Each year in September as we study the Bible together on Sunday mornings, we go all the way back to the beginning, to the book of Genesis, and spend four months studying the Old Testament. I grew up in church, reading and loving and memorizing the Bible, and it wasn’t until I got to seminary that I really understood what was happening in the Old Testament, especially the timeline of events and the places. I usually knew the stories of people, but I didn’t understand how they all fit together.
The story of Jesus makes more sense and is more powerful when we understand the background of the Old Testament. The Bible is the unfolding story of God’s people, how a particular group of people understood God more fully over at least 1,000 years. That’s a long time and a lot of people. That particular group of people became the Jewish people in the world today, but we are also spiritual descendants because we are followers of Jesus and Jesus was a Jewish man. When we understand the Old Testament, we understand the stories and history that shaped Jesus and his family and his community. We better understand why he was so important and so divisive, and we can better find ourselves in the story. Plus the best and craziest stories are in the Old Testament, so it’s fun.
As we study the Old Testament this fall, we are going to look particularly at the idea of covenant. Have you ever been part of something that was labeled as a covenant? Maybe it’s “the covenant of marriage.” Or maybe it’s a “homeowner’s covenant” through your neighborhood association. I suspect that covenant is a word that is sometimes used when we want an agreement to sound really serious. But there’s a difference between a covenant and a contract. A contract has very specific requirements for both parties and usually includes an escape clause about how you get out of it or what happens if the contract is broken. A contract is about transaction. I’ll do this and you’ll do that. I’ll get this and you’ll get that. If you don’t do this, I don’t have to do that.
A covenant, at least the biblical idea, is different from a contract. A contract is about transaction. A covenant is about relationship. A good definition for covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship. A sacred commitment to relationship. A promise, rooted in God, about who we are going to be. A covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship. A promise of who we are going to be, not specifically what we are going to do.
In the Bible, the covenants we will study are 1. initiated by God 2. for the sake of the other 3. which shape identity and conduct. Covenants are a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the other which shape identity and conduct. God is the force behind the covenant. The covenant is created for the good of the other party. And participating in the covenant shapes who we are and how we live.
It is very easy to slip from covenant thinking into contract thinking, especially when we start talking about “how we live.” Sounds like we’re going to start making a bunch of rules and being legalistic and deciding who is and who is out based on their behaviors, right? And that’s exactly what happens in a contract. In a contract, behavior earns belonging. In a contract, behavior earns belonging. Do the right thing and you’re in.
But in a covenant, belonging shapes behavior. In a contract, behavior earns belonging. But in a covenant, belonging shapes behavior. In a covenant, you do the right thing because you’re in. Are you tracking with me? A sacred commitment to relationship initiated by God for the sake of the other, which shape identity and conduct. In a covenant, belonging shapes behavior.
And this fall, we are studying covenants in the Old Testament. We saw one last week, God’s covenant to never again destroy the earth with water, even though human individuals and societies will continue to be evil, corrupt and violent. And that’s the whole covenant. God promises the whole creation that never again will God destroy creation. Creation doesn’t make any promises back. God promises a relationship with creation that rejects destruction. The covenant of Noah.
This week we are going to look at one part of the covenant of Abraham. Scholars love to pick at this covenant because there are actually five separate versions of it in Genesis 12, 13, 15, 17, and 22. We’re just going to read a few verses this morning from the end of Genesis 11 and the beginning of Genesis 12, the first recorded interaction between God and Abraham. So get your Bibles and let’s turn together to Genesis chapter 11, the very end of it. Page 17 if you’re using the Bibles in the pew. Let me say quickly that what comes before this is almost two full chapters of genealogy, with the Tower of Babel story the middle of it. We’re going to pick up at the end of the genealogy. Genesis chapter 11, verse 27, top of page 17 in those Bibles.
Terah became the father of Abram [whose name is later changed to Abraham], Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans [later Babylon or modern day Iraq], in the land of his birth.
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.
So here we have a family who has lost a son. An adult child who died before his parents and left behind a child that needed to be cared for. And for some reason, maybe because this loss was so hard, some of the family leaves their home and moves away, which was a big deal in the ancient world because travel was so difficult. They travel for a while, and when they get to a place that reminds them of their dead loved one, they stop. It’s not where they were intending to go; it’s where they get stuck. And the patriarch, father to Abram and grandfather to Lot, he dies in this in-between stuck place.
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
If you want to read more this week, Abram’s story goes on through Genesis 22, you’ve probably heard parts of it before. His name is changed to Abraham and that’s what I’m going to call him this morning because that’s the name most of us know. Today, let’s focus here on what we can see as the beginning of the covenant.
God’s original promise to Abraham is “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Christians believe that the end of that promise is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, whose birth, life, death, and resurrection bless all the world. This is where we see the plan of Jesus start to go into effect because this is a covenant with one family. The covenant in the flood story is with the whole world and all God promises is to never again destroy the world. God promises to not do a bad thing. But here, with one family, for the first time, God promises to do a good thing: “I will bless you.” Abraham is the father of our faith, as well as the father of the Jews and the Muslims, and his relationship with God is an example to us.
First, Abraham exemplifies God’s grace. Abraham doesn’t choose God. God chooses Abraham. And as far as we can tell, Abraham is nobody special in the world’s eyes. He’s just a stranger in a strange land, not where he started and not where he wants to be, stuck and grieving, caring for a child that isn’t his and not able to have his own children. Why does God choose Abraham? We don’t know. But God does. And God chooses us. Before we ever choose God, God chooses us. Before we can ever call on God, God calls us. Not because we are super-stars or because we’ve earned it, but just because that’s how God is. God chooses us for no obvious reason and calls us out of our stuck places and begins to bless us just because God is gracious. It’s God’s nature. Not to be angry or demanding, but to be gracious and blessing. Abraham’s story exemplifies God’s grace.
Second, Abraham reveals our purpose. Why is Abraham blessed? To be a blessing. Let’s make sure we get the order right, because we are always tempted to earn blessing. Like, if I bless you, then God will bless me. But that’s not how it works. The covenant with Abraham says that God has blessed, is blessing and will bless Abraham and Sarah and that as a result of that, they will be a blessing to others. Covenant is always initiated by God for the sake of the other. Will Abraham and Sarah be blessed? Yes they will. Just so they can have their own McMansion and fat 401k and great vacations and whatever else sounds like luxury to us? No. They will be blessed and they will be a conduit, a channel, of blessing to others. We are not blessed just for our own enjoyment. We are blessed to be a blessing. Abraham reveals our purpose.
Finally, Abraham models our calling. Remember how I said that in a covenant, belonging shapes behavior? Later on in the story, years later for Abraham, God renews this covenant and this time includes some information about how the covenant is carried out. The goal of the covenant is to bless the world through the family of Abraham and Sarah. The objectives are that God will establish their family in the land of Canaan and that Abraham and Sarah will walk before God and be blameless. That’s chapter 17 verse 1.
Belonging shapes behavior. Abraham and Sarah don’t follow God so that they can get the blessing. The follow God because they are blessed. Following God is itself the blessing. When we seek to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God, it isn’t because we are trying to earn God’s favor. It’s because we already have God’s favor. Because we are in a relationship of sacred commitment to God, and when we are in a relationship the things we do reflect on the other party. No way around that. So since we are in a relationship with God, since we belong to God, since God has chosen us and called us and blessed us, we live into that blessing by loving God with all our heart, mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Do you see that the belonging comes first? We’re not trying to earn it, and we’re not even trying to pay God back. We are simply living into the reality of a sacred commitment to relationship. Walking blamelessly before God, as least as close as we can get, that is a blessing to us and it is a way of life that naturally brings blessing to others.
This is why the idea of covenant is so important. It’s not a list of rules and if we break one God kicks us out. Covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the other, which shapes our identity and our conduct. This is what I’m talking about when I say that we need to be remind who we are and whose we are. Belonging shapes our behavior. Naturally. We belong to God and one another, freely, fully, graciously, eternally. The power of that, of remembering that God has blessed us and that our every day choices, what we say and do, what we post on social media, how we spend our money, those choices reflect on our covenant partners. That’s a big deal. Our choices say something about how we are in relationship to God and one another. May we continue to live into our covenant blessing and let the whole world be blessed through us. Amen.