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.
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’. 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.’ 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.
‘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.
 James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p140.
 Methodist Worship Book, p290.
Before today’s news, here are some links. Let’s kick off with a survey. What kind of technology user are you? The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a quiz. I am an ‘ominvore‘. (Via the Comodo Monthly Insider email.)
Mercy: demonstrating God’s compassion to the poor
Influence: being salt and light in the public life of the community
Life Discipleship: equipping Christians for missional living as workers & neighbours
Evangelism: faithful and relevant communication of the gospel
Square Mile is an exciting initiative, designed to catalyse and equip the UK Church to take a truly integrated approach to mission in partnership with the Alliance and Community Mission.
Square Mile resources include a new DVD-based course designed for small groups, which explores these four areas of mission. Featuring insights from: Shane Claiborne, Mark Greene, J John, Tim Keller, Elaine Storkey, Jim Wallis and N.T. Wright, as well as examples of grassroots projects around the UK. A journal is also availabe containing daily readings, reflections and activities covering four weeks – ideally used alongside the DVD course.
Ruth Haley Barton has an article for the first week of Lent: Practising Repentance.
If it isn’t one, then it’s the other. Mark went back to school today, and Rebekah was off sick. She had diarrhoea in the night and this morning. I’ll spare you further grisly details.
Thus today I have been a teacher and an entertainer. Not that far removed from ministry, is it? I helped her with her reading, her spelling homework and her Maths game.
As a reward, we allowed her to paint a mug. Not one of our existing mugs, one that came in a box with paints and brushes. She has decorated a couple before, but I put the last one in the dishwasher and the paint began to peel. If everything King Midas touched turned to gold, most things I touch shatter into several pieces.
Either side of lunchtime, Debbie, Rebekah and I watched ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘ on DVD. It came out in 1968, and I saw it at the cinema first time around. If I didn’t feel old enough already, what with the fact that tomorrow I enter the final year of my forties, I felt even more decrepit remembering that fact.
As I watched it, I mused on this thought. Today, we are used to discussing serious themes in films. Organisations like Damaris Trust and others produce first class material to help in that matter. Usually, the movies chosen are not children’s titles. Yet Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has some simple ideas that would bear some exploration. Here are just a few.
Career-wise, do you follow your dreams, imagination and creative talent, even into penury that affects you and your family, in the hope it will work out in the end, or do you just take a routine mundane job? (Caractacus Potts)
How do you deal with the fact that evil is sometimes blatant and other times disguised? (The Child Catcher)
How do you hang on in the face of evil while injustice reigns? (The villagers keep their children underground, not seeing the sun, while the Baron and his forces seek to eliminate children.)
Can you have successful marriages and relationships across wide socio-economic barriers? (Caractacus Potts doesn’t propose marriage to Truly Scrumptious until he realises his invention of Toot Sweets is going to make him wealthy, just as she is.)
And finally, just a little tiny bit of sabbatical work today. Some of that was reading the terms and conditions for signing up to Survey Monkey. I’m glad I read these. I have to be very careful how I word emails in which I invite people to complete my survey, and include various items to avoid Survey Monkey deleting my account. Clearly they are protecting themselves against use by spammers. I have to include an ‘unsubscribe’ link and my snail-mail address. The problem with ‘ubsubscribe’ will be that I may not be using a mailing list full of individuals, so I’ll need to think of a way around that.
The other thing that has happened is this. You may recall my recent series of posts on The Starfish And The Spider. There was another similar book I also wanted to read. Well, at last, after several weeks on order and being number one in the queue to read it next, ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ by Clay Shirky found its way to North Melbourne Library today, and it is sitting on my desk at last. I had taken to reading something that is not sabbatical related, but which is thought-provoking on a general theme: ‘The God I Don’t Understand‘ by Chris Wright. I may need to return to that later now.
It’s half term, and I’m taking this week on leave. Daytime, I shall be having time with the kids, of course. We’ve been exchanging Tesco Clubcard vouchers for money off ten pin bowling and a meal at Café Rouge.
But in the evening, I’m beginning to delve into some newly arrived books. Yes, they are all Theology, and that might seem a strange choice when I’m away from ‘work’, but few things restore me like a dose of good reading. (Yes, I am an introvert, if you hadn’t guessed.) Here is what those nice people at Amazon and The Book Depository have sent me lately:
Eugene Peterson, The Word Made Flesh: Peterson explores the issue of language as a spiritual concern by examining the parables of Jesus in Luke’s so-called ‘Travel Narrative’ and in some of his prayers.
Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: I love the parables of Jesus, and this looks like being the standard work for the next several years. A few months ago, Scot McKnight was raving about it. Then Paul Beasley-Murray did the same in Ministry Today. Already, I’m hooked. He has a subtle, multivalent treatment of the parables. For years I’ve loved Craig Blomberg‘s book Interpreting The Parables, because he so thoroughly took to pieces the anti-allegory school and gave a brilliant history of schools of biblical interpretation. However, it was beginning to feel a bit simplistic in some of its expositions. I think Snodgrass will bring the subtlety.
Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Metavista: What do we do, mission-wise, after postmodernity? Greene and Robinson are sketching a vision. I met Greene five years ago on a Bible Society course at Lee Abbey, but I’ve never previously read his books. I was pondering buying this one when I saw him interviewed by Alan Roxburgh on the Allelon website. That convinced me.
Christopher J H Wright, The Mission Of God: another Scot McKnight rave. Eleven or twelve years ago, I bought Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, in which he interprets the book missiologically. Later, I bought his exposition of Ezekiel, which attempts something similar. This is his magnum opus, bringing together his skills as a biblical scholar and his past experience as the Principal of a missionary training college. Wright argues that the whole Bible is a missionary document. I believe this will be required reading for all of us concerned with the ‘missional’ approach. It promises to be the most important work of missiology since the late David Bosch‘s Transforming Mission.
Ben Witherington III, The Letters To Philemon, The Colossians, And The Ephesians – A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles: I’ve bought several of BW3’s commentaries in the last year or so. I’ve been looking for something to complement and contrast Andrew Lincoln‘s majestic Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians. Witherington is a prolific, eloquent and brilliant writer.
Richard Burridge, Imitating Jesus – An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics: For someone whose calling involves helping people with ethical decisions, I don’t read as much as I should on ethics, although I’m indebted to Changing Values by David Attwood and The Moral Quest by the late Stanley Grenz. Burridge is flavour of the month in some circles I know, not least in Chelmsford, where he gave a Holy Week lecture earlier this year. Not long ago I reviewed his commentary on John’s Gospel, which was superb. This too has been well reviewed, again not least by my friend Paul Beasley-Murray. I had a quick dip into his section on Paul and homosexuality, and while not everything Burridge said convinced me, he said enough to shed new light for me on this painful debate.
I won’t read all these books cover to cover. Some will just go straight on the shelf for reference. In the case of others (e.g., Snodgrass) I shall read the introductory chapters before squeezing them into my statutory thirty yards of bookshelving in this study.
Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you think of them?
What are you reading, or have you read recently, that you would recommend?
I would be fascinated to know.