Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
This Sunday, we give special recognition to Martin Luther and the Reformation. Reformation Sunday is an annual event in our Church Year, but it is only every six or seven years that the celebration takes place on the anniversary date of Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This is one of those years.
“The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah.” These words begin the Old Testament lesson for Sunday. When many people read them, they immediately think of the Christian faith as the promised new covenant, or perhaps they think specifically of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Many other people don’t make those connections — they stop at the word “covenant.”
It is a seldom-used word outside the church, but it is used. In fact, it appears in even the smallest dictionaries. The word is often thought to mean simply a promise, but it is more than that. It is a promise by solemn agreement. Good synonyms would include pact, contract, treaty or agreement, but these can also be misleading. Most, if not all, human agreements are reciprocal — both parties have something to offer and something to gain. God’s covenants differ dramatically. He has everything to offer and nothing to gain and we have nothing to offer and everything to gain.
I believe that God’s two covenants are more than similar. At their essence, they are the same. Both are initiated entirely by God’s love, based on His grace, and pledged by His Word. Both transform normal human beings into His own chosen and holy people. The old covenant has been compared to a non- aggression pact between a large, powerful nation and a small, helpless one. It has also been illustrated as a marriage. Given the totally underprivileged status of women in that day, and if you can imagine a totally other-directed, perfect-loving and unselfish husband, the image fits. However, most marriages are entered into on the basis of a misplaced period and most divorces come as a result of the same thing. People get married saying, “I will love you if . . .” or “I love you because . . .” An unspoken part of the agreement is, “But I won’t love you if . . .” or “I’m divorcing you because . . .” God puts the period much earlier in His sentence: “I love you.”
Joe Harding told the following story in his sermon, “A More Excellent Way.” It is a story worth repeating.
One Friday morning, a man told his wife that he had decided to go to his boss and request a long overdue raise. Naturally, he was nervous and apprehensive. Toward the end of the day, he finally got up the courage to approach his boss and, to his pleasant surprise, the employer readily agreed that he was due an increase in salary.
When he arrived home, he noticed that the dining room table was set with the best dishes. Long candles were burning with a soft, romantic light. His wife had prepared a festive meal. He immediately assumed that someone from the office must have phoned her to tell her that he got the raise. He went into the kitchen, and told her the splendid details. They kissed and then sat down to a delicious and wonderful meal. Beside his plate was a beautifully lettered note which read, “Congratulations, Darling, I knew you’d get the raise! These things will tell you how much I love you.”
When their feast approached its conclusion, the wife got up to get dessert. He noticed something fall from her pocket — a second note. He bent over, picked it up, and read, “Don’t worry about not getting the raise, Darling, you deserved it anyway! These things will tell you how much I love you.” Two very different notes, but you notice that the period was in the right place in both.
Beside the Holy Meal this Sunday will sit a note from St. Paul that reads, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Beside that note is Jesus’ message: “These things will show you how much I love you.”
I said the two covenants were essentially the same. One difference between them is in the security that is pledged. When you make a mortgage loan at a bank, you make a down payment and then put the deed to your house up as security that you will keep your word and pay the money back. People have been forced to sign treaties in their own blood as a sign that they put their very lives on the line to back up their word.
God’s agreement with Israel was backed by His Word and sealed with the blood of animals, not Israelites. The new covenant is backed by God’s Word-Made-Flesh and sealed in His blood. Jesus’ words, “This cup is the new agreement in my blood,” are packed with meaning. He does not say, “with your blood,” as it should be, or “with animal blood,” as it could be. He says, “with my blood” lest we ever question where the period comes in His love for us.
Feddersen’s Fables has the story about a man who grew weary of telling the same old bedtime stories to his daughter. He bought her a record player and very polished recordings of all her favorites. A few days later he discovered she was sadly disappointed with the records, as she pleaded with him to read the stories himself. He said, “But I bought you those wonderful records and fine record player.” “Yes,” she said, “But the record player doesn’t have a lap.” In the old covenant, God gave the people His Word — it was enough — it was all they ever needed to trust and believe. In the new covenant — in Jesus Christ — God gave us His Word with a lap.
Because our covenants are almost always designed for mutual benefit, and because people often try to get the best of the bargain, even by hook or crook, we are suspicious also of God and try to find His small print. It isn’t there, but over the centuries people have continuously fabricated their own various additions and then attributed them to, or blamed them on God. That was the situation that confronted Martin Luther in 1517 and it still haunts us today.
For whatever reason we can’t seem to get the message from our heads to our hearts that God’s gifts come to us absolutely free. Therefore, we imagine that God has something to gain from a relationship with us, that we can do something to earn His gifts or must do something to keep them. When we hear that God has chosen us and given us His gifts for a purpose we think we have found the “catch” in His bargain. The fact that God’s purposes are always to our benefit — not His — gets lost in our vain imaginings that we somehow have to do something to benefit Him.
What gifts am I talking about? Well, there are the little things like the universe and all its resources which we are to discover, harvest, glean, maintain and manage in a partnership with the Creator. Then there are the personal things like life, new life, eternal life, and the opportunity to grow into all the marvelous potential that is ours. The fascinating thing is that God blesses our management of His gifts so that they grow into more and better gifts. One of life’s great truths is that you can’t out-give God.
Here is an interesting thought on the grace of the Giver. God generously gives us 24 hours in a day. In Old and New Testament times people thought of sunset rather than sunrise as the beginning of the day. We might think that strange, but it gives us a marvelous perspective on the Giver of hours. How many employers would give us 24 hours to manage and then promptly give us the first eight or twelve off? Yet, at every minute of every day, some LCMS representative is telling the Good News about Jesus. The sun never sets on The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, its partners and its missionaries around the world. More importantly, the Light of God’s love and grace shines wherever His Word is shared. Share it