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Articles: The Covenants of God

I’ve been thinking about the two major covenants that God made with God’s people. There are several covenants found within the Bible but there are two that stand out above the rest. As a matter of fact the two sections of the Bible are named after these covenants. The word testament comes from the Latin word “Testamentum” which translates as covenant.

To be sure we are all on the same page, a covenant is an agreement or a contract made by God. Because it comes from God, God won’t break or cancel any covenant He establishes.

But wait… there’s more!

Did you know that not all covenants are not the same? There are three types of covenants found within the Bible. Not all covenants are alike! (Stick with me, this is going somewhere…)

  1. Parity Covenants— Two equal parties. It is a partnership contract. For example a marriage covenant.
  2. Suzerain Covenants—Not equal and is “top-down.” Imposed by a king to his people or by a king and lesser/defeated king/kingdom. These covenants are conditional, meaning both sides are required to do something. Often they are temporary.
  3. PromissoryCovenants—Also not equal. Not a two way agreement. It is given by the more powerful entity (God) and there is no quid pro quo. It is promise from one party to another with no strings attached. These have no expiration and these covenants continue on in perpetuity.

OK, with that said, let’s talk about the two major covenants of the Bible. The “Old Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. In other words, the centerpiece of the Old Covenant is the 10 Commandments (see Exodus 20). However, the Passover Meal (see Exodus 12) reflects the relationship God establishes with the people of Israel that is tied to heart of that relationship: the Law.

The “New Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of this covenant is forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. However, Holy Communion (The Lord’s Supper) reflects themes of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Now here is the test… What type of covenants (old and new) are they?

Give up?

The Old Covenant is a “Suzerain Covenant.” How do I know? The Bible tells us as much. There are many places where God repeats that this covenant is conditional. There are expectations that the Israelites must live up to if the covenant is to remain intact.

For example: “So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the waythat the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may liveand prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” Deuteronomy 5:32-33

 One more example, in case you were doubting me: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now ifyou obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will bemy treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Exodus 19:3-6

 There are more examples but I will stop with these two.

There are expectations! There are conditions! If the Israelites don’t live up to the directives laid out by God (The 10 Commandments) in the covenant, life won’t go well.

Most of us know enough of the Old Testament to know that God kept his Word. Things did not go well when the people of Israel did not live up to the covenant God made with them.

What about the “New Covenant?” What type of covenant is that?

It is a “Promissory Covenant.” This is good news! It is also great news! There are no conditions! It is a promise for us and there is nothing for us to do but receive: forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. I know it seems too good to be true… but it is not. This covenant is a better deal for humanity, besides the Old Covenant was ONLY for the people of Israel.

That is why the author of Hebrews (a letter in the New Testament) says this… “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.But God found fault with the people…” Hebrews 8:7-8a.

 And a little bit later… “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Hebrews 8:13

 The Suzerain nature of the Old Covenant means that is was always destined to be temporary. It was needed, it was good and it has a shelf life. God did not cancel it or break it but God did replace it.

Note: Some of our Jewish brothers and sisters still live under a form of this covenant. Yet we understand that in the fullness of time, this covenant will disappear for the newer covenant which is promissory and eternal.

Saint Paul tells us the purpose of the Old Covenant (historically speaking)… “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24-25

 It served as a legal custodian to take care of us (historically speaking) until Christ arrived and we were emancipated! We are free!

Why did I tell you all of this? First, I want you to understand why the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant (see Hebrews 19:6). Second, I want you to know why the covenants are not equal. Third, all Christians have the tendency to revert Old Covenant thinking by adding rules and laws to following Christ in a very Suzerain way that limits God grace. Let us not go backwards!

The New Covenant is promissory in nature. There is no quid pro quo. God does all the heavy lifting and we don’t do any. God understands that we can’t live up to the standards He set for us. Instead of giving up on us, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves… we are made holy.

That is truly good news.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

Article: A Thorny Issue

Jesus said…
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:43-45

 This passage scares me. It always has, as well as its companion found in Matthew 7:15-23 which specifically talks about false prophets using similar words.

I wonder, what kind of “fruit” do I produce? Is it good fruit? It is mediocre “produce” or is it rotten fruit? I am not good at that kind of self-evaluation.

I know that I sin. As I have said in some of my previous writings, the older I get the more aware I am of my sinfulness. Life was easier when I thought I was a decent person. I don’t think that anymore. That is why these words of Jesus trouble me.

I don’t want to be a thorn bush.

The only thing that I can cling to is this: I know that Jesus does not expect perfection from anyone, including his followers. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray in the same way that John the Baptist taught his disciples, Jesus didn’t teach them howto pray but whatto pray for!

A part of that prayer (that you know so well) says, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”Luke 11:4a

If perfection was possible once we started following Jesus, we wouldn’t need part of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus would not have included it.

When Jesus institutes The Lord’s Supper, what does he say? “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”Matthew 26:28 This holy meal that we receive is meant to provide forgiveness.

Even though this passage still concerns me, it is a relief that this is not about being perfect. Although Jesus doesn’t explain what these verses mean, I am going to go out on a limb and say this has to do with the consistency of a person over the long haul.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “If you expect kindness from a (consistently) abusive person you won’t find it so don’t go looking for it.”

Or, “If you look to a (consistently) immoral person for advice or leadership, you probably won’t receive good counsel.”

In other words, if you are looking for something in the wrong place, you will never find it.

Jesus tells us that everyone has a reputation. (Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.) Good or bad, we all are known by our demeanor, our words and our actions. It is unavoidable. Although we may never know what our reputation is we still have one. People do talk about us when we are not around and what they say about us points to our reputation.

Our overall behavior is our reputation. When we do or say something that is not consistent with our reputation (good or bad), people take notice. That action is not our reputation and that is not what I am talking about. A sinful action doesn’t make or break your reputation. Whew!

Remember in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” where the main character Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart and reputation! His employee Bob Cratchit could barely believe it… for good reason! Mr. Scrooge was behaving in a way that was not consistent with his reputation.  Ebenezer’s nephew (Fred) felt the same way when he encountered his uncle on Christmas Day! Although Mr. Scrooge had truly changed, people were suspicious because it was so out of character.

Although I know “you can’t please all the people all of the time,” I hope and pray that I am more of an apple tree than a briar patch over the long haul.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article: Our Pilgrimage to Houston

Our Pilgrimage to Houston by Pr. Ben Bergren

Marianne Nadell, 8 high school youth and myself are back from the National Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas. We gathered with Lutherans (ELCA) from around the United States and explored the theme, “This Changes Everything.” Every day we looked at a different aspect of that theme as pictured below.

We spent time with others from our very own Sierra Pacific Synod as well as with 30,000 other Lutherans every night for a mass gathering. We also served the community by cleaning up around a low income apartment complex and we discovered what it means to be Lutheran in the interactive center that was set up by various ministries, organizations and colleges affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Marianne Nadell deserves a big thank you for leading this trip! When you see her, tell her thank you! I was there to support her.

Many of you (including the Bergren family) gave to help these students go to this event at a subsidized price. Thank you. I want to share with you what some of our students said about this life changing event…

 Mary Shkouratoff

The ELCA National Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas was such an amazing experience and I am so glad I was able to go. Thank you so much to everybody who donated and supported our group in different ways. At the gathering I had the opportunity to come together with over 30,000 other youth where I learned about God’s love and how it changes everything. I also heard individuals stories of how God’s love changed their lives. I was so blessed to have this experience and am great full for all the work others put in to make my experience so amazing.

Jake Podraza

The National Youth Gathering was amazing because it opened my eyes to many of the different ways God gives us his love. God is talking to you, not your ideal self, so stop trying to be something that you will never be and just be yourself. My favorite quote from the entire event would have to be “There’s Grace for that,” because it tells us that no matter who we are or what we do God still loves us and forgives us. The Gathering was an eye opening experience for me and has showed me the many ways that God and the Lutheran Church are helping others, whether it is helping clean up a city or teaching students. But my main takeaway from the Gathering is to be selfless and help others even if you don’t know the answer.

Andrew Laughlin

My favorite part of the Lutheran youth gathering in Houston was the amazing music played during the mass gatherings. Some songs delivered great messages and others were just fun to listen to. One artist that sang was Tauren Wells who wrote some songs that we performed for Common Ground which was very cool. Thank you everyone for making it possible for me to have such a great experience.

Kobe Fujimoto

Thank you so much bethel for helping send me on this amazing trip. It was so illuminating to see 30000 of my siblings in Christ. The nightly chapels were bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before. My favorite part of the trip was definitely the day of service. We went to an area that was affected by the Hurricane Harvey and picked up trash along the side of three roads. By the time we had finished we had a small mountain of trash. Thank you guys so much 😁.

Frank Podraza

The national youth gathering was amazing because everybody was there to have a good time. Every time you turned a corner you would run into somebody you’d previously met, or meet somebody new with a warm welcome. This wonderful attitude also led to increased energy in everything we did. At the end of every day there was a Mass Gathering, but it was more of a concert. Everyone was dancing and singing, no matter where you looked.

Lindsey Laughlin

The National Youth Gathering was amazing because not only did it give me an opportunity to grow in my own faith but also because I was able to grow my faith with 30,000 of my closest new friends. It was an awesome experience to meet new people and learn about their lives every day. I also enjoyed hearing about the speakers’ lives through their words and stories. I particularly loved hearing Pastor Nadia speak—her words were not only inspiring but also thought provoking. All in all it was an unforgettable trip, thank you so much to the Bethel Congregation for their support!

Sermon: David: The Unlikely Ally

We continue on in the series about King David’s early years. Today we hear that as David’s troubles worsened, the king’s son Jonathon stood by his side. We were created for friendship. Who is your closest friend?

Sermon: David: The Unlikely Rival

After defeating Goliath David became the unlikely hero. However, after his victory, someone became envious and David found he had an unlikely rival.

Video- Story: The Other Animal in the Stable

This is the story that I wrote for our children at Bethel Lutheran Church for the Christmas Eve family worship service. This is a live reading so it is a little rough! Enjoy! Merry Christmas!

Video: Make Friends

“Make Friends” is an initiative of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, an

interfaith organization with offices in Israel and the United States. In

a press release, organizers said the project’s mission is to counter

the idea that people view each others’ religions with distrust or

disdain ― and to potentially even reduce violence conducted in the

name of religion.

Sermon: The Joy of Bethel: Christ Centered Community

OK, you shouldn’t have this much fun in church, but we did! What does it mean to be in community with Jesus and each other? We answer that question AND another TV show theme song. We end with our closing song (included) that is a classic!