The sermon below is a sermon for 'Covenant Sunday'. The texts on which it is based are: Exodus 24:3-11, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 12:1-2 and John 15:1-10.
Imagine with me, if you will, a luxury block of flats in the centre of your favourite holiday city or town. Imagine the view from the top floor of this block of flats: where ever your favourite place is.
Perhaps it’s a beautiful view overlooking hills or even mountains. Perhaps the view is one of lakes or the ocean shore. Where-ever it is, imagine the beauty that you find in that view and the sense of God’s good creation.
Now, I want to introduce you to two new residents in this block of flats: Harry and Emma. Harry lives in Flat number 12 which he just purchased.
When he moved in, he signed a tenancy agreement. He agreed to pay the management company a certain fee every year for the maintenance of the structure of the building and for the upkeep of the common areas. He agreed that he would not make any modifications to the structure of his flat without first consulting the owner of the leasehold. He agreed that his floors would be sound-proofed or carpeted. And he agreed that he would own no dangerous pets.
Now Emma lives in flat number 14 and she didn’t make any such agreement with the leaseholder. In fact, she’s made no agreement with anyone. Emma gets to live in flat number 14 without having signed a tenancy agreement and without having to take responsibility for anything in her flat. In fact, Emma doesn’t even have to make her own meals!
Have you guessed it yet? Emma is only a few weeks old and she lives with her parents. Oh, I forgot to say that Emma is adopted.
The Old Testament Covenant
This morning, we have heard two readings about the theme of ‘covenant’ in the bible.
In the Old Testament, there are many places where we read of an approach to Covenant that sound like the sort of tenancy agreement that Harry entered into: God sets out certain conditions which his people agree to just like a tenancy agreement. The usual format is: ‘I (God speaking) will be your God and you shall be my people’. We’ve heard this format in this morning’s reading from Exodus.
So, it can seem to us that if we break our end of the bargain, if we break our tenancy agreement, then the covenant is broken and we will be evicted.
There are a number of times in the Old Testament where either Israel or Judah are told that punishment will come upon them – or has come upon them - because they have broken their Covenant with God. This is the old form of covenant relationship: a relationship between God and his people under the Law.
The New Covenant
But even before the birth of Christ, we have a biblical witness to a new form of Covenant relationship with God and this New Covenant was expressed in our reading from Jeremiah.
In fact, these verses from Jeremiah are considered to be the key verses in explaining the concept of ‘The New Covenant’ and the key to the entire covenant is actually in the very last phrase that was read: ‘For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’ This idea of forgiveness is actually the foundation on which the New Covenant rests.
Unlike the Old Covenant, in the New Covenant, our relationship with God is no longer based on the condition that we keep up our end of the bargain. God knows that we can’t be like Harry: we are not going to be a good tenant who keeps his tenancy agreement.
The foundation of the New Covenant is that God forgives first. Once God forgiveness has been granted to us by God, the New Covenant have a firm foundation on which to rest.
God knows that we are actually like baby Emma. Not only can’t we keep up a tenancy agreement, we aren’t even in a position to sign one. Like baby Emma, we are simply incapable of making such an agreement. Just like baby Emma, we need someone else to do it for us.
To stretch this analogy just a bit further let’s imagine that Emma’s adopted father is actually the son of landlord. The building will eventually belong to Emma’s dad, and there is no question that anyone will ever demand that baby Emma be responsible for keeping up the tenancy agreement.
It’s as if, because God knew that there is no chance of any of us ever being able to keep such an agreement, that he decided to adopt us. Because of our adoption as sons and daughters, our inheritance – as it were – becomes part of who we are; it is written on our hearts.
Or, to use the image from today’s Gospel reading, through the forgiveness mediated by Christ, we are grafted on to Christ, who becomes our support and our nourishment. Our relationship with Christ is not dependant upon our clinging on to the vine. It exists because we have been grafted on to the vine. Christ supports us, not the other way around.
The Covenant Prayer
What has any of this got to do with the Covenant Prayer?
Well, I think it’s important for us to understand that we are making this prayer under the New Covenant.
We are not ‘making a decision to have a relationship with God’ in this prayer; we are not chasing God down the street and saying ‘Hello! I’ve decided that I want to have a relationship with you now.’ Doing this would be trying to have a relationship under the Old Covenant.
We’d be acting as if we were in a position to keep all these promises under our own strength – as if we were Harry, who could keep his tenancy agreement.
What we are doing when we pray the Covenant Prayer is acknowledging that our relationship with God already exists and that we are aware we had nothing to do with bringing it about. We’re acknowledging that we are like baby Emma: living in a relationship with God because he was gracious enough to adopt us and to offer us a permanent tenancy with him.
When we pray, ‘I am no longer my own but yours’ we’re not saying ‘Once I belonged to myself but now I’ve decided to turn myself over to you.’ We are acknowledging that we understand that we’ve always belonged to God in the first place.
When we pray the Covenant prayer, we don’t give God the gift of ourselves. When we pray the Covenant prayer, we say that we understand that we’ve always belonged to God, that whether we are troubled or at peace, that whether we have work to do or no work to do, that we understand that the Covenant is there and always will be.
As the introduction to the prayer tells us, we are simply accepting our place within a Covenant which already exists because God himself brought it into being.
Preparation for the Prayer
In a few minutes, I will invite those of us who wish to do so to make the covenant prayer.
I invite you now to turn to page 7 in your pink books where the text of the covenant prayer can be found. We will have a few moments of silence to give us all an opportunity to read this prayer and for each of us to consider the manner in which we might make it. As you read, I invite you to read the prayer as if the prayer were God making a promise to you – because that’s what he’s already done.
May the grace of the Triune God be with us all in our consideration. Amen
(1) Credit for the illustration: Rev Andrew Sails, Mint Methodist Church, Exeter, http://www.themint.org.uk/z146.htm