My old neighborhood in Cartersville was one of those covenant neighborhoods. That covenant stipulated that we, along with all other homeowners, owed $400 per year to the neighborhood association. For those dues, we received access to three pools, a tennis court, two playgrounds, a pavilion, a fitness center, and a basketball court.
As we used these facilities, we began to notice some elements of disrepair. Nothing serious, nothing significant, but the conditions were worse than I expected. In my head, being a numbers cruncher, I calculated the income stream for the neighborhood association. As I would do my regular exercise runs around the neighborhood, I counted 315 houses, which at $400 per house equals $126,000 per year collected by the neighborhood: plenty of money to provide for these facilities with some left over.
I never questioned whether or not all the money was coming in because we were all contractually obligated to pay the $400. I had signed the covenant as part of my mortgage paperwork when we purchased the house. It never occurred to me that people might not pay. And that the neighborhood might not be enforcing the covenant.
But, indeed, that’s exactly what was happening. No one on the association enforced the covenant and so the neighborhood was sorely underfunded as most folks didn’t pay.
I was paying good money, in good faith, that I would receive a return on that payment. Instead, I saw limited return with facilities in decline because few were upholding the covenant; a contract that bound all the neighborhood homes together.
A covenant is similar to a contract. I got a legal lesson in contract law recently and learned that, in reality, they’re not synonymous. But they’re still similar: a covenant, like a contract, requires two parties to agree to terms in which each party gives and receives something. When we enter into contracts, we come with that give and take expectation.
In our scripture this morning, we find God entering into a covenant, a contractual obligation where God gives to the people after the flood waters have receded. In fact, this is the first covenant in the Bible; the first time God condescends to enter into contractual relationship with humanity. That’s a big deal, that God would do that, and it gets repeated in scripture through Abraham, David, and Jesus, among others.
So, as we open our sermon series called “Promises,” a series on covenant, let’s hear the story of the first covenant, located in Genesis 9:8-17.
God creates a covenant; a promise to all of humanity. In this covenant, God promises never again to flood the world. And not only that, but God promises never to use violence against the world again, for God will never again seek its destruction. The bow serves as a sign of this to all of creation and a reminder of this covenant promise.
Quite often, covenants get associated with contracts, just like the neighborhood covenant that I mentioned at the beginning. We think of covenants as binding agreements with expectations on both parties; that give and take relationship. Like when we buy a car. We enter into a contract with expectations on the lender and the lien holder. When we form a business, we utilize contracts. Marriages, in fact, are contractual relationships. We talk about the marriage covenant precisely because the ceremony itself forms a contract! Consider the oft-used phrase in marriage vows: “to have and to hold.” That’s a phrase straight from contract law.
And so here we have God and Noah entering into a contractual relationship. They enter into a covenant; a covenant perhaps like a marriage covenant or a neighborhood covenant where there are expectations on both sides, where there is consequences for both should they fail to uphold their ends of the contract. God and Noah both offer promises that they must keep. Right?
Actually, no. Notice with me that this is not a normal, both parties have obligations and consequences, kind of contract.
First, note how God has obliged himself. God commits to never again destroy the earth; the sign of which is his bow in the clouds.
Notice that the text doesn’t say rainbow. The Hebrew word means rainbow, but it also means the bow of a bow and arrow. In the ancient Middle East, gods were often depicted riding horseback with an arrow at the ready. In saying that God has “set [his] bow in the clouds,” it’s God saying that he’s hanging up his power of violence and destruction, his bow, choosing to never again use that power against creation.
That’s because God loves creation, all of it. This stands in stark contrast to other ancient depictions of the great flood. In those, recorded in ancient Hittite and Babylonians stories, the gods try to kill all of creation, including all of humanity. In these stories the moral is this: the gods, who created humans to be their slaves, get tired of humanity causing them trouble, and so they decide just to get rid of them so that they’ll have less trouble on their hands. The gods don’t love creation and don’t love humans, so they have no need to covenant, no need to make promises, with that creation, quite unlike God here in Genesis.
Second, note why God makes this obligation. It’s not so that God will get something in return, not for a give-and-take reason, not with an expectation that the other party, us humans, will give back; no, God makes these promises to humanity for a very different reason: unconditional love.
God does burn with anger at the sinning of humanity, but rather than simply seeking creation’s destruction, God chooses Noah to make sure that all of creation is salvaged before destroying it. God does this because God created humans not as slaves, but out of God’s own image, out of love. The depth of love, the depth of care and concern for all of creation, leads God to make a way for salvation–a way of saving–humans and all the rest of creation. And that same love leads God to promise to never do it again, to enter into a contract saying just that. This covenant proves that we are worth saving.
That’s love. And that love is the moral of this story and this first covenant, the beginning of all future covenants.
So this is not a normal contract. No, this is a divine covenant. And in the divine covenant, God obliges himself, God limits his power, out of God’s love for humanity, with no obligation on the other party; us humans. God gives without expectation of return.
Consider how abnormal that is in both contracts, covenants, and relationships.
In my neighborhood covenant, I had an expectation of return because I was giving something. In our lives, when we enter into contracts or handshake agreements or any kind of dealing, we expect give and take: I get something, you get something. In our relationships with each other, we often act in this way, saying that if I do the dishes for you today, you’ll do the laundry for me tomorrow.
We have these kind of tacit expectations in relationships, don’t we? Our relationships are not contracts or covenants, per se, but they operate that way. We think that if I help you today, you’ll help me tomorrow; or if I show you care and concern today, you’ll show me care and concern tomorrow; or if I do something loving for you today, you’ll do something loving for me tomorrow. This way of operating in our relationships is like that old phrase: “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”
Take, for example, how often feelings have been hurt in close relationships when you fail to meet an expectation or someone fails to meet your expectations. Valentine’s Day is a great example of how people get their feelings hurt because they have an unspoken expectation of their significant other, which fails to be met. Outside of holidays, in our family relationships, we hold expectations that, when they go unmet, become sources of pain and resentment.
We have an expectation in our relationships that acting in certain ways will garner certain benefits. If I help you with your car payment, you’ll pay me back one day. If I take you in when you have no where to go, you’ll always treat me with the utmost respect. If I keep loving you after you’ve hurt me over and over again, you’ll eventually change and show me love. This is how we act in relationships: give and take, I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
This kind of relationship is called a transactional relationship, where the health and well-being of the relationship is determined by equity in the transactions. In other words, so long as what you do for me equals what I do for you, the relationship is considered healthy. When there’s an imbalance, whether I do more for you or you do more for me, the relationship becomes unhealthy.
Many of us live our lives in just this way. We have transactional relationships: expectations based on getting a return for our care, concern, support, and especially our love. We don’t scratch people’s backs unless we can be relatively sure that they will scratch ours. That’s just the way of things.
Transactional relationships are like unwritten contracts, or covenants: they come with expectations on both people in the relationship.
Except for this covenant. And all covenants made by God in the Bible. There, the only expectation is on God. Only God is obliged. And that’s remarkable.
It’s remarkable because it means when God covenants with humanity, those promises have no transactional nature to them. God’s relationship with humanity isn’t transactional. There’s no equity to maintain because it’s an unequal relationship. God gives regardless of whether we give back.
Here in our scripture, God promises never again to utilize violence. God has hung up his bow, it’s there in the clouds, a beautiful reminder to us and to God that God’s destructive power will never again be let loose on creation. God makes this promise repetitively throughout our scripture, underlying its importance. And this promise, this covenant, is made with all of creation and all generations for all time. It’s a universal promise spanning the breadth of creation and the depth of time; meaning it applies to all people everywhere for as long as creation endures.
And what is expected of us in return? Nothing. And that’s just the point. In covenants between God and us humans, God does all the giving. Only God is obliged.
This is astounding. The God who created all things, the God who is high and lofty, beyond our comprehension, the God who is all things and holds all things; that God limited himself, limited his power, limited his might, with no expectation of return. God gave of himself, here to Noah and to the span of the breath of creation and the depth of time, with no expectation of getting something back. God obligates himself with no expectation of return.
Why would God do such a thing? Relationships are transactional, so we’ve demonstrated this morning. We all have an expectation of return, whether we’re investing money, giving of our time, providing care and concern, or showing love. In our relationships, whether business, personal, or family, we expect to receive a return of some sort. It’s just the nature of things. In fact, contract law, based on English Common Law, finds its basis in this very fact: that before there was a written law, there was a standard set of expectations that governed human behavior; what’s called Common Law. And that standard set of expectations was a tit-for-tat, you give to me now, I give to you later, expectation of return.
But God doesn’t operate that way. Not here through Noah. Not now. Not ever. God has provided a means of salvation, salvation from God’s wrath, out of God’s tremendous love for humanity and creation. This is why God establishes a covenant with no expectation of return: God loves us so much that God gives to us selflessly.
God gives love with no expectation of return. That’s what this covenant declares to us loudly and clearly this day. The rainbow in the clouds is a sign and seal not only of protection against God’s wrath but also as a reminder that God loves us so much that God would limit himself, his power, to have relationship with us.
That’s love: a love that acts out of care and concern for others with no expectation of return. A love that gives and gives and gives but places no expectation on the receiver of the gift.
And we call that kind of love unconditional love. Which is exactly what this and all covenants from God demonstrate: God loves us unconditionally.
God’s unconditional love is antithetical to the way we operate as humans. We don’t naturally operate that way, but we can choose to love unconditionally in our relationships because God’s love, freely given, sets the standard for how we are to live our lives. Our human relationships should mirror our divine-human relationship; a relationship characterized by God’s love, freely given to us, without expectation and without coercion.
That means, we should go and give love to our families, our friends, indeed all the people we know, without condition. We should simply love freely, without expectation of return.
And so, we must give up our transactional relationship mentality. In fact, in my understanding as well as in my experience, to operate with a transactional mentality in our relationships destroys those relationships. When we place expectations upon others, expecting a return for our good will, for our care and concern, and for our love, we burden those relationships and that burden eventually becomes so oppressive that the relationship collapses. Transactional relationships simply do not work. In fact, transactional relationships destroy friendships and families.
They do not work because for love to be love, it must be given freely. That’s the example set by this first covenant. Love that is given by us, to others, with an expectation of getting something back for that love isn’t love; no, it’s coercion on our part in an attempt to force a benefit out of the other person. That’s not what God does through Noah and it’s not what God did through Jesus: we are under no divine coercion; rather, we are given God’s love freely, for unconditional love requires freedom.
So drop your expectations and leave behind transactional relationships, choosing instead to simply give of your love, no matter what. That means, in your relationships, whether with your husband or wife, with your children or parents, with your cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts, or uncles, with your grandparents or grandchildren, with your friends, with your mentors and mentees, with those you serve and with those who serve you, give love and expect nothing in return.
If, this morning, you often find yourself in trouble in your relationships, or you find it difficult to maintain relationships over a long period of time, ask yourself what expectations you’re putting on that relationship. If you find that there’s often strife in familial relationships, ask yourself what expectations you’re putting on those relationships. The other person might also be putting expectations on you, but all we can control is ourselves. And we take a big step forward in healing our relationships and reconciling broken relationships when we prayerfully ask what expectations we’re putting on those relationships; in other words, how we’re making them transactional relationships, and then give up those expectations, loving unconditionally.
When we do, we place ourselves on the path toward healing, reconciliation, and wholeness in our relationships.
And if, this morning, you fear that God expects things of you in return for his love, drop that expectation. God does not coerce you; God gives you love even if you give nothing back. We can be evil and God still loves us. We can deny God’s existence, and God still loves us. We can treat God as a transactional relationship, and God still loves us.
God set the example for us in our scripture this morning: our relationship with God is not transactional but, rather, love given freely. That sets the standard for our relationships with each other: not transactional, but love given freely.
This morning, consider the relationships in your life. Are they transactional? Do you have an expectation, stated or unstated, of how that person will act or what that person will do for you because of what you’ve done for them?
God’s relationship with you is not transactional, so neither should your relationships with others be transactional.
This day, in all your relationships, expect nothing in return; simply give of your love, freely.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.