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For the Love of It All: An Everlasting Covenant

06 Mar

art-communionutensils(a sermon for March 6, 2016, the 4th Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on Isaiah 55:1-13 and Matthew 26:26-28)

If you’ve had young children in your life at some time over the past 20 years or so, odds are you’ll recognize this familiar verse:

“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
as long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.”

Those words come from a delightful children’s book written by Robert Munsch appropriately titled I’ll Love You Forever, the sweet little story of a mother’s unconditional love for her young son as he grows from infancy to adulthood.  The twist, however, is that as this little boy goes through his various “stages” growing up – terrible toddler, messy grade-schooler, obnoxious adolescent, rebellious young adult – he’s often anything but loveable!  And yet, no matter what was happening or how rotten that kid could be at times (!), each night when the boy is sleeping his mother would creep into the boy’s bedroom, rock him in her arms and sing him that song: “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.  As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”  Again and again it happens, actually to the point of becoming kind of bizarre:  even long after the boy’s grown up and living across town the mother, under the cover of darkness, drives to his house and breaks in (!) just so she can sing him this song!

It’s all rather silly; but eventually, as in life, the situation reverses itself and we’re given this touching image of the son holding his aged mother in his arms, and as her life comes to a close he’s singing that same little song to her, albeit with one difference:  “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.  As long as I’m living, my mommy you’ll be.”

It’s no wonder that this book was so popular, not only with parents and children, but others as well (I recently read an interview with Robert Munsch in which he said that this book, supposedly written for kids, actually became a huge bestseller at retirement communities!).  And I think that this is because it speaks to something that we all understand; especially, I suspect, as we get older.  See, that little song ends up being more than just a lullaby; it’s an affirmation.  It’s a song of assurance, really; the kind of assurance that we all need and what we all long for.  It’s the assurance of always being loved, of being accepted for who you are, no matter what.  It’s the assurance that comes in knowing that you belong to someone, and that belonging is forever… in the language of scripture, everlasting.

I have to tell you that as I was preparing the sermon for this week, I gained a whole new affection for the Isaiah passage that was shared with us earlier in the service.  In fact, in the interest of time I’d planned to just pull out a handful of relevant verses for this morning; but the more I read the more I realized that not only was every verse relevant, but also that this whole 55th chapter of Isaiah builds to a crescendo of joy; and how do you break that up?  Remember the context in which this we’re given this particular piece of scripture: biblically speaking, this is the end of what is referred to as “Second Isaiah,” and represents God’s word spoken to a people who have been living in exile for 70 years far and away from their ancestral home; not to mention increasingly far removed from their faith.  It’s essentially God’s call for the people of Judah to come home; to uproot themselves and return to a land that, while promised to their ancestors, this particular generation never really knew at all.

And so what’s happening here in these thirteen verses is an affirmation of God’s covenant with Israel for those who have known, and remember what that all means; but even more importantly, it’s an assurance to all of those who don’t know of the depth of the Lord’s providence; who can’t remember how it was and what was promised because they weren’t there!  It’s an eloquent evocation of a promise that’s still in motion; and as I said before, verse by verse it builds in joy and intensity, beginning with something as simple as… food and drink.  “Ho…” (and right there, we know it’s an invitation; for that word in the Hebrew language suggests a call, in this case from God himself!) “…everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  And then we hear about eating “what is good,” the opportunity offered to “delight yourselves in rich food;” a bountiful feast of satisfying foods, hosted by none other than God!  Understand that for a people who had been strangers in this strange land for so long – a “generation of the conquered,” as it were – forced to pay whatever exorbitant costs their Babylonian “hosts” set forth for food and water, this was no small thing:  free food… good food… abundant food!  All which comes by inclining their ears, and coming unto the Lord who is the source of such blessing!

And it goes on from there:  the restoration of their nation (even “the nations that do not know you shall run to you because the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel… has glorified you.”); God’s continuing presence and forgiveness (“…he will abundantly pardon.”); his grace (“…my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your faith.”); and his purposes for Israel fulfilled (“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.”).  Ultimately, you see, what we have here is the assurance that everything that God has promised his people is real, and it is ongoing.  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me… incline your ear and listen, so that you may live.  I will make with you an everlasting covenant.”  It’s God’s sure and certain promise to the people he loves beyond measure; and it’s extended not only to that one generation, but the next generation, and the next, and the next, and the next… it is a promise extended to every believer on his or her own spiritual journey, and it is an “everlasting covenant;” and from the very beginning and “for the love of it all,” it’s our covenant as well, yours and mine.

That’s an important truth for us to remember, friends; for so often, even though God has assured us time and time again of that steadfast and sure love, the truth is that you and I are nonetheless prone to forgetfulness where that is concerned.

Speaking of those times and situations in which our children are have behaved in ways that seem to make them “unlovable,” in all seriousness I’m reminded here of families I’ve known over the years who have faced circumstances with their adolescent or adult children that have forced them to make difficult if not downright unthinkable choices for the sake of their loved ones’ health, safety, well-being, and sometimes even their lives.  I’ve seen this happen a number of times; and inevitably, in the midst of a that kind of circumstance there’s always someone, well meaning but nonetheless judgmental, who’ll say something to the effect of, “Well, for those parents to do something like that, they can’t love their kids very much,” when in fact nothing could be further from the truth!  Any family member who has been through this with someone they love can tell you that it might be tough love, but it’s real love; and real love is shared even when those given that love don’t know it, don’t acknowledge it, and might even hate you for it!

In that regard, I would suggest to you that the whole history of humanity is littered with times and situations in which God’s people have forgotten, have rejected and have even utterly disdained the love God has given them!  To return to a truth we spoke of earlier in this sermon series, this is the true nature of sin: our human propensity to move ourselves wholly away from God; to choose to live, come what may, independently and autonomously from God!  The hard truth is that every single one of us here, to varying degrees, has the tendency to forget who and whose we are; to make decisions and choose pathways not on the basis of who has loved us “from everlasting to everlasting,” but rather by what seems expedient and immediately beneficial at the moment!  Simply put, we turn away again and again; living as though we’ve forgotten this love of God that sustains us and gives us life!

But here’s the thing, beloved; God hasn’t forgotten.

The truth is that no matter how many times we turn away; no matter how often we neglect to acknowledge God’s presence, his righteousness, and his love by virtue (or the lack of virtue!) in the choices we make in this life; no matter the ways we bring judgment upon ourselves simply by our own sinfulness, God is there… God remembers…

… and God still loves us.  God always has, and the good news today and always is that in Jesus Christ, God always will.

Beloved, at the very center of our Christian faith is this amazing truth that out of infinite and abiding love, God has made with us “an everlasting covenant,” one that history records that despite our sinfulness has been renewed by God again and again; a covenant that has been sealed forever in the person of Jesus Christ.  By his life, death and resurrection, you and I are indeed promised “forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,” and life that is both abundant and eternal; ours is the affirmation – the assurance – that though in our wanderings we may sometimes forget God’s love, God will never forget to love.  And that’s something that was demonstrated once and for all on the cross of Golgotha on the waning moments of a Friday afternoon.

Still… sometimes we need a reminder, and that’s why this feast of bread and wind is set before us this morning.

Our “sacrament” of communion is meant in some sense to reenact the events of the last night of our Savior Jesus’ earthly life, a reminder of the great sacrifice made on our behalf and the ongoing promise of his continued presence with us until “that heavenly banquet at the close of history.”  It’s interesting to note that as we heard it described in our gospel reading today, when Jesus shares with his disciples the cup, he says to them that “’this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”  This is another of those phrases we speak so often in our worship that it risks losing its deep meaning for us; it’s an affirmation that has its roots all the way the back to the first Passover and God’s great act of deliverance and providence for his people, but even more than this it’s our full assurance that God’s love for us is everlasting and will conquer even sin and death.

“’Take, eat,” said Jesus; “’this is my body.’”  And this morning, in humble imitation of those words, we break the bread; knowing that by doing so, by our forgetfulness and our sin we are each and all participating in the broken body of Christ.  But then Jesus took the cup and said, “Drink from it, all of you.” And as we pour the wine, we do that as well, remembering that it represents no less than the blood of our Lord of Jesus shed on that cross for our very forgiveness.

It’s a memorial meal, pure and simple; but here’s the glory of it: it’s also an assurance that God’s covenant will be everlasting, and so, now forgiven and set free to live abundantly and eternally, we can with whole hearts “celebrate the new life that Christ brings.” And all that from a tray of bread cubes and some tiny glasses of unfermented wine… and most especially for the one who provides that sacred meal!

Kind of reminds me of the verse that started this message:  I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you forever; as long as I’m living, my people you’ll be…

So let us come now to the table, for all things are now ready… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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