February 21 2016

2nd Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15:1-18
Philippians 3:12-21; 4:1


One of the most heartbreaking events that has happened in this century is the ongoing civil war in Syria. More and more civilians have been killed in the war, many of whom are women and children. In a report by Syrian Network of Human Rights, 1382 civilians have been killed in January this year alone.[1] A ceasefire is desperately needed, but that seems to be more of an illusion at this point in time. Recently Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a conference that a ceasefire didn’t mean that each side in the conflict had to stop using their weapons.[2] That’s laughable. What’s the point of a ceasefire if you still can use your weapons to kill your enemies?! If an agreement is made, but the parties involved in the agreement just ignore it, then what’s the point of having an agreement in the first place?

That is why, in most of contract papers, there are points that stipulate the kind of penalty that will be imposed to either party who terminates the contract. Many of you would know that I travel to Indonesia quite often lately to visit my family, especially my sick mother, and my girlfriend (who is my fiancée now) ... All right, that’s now official! ... But some times I had to cancel my flight tickets due to unforeseen situations and, as you can expect, I had to pay a certain amount of money for each cancelled flight. The airlines called it administration fee, but I know I didn’t pay for their administrative work. I was basically paying a penalty for breaking the contract with them.

In our reading today from the book of Genesis, we encounter an old ritual of making a treaty or an agreement, or in a theological sense, a covenant. And this covenant too was made with a warning. The killing of young animals and then halving of their carcasses might be quite distasteful for our modern sensibility. But the practice was not meaningless. Many believe that the practice of halving the carcasses of the animals was a warning to both parties who entered into the agreement.[3] The halved animals were a way of saying that the party who dared to dishonour the treaty would be treated in the same manner.

So a contract is basically a promise that the parties involved will do things for one another, followed by a threat of a consequence if one dishonours the contract. In case of a flight ticket, the airline promises to take me from A to B and I promise to pay them the money. If one doesn’t do what one promises in the contract, then there is a consequence to be faced. In the covenant between God and Abram however it seems that there was only one side who made the promise: God. Indeed in this covenant God did not require Abram to do anything as a response to God’s promise.

God was pleased when Abram believed that God would give him many descendants, but that happened before the covenant was made. And there was no need for the Creator of the world to enter into a covenant with a mere creature like Abram, but God chose to do so. Indeed God chose to be an equal partner with Abram in the covenant; and as an equal partner God was bound by the rule of the covenant just like Abram was.

So God is nothing like Bashar al-Assad who is prepared to ignore the cease-fire agreement whenever it suits him. No, God would honour the agreement He had made. The fire that consumed the carcasses of the animals was a sign that God took the covenant seriously.

Indeed the covenant was meant to give Abram and his descendants the assurance that God would not abandon them in difficult times. God told Abram that his descendants would live in a foreign land as slaves for hundreds of years. But this would not mean that God had forgotten about the promise he gave to Abram. No, God could not ignore His promise because He had made an agreement with Abram. So in whatever situation the people of Israel could trust that God’s promise would always remain.

If Israel were invited to remember the covenant between God and Abram, Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, invited his readers to remember the cross of Christ. Through his suffering and death on the cross, Christ had made the Christians in the city of Philippi his own. As such they were now not only citizens of the Roman Empire, but citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

So now the Christians in Philippi must live according to their new status. They belonged no longer to themselves or to evil, but to Christ Jesus (v.12) and the cross of Christ must forever shape their life.

The movie Les Misérables, on which this year’s Lent Course is based, is a story about an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, who tried to change the direction of his life. After spending 19 years as a slave-labour in the prison (five years for stealing bread and fourteen years for trying to escape), Jean Valjean was released on parole. But his status as an ex-convict didn’t make it easy for him to rebuild his life outside of the prison. No one would offer him a job or even a place to rest in the bitterly cold winter night. So one day he slept in a graveyard next door to a church.

The Bishop who lived in the church saw Valjean and invited him to come into the church. There he provided Valjean with warm food and a warm bed to sleep. But Valjean returned the Bishop’s hospitality with evil deed: he stole the church’s silverwares and ran away. Soon the police captured him and brought him back to the church. If taken to court he would soon be sent back to the prison and would definitively spend the rest of his life in the prison as a slave-labour.

But the Bishop did something extraordinary. He told the police that Valjean didn’t steal the silverwares; he gave them to him. He even gave two more silver-candlesticks to Valjean to prove his words to the police. He then asked the police to release Valjean because he had commit no crime. After the police left the church the Bishop blessed Valjean and told him:

Do not forget, do note ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man. Jean Valjean my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I gave it to God.[4]

The Bishop’s remarkable act of mercy and kindness ‘haunted’ Valjean for the rest of his life. The event became a turning point in his life. He vowed to be a different man and, ever since, he spent the rest of his life trying to live up to the expectation that the Bishop had put on him.

Friends, today we are reminded that we too had been ‘bought’ from evil and God had ‘sealed the deal’ with Jesus’ death on the cross. That means we all live in the covenant that God had made with us through the cross of Christ. So we must now see everything within the framework of this covenant because everything in our life, the good and the bad, happens within that covenant. Indeed nothing happens outside of it.

And we, as the partner in the covenant, have one responsibility; that is to live our life according to the will of the One who has paid the price with His own life. Indeed we must offer our heart, mind, body, and soul - our entire life - as a living sacrifice for God and God’s work in the world


Rev. Toby Keva

[1] A Report by Syrian Network for Human Rights dated January 1 2016 (http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/1382_civilians_were_killed_in_January_ 2016_en.pdf)

[2] Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry, Syria's Assad Doesn't See Ceasefire Possible within A Week, dated February 15, 2016 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-assad-idUSKCN0VO2AJ)

[3] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFusion - Lent 2016 (February 21-28, 2016), p. 48

[4] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, translation by Norman Denny (London: Penguin Books, 1980), p. 111