Act 3 – Covenant and Kingdom
Sermon Series: The Drama of Scripture
By: Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – March 24, 2019
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space. Together we’ve been welcomed into God’s family through Jesus. We’re becoming the people of God as we reflect that welcome in our gratitude, in our joy, and in our generosity. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit and that you would truly feel at home here.
It’s the third week of our Drama of Scripture series, and I’m excited to be preaching on my favorite part of the Bible! There is so. much. going on these thousand or so chapters, so please forgive me in advance if I skip over a story or two on the way. I hope as we look at the mega big picture of these sacred stories, we catch a glimpse of something new in God’s character, in a way that changes us. And I also secretly hope you are inspired to pick up a Bible and read some of these page for yourself. I’ll give you a few pointers along the way of good places to start if you are new to reading the Bible.
To recap parts 1 and 2: God made a good and beautiful world, God fashioned men and women in God’s image. God gave humans the task of stewarding the natural world, and God walked with them in the garden. Part 2, humans stepped out of the boundaries God set for them, resulting in broken relationships with God, each other, and the good world God made.
Now part 3 opens on basically the dawn of civilization. What are people going to do? What is God going to do?
The Book of Genesis is all about the cracks in human relationship causing drama, all the while God constantly comes toward them and invents new ways to insert God’self in the ongoing saga. It’s like one long telenovela. The book of Genesis, is probably at the top of my Bestseller list as books of the bible go. There’s the creation story, the drama with the snake, We get the first murder on page 3, then by page 5 God pulls a sort of Marie Kondo when he finds there’s only a handful of people who spark his joy… blessings and curses, battles, rival wives, rival brothers. But how do we make sense of these stories as part of the big story of scripture? Well first, you really should read them. Moving on…a key theme throughout is a series of covenants.
A Covenant is sort of a cross between a vow and a treaty. It’s an agreement between 2 parties, usually 2 nations or people groups, and it’s usually about who is going to call the shots. Now the truth of the matter is that God is usually the one calling the shots in general, but God’s covenants are often commitments to care for or protect people. The covenant is God’s way of saying “I’m committed”. It’s God’s way of saying “you belong.” As I read the hebrew scriptures, I find that unshakeable commitment to God’s people is the core of God’s character. It’s almost impossible to distinguish God’s love and God’s loyalty. The word for this is “Hesed”. Loyal love means that God is totally commited to sticking with God’s people. No matter what. In political terms, we call this allegiance. In relational terms, we call it fidelity. The kind of relationship where loyalty, faithfulness is higher currency than anything else. Church, this is what we mean when we talk about belonging to God. When God makes a covenant, God chooses someone to belong to. And that belonging becomes truer than anything else about us, especially in God’s eyes. Notice here that things like marital fidelity and national allegiance or a treaty between nations, they require something of both sides. But the belonging comes before the behavior.
For example, God’s covenant with Abraham, the original ancestor of the nation of Israel. Here’s God’s commitment to Abraham: God says, to Abraham, who up till this point has done nothing significant, come with me, and
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.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Abraham goes. Abraham lives up to faithful worship of Yahweh, and Yahweh blesses Abraham financially and bails him out of various scrapes. But the promise is too big for to come to fulfillment in one generation. God promised him wealth, land, and descendants. Abraham dies, prosperous, with just one (legitimate) son, and nowhere close a nation status.
God’s HESED faithful love continues to Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s sons. Note that none of these men are presented to us as role models. They meet a minimum threshhold of commitment to call on Yahweh as their God. That’s what it takes for them to belong, to be the people of God.
We can fast forward further through Abraham’s great great grandchildren relocating to Egypt, where they flourished and were later enslaved. The pinnacle of God’s covenant commitment to God’s people, and the most cherished story of the Hebrew Scriptures, is the Exodus.
This was the moment when Yahweh put the gods of Egypt to shame, and used his powerful arm to part the sea and bring Israel into freedom. This was Yahweh’s great act of Belong-making, claiming this people indisputably as his own people.
Now some of you might remember at some point in your life deciding to read through the Bible from cover to cover, chapter by chapter, and this is most likely the part where you gave up, because the story takes a nosedive from escalating family drama and page-turning plages to details of tabernacle decor. I can’t talk trash about those sections because I told you this was my favorite part of the Bible. You don’t have to read it all at once. But I promise there’s some really interesting bits mixed in. Okay that said, my helpful tip for understanding this is that these details and rules are in our sacred text as the how-to for the belonging God has made for this people. All the weird stuff is an embodiment of their belonging, in very concrete detail.
So we’ll skip ahead through Leviticus, Numbers, more drama ensues in Joshua, the actual weirdest stuff in the Bible is Judges. That gets us all the way into the promised land with tenuous degree of political stability. Yahweh has lived up to his covenant commitment to make Abraham’s descendants numerous, prosperous, and powerful. They had their own land and can be reasonably considered a nation.
This is where God’s people decide they’re ready to take the relationship to the next level. We’re ready, Yahweh, they tell him. We’re ready for a KING.
But back to asking for a King! Now God takes this as straight up rejection. God replies to Samuel, who is ruling at the time, “Listen to the people because it’s not you they’ve rejected, but me they’ve rejected from being king over them.” Just like all the other times they’ve rejected me and worshipped other gods. (sorry I skipped over those but there are a lot). Observe with me here, why is God so upset? A king isn’t the same as worshipping another god, is it? Well, not really maybe sort of. What’s happening here is a fundamental reordering of this belonging God has established.
In the ancient near east, there’s a connection between a god and the land, between god and king, between king and land. A god’s power is connected to the land. People get power for conquest from your god. When you take land from other gods, you get more power for your god. And the King has a special relationship with god, the King mediates the god’s authority through his own conquests and favors.
But from the start Yahweh has been very much not about that. Yahweh chose a people when they had no land at all. Yahweh proved himself more powerful than the Egyptian gods and the other deities of canaan without a royal warrior to mediate. When Yahweh gets a title to introduce himself, it’s “I am who I am” it’s also “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” men he knew personally and walked with.
The other thing we need to talk about to understand why Yahweh feels personally replaced, is Justice. And yet again, we’re going to talk about it in Hebrew. Not because we’re pretentious, although that’s also true, this is just to help us use this concept the way the writers of scripture knew it.
Mishpat can be translated justice, judgment, or authority. Justice is always about power. And I don’t mean that as cynical as it may sound. In the Bible, there’s no separating executive and judicial branches of government. There is no universal concept of “Lady Justice,” it’s just the question of who has the power and who is making the rules. I invite you to think about Mishpat with me as “the power to protect and provide.” The Exodus is Yahweh’s great act of Mishpat, exercising his authority to protect and provide is the way he claims them as his own. This happens even when God’s people aren’t necessarily “in the right.” When Jacob steals his brothers blessing off his father’s deathbed, when Abraham marries off his own wife to a foreign ruler, Yahweh’s uses power protects them, because they belong to him.
God’s justice is so much bigger than wrongdoers getting commuppance and vindicated victims receiving restitution. When God’s Mishpat is at work, it encompasses the whole big picture of setting things right in the world. We get verses like
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness. Psalm 96
Why are the trees so excited? Are they constitutional law experts? They don’t care! The trees are SINGING because Yahweh’s MISHPAT is good news for the whole creation.
Now back to the Kings. Yahweh knows that a king does not do justice the same way God does. A King’s Justice is first and foremost to protect his own power and provide for his own needs. Yahweh spells it out to the people of Israel, but they’re unconvinced.
In some ways, this is the beginning of the end for the nation of Israel. Their kings worship and rule with varying degrees of faithfulness to God. Meanwhile, God sends prophet after prophet to Israel and Judah, painting a picture of what it looks like to live faithfully under God’s rule…and the devastating consequences of living outside of the bounds of this covenant relationship.
The prophets are the books in the second half of your table of contents that have a person’s name as the title. They are your people if you’re an idealist or if you did theater in high school. Their actions and poetry remind God’s people who they belong to and how to live in light of the land, prosperity, and deliverance from slavery that Yahweh has given them. When it comes to HESED, God’s never-giving-up love, God expects loyalty to go both ways. God sees idolatry just like you’d see marital infidelity. So anytime God’s people think they can get some perks on the side from some other deity, God is not. Having. It. When it comes to MISPHAT, the prophets paint a picture of little acts of Mishpat people can do, like not cheating their clients, looking out for the poor and widows and orphans. Everyone who has power, even just a little bit, is responsible for using that power for good on behalf of the ones who can’t protect and provide for themselves. Prophets also remind everyone about God’s Ultimate Mishpat Powers. At some point, the God who sees all things will use divine power and authority to set things right, especially for the people being taken advantage of. As one of your children summarized their message when we studied prophets this fall, “do mishpat, or God will mishpat you.”
The vast majority of prophets went unheeded, which leads us to the second major defining event of Israelite history: Exile.
It’s a national disaster. Their king made a final stand against the power of the Babylonian empire–in response they killed his sons in front of him, put out his eyes, and carried him to babylon in chains. All their strongholds, every claim to power was broken–the temple destroyed, the land conquered, their king a slave. So there is a massive identity and faith crisis going on as the people of Israel leave their land. Who are we? What went wrong? Was God not strong enough? Were they not chosen enough?
And there, right in the middle of the most confusing and demoralizing period in their brief national identity, that is where the bulk of our scriptures were written and compiled.
The Jewish community went back to retell their stories. These promises that had once been understood as “our God is better than your God” took on a different flavor. They started to see that all along Yahweh has been about taking the whole world back–not just as a conquest, but as a place of worship, a world where all people came together to learn God’s ways. Isaiah writes,
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
By losing their land, their king, their nation status, the people of God get a chance to remember a God who always wanted to be their king, a God who created all land, a God whose exercise of authority over the whole world looks like folks dropping out of West Point to plant gardens. This is the story they gave us.
By the time this section of the Bible is complete, the Jews have returned to their land. They’ve rebuilt their temple. But let’s be clear: there are a lot of promises left unfinished here. The Jews in the second temple period had a temple, a sacred text called The Septuagint, and land they lived in but did not ultimately control. They worked as a community to live faithfully in their covenant relationship with God, while waiting for God’s Ultimate Mishpat Powers to liberate them again. Stay tuned next week to hear about God’s super unexpected Ultimate Mishpat Rescue Plan!
[Spoiler alert: Jesus]
Story: when I meet someone who looks like their child, the family resemblance gives it away. Likewise, a good understanding of Yahweh helps us make sense of Jesus’ character, emotions, and priorities.
I need to leave you with a few specific things to think about because if God’s character is just the stuff of ancient history we’re missing out.
1. You are not capable of discontinuing God’s faithful love to you. If you get one thing out of this glimpse into God’s character, that’s the thing. Like anyone you have relationships with, God has a full range of emotions. God is described in the Hebrew scriptures as happy, sad, angry, annoyed, pleased, hurt, compassionate. So not everybody gets blessings and favor all the time. But EVERYONE in God’s family is subjected to God’s relentless pursuit and no-holds-barred committed love.
2. We need to talk about Fear of God. When the writers of scripture wonder how we should live in light of God’s HESED and MISHPAT, this is always their answer. Proverbs or Ecclesiastes are great sources for more detail. In our cultural context there’s not a point of reference for a good kind of fear. So the most helpful thing I have for you for now is to think of someone you take really seriously because you know when they say they’ll do something they absolutely always follow through. Maybe it’s your mom. Maybe it’s not. Then combine that person with someone super powerful who you know *could* do anything if they wanted to. If we really take God’s lordship over the whole world and our own lives deeply deeply seriously, what does that mean for us? Would you take a few minutes while you’re here today, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you one thing you can do really take God’s faithfulness and authority in your life seriously, to fear God? The prophets give us lots of examples of God’s MISHPAT in the world: ethical business practices, caring for children, sabbath, planting gardens. How might God be calling you to use your power to protect and provide for others as a sign of your belonging to a powerful and generous God?
3. My actual favorite book of the Bible is the Psalms. You can hear the prayers of God’s people from all the highs and lows of the story–in the kingdom, in exile, upon return to the land. Reading psalms is a great way to practice bringing the entirety of our own experience and emotion to God when we pray. Also the psalms are constantly calling on God to live up to the Hesed and Mishpat that we know are true about God’s character. The psalm writers say things like “God, remember that one time when you forgave our sins and came back to rescue us?” There’s one I like that says “so, Lord, it seems like that strong arm of yours is just not as strong as it used to be?” They’re also beautiful. Praying psalms is good training for us to pray like people who belong in God’s family. And you do. Because of Jesus but now I am getting ahead of myself.