Page last updated



The Covenant
by Rev. Thomas Hall
based on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

I recently watched an intriguing movie. Not much hype about it, but a very interesting story. Instead of following someone’s journey through their life as many movies do, in this story we follow the life of a violin as it passes through generations of owners during its 250 year history. Its birth begins in a famous violinmaker’s shop in Europe. Just as the violinmaker prepares to varnish his life’s masterpiece, a servant bursts into the shop, "Come quick! It’s your wife!" His wife is in labor with a breach baby and neither survives. The violinmaker is so grief-stricken that he puts the final coat on his masterpiece and then ends his own life. However, it is but the beginning of the violin’s life.

The story takes us up into a secluded, impoverished orphanage where the violin provides years of enjoyment to young boys in an orphanage. A tragedy at the orphanage frees the violin to one owner after another. On one occasion the violin falls into the hands of a spirited gypsy girl and its minor rousing music provides her comrades hours of respite. A man passes by and hears the violin’s deep, clear tones and once in the hands of this virtuoso, the violin performs before royalty and masses of subjects. Even serfs and servants drink in its deep, somber tones. Yet, a bullet tears deeply into the violin and separates it from its owner.

Years pass, maybe a century, before the violin turns up again. This time it turns up not in Europe but in San Francisco at an old antique shop. A Chinese woman happens by and buys the tattered old violin for her daughter to practice. A generation later the violin lies hidden under the floorboards of this daughter who has grown up and returned to China and has joined the Chinese Communist Party. At this very time the Party decides to purge every trace of Western music and instruments. To be caught with the violin is to have it publicly burned and the owner to be condemned to life imprisonment or death.

How the violin survives the Chinese purge or what ultimately happens to the red violin I’ll leave to your imagination. But what’s interesting about the story is that it takes many lifetimes to keep up with the violin. Each owner has a small chapter to tell about the violin, but no one is capable of possibly knowing all of the entire story or destiny of the red violin, because the violin outlives everyone.

That’s really the plot of a very strange story in our first lesson, Genesis 15. God and Abraham have this unique meeting and God tells Abraham to bring on the animals for a covenant. That done, Abraham knows that this unseen God is drawing him into a sacred Berith, or "blood covenant," for that is what Berith means. "To cut." Abraham cuts the sacrificial animals in two halves, but God alone cuts the covenant. All Abraham can do is to fall down in the Presence of God while God cuts covenant on behalf of Himself and Abraham. But even as Abraham lies on the ground in a trance, he hears God’s unmistakable promise: "Many families," God whispers in Abraham’s ear, "will come from you, but they will be strangers and enslaved for four hundred years; yet I will rescue them and bring them to a land with great wealth and they will be a great nation."

Did you catch anything strange in that conversation? Ever have a conversation like that? It’s like if God says to you, "now four hundred years from now—let’s see, that’s about the year 2400, your family members will have left Philadelphia and will be living in Los Angeles. There they will have started a successful software business that spans the globe. Unfortunately, they’ll lose everything in what will be known as the 5th Great Depression. But don’t worry, they’ll be back in Philadelphia, just like I planned and they will prosper here four hundred years from now. I promise."

I’m in awe of this phenomenal conversation that God has with Abraham. Just as the red violin far surpasses all of its owners, so God’s plan for the future far surpasses all of its owners, so God’s plan for the future far surpasses Abraham’s limited vision. Just to keep his end of the deal and to see the conclusion, or fulfillment, chronologically speaking, Abraham would have to tack five more lifetimes on to his life! The God we are in company with has this great ability to see the whole picture. God sees way, way, way down the road—around the corner, across the ocean, over the next hill, beyond the mountain range that leads through the vast desert. Best Abraham can see is to the edge of his tents. Abraham thinks this deal is all about him. He thinks that this "covenant" or Berith is supposed to happen in his lifetime. That’s why he becomes impatient and tries to make the promise of a mighty nation happen while he’s still kicking. Instead he discovers that God is faithful and will fulfill God’s promises—in God’s time.

Sometimes I’m doing good just to see Friday come around at the end of the week. We’re just not used to being in a relationship with Someone who can see the future more clearly than we can see the past. That’s one of the cool things about being in covenant with Someone like God. God isn’t going to get osteoporosis after a couple of centuries. Nor is God going to need cataract surgery or get sagging skin or flaccid muscles. Aging just doesn’t enter the picture with God.

Wouldn’t you know it, four hundred years later, almost to the day, the writer points out to us, God honors the promise that he had made to Abraham way back on that starry night. God had promised then to raise up an entire nation from Abraham and that God would give them enough land to accommodate them. Though Abraham has long ago been reduced to dust, here comes God leading Abraham’s "nation" out of Egypt to the land that God had promised him. God keeps promises to us.

What can we learn from this strange story? First, God is timeless and ageless, so we can boldly trust our aging lives to God. I recently had a birthday. Another year older. Gravity has worked on my body another year. More droops and sags and wrinkles and crinkles, more silver among the gold, a little less energy, slower recovery from workouts, more often in need of 2nd opinions. Scripture reminds us, "what is your life? It is a vapor, like morning fog—it’s here for a little while, and then, poof! It’s gone!."

It’s true that any of us are but a stroke away, an unseen stop sign away, a slip on the ladder, an illness away from eternity. We’re the temporary owners of our life—just like that red violin. We are stewards of a borrowed life. But the Covenant means that God took our limitations of sin, suffering, and weakness upon himself. And in exchange, God placed us into Christ. This morning, right now, our sins are forgiven—in Christ. We are set free—in Christ. We will live forever with God—in Christ. Because the God we are in Berith with is eternal, we can boldly entrust our aging lives to God.

Secondly, God has a plan so we don’t need to be afraid of the future. Abraham did not know how God would do it, but from that moment on when he believed God, he knew that in some significant way God was in his future and would fulfill God’s promises to him. Paul writes of us, "God who began a good work in you will continue God work until it is finally finished."

When we begin the movie of our lives, God is already at the end of it viewing the credits. When we start the car, God is already pulling into the garage at the end of the trip. When we lay our heads down at night, God is already sitting with us at heaven’s feast at the end of the world. No job loss, no illness, no defeat, no discouragement has the last word when we’re in covenant with God. Circumstances are only chapters of the entire book that God has of our life. Because God has a plan for our lives we don’t have to be afraid of the future.

Finally, like Abraham we can be an important link in the chain for the next generation to grasp. Abraham did his part. He ratified the covenant with the entire group of his household through circumcision. He went on to produce a son and from that son God began a family that four hundred years later would become a mighty and wealthy nation. What follows are the many chapters about how different people handled God’s red violin in their lifetime. Like that masterpiece violin, some just didn’t see any value in it. Esau gave it away. He left no legacy. No link in the chain for others to grasp. He though food was more important—more immediate—than leaving a legacy. Others played God’s promises masterfully, like David and Deborah and Hannah and Mary. But each one had the opportunity to play their part, to partner with God to leave something behind for the next generation.

God is the keeper of the promise—the rest of us are only stewards. Our mission is to leave a legacy, not a hole when we die or leave this community. Our culture is trying to tell us that it’s all about me, but the Covenant reminds us that it’s all about God. That’s what Andrew Carnegie believed as he grew older. Though the wealthiest man on earth in his generation, he believed that you really haven’t lived until you leave a legacy for the next generation. So before he died, he gave most of his money back to small towns in America so that they could build libraries—the Carnegie Libraries. That’s partly why I have such a love for books today—I discovered one of his libraries.

What are we leaving for the next generation? What are they going to say about us when you die? What’s going to be written on our gravestone? "Too busy?" "Too careful?" "Too cautious?" "Generous?" "Kind?" "Visionary?" What are they going to say about this congregation and its ministry when that red violin of opportunity has passed beyond our hands? Congregation, we need to start thinking legacy, not just what works for us now.

"But we don’t know God’s plan, so how can we move forward?" Yes, we do know God’s plan: Stewardship. Discipleship. Prayer. But most clearly, Mission. Jesus’ parting words to us is this: "Go among all the ethnoi—within your culture, among your neighborhoods, and throughout the generations—and make disciples." Don’t let anything stand between you and God’s Plan to love this world through you be silenced or ignored. For I am persuaded that neither sanctuary nor fond memories nor things past nor budgets nor fear of change or future nor any other thing will be able to keep us from God’s love in Christ and from passing God’s promise on to the next generation.

The violin is in our hands now. What chapter are we going to write? What story will we tell? Amen.