Monthly Archives: September 2009

Covenant Service Sermon: The Renewal Of God’s Purposes

Deuteronomy 29:10-15

We come to our Covenant Service today, faced with a big problem. That problem is a word. The word ‘covenant’ itself. It is one of those words that has slipped from people’s language and understanding. So much so that our first task today is to ask, what is a covenant?

Consider how we used to use the word ‘covenant’, and why it has slipped from our conversation. In the days before Gift Aid was introduced in 2000, you had to take out a covenant with a charity if you wanted them to benefit from tax refunds on your giving. At one stage, the covenant lasted for seven years, then the commitment was reduced to four years. Now – in order to benefit those one-off gifts we make – you don’t need to be committed to the charity at all.

Another area in which we have previously talked about ‘covenant’ is marriage. And while I don’t generally believe the idea that many people go into marriage today casually, saying, “Well if it doesn’t work out we can always divorce,” I do think we have lost the notion of covenant. Marriage has slipped between two stools, due to experiences of pain coupled with a sense of personal rights. One stool is the idea of it as a legal contract, and hence we see the fashion for pre-nuptial agreements.

The other stool is how we cope with disliking people in a very individualised society where we have lost the notion that we and other people need forgiving. James Emery White puts it like this:

If relationships become too uncomfortable, we disengage. We change jobs, move out of a neighbourhood, find a new church or leave our marriage. We minimize relational life as portable and disposable.[1]

But to Christians, relational life is not portable and disposable. People are made in the image of God – even the ones we dislike. And they are just as loved by the God who brings forgiveness through the pain of the Cross.

A covenant, then, is a solemn and mutually binding commitment, framed by an understanding of love that is about commitment to the other party rather than self-fulfilment. That is why ‘the covenant of the LORD your God’ in Deuteronomy 29:12 is ‘sworn by an oath’. It is made by God’s acts of salvation for us, and we enter into it when we respond. Which is why in the same verse Moses tells Israel this is a covenant ‘which the LORD your God is making with you today’.

Just as yesterday we celebrated forty years of David and Arline’s mutual and continuing commitment in love to each other, so today in the Covenant Service we celebrate God’s commitment of love to us since the dawn of creation. He has promised unfailing love to us. He has kept that promise. He continues to keep that promise. And we enter into his covenant of love by our own solemn promises in response. Just as the Covenant in Deuteronomy was in response to God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt, so ours is a response to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.

If this is the nature of our covenant renewal today, the first thing we need to do is meditate on our salvation. Let us recall the humbling gift of a baby in a manger. Let us recall the obedience of Christ. Let us remember his teaching and miracles. And let us focus on his sufferings and death, his conquest of his death, his reign at the Father’s right hand, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the promise of his return.

Then let us say – this God deserves my unswerving allegiance. And let us renew that commitment today.

But then there is a second question to ask about covenant in this passage: why does God make a covenant?

To answer this, let’s notice a misconception we sometimes have about God’s covenant with us, and our Covenant Service. When we say the Covenant Prayer, it is full of ‘I’ and ‘me’ language. ‘I am no longer my own but yours’. The modern prayer then follows with a lot of uses of the word ‘I’. The old version of the prayer, on which many grew up, uses ‘me’ a lot: ‘Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put me to doing, put me to suffering’, and so on.

And with language like that, it’s tempting to think that the covenant is between God and me. Well it is, and it’s essential that everyone makes their own personal commitment of faith and obedience to God in Christ.

But … God has bigger purposes. This is not just about me and my private relationship with God (as if it could be private). The ‘why’ of the covenant is this: God’s purpose is making a covenant is to form a people for himself. In Deuteronomy, God has the assembly of Israel together before him: leaders, elders, officials, men, women and children, plus the aliens in the camp (verses 10-11). It’s done together, because, as Moses explains in verse 13, the covenant is ‘in order that [the LORD] may establish you today as his people’.

God, then, uses his covenant to make and establish us as his people. We are to be a community of people, radically committed together to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church was never meant to be an accidental aggregation of whoever coincidentally turned up in the same building on Sunday.

And why is God so keen to form us into his covenant community? Because he made human beings to live in community, not isolation, and that has gone badly wrong due to sin. He calls us to be the light of the world together. He calls us to show how it is possible to live in committed love together in a society where break-ups, unforgiveness, prejudice and other diseases ravage people all the time.

No wonder God wants every part of the Israelite community before him for the covenant, and those not present are included, too. This is his serious project. It is the one plan he has had since Abraham. The reference in verse 15 to ‘those not here with us today’ is ‘not those accidentally absent but those as yet unborn’[2]. We may as Christians operate under a ‘new covenant’ in Christ, but the goal is the same: a redeemed community as a corporate witness in the world to God’s holy love.

So this morning, let us not see ourselves as private individuals in separate booths, renewing our covenant. Let us recognise that we are doing this together as the people of God for the sake of the world. Before we say the Covenant Prayer together, I shall say the words, ‘We are no longer our own, but yours.’[3] Let us renew our covenant, not only in terms of our personal commitment to Christ, but our commitment to one another in him, and our commitment together in his Name for the world.

A recap: we have said that the covenant is a solemn mutual commitment that God initiates and to which we respond. We have said that God does this in order to form a people for himself who will be a witness as a community to a broken world. Finally, a third question: when do we make the covenant?

Well, the simple answer is ‘today’, isn’t it? We renew our commitment today in this service. And our reading is littered with references to ‘today’. One commentator says:

The emphasis in this passage is upon the present (today is used five times), not in the sense that a new covenant was being initiated, but rather in the sense that the renewing of the covenant was a revitalizing of the relationship.[4]

‘Today’ is not just about urgency, frequency or regularity. It is about revitalising our relationship with God. How many of us could do with that? I know I could. I know what it is to go through spiritually dry seasons in my life. I imagine that many or all of you do, too.

But what do we do when we find faith dull, dry and uninspiring? Some just plod on and hope things will work out or change of their own accord. Others seek the latest religious fads and fashions. Or we might hold out for a dramatic spiritual experience.

There can be virtue in all those approaches. Sometimes, just to continue doing what we know is what we are called to do. On other occasions, new approaches to faith may help us. And it is also possible that the Holy Spirit may intervene in a powerful way.

However, sometimes the revitalisation that comes ‘today’ happens through basic decisions of obedience. Canon Michael Green, a well-known charismatic Anglican, hardly shy of welcoming dramatic spiritual experiences, once said that he knew far too many Christians who were refusing to get on with the Christian life until God did something extraordinary in their lives. He said they should just simply make the decision to obey Christ.

Let’s compare it to a marriage again. It isn’t always the flowers, the box of chocolates or the diamonds that make a difference. A dry marriage is watered when each spouse takes the trouble to think what their beloved would most appreciate them doing. That can win the heart and bring back the spark as much as anything else.

Today, then, may be the ‘when’ for saying another simple ‘yes’ to Jesus. ‘Yes’ to walking in his ways. ‘Yes’ to pleasing him – as Paul says, ‘Find out what pleases the Lord’, implying of course that if we find out what pleases the Lord, the natural thing is then to do what pleases him. Today, as we say another ‘yes’ to Jesus, it may just be that as we do so from the heart, it so delights the Lord that there is a new spark in our relationship with him.

So if the finely crafted words of our promises today are met by finely crafted acts of devotion and obedience, who knows what might be around the corner? As we respond to God’s committed love of us with our own committed actions of love for him, might we just see God renewing his purposes for the world in our neighbourhood? Might we then be on the brink of a renewal in our life and witness?

May the Holy Spirit so empower us that it is so.

[1] James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p140.

[2] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (New International Biblical Commentary), p287.

[3] Methodist Worship Book, p290.

[4] Peter Craigie, Deuteronomy (NICNT), p357.

A Brief Sermon For A Renewal Of Wedding Vows

Forty years! How on earth does someone like me, who has been married one fifth that length of time dare to speak some words to you on this day?

As I pondered that question, I felt led back to a particular memory of our own wedding service. No, not Debbie entering the church building to the accompaniment of ‘Born to be wild’ in memory of her past as a biker, with my mother whispering in my ear, “What is this music, dear?”

Nor did I think about us leaving the service to the strain of the Thunderbirds theme music, to the evident delight of my two young nephews who were our page boys. International Rescue might be a metaphor sometimes needed in marriage, but it didn’t occur to me in relation to you two!

Instead, I recalled that the Anglican rector friend of mine whom we asked to preach chose a surprising reading, we thought, for a wedding. It was Luke 24:13-35, the story of the two friends who walked to Emmaus, not believing yet that Jesus had risen from the dead. I didn’t dust down his sermon – besides, I couldn’t find the tape of the service! But it did make me think that I would offer my own thoughts on this story in connection with your own marriage.

As I say, it’s a surprising reading, but it is one about two friends, two companions. My rector friend said that some people think that Cleopas and his companion are a married couple. I’m not sure about that, but whether they were or not, I think there are some encouragements we can draw from the story on this wonderful occasion today.

Firstly, I see a couple talking about Jesus. Cleopas and his friend or companion are exercised about Jesus in the story. Granted, there are things they don’t know and major issues on which they are wrong, but nothing matters more to them than to talk together about Jesus.

And that’s something I appreciate about you as a couple, too. We can talk about all sorts of things, such as the way we compare notes about young children. David and I can talk about computers or football. But what is most important and utterly natural in your presence is that we talk without any sense of being forced or nervous about the central aspect of our lives, faith in Jesus.

In my four years here, I have seen it grow and grow in you. It was always there – our early conversations often centred on your experiences in the past with the Campers and Caravanners’ Christian Fellowship, and particularly the things you learned through your friend Mike Dominy.

But I have seen it increase. I think the decisive time was when you went on the (this is ironic with this text) Walk To Emmaus weekend. Something went up a gear in you then, especially in David!

There are all sorts of helpful things we can learn about what makes a healthy marriage. But for a Christian couple, this is critical. How sad it is when Christians find it hard to talk about their faith, even with their loved ones. But you can do that, and because you can, you have a way of getting to foundational issues about life and faith which surely holds you in good stead in your marriage. If you talk about Jesus, you will be talking about self-giving sacrificial love. You will be talking about forgiveness. You will be talking, therefore, about matters absolutely critical to the health of a marriage.  I see this as a work of the Holy Spirit within and among you. I pray it is something to which all Christian couples would aspire.

Secondly, I see the presence of Jesus with you. Jesus came and joined the couple as they walked to Emmaus. They weren’t aware for quite a while that he was with them. They were unable to identify the mysterious stranger who accompanied them and made sense of the Scriptures. Only in the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened to his identity.

And similarly, you may not be aware all the time that Jesus is with you. I am sure you know it in theory, but there will be times when you do not feel his presence or circumstances will be dire and you imagine he is distant or absent. You would be only human if you were not to have those thoughts and feelings as you live with Arline’s health.

But let me tell you something. People see Jesus in you. They see it in how you live out your lives in the face of joy and pain. They experience something of him, simply by coming into contact with you. Some will be able to say, ‘That’s Jesus’. Others will merely know there is something special about you.

And you may be surprised to learn this is the case. However, it is my experience that it is often other people who notice things like this. I know of a story where a student vacated his room at the end of a term and someone stayed in it for a conference during that vacation. That latter person experienced a particular sense of peace that they put down to the faith of the student who normally lived there.

Likewise, I know a story where the house where a Christian family had lived in was sold. The new residents were Christians. They had an unmistakable sense that they had moved into a property that had been full of prayer over the years.

Today, then, many of us here celebrate the fact that you are a couple through whom we encounter Jesus.

The Rector who preached at our wedding lifted five points from this story. I am going to confine myself to three. My third is about hospitality.

Cleopas and his companion offered hospitality to the stranger who had joined them on the road. It was a natural thing to do in Middle Eastern culture, and indeed still is. It is not something so natural in our society.

But it is something I – and others – have experienced from you. One piece of advice we were given when training for the ministry was that if you are going out visiting for a few hours, save for last a visit to some people who are positive, and who refresh you just by being with them.

Often when I’ve called on you unannounced, you have been my last call of the afternoon for that very reason. Whether times have been good or you have been going through further adversity, I have always been glad that I have had time with you. If it were ever inconvenient, you have never let on. You seem to know that definition of hospitality which goes like this:

Hospitality is making people feel at home when you wish they were at home (Michael Baughen).

It is something we know you have practised in the way you have welcomed international students into your home.  In the New Testament, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit in the case of some people. why? Because it’s a Jesus thing again. The offering of love. The giving of self, of time, of possessions. All these are implied in the act of hospitality. Christians, therefore, can offer hospitality as a witness to their faith. I believe you do.

As I conclude, then, you may think I have described you as far better people than you feel you are. Well – let a friend have this public opportunity to say kind things about you! I am sure you know dark and broken things that I and many others here have no idea about.

But – today we celebrate the love you have shared in forty years of marriage, and which you continue to share. In particular, those of us here who are Christians rejoice in the way you put that love into practice in such distinctively Jesus-shaped ways. I pray that many of us will learn from your example and be inspired by you.

And in doing so, may the Jesus you love and serve gain all the glory.

I Was Hungry And You Fed Me

He was new in town, out of money and hungry. He had turned up at my church building, hoping to find me and receive help. A neighbour had directed him to our manse, which is two miles from the church premises. Having walked that distance in the heat, he was now also thirsty.

The gentleman’s opening request was for me to give him work so he could earn money to pay for what he needed. Sadly, I couldn’t offer him that. We had just finished a project on the church hall. But Debbie offered him sandwiches, drinks and a food parcel. All these he gratefully accepted. I Googled details of the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and printed off details for him. I showed him the map on the print-out, and described how he might find their office from where he lived.

It is part of a minister’s lot to deal time to time with such requests. I have no doubt that this caller was utterly genuine. If he had wanted money for ulterior reasons, he would have been shifty when Debbie offered him food and drink. But of course at other times we are faced with people whose motives are less clear. They may be honest, or they may be feeding something like a drug habit. They may just be common or garden conmen. (And they usually are men, not women.)

Knowing we would face such dilemmas, I remember us discussing it at theological college. We were offered no wisdom by a tutor, we were just left to get on with thrashing out some ideas for ourselves. I felt we could have done with the wisdom of experience, whether we agreed with the tutor’s opinion or not. But we did not receive that privilege.

It is an emotive issue. The Gospel clearly calls us to care for the poor and needy. Jesus himself commands it. Hospitality, too, is a virtue, if not a spiritual gift. Yet at the same time, if we wonder whether the person before us is honest, we are worried about good stewardship of either our own personal resources or a fund which has been built up by contributions from the faithful at communion services. We wonder whether we are being fooled, and whether it matters. We may wonder sometimes about personal or family safety.

My policy has generally been to prefer offering gifts in kind rather than money. Food, a train ticket, whatever. But some would think I am being unreasonable, and that I should grant every request for money, even if I am foolish. They would suggest I was being mean, but that has never washed with me. I think it’s about stewardship.

Even within that policy, there are a few things I don’t feel comfortable with buying for a caller. The obvious one would be cigarettes, and I’d probably add alcohol to that. Again, some would disagree with me and buy these things (or give the caller the money) so they might have something that makes them feel good. I cannot cope with giving something destructive. I can’t see how that is Christian. That may sound patronising, but to me it is about honest conviction.

One old friend of mine would take homeless people she met on the streets in central London where she worked to a café where she would buy them a meal. She would also eat with them. However, she rather made it a condition that they listened to her testimony before eating! Much as I want people to hear the Gospel, I would never make the receipt of practical help conditional. The Gospel is about unconditional love and grace. I would not wish to be shy or ashamed about my faith, but I would hope that my actions were the starting point of witness.

Those are some of my thoughts on the subject. What are yours? You might manage to change my mind.