SJF • Lent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said to Abraham, I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
On this second Sunday in Lent we come to the second great Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures. Last week we witnessed God’s first covenant — the promise that the he would never again wipe out the world by a flood, and it was sealed with the sign of God’s own name in the heavenly rainbow. I noted last week that a covenant has two parts: an agreement between the parties, and a sign of that agreement, noting that the covenant with Noah was more or less one-sided: God made a promise to Noah and put the rainbow in the sky as a sign of that promise.
In the covenant God made with Abraham, however, we see a covenant in its complete form. God promises Abraham that he will be a father of nations, and promises him the land in which he dwells as a perpetual heritage. And this time around, the covenant is to be signed by Abraham in his own flesh, and the flesh of all of his descendants forever. I’m tempted to say that this time the shoe is on the other foot, but this sign involves an entirely different portion of the anatomy, and the less said about that the better. In fact, the editors of the lectionary were so sensitive and perhaps even squeamish about this that they actually left out all of the verses referring to circumcision, to Abraham’s side of the deal. But I have chosen to include them, however, because I think it is important to see that this covenant has a sign in addition to a promise — and the sign this time was a sign in flesh and blood; literally cutting a deal — which is the way the Hebrew authors consistently refer to making a covenant: a covenant is something you cut — and a cut almost always bleeds.
It is important, however, that we note that more flesh and blood is talked about here than merely that directly connected with sign of circumcision. Remember that the promise that God makes is that Abraham and Sarah, as old and barren as they are, and who are given new names as part of this covenant arrangement, will have flesh and blood descendants, starting with the son promised to Sarah. This couple, childless until their very old age (although Abram had fathered a child through Hagar, Sarai’s servant), would soon have a son of their own, Isaac, through whom the covenant blessing would continue, a sign of the promise revealed in flesh and blood.
There is a great promise here, a promise from God, but it costs Abraham something — it costs him and his descendants forever some pain and some blood, as a sign of the covenant which is to be marked in their flesh forever. It is a covenant that requires some personal sacrifice.
And so it would also be with the covenant that God establishes with us in Christ Jesus. In the Gospel passage today Jesus tries to explain to his disciples just how costly salvation will be — costly to him, as he endures suffering, rejection and death, before he comes to the resurrection in that crowning glory. Peter tries to rebuke him — this is too much for him, too much of a sacrifice, even though it is not he who is making it — but Jesus insists in no uncertain terms that there is a cost to this new covenant, this New Testament in his blood. The cost that he will pay is his life, and he tells Peter and the other disciples that this is the cost to them as well. If they wish to save their lives they must lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. They must deny themselves, their very selves — who and what they are in every sense of the word — and take up their own cross and follow him.
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As you know, every time I baptize a child here at this font I also mark them on the forehead with oil blessed by the bishop, saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” As the hymn we just sang says, “Each newborn servant of the Crucified bears on the brow the seal of him who died.” The early church regarded this anointing with oil and baptism with water as our Christian version of circumcision — an unbloody circumcision marked not in the flesh but by the Holy Spirit. And so it is that even the youngest infant, baptized into this new life, takes up his or her cross to begin to follow Jesus, even before they can walk, as a sign of their own baptismal covenant.
This should not seem so strange to us who worship as our Lord one who first came among us as an infant in a manger. Just as a child was promised to Abraham and Sarah, a child was promised to us, a son given to us, who lived as one of us and died as one of us, but then rose victorious from the grave; and it is through him that we also share the promise of that rising from the dead. Abraham signed this covenant with his own blood; and God signed this new covenant, this new baptismal covenant through Jesus Christ — God signed this covenant in his own blood, the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We bear the mark of his suffering — his cross — on our foreheads, perhaps invisible as it is marked with holy oil, but it does show up when we are signed with ashes at the beginning of Lent — the minister acting almost like a detective dusting with ashes that reveal God’s fingerprints upon us — each and every one. It is a sign of the covenant we have with God, and God with us, the sign of the cross. That sign is always there, even if you cannot see it, the sign of God’s covenant with you, and you with God, in Christ Jesus our Lord — it is the sign of the saving cross, marked on your own body. Remember it, take it up every day; remember him, and follow him, who is our Lord and our God, who suffered for our salvation and rose from the dead that we might have new life in him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.