The Unbreakable Promise
March 13, 2022
When I was in elementary school, there were a few things I and my friend group took just a little too seriously: winning footraces at recess, which Pokemon cards were the best to collect, where to sit on the bus, and pinky promises. Y’all remember pinky promises right? It was an ironclad agreement that whatever was promised would absolutely, under pain of death, never be broken. Of course, making sure that people follow what they say they’re going to do doesn’t go away as we get older. We consider someone’s word to be really, really important; and someone who keeps their word is worth getting a promise from. Making sure others keep their promises goes way back, to the covenant we see God strike with Abram in our first reading.
Covenants weren’t something unique to Israel. There’s evidence of covenants all over the Ancient Near East. A covenant, basically, was an ancient contract in the days before there were law courts and things like that to make sure people did what they promised. The Genesis reading puts it pretty clearly what it looked like to make a covenant. The part where Abram cuts those animals in two? That’s a well-documented part of ancient covenants. It’s where the Hebrew expression comes from—“to cut a covenant.”
What would happen was that two parties would make an agreement, and then they would seal it with a solemn ceremony of cutting a covenant. Animals would be cut in half, and then each party would ritually walk between the halves to signify that, if they didn’t hold up their end of the deal, the same fate would await them as the animals sacrificed for the covenant. It was gruesome, but it made a really clear point—you don’t enter a covenant lightly. And you definitely don’t break a covenant lightly.
But there’s one detail, just a small one, in the text that I think is really, really easy to overlook. It’s even easier to overlook because we don’t know how a covenantal ritual works, and the scripture doesn’t make it any easier to notice. When Abram sacrificed the animals and laid out the halves, he waited on God to show up. God did show up, as the burning torch and smoking pot, and passed between the animal parts—if God didn’t keep the promise to Abram to give him descendants, land, and a blessing, then the same fate awaited God. But Abram—he doesn’t walk through the parts. And God doesn’t ask him to.
It’s as if God is saying, “Even if you do not keep your end of the bargain, and you stray and sin and aren’t faithful, the covenant still stands. My promise endures.” God doesn’t flinch at the prospect of rejection. Instead, God takes the radical step to be the only one who needs to do anything. Just like Jesus when he looked to Jerusalem in our gospel reading.
Jesus knew full well that Jerusalem wasn’t going to ultimately accept him. He knew he would be betrayed, tried, and executed by the very people he was coming to save. He knew that going to Jerusalem meant going to his own death. But instead of expecting Jerusalem and its leadership to repent and come to him, he was going to make the only move. He was a mother hen who opens her wings wide for her chicks to come and take shelter, and doesn’t close those wings even when the chicks reject her. Even when he’s faced with death threats from Herod and the prospect of execution at the hands of the Roman authorities, Jesus still chooses to go and teach his healing message, to share God’s grace with others, to heal the sick and free the oppressed.
Jesus is walking through the animal parts of the covenant, and doesn’t ask anyone to do the same. He’s the one who chooses to keep the promise to us, whether we will do what’s asked of us or not. And I think that’s a message we need to hear more often, because there are too many voices out there insisting that there is something we must do first for Jesus to save us. That we need to get our house in order first; that we need to stop sinning first; that we need to accept Jesus before he’ll accept us; that our willingness to hold up our end of the bargain is the linchpin of whether Jesus will bring us life or not.
Well that’s just not true. None of it is. God is the only one who needs to do anything for the promise to be true. God is the one who needs to decide in our favor, and God already has. Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing he’d be rejected, knowing the chicks would refuse the shelter of their mother hen’s wings. But instead of using that knowledge as a bargaining chip to get them to repent, or force them to accept the salvation he brought, Jesus accepted it as reality and did what he intended to do anyway: preach the good news, without fear or reservation, and go to the cross to prove just how far that love would go.
Because that’s just who God is. God loves to lavish us with grace and mercy, making huge promises that we’ve done nothing to deserve, and not expecting anything in return. It’s what God did with Abram when he cut the covenant. It’s what God did when Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing exactly what was going to happen. And it’s what God continues to do today, bringing mercy and salvation to people who don’t deserve it. The kind of mercy and salvation that transforms those who receive it—not by anything we’ve done, but by what God has done for us.
God will keep coming to us, regardless of what we do or how we believe or whose company we keep. God will still work to transform the world through grace and mercy and love, making the first move in everything from the forgiveness we are inspired to share with others, to the peace that will one day return to Ukraine, to healing the divisions of our country, to ending hunger and homelessness around the world. God’s grace is the promise that God makes to us, and it can’t be stopped—not by our missteps and mistakes nor by the powers that rebel against it. God alone has walked the covenant. And that’s enough.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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