Scripture: Genesis 17: 1-8
Date: April 26, 2015
This passage from Genesis is really the central passage of all scripture because everything in the History of the faith that comes before and after these words relates to the Covenant that God made with Abram, who became Abraham. Through every period of history, the bad times as well as the good times, the Hebrew writers and prophets were calling the people to be in covenant with God or to come back to the Covenant with God. The message is clear across the centuries, as children of God, we are people of the covenant. And when we stray from the covenant, God has always called us back into relationship with him. Christ made it clear at the last supper that He came to establish a New Covenant, but it was still God’s promise, His Covenant to be our God. The newness was not in the terms of the Covenant itself, the newness that the Jewish leaders could not embrace was in opening the Covenant to all peoples. With the death and resurrection of Jesus, we all have the opportunity to be people in Covenant with God. Easter people are Covenant people. How amazing it is that the words God spoke to Abraham 4,000 years ago, continue to be the ones that define our faith today. And time and again, when the people strayed from their faith, sometimes with catastrophic results, God has sent prophets and priests and teachers to remind us that we are the covenant people. And finally, when those weren’t enough, God sent His Son, Jesus to call us back. And so the Cross is about the broken covenant, while the resurrection is all about the New Covenant, restoration, making all things new. In a sense the Cross is all about tearing down the established church of the covenant and the resurrection was all about rebuilding it. And so in His post resurrection appearances, Jesus was focused on rebuilding the church, the community, in order that it might then be the true covenantal community. John tells us this early in his Gospel. First a little context. Matthew, Mark and Luke, in their writings about the events of Holy Week, talk about Jesus going into the Temple and upsetting the tables of the Money changers and the priests. This cleansing of the Temple was one of Jesus’ last acts before the trial and the cross. It was the final straw as far as the Chief Priest and Temple Officials were concerned. They were convinced that this Jesus must die after He desecrated the Temple. But John presents the cleansing of the Temple as one of the first acts of Jesus’s ministry and really the first sign of conflict between the established church and Jesus. John, in the second chapter of His Gospel says this.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
Now watch this.
22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said (in the Temple that day). Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Look again at this last verse because verse 22 is John’s own footnote to this defining event early in Jesus’ ministry. It is His explanation of what resurrection would be in the understanding of the disciples. And that was rebuilding, renewing, the Temple, the church, as people of the Covenant. Jesus was the Temple. Or in other words, wherever Jesus was, that was where the Temple was. Just as He had so many times before, God respoke the covenant by rolling away the stone and calling Jesus back to life. He rebuilt the Temple in three days culminating in new life and an empty tomb and then He set about to rebuild the community which had always been His ultimate aim. Not just on Easter but for all time. When we join the church of Jesus Christ today, we do so by affirming that we are people of the resurrected Lord, the New Covenant, offered at the Last Supper, but not really ratified until the risen Christ emerged from the tomb, the rubble of the Temple, and began the process of rebuilding when He said to Peter on the shores of the Lake, if you really love me Peter, then you will feed all my sheep. Resurrection opened up the Covenant to all people and we say that we want to be a part of the Covenant Community when we join the church and covenant to support it by praying, by being present, by giving of our resources and ourselves, by serving others and by sharing our faith with those who do not know. We become people of the Covenant.
Ok, say all of that is true – what does it have to do with Ants, Badgers and Locusts. . . oh my. Well around the year 1000 B.C., already 1000 years after the Jews became covenant people, the Kingdom of King David, which was a golden time for the Jews, was at its zenith. But then David died, and the Kingdom began a long period of decline. Eventually the Kingdom once again became divided and the enemies of Israel began a slow but steady occupation of the promised land. By 567 B.C. the promised land was essentially a wasteland and what remained of the Jewish people, the covenant people, were in captivity in foreign lands. It was one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history. But it was during this period that God called many of the great prophets from among the Jews. We know the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, who were both prophets during the time of decline and exile, and we probably would recognize the names of other prophets that God called during this period. Each one of them called to affirm God’s covenant with Abraham in some way and call the Hebrew people back into that Covenant relationship. Now some of the prophets were more obscure and it was during this period that God called a prophet by the name of Agur. We really know very little about Agur. In fact we don’t really know when he lived. The closest we can come is that his words date somewhere between 950 B.C. to 700 B.C., during the time of the great decline of the Jewish Kingdom. And not only that, but his call to covenant, is contained in some of the strangest words of the Scriptures. Now don’t go looking for the book of Agur because the only place where we find any reference to him is in the 30th chapter of the book of Proverbs. And his words may sound like nonsense to us today. But here is what he says:
Four things are small on this earth,
But they are exceedingly wise:
The ants are not a strong folk,
But they prepare their food in the summer;
The Badgers are not mighty folk,
Yet they make their houses in the rocks;
The locusts have no king,
Yet all of them go out in ranks;
The lizard you may grasp with the hands,
Yet it is in King’s palaces.
Now don’t say I didn’t warn you – those words sound like nonsense to us. But some scholars contend that Agur was employing an ancient device of speaking what sounded like nonsense as a code that the Hebrews would understand but not their enemies. So we need to listen carefully to what Agur has to say because (believe it or not) he is talking (to a captive and exiled and defeated people) about what it means to be a people living in covenant with God.
So the first thing Agur tells us is that, Covenant people need to have the wisdom of an ant, because ants know the time in which they live. They know what time it is. Ants know, for instance, to make the most of the summer months, because the winter is coming, and if they don’t prepare for the winter, then they will perish. To survive an ant must keep one leg (or in the case of an ant three legs) planted firmly in today, providing immediate sustenance for the colony to survive, attending to the needs of the queen, but the other legs must be moving toward the future and preparing for the days to come. After Jesus rose from the dead, he certainly was concerned with the immediate, the survival of the disciples, easing their fears, but at the same time He was preparing them for the days when He would not be present. He had said to them, that there will be a day when He will no longer be with them. But the covenant, the new covenant, must be preserved. Ants know what time it is, Agur says. I suspect that his words are reflective of the fact that the Hebrew people often struggled with time, especially when they were experiencing difficult days. There were always those who wanted to live in the past. When the journey of the Exodus became most difficult the cry would sound out to go back to Egypt. And when the Kingdom became divided after David, there were always those who longed to go back to the days of David, when he restored the unity of the Kingdom. They anointed bad Kings because they believed them when they said they were the new David and would return Israel to it’s glory. But instead they led the people further away from God. And then there were those whose focus was only on today. During the Kingdom’s decline there was a succession of kings who believed that appeasement and compromise were the way to survive. Conform to the culture of your enemies and captors. Even worship their gods alongside the God of the Hebrews. Today there are many voices inside the church as well as critics outside the church that are calling on the church, if it wants to be relevant in the 21st Century, to conform to changing social mores. And while that might stem the decline of the established church in the short run, I believe it will destroy the church in the long run. And then there were those in Agur’s time whose sole focus was the future. It was during Agur’s time that the hope of a Messiah began to rise. In fact, there are scholars who believe that it is Agur who first puts to writing the first hope of Messiah with his words earlier in the 30th chapter: Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of His Hands? Who has wrapped up the waters in His cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and the name of His Son? Tell me if you know! So whenever times became too much to bear, the promise of a Messiah would once again come to the forefront. And it has really been the same in the 2000 year history of the Christian church, only instead of looking for a Messiah, a new David, the futurist’s have focused on the second coming of Christ – when He will establish His Kingdom on Earth. And they look to the signs of the end times. But Resurrection is timeless. It overcomes time.. It is for all times: past, present and future. It assures us that no matter what may come or what has been, our Covenant God will be present. Because Christ is raised, all life is timeless, eternal, and every moment is intended to be lived for Him forever and ever. Just as the ant, Covenant people know what time it is. It is God’s time. Covenant people are ones who have made the necessary preparations and make the most of today, and are ready for tomorrow. Supporting the Covenant Community with our prayers and presence and gifts and service and witness is rooted in the past, sustains us today, and yet always hopes for a better tomorrow when all peoples are Easter people..
And then Agur says: The Badgers are not mighty folk, yet they make their houses in the rocks. Badgers know where their strength lies. It’s in the rock. Now Badgers are very busy creatures. They are always on the move. But the interesting thing about badgers is that they almost always move in a circular pattern. And the rock where they make their home is always the center of the circle. And so at the first sign of trouble, they head straight for that rock. The rock is their only defense, and the Badger knows that if they stray too far from it, they will be easy prey for their enemies because their strength, their security, lies in the rock. The enemies of the Badger, on the other hand know that if they can somehow come between the Badger and the rock, that they will defeat them. Covenant people know where their strength comes from, where their security lies. It is in the rock of our faith. Remember when Peter confesses Christ as his Lord for the first time, Jesus says:
You are the rock, and upon the rock I will build my church.
But what Peter and the other Disciples discovered is that Covenant people find their strength and security in a relationship with Christ and Resurrection tells us that there is nothing, not even death, that can keep us from our stronghold, our rock, in Jesus Christ. That was the rock upon which Christ was going to build His church. You see too often we seek to find our security in other things. The Jews thought the Temple was their rock, and so their enemies knew that if they could separate them from the Temple, they could be defeated. And in time the Temple was destroyed. And the people strayed from their Covenant with God. And in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Priests believed that if they could separate Christ from the rest of His church, His disciples, that they would wither and die. But Resurrection was the assurance that, as Paul would later write, “nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Covenant people are those who know that no matter what, they can not be separated from the Living Christ. It is through our prayer, and presence and gifts, and service and witness that we remain connected to the source of strength and power. Through His post resurrection experiences Jesus offers that assurance. Just like the badger, Agur says, people of the Covenant know the source of their strength and never stray far from it.
But there’s more because Agur goes on to say: The locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in the ranks. Locusts know that their power lies in the community. Covenant people are people who are part of a community of faith. Now I have to confess, I don’t like locusts. They are startling creatures. They leap out at you when you least expect it. And I hate to be startled like that. Even though I know they can’t hurt me by themselves. But when they come together in swarms, the damage they can do is often devastating.
Individually a locust has little power, but in community they become a formidable force. And Agur wants us to know, so it is with covenant people. After David, the kingdom was divided, and there was a series of northern kings and southern kings. The people longed for a king to unite them again as David had. But Agur says you don’t need a king to be a community. The locusts have no king, but look what they can do when they unite. That’s how it is with covenant people. At the time that God made the covenant, Abraham didn’t have any people. He and Sarah were childless and well past child bearing years. And yet in their old age, God tells him that he will be the father of a great nation because God intended for the covenant to be lived out in community. And today three of the major religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – nearly 4 billion people – trace their faith roots back to Abraham. As Christians our faith is intensely personal, but it is not meant to be individualistic. That’s why Jesus gave us the church. Because as people of the covenant, we need to be in community with one another. One writer says:
If you don’t understand that other Christians need you, and you need other Christians, you’re not going to make it. And you will make no real imprint for God-alone. We don’t always agree with each other, but as covenant people, the power and vitality of our faith lies in the community of God. His church.
And then finally, Agur says: The lizard you may grasp with the hands, yet it is in King’s palaces. Now you may grasp a lizard in your hands, but I’d rather not. Lizard’s are ugly, often slimy, mean looking little creatures. So why does Agur tell us that such an insignificant, even disagreeable character, would be welcome in the palace of the king. What does this say about people of the covenant?
Well, in the fourteenth chapter of John, Jesus tells us that He goes to prepare a place in God’s house for us. The palace of God. And that he will come again and take us there. And as I thought about that in relation to Agur’s words, it occurred to me that I am just as out of place in God’s palace as the lizard is in the palace of the king. But yet, because of God’s covenant, someone as unacceptable as I am, is welcome in His House.
The lizard you may grasp with your hands, yet it is in King’s palaces. Because it all depends on whose hands are doing the grasping. Covenant people are ones who are welcome in God’s palace, because they have allowed themselves to be grasped by God. Not because we’re beautiful creatures. Not because of the great things we have done. Not because of what we have to offer. But because God reaches out to us, all of us, with His hands of grace. And when we are lonely and hurting, when we are feeling as ugly and insignificant as a lizard, God takes hold of us and lifts us up, and says you are mine.
And it is Through Resurrection, that Covenant people are transformed into beautiful creatures by the Grace of God. And our part of the covenant is to be people of prayer, presence, gifts, service and witness. That’s our vow, our promise, our part of the Covenant, but more than that, those things become our witness that we are indeed Covenant people, in love and connection for all eternity with almighty God through Jesus Christ alive in our world, and community, and soul..
And the wondrous news is that because of the Resurrection, God is still looking for covenant people. He is looking here today, for people who know what time it is, and who know where their strength and security lies, and who want to be a part of a community of faith, and who want to be transformed by the grace of God.