When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.<sup data-link="(D)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-399D”> Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
Yesterday I had to punt and re-post a piece I wrote a few years ago. At least this offered you (and me) a break from readings in Genesis, which may not present the yuletide atmosphere you’re craving during this season. But remember, we observe Advent to prepare for the coming Christ. It takes discipline, I’m finding, to devote myself to more than just the story of His birth at this time of year. What I mean is, I’d rather flip open to the book of Luke and read about the census and the manger and a host of angels, etc.
The problem is that life fills up and gets crowded in December, and if I carve out time for just that clip of the story, I feel that I’m taking it in the same way I would one of Grimm’s Tales. It puts me in the mood for Christmas, sure, but I’ve got lights on my tree and wassail percolating to conjure up all that holiday cheer.
We observe Advent to fix our attention on Jesus Christ—because He is worthy, and because we don’t want our worship to be empty prattle. So, let’s look at all that took place in scripture that points us to Christ, and let’s adore Him …
When last we saw Abram, God greeted him as Abram’s “shield, [his] very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). Fast forward to chapter 17. God once again appears to Abram, who is now 99 years old and still childless. Now, put a little sticky note next to that little detail. I’d like to talk about how difficult it would be to trust God with His outrageous promises at that age, but it can wait.
Each time God meets Abram, he revisits and elaborates the initial promise from chapter twelve. We already knew about Abram becoming a great nation through which all nations of the earth would be blessed—and that they would be blessed because the Savior would be one of Abram’s descendants. In this encounter, God explains that this is all going to happen as the result of an arrangement.
For the first time, Abram hears of conditions—that he “walk before the LORD and be blameless.” Also, his name would have to change and then there’s the small matter of circumcision, as if walking blamelessly before the LORD isn’t asking much to begin with. Still, this is a deal Abraham could hardly pass up. Look at that list of promises—he would multiply and be fruitful, become the father of many nations and kings, plus take possession of the land of Canaan for his descendants.
However, this is not a mere contract. God enters into a covenant relationship with Abraham.
My whole life, I never knew the difference between a contract and a covenant. I assumed that covenants had something to do with sacred vows being exchanged, like at a wedding. But I also thought there must be some horrible punishment to follow if you fail to uphold your side of the bargain.
Here’s the difference. If you have a contract with someone who fails to keep his commitment, you are no longer obligated and the contract is cancelled. With a covenant, on the other hand, you are required to fulfill your vow even if the other party doesn’t fulfill theirs.
Why is this important to us? Because God knows we can’t be blameless. We can walk with Him and try very, very hard, but we will require God’s intervention in order to deliver on our promises.
God establishes this covenant, knowing that He will have to sustain the relationship by keeping His promises even if Abraham fails to do so. Plus, He vows to extend an everlasting covenant with Abraham’s descendants. Throughout the Old Testament, God remembers His word, His covenant with Abraham, even when His people are unfaithful.
But the old covenant, scripture tells us, was weak. It required constant blood sacrifices for the atonement of sin, and it regulated a lot of rule following, rather than promoting relationship with the Father. God’s chosen people avoided spiritual obedience by practicing the ritual of worship. The people rebelled–even to the point of prostituting themselves with idol worship–and spent years of anguish in exile. Still, God remembered His promises to Abraham and the covenant with His people which He would not break. A new covenant is required—one that fulfills all that God promised to Abraham and makes the people blameless.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Jeremiah 31:31-34, NIV
I can try to follow the rules and make myself blameless, but I will not succeed. How will I become holy? Who will purify me from sin and make me righteous? In order to be in any sort of relationship with the LORD, a covenant must be in place where God will sustain the commitment when I fail.
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
Look at what God did! He “enacted better promises.” He provided a way to intimate relationship with Him, adopting us as His children. The requirement for blameless obedience has been fulfilled by the Son who was given to us at Christmas–because we can’t be made righteous on our own. With Jesus, we have a new covenant, one that is established by grace and sustained by grace and sealed with His blood.
If we come and adore Him at Christmas time because we love the magical, fairy tale like tone of the nativity story, then we have entirely missed God’s purpose. We adore Jesus because He was born to die—for us–to do what we could not do for ourselves.
To make us blameless.