“Covenant of a Clear Conscience”
February 18, 2018
By John Partridge*
Genesis 9:8-17 Mark 1:9-15 1 Peter 3:18-22
Have you ever watched the news when there is a press conference to announce the end of a particularly difficult labor negotiation? I don’t care if it’s the steel workers, or the school board, or a Major League Baseball franchise, there is one word that you seem to hear over and over during the press conference, and that is… contract. I usually sounds like, “We’re here today to announce that all parties have agreed to this new contract. Negotiating this contract was difficult and although everyone didn’t get everything that they wanted, everyone was willing to compromise to reach an agreement on this contract. Thanks to this contract, we can all get back to work and be successful together.” Doesn’t that language sound familiar? It does, because the repeated word, “contract” is important, and it is one that the negotiators want to emphasize.
In our society, a contract is something with which we are familiar. Almost all of us have signed contracts at one time or another. We know that those contracts are legally binding on all the parties that sign them, and that there are penalties and even fines that can be incurred if anyone fails to live up to their part of the deal. Now kick that all up a notch and you can better understand the biblical idea of a covenant. A covenant was not just a religious thing; it was a legal one that was often used between nations. Like contracts, covenants usually included a list of what was expected of each party as well as a list of what terrible things would happen to anyone who failed to live up to their part of the deal. The signing of a covenant was often combined with one or several animal sacrifices as a symbol to everyone that the signing of the covenant required the shedding of blood and the breaking of that covenant would also bring about the shedding of blood or death.
With that in mind, then I think we can better appreciate the significance of God’s words contained in Genesis 9:8-17, where God describes his promise to Noah, to all of humanity, and to all of creation after the global flood had ended.
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
Just like those news conference we mentioned earlier, God mentions the word “covenant’ seven times in nine verses and in addition, repeatedly refers to “every living creature,” “all generations,” “never again,” and “everlasting.” God wanted to make a point that this was a solemn promise that God intended to keep and that humanity never needed to worry about God going back on his promise. At least from this one disaster, we were safe.
And then, thousands of years later, Mark records for us this story and the words of Jesus in Mark 1:9-15.
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Jesus went to John at the Jordan River and was baptized by him. Following his baptism, Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days and was tempted by Satan. But after all of that, the message that Jesus shared with the world was that the kingdom of God had come near and that everyone should repent and believe the good news. With the coming of Jesus, heaven is torn open and comes to earth. Instead of heaven being a place that was far away, the kingdom of God had come to earth and lived among humanity. God was no longer far away, but as close as your neighbor, as close as your next breath, as close as your own heart. God was no longer confined to heaven, but entered into the hearts of those who believed. But the baptism of Jesus also symbolized something even more important and the Apostle Peter explains that in 1 Peter 3:18-22.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
In this passage, Peter speaks about God’s new covenant with his people, and that is the promise that comes through Jesus Christ. Peter reminds everyone that since the days of Noah, water has been a symbol of salvation and rescue, but Noah and the ark only managed to rescue eight people. With the coming of God’s new covenant, Jesus entered into the grave and revealed the truth to those who were imprisoned there (Note: theologians aren’t clear whether Peter was referring to the spirits of dead people who lived in the time of Noah, or if these were fallen angels who had been imprisoned by God). But Peter makes the bigger point that baptism becomes for us a symbol of Jesus’ three days in the grave and his subsequent resurrection.
Baptism, Peter argues, is not about washing and cleanliness, and it isn’t even about ritual purification in the way that the Jews had traditionally done it. Instead, baptism is a symbol that we take upon ourselves where we join with Christ in the grave (which is the water), pass through the trial that is death, and emerge from the water not only purified, but conquerors of suffering, trials and death, forgiven and resurrected to a new life in Christ Jesus. It is because of this that we have received the new covenant of God through Jesus Christ, or what Peter calls “the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Once we have received the gift of Jesus Christ and have given our lives to him, we no longer need to fear God, or worry about the sins that we have committed in the past because we are assured that we are a forgiven people who died with Christ and have left our guilt, our shame, and our sin in the grave behind us.
This is the gift that we have received.
This is the gift of the covenant of a clear conscience.
And so as we leave this place and move forward into the future, we are left with two tasks: First, we should rejoice and give thanks to God that we have been given such an invaluable gift. And second, because this gift is so incredible, we must not keep it to ourselves but instead we must find ways to share this good news with our neighbors, our friends, our family, and with all the world.
What will you do with your gift?
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.