An introduction to a new sermon series on Covenants in the Bible and a sermon on Genesis 1 to 3 by Richard Keith on Sunday 28 May 2023
There are a lot of books out there in the world, more than we can ever read. So if a book wants to be read it needs a good introduction. When you pick it up and read the first page you want to quickly find out about the world in the book’s story and its main characters and what they’re going to do. A good introduction sets that scene in an efficient and creative way so that we want to keep reading the book.
And I think the first three chapters of the Bible do that job very well.
Today we start a new series of sermons. It’s going to begin again today at the beginning of the Bible but then in the following weeks it will give an overview of the whole Bible. And as we do that we are going to follow the idea of the covenant.
A covenant is an agreement that creates a relationship of belonging between two parties that involves certain promises and responsibilities. A marriage is a kind of covenant. I’m not just Richard, but I am also Karen’s husband. I don’t just belong to me, but in very important ways I belong to her. We made promises to each other and those promises create responsibilities and obligations that include but are not limited to doing the washing up, putting out the garbage and grudgingly sharing the TV remote control.
What we find in the Bible is that God makes covenants with human beings, relationships of belonging founded on promises and leading to responsibilities. He confirmed a covenant with Noah. He made a covenant with Abraham. He made a covenant through Moses on Mt Sinai with Israel. He made a covenant with King David. And he made a new covenant through Jesus with us.
Through the covenants we discover that God is not just God, the great big God who is the reason for everything. The first causeless cause of all other things. But he is also our God and we are his. Because through his covenants God creates relationships of belonging with human beings. So that I’m not just Richard and I’m not just Karen’s husband, but I am also a child of God.
What I hope you find in the next few weeks is that the Bible isn’t just a book full of stories. But it is also a book with a single story. One story from beginning to end whose main character is God who fulfils all his promises and responsibilities through his Son, Jesus Christ. And I hope you also find that you are invited to be one of the characters in the story as well.
The first three chapters of the Bible don’t mention the word covenant. And that’s okay. Because what they do do is to set the scene for the covenants that will come.
In this passage we see that God is Lord. He rules over all things through his creative word. Through his word God expresses his will, his intention. And what he says comes into being. “Let there be light,” and there was light. “Let dry land appear,” and it did. What God says happens. By his Word he made everything that we can see and everything we can’t.
But when he created human beings, God made them thinking creatures in his image. He didn’t just talk about them like they were things, who had to do what he said. Instead, he spoke to them like they were people. And God speaks to human beings in promises and commands.
Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish and the birds and every living creature on the ground.
God is Lord and his will is done in his world.
And yet we also see that he is good. He doesn’t rule like human kings who can do whatever they want, who can kill and destroy if it helps them get what they want. But God wills what is good, not just for himself but for the things he has made. His purpose is to give life and his will is to bless. What he makes is good. In fact it’s very good. And if there is anything that is not good, he makes it better.
We see that in Genesis chapter 2 in which God plants a garden. A place of order in his wild and untamed creation. A suitable home for the human beings made in his image made from two key ingredients: the dust of the earth animated by God’s breath of life.
We are part of the world. We are not angels who have lost their way and become trapped in this physical existence. We are part of this physical existence. We belong to it. I am not just the soul that lives in this body. I am not just the thoughts that go round and round in my brain. I am this body with its brain and heart and lungs and muscles and skin and needs and wants and hopes and dreams. My destiny is not to transcend this physical existence to some spiritual plane. Instead, my hope is in the resurrection of the body in which I will be raised in the coming kingdom of God. As Job said,
In my flesh I will see God.
Human beings are flesh and blood like all other animals. But filled with the breath of God we have been created for a higher purpose. Not just to do whatever we have to to fulfil our instincts and immediate needs. But to be creatures that think and plan and in our own way become creators too, using the resources God has given us to care for each other and to care for his world.
We see this in the creation of Eve. God looked at the man all on his own and said,
It is not good for the man to be alone.
Did you hear that? It is not good. The God who looked at all that he had made and saw that it was very good, this God looked at the man all alone and said, It is not good. God makes things very good, but he is not afraid to make them even better.
And the one thing that could make the first man better was a helper suitable for him. And what was the helper that was suitable for this human being? Well, it wasn’t the dog who was loyal but not great conversation. And it wasn’t the cat who thought the man was created to be a helper suitable for it. It was nothing short of another human being. Bone from his bone. Flesh of his flesh. Taken from his rib to be close to his heart. She wasn’t made just to continue the species. She was made to be his partner and colleague in life and work.
And when they too create a relationship of belonging in marriage, the two human beings form a new unit, one flesh, formed by a bond that does not dissolve all previous bonds but transcends them and takes priority over them.
A man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife.
And men who can’t put their wives before their parents will end up undermining what God has made.
Genesis chapters 1 to 3 don’t use the word covenant to describe the relationship forged between the creator and his creatures. But it is no surprise that when Jesus talks about it he uses the language of family.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? … So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
God is not just God. He is not just an unknown creator far above all things. He is not just the divine clockmaker who made the universe and wound it up and let it go. He is Father, a provider, the source of our life and of all our good things. And he is ours.
Be perfect, Jesus said, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It’s a covenant in all but name, a relationship of belonging that leads to responsibilities.
When God speaks he expresses his will. And when he speaks to human beings, his will is expressed in commands and promises.
You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.
God gave to our first parents extraordinary freedom. There were many trees in the garden and more than one key tree in the middle: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And only one is forbidden. Amazing. Bananas for breakfast. Apples for afternoon tea. Strawberries for supper.
In these words God also made clear the privileges and responsibilities, the benefits and obligations that flow from his relationships with the first people. He gave them extraordinary freedom and what he expects from them is obedience. He wanted them to trust him enough to do what he says. A stingy God would have forbidden them the Tree of Life as well. But the generous God made never ending life with him a distinct possibility.
But there was another possibility too. If you teach someone a song, there’s a chance they’ll sing the wrong note. If you show them a dance, they might step the wrong way. And just as surely as light casts a shadow when it shines, so the possibility of evil entered the garden.
It came in the form of the snake. It was a creature, not an evil god. It was not a rival to God’s lordship, but merely a rebel against his authority. And it entered the garden with a sinister message.
Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”
It could not be a more blatant lie, but it was effective because it drew attention not to all the wonderful things they could do, but to the only one thing they shouldn’t. Eve replied,
We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”
Her reply did two things. First, it made the prohibition sound arbitrary, like there isn’t a good reason for what God has commanded. He named it the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She called it the tree in the middle. The second thing she did was to add to the command. God said not to eat it. But she said not to touch it. The problem with adding to the command is that once she discovered that she could touch it, there’s nothing left to make her think she couldn’t eat it too.
The snake responded
You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
He implied that God had sinister motives, that God was keeping something back from them that was keeping them from fulfilling their full potential. What the snake meant is that God can’t be trusted. That his commands hide a secret plan to do them harm rather than good.
Confused by his lies Eve chose the shadow rather than the light. She took the fruit and ate it. She gave some to Adam who was right there saying nothing and he ate it too. The snake’s promise came true. Their eyes were opened. But all they saw was the shame of their nakedness. They made pathetic skirts out of leaves that wouldn’t last until autumn and there was nowhere for them to hide.
They experienced all the consequences of their disobedience. Shame. Guilt and fear. They refused to take responsibility and blamed each other. And we have good reason to expect that death will follow.
God entered the scene. He was not guilty of their sin, but he took responsibility for it. He said to the snake,
Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
It’s one of the most important promises in the Bible. In fact, you could say that the story of the Bible is the search for the woman’s offspring who will crush the snake’s head and how Jesus ultimately fulfil’s the promise. Born a descendant of Adam and Eve like the rest of us. Who defeated Satan on his cross though he himself was wounded lying dead in his tomb for three days.
However, there were consequences for the man and woman as well, intended to make them regret their choices and take responsibility for them too. I mean, if our behaviour has no consequences who would ever change what they do. The woman would experience pain in childbirth and in her relationships. And the man would experience toil and frustration in his work. And they would both suffer aging, decay and ultimately death as their bodies returned to the dust from which it was made. They were banished from the garden and the way to the tree of life is barred to them. God had fulfilled his promise. They died the day they ate the fruit. It just took a few years to happen.
Yet there are hints of blessing. Despite the pain there would be children. Despite the pain there would be relationships. Despite the toil and frustration there would be work to do and food to eat. It’s a different kind of suitable home for human beings. It was not the garden of Eden. Nor was it a prison by any means. But still a fallen world for fallen human beings. However, our life outside of Eden in this world and death and decay is not forever. There will be an end. We will die. And through faith in Christ we may rise to a better life in a new heaven and earth.
And that’s the introduction to the story of the Bible. It sets the scene for what will happen later in the book. For it is God’s will to make relationships of belonging with human beings.
God is Lord and his will for us is good. He speaks to us his will in commands and promises, giving us extraordinary freedom within the boundaries of his love and righteousness. As Jesus taught us he is our heavenly Father and we are his children. And we embrace his will with our faith and obedience. But we fall short of it when we distrust God and disobey him. God is not guilty of our sin but he takes responsibility for it. He plans to destroy the power of his ancient enemy the snake and he causes us to experience the consequences of our actions. He invites us to regret what we have done, to take responsibility for it and to turn to him again in trust and love.
You could even say that it is the gospel which the apostle Paul summarised well in Romans chapter 6,
The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because even for sinners like Adam and Eve, even for sinners like you and me, there is grace. Through good and bad, God remains our heavenly Father.