Covenant Partners

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
March 8, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                             Covenant Partners

Scripture Reading:  Exodus 20:1-14 (excerpts)

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. … You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. … Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. … ”

I haven’t preached a sermon in a while. After I preached on the sixth commandment—“You shall not kill”—we were snowed out and had to cancel church, and then last Sunday we were blessed by the ministry of the young people of this congregation as they led us in worship and even preached the sermon. Kelly and David, I still remember the many ways in which you exhorted us to love, for, as you said, “Love Is Universal.”

And if indeed love is universal (and it is), then that would be the best way to sum up the entire message of the Ten Commandments. “Love.” Jesus compressed the ten into two primary commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”; and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And today we continue on our journey through the “love your neighbor as yourself” portion of the commandments—those last six commandments known as the moral code—to the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.”

Adultery, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “consensual [intimate relations] between a married person and a person other than the spouse.” That is the literal, on-the-surface definition, but this commandment goes so much deeper, into themes of covenant and promise-keeping; it becomes a metaphor for our relationship with God. We are covenant partners with a spouse in the same way we are covenant partners with God. The seventh commandment goes so far beyond that three-letter “s” word.

But I must digress here, because that reminds me of an Ole and Lena joke I heard a long time ago. Please bear with me… It was Ole and Lena’s wedding night, and they were driving to their honeymoon destination in Minnesota. Ole was feeling a little frisky, so he reached over and put his hand on Lena’s knee. Lena just giggled and said, “Ole, you can go farther if you want.” So Ole said, “Oh, okay,” and he drove all the way to Duluth. (Sorry about that!)

Covenant partners … There is a tragic but beautiful story hidden in the Old Testament book of Hosea. It is seldom used to interpret the seventh commandment, but I think the connection is clear. Around 700 years before Jesus was born, back in the days when Israel and Judah were ruled by kings and prompted by the wisdom of the prophets, back in the days when Israel had forgotten about being a covenant partner with God, one of those prophets, a man named Hosea, heard the voice of God. God told Hosea to find and take as his wife a woman who was a prostitute.

Hosea followed God’s command: he married a woman named Gomer—a woman who was scorned for her illicit behavior—and during their marriage, she bore three children. The Bible implies that Hosea was the father of the first child; of the other two, he probably was not, for Gomer had been unfaithful to him. Broken-hearted, and now fully living a life that was a metaphor for the way the people of Israel had been unfaithful to God by worshipping other gods, Hosea divorced Gomer. But just as God would not give up on the people of Israel, God would not let Hosea give up on Gomer. God told Hosea to go to Gomer, to plead with her. God said to Hosea, “The way you feel about Gomer is exactly the way I feel about my people. Beg her to put an end to this behavior! Tell her to be faithful to you, because you love her! She doesn’t know that it was you who protected her, provided for her, covered her, in spite of her unfaithfulness! She thought it was her false lovers, but it was you! Go to her and beg her to honor the covenant she has with you!”

So Hosea—whose name means salvation: the same name in Hebrew as Joshua, Yeshua, and Jesus—went to Gomer to make his plea, the plea of a betrayed lover; the impassioned plea also of a heartbroken God forsaken by his people: “If you come back to me, I will restore things to you as they were when you were young. I will make a new covenant with you; I will protect you. I will take you back, as my spouse, forever—in righteousness, in justice, in steadfast love, in mercy, in renewed faithfulness; and you will know me once again as your beloved spouse.”

And Hosea, the betrayed husband who had divorced his unfaithful wife, went, contrary to all common sense and practice, and bought her back—paid money to redeem her from the consequences of her sins—money, grain and wine—and once again made her his wife.

And ten chapters later, in the last chapter of the book of Hosea, are the most beautiful words of healing and restoration in the entire Bible—It’s God, speaking of the people of Israel: “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. … They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.” A heartbroken God pays the price to bring his people back into covenant with him.

This, I believe, is why it grieves the heart of God when spouses who have joined themselves to one another in the holy covenant of marriage violate that covenant and give their affection to someone else. We can find a lot of verses in the Bible—a lot of Old Testament laws and a lot of New Testament commentary on those laws—that define the covenant limitations on human intimacy and the consequences for stepping over the line. And that’s not because God is standing over us, ready to crack the whip if we disobey; it’s because God, having been in the role of the spurned lover, knows how that rejection feels and does not want any of us to have to hurt like that. Marriage, the most intimate of human relationships, is the best metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s people. We enter into the covenant of marriage by choice, just as we enter into relationship with God. Covenant partners, mutually sharing the most intimate parts of our lives.

God said it—and Jesus expounded on it—“You shall not commit adultery.” Because it breaks God’s heart. But back to our original question: What, exactly, constitutes adultery? Sadly, 15 years ago, a President of the United States gave this country a lot to talk about regarding that question. “I did not have … relations with that woman.” What actions must be present for a relationship to be considered adulterous? … What does it take to break your heart? One writer’s view sums it up pretty well for me: I should not conduct myself with another person in any way that I would not be comfortable having my spouse conduct himself (or herself) with someone else. In the words of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, “My bottom line is this: when you love someone, you do not behave in ways that bring pain, fear, doubt, or insecurity to their lives, minds, and hearts.” [1] You know, come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, doesn’t it? Jesus said, in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But why is it that sometimes it’s easier to behave in hurtful ways to those who are closest to us?

Yes, we can find a lot of verses in the Bible that talk about adultery. If I tried to address each one of them, balancing one off the other and examining each one in its historical and cultural context, and explaining how each one was a commentary on the previous one, we would be here all day. Adultery, divorce, remarriage—these are issues that have been steeped with controversy and pain throughout the history of the church. These are issues about which, at times, the church has been more of an agent of injury than an agent of healing. If we took a literal reading of some scriptures, Nathan and I (both previously divorced) would be considered by some in the church to be adulterers right now. I do not see it that way. The story of Hosea and Gomer is proof enough to me of God’s persistent love and “irrational” mercy toward each of his children. God, as I often say, is a God of second chances. The God of universal love knows that we don’t always get it right and does not give up on us. God, the renewer of covenant, always seeks us out and calls us home.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

[1] Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her book The Ten Commandments, page 232.