Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sunday 4 January 2009 - Covenant Service

This is a three part sermon which I interspersed with the readings for Covenant Sunday. The aim of this sermon is to give people a better understanding of the biblical concept of 'covenant'. Understanding the concept of 'covenant' also helps to unpack much of the text in the liturgy of the Covenant Service itself. The sermon is written from an Arminian understanding of 'covenant' that I expect 5-point Calvinists probably wouldn't agree with!



This morning, we are observing a traditional Methodist form of worship called the Covenant Service, where we affirm our faith in God and rededicate our lives to God's service.

I suppose it would be quite accurate to say that what we are about to do - those who choose to do so - is like a reaffirmation of our Baptismal vows. The liturgy itself expresses the purpose of this service as 'accepting again our place within the covenant which God has made with us and with all who are called to be Christ's disciples.'

We are often used to hearing the idea that to become a Christian is to 'make a commitment to Christ' and therefore you might not be far wrong in thinking that this service is a renewal of that commitment.

But I expect you've heard it said in Covenant Services from years past that, actually, God made a commitment to us first - in the words of our baptismal service - 'before we even knew anything of it'. Because although the word 'covenant' implies a contracted promise, it also has a rich biblical meaning.

And it's the story of this biblical meaning that I'd like to review this morning.

In order to make that easier, I'd like to expand on each part of the story as we hear it rather than give 'a sermon'. The first part of the story begins in the desert. It is Moses' farewell address to the people of Israel, just before his death and just before the people are to be delivered from their forty-year exile in the desert.

Deuteronomy 29:10-15

Israel are God's chosen people, but it probably doesn't feel like it any more after forty years wandering in the desert.  As the story goes, the people cannot enter the promised land until every one of the generation of people who left Egypt has died.

Imagine trying to keep faith in God's good purposes for your people as you wander aimlessly in the desert for forty years.  But the ancient Israelites were no better at it than we are and they didn't keep the faith. Even as Moses went up Mount Sinai in order to get the ten commandments - a sign and seal of the contract between God and Israel - the Israelites had already broken their part of the bargain by worshipping a false god.

Yet, God remained faithful and he reestablished the contract with his people.

Now this covenant that has been made between God and the Israelites is not a contract in the usual sense because a contract must normally be made between two equals. Human beings are not able to reach out and establish a bond with God, but God is able to reach out to us. And that is exactly what the old covenant is about: through Israel, the transcendent God intervenes in history to establish a relationship with humanity in human time and in human space.

Of course, the other thing about a covenant - contract - is that it is normally viewed as being null and void when one party does not keep up their end of the bargain. And it did not take the coming of Jesus for God's people to understand that human beings cannot keep God's law.

Jeremiah understands all too well that God's people have not been able to keep the old covenant. He realises that a new covenant between God and humanity is needed....

Jeremiah 31:31-34

And so we have an age-old human problem: Human beings are not able to refrain from sinning. We are not able to keep the Ten Commandments. We are not able to keep up our end of a bargain with God.

What is the solution to be? That human beings keep sinning and that God keeps renewing the contract nonetheless? Jeremiah proposes a different solution: a new covenant.

This is is not a covenant that is based on human beings being able to keep God's law - we already know that won't work.  The new covenant is based on the transformation of human hearts: not God's law written on tablets, but God's Spirit written on the hearts of human beings. If human beings are not able to be faithful on their own, then God himself will have to transform the human heart in order that we can be faithful.

For the Christian, this transformation can come only from Jesus. Jesus said that didn't come to do away with the law, but rather that he came to fulfill the law. Jesus fulfilled the law because he himself was the one human being who was able to be 100% faithful to the requirements of the covenant with God. Jesus was able to keep up our end of the bargain and he did it for us, as our substitute and in our place. Jesus' obedience to the Father is accepted as our obedience to the Father and, in Jesus, the covenant between God and humanity is made permanent for all time.

It is through Christ that God's Spirit is written on our hearts and that we can hope for our own transformation. It is through Christ and his life, death and resurrection that God intervenes once again in history - in the new covenant - to establish a relationship with humanity in human time and in human space.

And just as the Jewish people observe Passover to remember God's covenant with them and with all people, So too do we observe the Lord's Supper as a token of God's new covenant with humanity.

The following reading is taken from Mark who sets The Last Supper in the context of the Passover Meal.

Mark 14:22-25

Jesus says in verse 25: 'Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.'

Just as the Passover looks forward to the fulfillment of God's promise to the Jewish people of deliverance from exile and settlement in the Promised Land, so too does the Lord's Supper look forward to what Christians believe is the fulfillment of the promise of God to all people: the Kingdom of God.

A world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.

But the Lord's Supper is operating under the rules of engagement - if you will - of the new covenant:

Of the understanding that human beings cannot keep God's law but that Jesus has kept it for us and that he has fulfilled it on our behalf. The Lord's Supper is the feast of the Kingdom of God: the feast to which all people are invited on account of the forgiveness that has been won for us by the cross of Christ. It is not our 'making a commitment' to God that saves us, rather it is God's 'making a commitment' to us through Christ that saves us.

The Covenant Prayer which we are about to make is an acknowledgement of all that God has done for us in Christ. We acknowledge that it is because of God's action that we belong to God. And we acknowledge that we, like the Virgin Mary, are the servants of God and that we do not do God work but, rather, God works through us.

Please take a minute or so to read over 
The Covenant Prayer.  May God bless us as we prepare to make this solemn prayer together.


J A Y B said...

I found this interesting and useful, especially The Covenant Prayer link at the end which led me to find the website Sacred Space. Nice!

As someone who is 'kinda' floundering in my faith - where I belong what do I actually believe in relation to who I am etc. etc. - I have found your sermons Pam very inspiring and thought provoking (in a nice way :))

I'm just sorry I did not find you site till now, May 2009 :)

Just want to say that I'm glad there are people like you out there. God Bless.

PamBG said...

Jay - I couldn't be more complimented and your words are a blessing to me. Thank you. :-)