Sermons That Work

Covenant Is an Interesting Word, Epiphany 1 (A) – 2008

January 13, 2008

“Covenant” is an interesting word. Mind you Episcopalians hear so much about the “Baptismal Covenant” nowadays that it is in danger of becoming one of those pious slogans often used and seldom contemplated.

When The Book of Common Prayer was revised in the 1970s, some of the leading thinkers in our church were developing a new emphasis on baptism and its place in our faith. A new emphasis doesn’t mean something newly invented. In the sixteenth century some of our Anglican reformers who had spent time in exile in Switzerland eating chocolate and cheese and listening to a preacher called John Calvin came home and talked and preached a lot about Covenant. Anglicans were reminded that all are called into God’s new world.

Even then there was nothing new about it all. The Old and New Testaments are full of language about God’s agreement with human beings. Of course the word “testament” means “covenant” and the word “covenant” is something like our word “will.” The only difference is that God isn’t dead, and we still get to inherit. In a manner we can’t fathom, a manner that makes us gasp with mental pain, we know that Jesus sealed this covenant when he died on the cross “for our sins and for the sins of the whole world.”

Today’s gospel is about Jesus’ encounter with his cousin John the Baptist at the River Jordan. John would horrify our ushers if he turned up in church today. He wore a smelly old camel skin, didn’t cut his hair, probably only washed when he waded in the Jordan — more a stream than a river — and ate an extraordinary diet.

Even worse, John the Baptist was blunt. Yes, we all say that we like blunt people. No we don’t! We may know where we stand with them, but who wants to stand feeling guilty? John had been telling off every part of the community and urging them to “repent”; literally to turn around and walk in a new direction. He even told off the equivalent of bishops, priests, vestries and even General Convention. In the end, his bluntness cost him his head.

Jesus meets this wild-looking preacher at the river and asks to be baptized. John doesn’t want to do it. He knows that his cousin needs no baptism, doesn’t need to turn around. He knows that his cousin is “good.” The word “good” and “God” in English are closely associated. The translation is telling.

As Jesus is baptized a voice is heard by some, and they believe that they are hearing God, and God is acknowledging that Jesus is in a unique manner God’s son.

What has all this to do with a covenant? Probably all of you have been baptized. When water was poured on your heads, God adopted you. You are now children of God and heirs of God’s world, God’s kingdom.

On each of our foreheads there is an invisible sign, marked in holy oil, which signifies that we have been adopted by God and become members of Christ. In the Christian vocabulary, the word “member” doesn’t mean someone who joins, but rather, as St Paul reminds us, it means someone who is joined to Someone. Like the limbs and organs of a human body, we are joined to Jesus and to each other.

Being joined to Jesus in a sense means that we share in who Jesus is. Jesus is described as being, among other things, prophet, priest, and king.

The Covenant means then that first, because we are joined to Jesus, through baptism, we are to be members of a “prophetic” community. That doesn’t mean that we go around making up new things. A prophet is someone who says “This is what God says.” We learn what God says in the scriptures, and above al, as we seek to live as Jesus lived. We belong to a forgiving, loving, caring Jesus-community. Our job is to tell the world that God is love and God is forgiveness. Telling also means living, and living means being practical and demonstrating where we are what a loving, forgiving, caring community looks like.

The Covenant means that because we are joined to Jesus through baptism we are members of a “priestly” community. Priests represent people to God and represent God to people, normally in Jewish and Christian tradition in rituals and meals. As priests, we say to the world, “Here is God loving you through Jesus.” We say to God, “Here is the world yearning to be loved through Jesus.” In the Eucharist we bid the world to eat and drink with God and to receive God’s Son through the Spirit.

The Covenant means that because we are joined to Jesus through baptism, we are members of a “kingly” community. Kings, or at least good kings, rule the earth for God and for everyone. Jesus is the Good King. In Jesus we are to care for the earth, guard it from exploitation, and in Jesus we are to care for all beings, human and animal, and love and serve them sacrificially.

So that invisible mark on our forehead shows that we are Covenant people. Yet two other points must be remembered. Alone we cannot be or do any of these Covenant things. Alone we “err and stray.” We are to act like God’s people, and when we fail we are to repent and ask God to forgive us and renew us. Secondly, we need feeding if we are to grow in strength. If baptism begins our Covenant life, in the Eucharist we receive Jesus into the very core and fiber of our beings as we dwell in Him and He dwells in us.

Inheritance is one thing, a very wonderful thing. God’s Covenant tells us that we have inherited God’s Word, God’s sacraments, and God’s world. Yet we must also listen to John the Baptist. Unlike Jesus, we have need to turn around and walk in God’s ways all the days of our lives. Only then will we receive the Baptismal Covenant with thanksgiving. So be it.

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Christopher Sikkema


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