Living in the Covenant – Sermon 1 Lent 2012

February 26, 2012 at 9:19 am 1 comment

‘Living in the Covenant’

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

United and Salona Lutheran Churches

Sunday in 1 Lent

February 26, 2012

 

Yesterday, for his thirteenth birthday,

I took my son Michael up to Syracuse

to see the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the musical Les Miserables.

We tend to pass on our interests and our passions to our children.

Some children learn to go fishing and hunting

because their dad has taught them how.

Some enjoy certain foods or movies because they are family traditions.

My wife and I have music and literature to pass on to our children;

and I pass on my love for sports,

which I’m proud to say that Michael does not only like to watch sports,

but is more physically fit than I ever was.

So we made the trek to northcentral New York

to see the musical based upon a book written by the French author Victor Hugo in the early 1860s.

Les Miserables was translated very quickly into English,

and around the time of the battle of Gettysburg,

many officers and men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia

were carrying it around in their knapsacks.

Some sarcastically referred to themselves as ‘Lee’s Miserables.’

 

The main character of Les Miserables is a man named Jean Valjean,

who spent nineteen years on the chain gang:

His family desperate with hunger,

He broke into a bakery and stole a loaf of bread.

For that crime he served five years.

Fourteen years were added to that sentence for his attempts to escape.

Released at last, he finds nowhere to turn but to a kindly bishop,

who takes him in and feeds him for a night.

The embittered Valjean repays the bishop’s generosity by stealing some silver.

When he is caught, the bishop maintains Valjean’s innocence,

and says that he has forgotten the silver candlesticks the bishop has also given him.

Humbled by the bishop’s mercy,

and terrified by his own sin,

Valjean turns from his old life

and takes up a new name.

Within eight years he has become a factory owner

and the mayor of a small town in France.

 

But he finds that his identity cannot escape him.

He discovers that a man has been caught and identified

as the parole-breaker Jean Valjean,

and that this innocent man will receive a sentence

for the crime that he has committed.

The real Jean Valjean is confronted with a desperate choice.

He has responsibilities,

He has people dependent on him,

He has hidden himself so well that he would never be suspected.

He has done so well – living as an upright citizen and helping those in need.

And yet, he has made covenant with God to live for God.

Who is he? Can he escape from who he had been –

Or is he always the convict who must live as a convict,

bearing his shame and his name to save another?

 

The idea of covenant runs through the entire Bible.

Two parties who make a covenant agree to be faithful to that covenant,

to abide by the covenant,

no matter what may come.

This Lent, we will hear read several Old Testament covenants

that God made with his people,

including the covenant of the Ten Commandments:

God promises to be our God,

and we promise to be his people.

 

Today we heard of the covenant that God made with Noah and his descendants,

that never again would the inhabited earth be destroyed by the waters of a flood.

The sign of the covenant was the rainbow.

Nowadays the rainbow is supposed to symbolize diversity of people,

but that is not the biblical image.

Instead, it is God hanging up his bow,

renouncing this weapon –

never to be used again.

Perhaps that understanding has faded over the years,

but it can easily be recalled:

The rainbow is a sign of peace – peace between God and humanity.

 

The remarkable thing about this covenant is that it is unconditional.

In other covenants, there are stipulations when the covenant is broken

by one party or the other.

Not in this covenant.

God makes an everlasting covenant,

that the earth shall never be destroyed again by a flood.

God binds himself by his Word.

He declares his unbreakable intention toward humanity;

to preserve life, to continue life, to maintain life.

 

One wonders whether or not God ever had second thoughts.

Having witnessed the barbarism of humanity over the years,

how we haven’t changed since the time of Noah:

our cruelty to each other,

our ignorance of his commands,

our despoliation of his creation,

our pride and our despair and our indifference,

one would think that God would have ample reason to abrogate the covenant.

And yet, God remains faithful,

because he does not break his promises.

 

When Jesus is baptized, anointed with the Spirit,

And the Father declares, ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,’

The Spirit immediately drives him in the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The Gospel of Mark does not relate the content of the temptation.

But a more relevant question for us is ‘why?’

Why does temptation follow so quickly upon baptism?

Why, after the baptismal covenant is made,

is it immediately tested?

 

It is tested because only there can faithfulness be discerned.

The devil tests the Son’s faith in the covenant declaration about him.

Does God really have the ability to deliver on his covenant?

Jesus himself knows that God has hung his bow in the clouds –

That he will refuse to intervene even if Jesus suffers the death of the cross;

That God has chosen another way – the way of love –

To conquer human rebellion.

Satan asks – can you really trust God?

Wouldn’t it be safer – wouldn’t it be smarter – wouldn’t it be easier –

to rely on yourself rather than upon your Father?

 

We will hear more on this in the Gospel lesson next week.

But let us return to the fictional Jean Valjean.

He has a choice before him –

To give in to the temptation to hide behind the lie he has created –

A lie for a good purpose – but still a lie –

And to let an innocent man take his place;

Or to emerge into the full truth,

Living in the covenant that God made with Jean Valjean

And not with any other man:

‘I will be your Father, and you my adopted son.’

Does he trust that God will provide for him

even if he emerges into the light?

Or does he trust in himself,

in his own cunning, to steal another man’s meaningless life

for the sake of the good life he has created?

Wouldn’t it be safer? Wouldn’t it be smarter? Wouldn’t it be easier?

If the meeting with the bishop in the beginning of the story

was Valjean’s baptism,

then the scene where he appears before the court

and rips open his shirt to show the convict’s tattoo upon his chest

is his victory over temptation.

Valjean believes that God will keep covenant with him,

And so Valjean is empowered to keep covenant with God, no matter the cost.

And he does so throughout all the rest of the story.

'Who am I? I'm Jean Valjean!'

In doing so, Valjean follows in the steps of his master, Jesus.

For Jesus, alone among all of us,

Remained in the covenant which God made with him,

Trusting in the promises that God made,

No matter how distant or full of trouble they seemed.

And in Lent, we are invited,

Gathering around Word and Sacrament,

in fasting and prayer and works of love,

to live ever more deeply in the covenant God made with us

through Holy Baptism,

answering Valjean’s question, ‘Who am I?’

with the answer, ‘I am my sinful self,

but I am also the Father’s adopted child,

forgiven and claimed by his faithful Son,

and I will live each day in this trust and in this promise,

keeping covenant with the one who will always keep covenant with me.’


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Entry filed under: Lent, Sermons, Temptation. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

To Seek the Truth: Ash Wednesday 2012 ‘Living in the Covenant’ – audio

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