Story - Covenant
Passage: Genesis 9:8–9:16, Genesis 15:1–15:6, Exodus 20:1–20:17
This morning we are going to talk about a subject that should be relevant to everyone in this area over the last few weeks. We are going to talk about covenants, the covenants God makes with us and what that means for us as people. Now, it might not sound like covenants are relevant to your life. But they are. We just call them different things.
A few weeks ago the Washington Nationals avoided salary arbitration with star outfielder Bryce Harper when they agreed to a one year covenant for over $13million. Right now the Redskins are working out a long term covenant with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Last week, millions watched as new president Donald Trump placed his hand on a Bible and swore a covenant to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Now we don’t use the word covenant in any of those cases. We use terms like contracts and oaths and promises. But perhaps we could understand Scripture better if we either used the word covenant more or used other words for covenant when talking about the Bible. So we can talk about how with Noah God places the franchise tag on us. God avoids arbitration by brokering a deal with Abraham. And God takes an oath of office to preserve, protect and defend Israel in Exodus.
Now that intro was shorter and worse than most of my intros, but we have a lot of ground to cover this morning so we didn’t have much time. At least that describes the brevity; the quality is all my fault.
We are in the midst of a sermon series about the huge story God is telling in Scripture. The epic story, the love story, the ultimate rescue story that God writes to us in Scripture in the hope of wiring it on our hearts. God is doing this in order to re-author the stories we tell about ourselves, stories we have learned from the world. God wants to author our stories to remake us and renew us as His beloved children.
The first element of that story was creation. We are created out of God’s infinite love. We are created in order to love others. And we are created with all things necessary to thrive. However, this story’s dramatic movement is set in motion through our disobedience. We sin and throw all of our relationships into disarray. Adam and Eve are placed in a garden to partner with God and tend the garden and order creation. However, they eat of the one tree God commanded them not to eat and are expelled from the garden. This begins a cycle of dysfunction and disordered relationships.
Adam and Eve have two children, Cain and Abel. They each bring an offering to God and God likes Abel’s offering more than Cain’s. Out of jealousy, Cain kills Abel. Cain is exiled into further wandering. Adam and Eve have another child named Seth. Seth’s line produces Noah. By the time Noah comes onto the scene, the sickness of sin has so infected humanity that the Bible says God repents of having made creation. So God decides to end it all.
But Noah is righteous in the eyes of God. So God decides to spare Noah and his family. God causes it to rain on the earth…a lot. But God had told Noah to build and ark to prepare for the flood and creation is spared and continued through Noah. After the flood waters recede and Noah comes back onto the earth, God makes a promise with Noah. God makes a contract with Noah. God makes a promise to Noah. God takes and oath.
Genesis 9: 8-16
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 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. 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.” 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: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I 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. 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.”
This covenant tells us a lot about what it means for God to make covenant with humanity. God floods the earth because of humanity’s wickedness, because the disease of sin had run so deep. But real talk: it’s not like after the flood there was much hope for anything different. So when God promises to never again destroy life God is promising to be patient with us. God is promising to give us time to work it out. God is being gracious with us that though we deserve punishment, though we deserve death, though it might be easier for God to just be done with us, God will give us chances that we don’t deserve. God will stay with us. God will still love us. God’s love will remain steadfast.
The basic message is this: there is more grace in God than there is sin in us. There is more grace in God than there is sin in us. This is something we will see throughout the Old Testament. God makes a number of covenants with us and they are all signs of grace. They are all blessings that we do not deserve. They are all continuations of promise and of hope. Even when that hope seems faint, even when it seems like there will be no future, God steps in and makes promises to us out of his love and his grace.
We see that again as we continue in Genesis. God makes a promise with Noah not to destroy all life again. But pretty much right after getting off the ark the disease of sin strikes again. It leads to hurt and hatred and more disordered relationships. And it leads to humanity building a tower in order to make an assault on heaven and on God. God scatters humanity giving us different languages. But in the midst of the spread of wickedness and sin and unrighteousness, God finds one man named Abram.
When God finds Abram, Abram is already very old. As is his wife. And they have no children. But God promises that He will make of Abram a great nation. So Abram leaves his father’s land, as God had commanded him, and then lots of stuff happened. If you’re doing the Bishop’s bible challenge you already know what happened. And yes that was a commercial for the Bishop’s bible challenge. But after all that stuff has happened, a trip to Egypt, a rescue mission of his cousin, etc. Abram still has no child and heir. And then God says this.
Genesis 15: 1-6
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
So if you read all of Genesis 12-15 you will discover that Abram is not the greatest man that ever lived. He’s not the worst, either. He’s average. Ok, maybe above average. But he’s not stellar. In one episode he pretends that his wife is really his sister because he things his wife is so beautiful he’d be killed so others could marry her. But there is more grace in God than there is sin in us. And out of that grace, God makes this covenant with Abram. So what does the covenant God makes with him mean for us? God promises Abram an amazing future, God gives Abram a reason to hope. And despite a number of really wrong things Abram does, some of which we haven’t seen yet, God is faithful to Abram. God is promising he will bring about that future he gave Abram in which to have hope. God hasn’t forgotten about his promises; God is faithful to his promises.
God makes promises for us. God makes promises about the life we can lead here, the joy we can find here. And God makes promises for us about the life that we can find after our life here is over. At times both can seem unbelievable. If we are living here, making sacrifices, committed to living a different life in the hopes of finding blessings but not seeing them yet, God promises to be faithful. If we experience the loss of loved ones and the grief and sorrow of death, God promises eternity. The hope, the faith, the gospel of our story as a covenant people is that God is faithful to the promises God makes. God is faithful. God. Is. Faithful.
As this chapter progresses, God will say that Abram’s descendants will be in a foreign country for 400 years and will be enslaved and mistreated there. Which leads us nicely into the story of Moses.
By the time of Moses we see that the promise that Abraham’s descendants would go into a foreign country for 400 years and would be mistreated and enslaved has come true. And then God breaks into that cycle to free Israel from slavery through warnings and plagues.
God leads them out into the wilderness with promises that they will be given the land God promised to give to Abram. God is announcing his intent to fulfill those promises in the here and now. And God makes with Israel a covenant that is meant to order their lives when they make it to the promised land.
The first two covenants we have discussed have been promises God makes to us with no expectations or obligations placed upon us to reciprocate. God makes decisions for how God is choosing to relate to us. But in this covenant, God is ordering both His side and our side of the relationship. God is giving us a guide for what it means to be God’s chosen people living in the land promised to them.
And this guide, this ordering, is an attempt to repair the disorder that sin brought into the world. As we saw last week, sin brought about disorder in our relationships with God, with each other, with creation, and then ultimately with ourselves. We were created out of love, for love, in order to love others and to thrive. When our relationship with the source of that love is out of whack, when our relationships with the objects of our own love are out of whack, when our relationship with the source of our vocations, the source of our ability to thrive is out of whack, our relationship with our own self is out of whack. The covenant God gives to Moses, which is pretty much the second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, most of Numbers, and all of Deuteronomy, is meant to repair all of those disordered relationships.
That covenant can be summed up in the 10 Commandments found in Exodus 20.
Exodus 20: 1-17
And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. “You shall not murder. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Immediately we see that this covenant is based on who God has proven Himself to be. God orders our life on the basis of who God has decided to be in relationship with us. We can count on his love and his grace and his provision. So on that basis, God issues four commandments that are meant to repair our relationship with God.
“You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. These first four commandments are all about our relationship with God. That is the primary relationship that needs to be rightly ordered or else we cannot rightly order our other relationships. Once that relationship is ordered, God gives us six commandments that address our dealings with one another.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. “You shall not murder. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” These reorder our relationships with one another. They bring us to a place of love, respect, and cooperation.
What isn’t given in the Ten Commandments are ways to reorder our relationships with creation and bring about restoration to our vocations and our ability to thrive. But that’s what we see happening in other parts of the covenant where we hear about which animals we can or can’t eat, which plants we can or can’t plant and where, etc.
But all of this reorders the disorder sin brought into the world. As we see that our stories are a people who need God we see that God meets us in that need. If there are places in your life that need healing, that need wholeness, if there are relationships in your life that need to be reordered and remade, God stands ready to do that.
The only thing left to talk about is how we have responded to this covenant making God. It should come as no surprise to us that we have historically not lived up to our end of the covenant. Israel was unfaithful to God pretty much since the first instance the covenant was made. And it didn’t get better as the years went by. Half of the Old Testament are books of the prophets that are all about Israel’s transgression of the law.
There’s a minor prophet named Hosea who has a relatively short book towards the end of the Old Testament who has a very graphic demonstration about how we have lived up to our end of the covenant. He is told to go marry a prostitute in order to dramatize the relationship between God and Israel. I don’t think there’s much exegesis or interpretation needed on this one. We are unfaithful. And God is hurt by our infidelity the same way a spouse is wounded by a partner’s infidelity. And yet, God promises in Hosea that God will continue to be faithful, that God will continue to love, that God will redeem us.
What does it mean for us that a crucial element of this story is the covenants God makes with Israel? The key is simply this: there is more grace in God than there is sin in us. At every point of humanity's infidelity, at every point our loves fails, there is more love in God than there is sin in us. And that gives us hope. That gives us hope that at some point God will move and God will work and God’s grace and love will overcome our sin and selfishness. It means our stories aren’t over, the final page has yet to be written. It means that we can have faith, through good times and bad, that there’s nothing here on earth that God can’t fix.
The world is still unfaithful to God. The world is still rebelling from God. Humanity’s relationship with God is still out of whack, its still disordered. And that creates dysfunction in our lives. But God still loves the world. God still loves us. God is still working, God is still trying, God is not done with us yet. And that “to be continued”, that dot dot dot, is all we need. God still loves the world. And next week we’ll find out what He does about that.