A Covenant Is Not A Contract

Genesis 39

Last summer we studied together the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Faith, which includes the affirmation that God promises to all who trust forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of God’s Spirit in trial and rejoicing and eternal life in that Kingdom which has no end. 

This morning as we continue our exploration of the Old Testament and the importance of covenant, I want us to really think about what it is that God promises us, and how we receive those promises. 

We’ve already talked about Noah and Abraham, and this morning we will add another well-known Old Testament character: Joseph. We’ll be in Genesis 39 if you want to start turning there in your Bibles. If you’re using the one in the pew, it’s page 64. Joseph is a great-grandson of Abraham, so an heir of God’s covenant promises of being blessed to be a blessing. Joseph is one of twelve sons born to Jacob who is also known as Israel. Joseph is the favorite; he knows it and his father Jacob shows it. He’s seems pretty blessed. But as a young man, Joseph is not very tactful; he has symbolic dreams about his own greatness and he’s foolish enough to tell those dreams to his brothers. Understandably they become jealous. In fact, they become so jealous that they kidnap their own brother, sell him into slavery, and tell their father that he’s dead. All of that happens in Genesis chapter 37, and the rest of Joseph’s story is the rest of the book of Genesis. Another 13 chapters. This morning as we think about covenant, we are going to read one episode from Joseph’s life, Genesis chapter 39. Since it’s a long story, we’re not going to do the slides. I want you to just listen to the story and if you like to follow along visually, again there are Bibles in your pews and we’re on page 64.

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and with him there he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate. 

<As Americans, we have a very particular idea of what slavery is, based on our own tragic history. But chattel slavery, the kind of slavery practiced in our history did not exist in the ancient world. It was rare if ever that someone was enslaved for life with no chance of freedom. This is not what we’re talking about in this section. Yes, Joseph was purchased, yes he’s in servitude, but it’s not an irrevocable situation.>

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice, and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me and fled outside.” Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me, but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled outside.”

<As an American woman in the 21st century, this story of a woman falsely accusing a man of sexual assault is so troubling to me. I’m not going to preach a whole sermon on it, but I also can’t let it go. So let me just say this: who assaults whom and who gets accused and who gets away with it is not about gender; it’s about power. When both folks are white Americans, the man will usually have more power, not just physical power, but social power. The system is structured to favor him. But in this story, we’re not dealing just with gender but also with race and wealth, and those take precedence over gender in this story. The woman has the power and thus is both able to attempt an assault and also level an accusation that is believed by everyone. When we read the Bible and in our own lives, we need to be very aware of who has power and why.>

When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care because the Lord was with him, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.

From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.

Last week we said that covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the other, which shapes our identity and our conduct. In covenant, belonging shapes behavior. Being in relationship with God and one another shapes how we choose to live. The relationship comes first. Covenant is about who we are and who we belong to; it’s not a list of rules about what we will and won’t do. That would be a contract. 

When we are thinking about God, it’s very easy for us to start thinking in terms of contracts, even if we might say, “Oh no, that’s not what I think.” Let me give you an example of what I mean by contract-thinking: See if this sounds familiar: If I pray the right prayer and/or do the right religious works, God will let me into Heaven. If I pay my tithe, God will give me plenty of money. If I pray hard enough or have enough faith, God will heal my loved ones. If I live a good life (whatever we think that means), God will bless me. 

Part of the reason we think like this is because people have always thought like this. Ancient humans believed they must please the fickle gods to have rain for their crops or victory in battle. We’ve always thought in terms of contracts, in terms of transactions. The other reason we believe this is because we have mixed up the Gospel and the American dream. Individualism teaches that people earn whatever they have. When we layer Christianity on top of that, we start believing that God gives us what we “deserve.” And then, understandably, we get very upset when we get something that we don’t think we deserve. Please hear me very clearly: this is contract. This is not covenant. This is a cheap and easy way for privileged people to explain God, and it is wrong.

Now here’s where it gets sticky: there are some places in the Bible where it sounds like if we are good, God will be good to us. It’s there. BUT it’s not the only way the Bible talks about our relationship with God. The Bible says a lot of things. Some of those things sound opposite from each other. Remember the Bible covers a huge span of time and a huge geographical area. So it’s really up to us. We have to decide, even when we wrestle with the scriptures, are we going to trust in contract, or are we going to trust in covenant?

It’s very easy to switch from covenant to contract, because we always want to think about what someone else is going to DO for us, and what we will DO for them in return. Covenant encourages us to ask WHY would we do those things? Not out of fear of punishment or legal obligation, but out of love. The relationship comes first. As we think about God’s covenant promises I want to point out a few things to you. What I am about to say is hard. It pushes against our desire for health and wealth and our contract-transaction theology. But I believe it is the growing edge of our emotional and spiritual awareness and self-control. Especially when things are hard, we need a faith that is deeper than contract, deeper than transaction. We need a faith that can carry us through suffering and deep questions. We need faith in God’s covenant love for us. So let’s think about God’s covenant promises that we’ve seen so far.

First, In the flood story, God promises never to destroy us again. But God does not promise that we won’t continue to destroy ourselves and our planet through our own willful corruption. I’m not saying we are inherently bad creatures. We are good. But we make really bad choices, and God does not promise to shield us from the consequences of our own actions. And God does not promise to shield other people from the consequences of our actions. We can do plenty of damage without God’s help, and that is not God’s responsibility. It is our responsibility.

Second, God promises to bless Abraham and Sarah so that they will be a blessing. But God does not promise to keep others from cursing them. In fact, the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah includes the reality that other people are going to curse them! The more we live in God’s way, joining in the struggle for justice and peace, not fighting fire with fire, loving our enemies, the more likely we are to be cursed by others. God promises we will be blessed, but not that being a blessing will be easy.

Third, God promises Abraham and Sarah a multitude of descendants, but they probably didn’t live to see their own grandchildren. God promises them that their descendants will have a land of their own, and when Abraham and Sarah die, they own only one tiny plot of that land. God fulfilled the promises even though Abraham and Sarah never saw that fulfillment in their lifetime. Friends, God is writing a very long story. And even though we are the center of our own universes, God is working beyond our lifetimes. It is possible for God to be faithful and for us to not get what we want.

Finally, God promises to be the God of all Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, which by faith includes us. And this brings us to Joseph. For a while, Joseph has a pretty sweet life. He’s pretty blessed, although it doesn’t sound like he’s much of a blessing to others. But then he is taken to Egypt, purchased like a piece of property, and put to work. He doesn’t speak the language, he doesn’t know the customs. He doesn’t share the religion. And Genesis 39 verse 2 says, “The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered.” For a while again things go well enough considering the circumstances. He even refuses to have sex with the mistress of the house because he says it would be a sin against God. He’s trying to live the right way. Then he is falsely accused and thrown in jail. And Genesis 39 verse 21 says, “But while Joseph was in prison, the Lord was with him and showed him steadfast love.” That’s the word mercy, as in our mission to “love mercy.” Friends, the hardest lesson is that it is possible for God to be with us, to be our God, to be faithful, to be keeping promises, and really awful things can still happen to us. We can do our best to follow God and still wind up a no-win situation, where we lose either way we go. God’s unconditional commitment to us is not a guarantee of physical or financial security.

The ultimate example of God’s covenant love, demonstrated in Jesus, is that God can redeem anything. There is nothing that can happen to us that is so awful that God cannot bring something good out of it. That doesn’t mean God caused it. It means that our infinitely creative and loving God can make something beautiful out of it, even if we don’t live to see it.

Now it is natural for us to want safety and security for ourselves and our loved ones. God’s word tells us that when all things have been restored there will be no more pain or sickness or tears. When we pray for healing and peace, we are praying in line with God’s ultimate intention for creation. The ninja-level Christianity is to believe that God is still at work, still loving, still faithful to God’s covenant, still WITH US BEING OUR GOD even when we don’t get what we want. God never leaves us alone in our suffering. God leads us into community so that we can be a blessing to one another, to remind one another of God’s ultimate goodness, to encourage one another, to in fact be God to one another in that moment. We both experience and extend God’s covenant with us when we live in covenant love with one another. Amen.

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