last week, in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul reiterates this profound truth.
“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)
So does God have one people or two? Is there one covenant or two covenants? There is only one. The Church has not replaced Israel because the Church is Israel. The New Covenant has superseded the Old Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews makes this plain:
“For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant… By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:7-8, 13)
So the covenant promises made to Abraham were fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ. And the blessings of that covenant are for all who trust in Him by faith not race. God is building a new family on earth – made up of every race and every language – one new family who are the spiritual children of Abraham. Abraham has indeed become the father of many nations just as God promised. We have considered what the covenant meant for Abraham and what the covenant means for God’s people.
3. What does the Covenant mean for us Today?
Repeated surveys show that people are longing for a sense of family and community. There are many factors that have fragmented the family in our culture: In our mobile society, people have few roots, they rarely are born, live, work and die in the same community. We are no longer surrounded by an extended family of aunts and uncles, grandparents, and brothers and sisters that provided a safety net for our parents or grandparents. A Gallup survey recently revealed how ‘Friendship Boosts Church Attendance’. The “best friend” factor is the tie that binds many people to their church community. Apart from family members, 39% of respondents said their “best friend” attends the same church. Gallup points to the impact of this in several areas:
• Community life: The best friends in the same congregation attend more regularly than loners, 72% at least once a week compared to 51% whose best friend attends a different church.
• Belonging: Best friends in the same church feel more connected to the congregation (84% to 71%) and feel like the leaders care for them (82% to 67%).
• Faith: Best friends in the same church feel closer to God and display a more integrated faith. They are more likely to worship and pray daily (69% to 51%) and say their faith is involved in all of life (74% to 54%).
Our Church is a Family
There are many analogies for a Christian disconnected from a church: A player without a team; a soldier without a platoon; a sheep without a flock. But the most understandable (and biblical) picture is that of a child without a family.
God does not want his children growing up in isolation, so he created a spiritual family for us. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” (Ephesians 2:19)
C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay on church membership, reminding us that the word “membership” is of Christian origin. Despite the fact that its now largely associated with secular clubs and institutions, in the first instance it actually describes our membership of and participation in the Christian family. That is why at Christ Church we have adopted a membership covenant which was first introduced to the Church of England in the 1950s. We will be inviting you to renew your annual membership of Christ Church on Easter Sunday. I will be explaining it in more detail on Palm Sunday, but if you want to know more, check out the church website. www.cc-vw.org The fact is the Church of Jesus Christ provides us with benefits we cannot find anywhere else in the world:
Worship helps me focus on God. It prepares me spiritually and emotionally for the week ahead.
Fellowship helps me face life’s problems by providing the support and encouragement of other Christians.
Discipleship helps me fortify my faith by learning the truth of God’s Word and applying biblical principles to my lifestyle.
Ministry helps me find and develop my talents and use them in serving others.
Evangelism helps me fulfill my mission of reaching my friends and family for Christ.
There are numerous benefits to membership: Rick Warren highlights five:
- It identifies me as a genuine believer (Ephesians 2:19).
- It provides a spiritual family to support and encourage me in my walk with Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25).
- It gives me a place to discover and use my spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-27).
- It places me under the spiritual protection of spiritual leaders (Hebrews 13:17).
- It gives me the accountability I need to grow (Ephesians 5:21).
When God promised Abraham, he would be ‘the father of many nations’ he wasn’t exaggerating. When God promised to establish an eternal covenant with Abraham’s descendents, he had you and me in mind. What the weather is going to be like this coming is your guess as good as mine. It probably won’t be as severe as that experienced by the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, the principle we learn from them, as much as from God’s covenant with Abraham is that we worship an Almighty God, El Shaddai, a God who is near, a God who is able to protect and provide, a God who can and does answer prayers, a God who has called us into a family to care for one another, and one day, a God who,
“He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)