Henri Nouwen was a much-lauded Dutch Roman Catholic priest. A brilliant man, he held doctorates in both psychology and theology, and rose through various academic posts to become Professor of Pastoral Theology at the prestigious Yale University. He later taught at Harvard, so effectively he taught at the American equivalents to our Oxford and Cambridge. He also had the common touch, and wrote popular books about the spiritual life that sold in quantities that delighted his publishers. We studied one of them, The Return Of The Prodigal Son, in an ecumenical Lent course here in Knaphill.
But for all his acclaim, Nouwen was uncomfortable. It wasn’t until he joined the staff at L’Arche, an international community for people with developmental disabilities, that he felt he was living a truly authentic Christian life.
In looking for a model of how to live the spiritual life in a secular world, he settled upon the Last Supper, and wrote about it in a wonderful book called Life Of The Beloved. What he said there so struck me when I read it that I want to use his framework as we consider our covenant with God again this year. The covenant meal – Holy Communion – provides a structure for the covenant life.
Essentially, what Nouwen is saying is this: what Jesus does with the bread, he does with us. Hear again verse 22:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’
Note the four actions Jesus does with the bread: took, gave thanks, broke, and gave. Jesus does the same with us, says Nouwen: he takes us, gives thanks for us, breaks us, and gives us.
If that seems a bit far-fetched, then bear with me for the sermon, but also listen to these reflections on the passage before us from Tom Wright:
This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words could ever do, what his action , and passion, the next day really meant; and, more than explaining it, it will enable Jesus’ followers, from that day to this, to make it their own, to draw life and strength from it. If we want to understand, and be nourished by, what happened on Calvary, this meal is the place to start.
So, on the day when we once again ‘make this covenant our own’, let us do so by making the covenant meal our own.
First of all, Jesus takes the bread and he also takes us. In our communion service, we represent this simply by unveiling the elements, removing the white cloth. Other traditions process the bread and wine to the table. I don’t do that, and I won’t bore you with the reasons now, but note that we simply take the bread.
And Jesus takes us, too. He takes the initiative to choose and call us. Yes, we made a choice to follow him, but it only came because before we ever thought of him he thought of us, and in his love reached out to us.
We start, then, from a perspective not only of having been chosen by Jesus but in that choosing being taken and held in his hands. Whatever happens from here, we are not alone but in his hands. The covenant life starts in a safe place. As we come to renew our covenant today, we are coming to the One who promises never to leave or forsake us.
So we start from that point of security. Like the child held by the parent, we are safe. Like the friend giving us a hug, we are reassured. Like the beloved held by the lover, we know we are loved. This is the beginning of the covenant. On Covenant Sunday, I am always thinking about those who are nervous about making promises to God which amount to an abandonment to his will and wonder what that would mean. But I come back to the fact that we begin in this place: Jesus takes us. Covenant starts in a good place, not a scary one.
The second action of Jesus is that he gives thanks for the bread – and he gives thanks to the Father for us, too. Again, we might feel uncomfortable, but stay with me to think about this.
One of my nephews used to get so impatient about when a meal was due to arrive that by the time the plate was put in front of him, he was famished. Not wanting to wait a second longer than necessary to eat, he would sometimes abbreviate grace to three words: ‘Father God, Amen.”
Our custom of saying ‘Grace’ derives from the Jewish custom of giving thanks to God for food, and for all sorts of aspects of the material creation. Here, for example, is a traditional prayer said after a meal:
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who, in His goodness, provides sustenance for the entire world with grace, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives food to all flesh, for His kindness is everlasting. Through His great goodness to us continuously we do not lack [food], and may we never lack food, for the sake of His great Name. For He, benevolent G-d, provides nourishment and sustenance for all, does good to all, and prepares food for all His creatures whom He has created, as it is said: You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Blessed are You, L-rd, who provides food for all.
The thanksgiving for the unleavened bread at Passover (and I am assuming Jesus was celebrating a form of Passover with his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’) begins in similar vein. The sense is maintained that created things are good, they are a gift from God, and have a divinely ordained purpose in the world. Therefore God is praised for his good gifts.
And in Covenant, God is praised for his good gift of you. God has made each of us in the church as a gift to one another and a gift to the world. For this reason, Jesus praises the Father for us. It is not that he praises us, but he praises God for us.
Even so, some people find this hard to accept. They feel worthless and insignificant, small and wracked by sin. How can Jesus praise God for me, they ask?
He can, because of God’s work in you. And God has some special purpose for you. He has given you gifts and talents, he has placed you in certain families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and leisure, and for that Jesus is thankful. However much the holiness of God cannot abide sin, there is no picture here of an angry God, only of the Son of God who is pleased that you are God’s good gift. So rejoice that you are seen this way.
Jesus’ third action is to break the bread, and also break us. Here we may feel we are getting closer to the challenging, if not severe, side of the Covenant that intimidates some church members into not attending this service each year.
At one level, though, this isn’t a fearful picture. For the one bread to be distributed, it has to be broken. And for the one church to be sent on the mission of God, she has to be dispersed to different places. Some of this is just a natural expression of what happens at the end of worship when we are dismissed to serve Christ in the world. It’s like the church building which had a slogan over the exit door: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. We go from here to our separate localities as Christ’s witnesses. We are the church gathered and we are also the church dispersed.
But in another way, being broken by Jesus is part of that submission to whatever he needs to do in our lives. I am not talking about something so extreme as military training, where the civilian is destroyed in order for the soldier to emerge, although we should take seriously the call to a disciplined life as Christians.
And in this respect, Jesus uses the circumstances of life that he allows us to face, or even perhaps brings into our lives, to shape us into better people. However, those life situations are not always pleasant. They may be little different from what people who do not share our faith also encounter, but in our case, Christ allows brokenness to be a tool that leads us to pursue a life that is more like his.
So even in the joy of a marriage, we come face to face with just how self-centred we are. In the loss of something important, we confront the call to decide exactly where our faith and trust lie.
This week I read an extraordinary testimony by the Australian preacher Christine Caine. An energetic pastor, evangelist, and campaigner against human trafficking, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and other conditions in her body. I would love to read you the whole testimony, but it’s long, and I can only focus on a couple of brief parts. Firstly, here are just a few of the words she said to her surgeon after her diagnosis:
Leslie, it’s okay. Cancer is not terminal. Life is terminal. I will live every second of every day that God has ordained for me to live on this earth, and then I will go home. … We are on a battlefield, not a playground; it’s time to go to war. You tell me what to do medically, and I will fight this spiritually, and whatever happens, Jesus will have the final victory.
And then I note how she said,
I wanted to be delivered FROM this situation, but ten weeks later, I discovered God wanted me to walk THROUGH this.
Why walk through this? Because it brought her into contact with other cancer patients. Lonely, fearful people. Those who had lost their hair, were marked with radiation lines, bruised by needles, or unable to walk without assistance. A father wheeling his son in for treatment. In her broken condition, she could minister. As she says,
I wondered why so many people wanted a platform ministry when there was ministry waiting in hospital waiting rooms all over the world.
How many are waiting for us to go to them while we wait for them to come to us?
Waiting rooms are waiting for us.
What are you waiting for?
And this leads me into the fourth and final action of Jesus: he gives the bread, and he gives us, too. That’s where we’ve been heading from the beginning. Just as the bread is destined to be given, so are we. Chosen and cherished by God in his taking of us and Christ’s thanksgiving for us, the breaking that then ensues in the knowledge that we are so loved is in order for us to be distributed into the world.
Just as ancient Israel had to learn that her special covenant with God was not a matter of élite status but in order to bless the world, so the same is true of our ‘new covenant’. It does grant remarkable status to us as children of God, but the purpose is not to luxuriate in that, but to become God’s gift to the world, calling others to meet this astonishing God who calls them too into the covenant community.
And so this theme comes at a good time, with our Life On The Frontline series beginning this Wednesday with a midweek meeting at 8:00 pm and continuing next Sunday with the first sermon in the series. Here is the chance to identify the people and places to which God has given us so that we might be his ambassadors.
If we are serious about renewing our covenant with God this year, we shall be serious about the fact that Jesus gives us to others in his name.
So if you are aware that Christ has taken hold of you and you are safe with him; if you realise that Jesus thanks his Father for the gifts and opportunities he has given you; if you realise that the brokenness in your life has been allowed for a kingdom reason; and if you acknowledge that Jesus is giving you to the world …
… then why not take part in Life On The Frontline. And be ready as part of working out your covenant vows to seek openings to be Christ’s witness in word and deed.
 Wright, N. T. (2004-03-01). Mark for Everyone (p. 194). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Sometimes as a preacher I think I must sound like a broken record, repeating the same themes. Usually I am brought down to earth by congregations who haven’t remembered the theme I think I am repeating, anyway. (What that does to the value of preaching is another matter that I won’t consider at this point.)
One of the themes I know I repeat comes around at Covenant Sunday every year. It’s the notion I like to advance that tries to deal with the fears we have in making such solemn and even radical promises to God. And that thought is the one that points out – virtually every year – that the human side of a covenant with God in the Bible is always a response to his great acts of mercy, love and salvation. We only enter into a covenant with God because he has already done so much for us.
That is the position the Israelites find themselves in when we come to our first reading in the Covenant Service, from Exodus 24. God has saved them from the terrors of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The commandments are only given in the Old Testament after that act of salvation. They are not being required to do something good so that God will feel favourably disposed to them: God loved them before that, and unconditionally. As we consider God’s call on us as disciples of Jesus again this year, we remember that as our starting-point: God acted to save us before we did anything for him. It isn’t slavery in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea in our case, it’s slavery from sin and the parting of the waters of death.
So the first point I want to make this morning is precisely that: yes, today is a day when we are called to reaffirm our obedience to God. We might not like it, but we do so because we already know God loves us. He loves us beyond measure. As Christians, we would go beyond the Exodus text and say that he loves to the point of his only begotten Son taking on human flesh, and living and dying for us. This is the love by which God sets us free, and this is the love to which we respond today by offering our obedience.
Some of us might find it helpful to draw an imperfect parallel with parenting. We ask our children to do what we require of them, but we do so out of love. We ask our children to obey us, because we love them and because we have already shown that love sacrificially for them, and indeed we shall go on loving them at great cost to ourselves. That is the love that calls forth a child’s healthy response to parents.
And it is similar in the life of the Spirit, as I have said. We gather to make these promises today, because we know a God who loves us to the uttermost in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t simply say to us, “Do this, because I say so,” he says, “Do this, because I love you.” That makes all the difference in the world.
So the commandments are the first feature of the covenant, from our perspective, and they are our response to God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
The second feature of the covenant in Exodus 24 is blood. We read about the animal sacrifices made by the Israelites, and how Moses divided the blood between the basins and the altar.
You might expect me to make a point here from a Christian perspective about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for our sins, but that isn’t quite what I’m going to say – apart from the fact that I have already alluded to that in talking about the level of God’s committed love for us in the first point.
Actually, there were several kinds of sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the ‘sin offering’ was only one. Here, we have ‘offerings of well being’ (verse 5). Other translations call these ‘fellowship offerings’. They are offerings that express something about the relationship between God and the people. They do not so much make the relationship by dealing with the barrier of sin as show that the relationship already exists.
Furthermore, in the context of a covenant, the shedding of blood is significant. In ancient times, a covenant was sealed with blood. We may seal an agreement with signatures, or perhaps a solicitor will attach a wax seal to something particularly serious, but go back three thousand years or so and you will find people sealing covenants and solemn agreements with the blood of an animal.
So – this may not be the way we do things now, but the essential message for us to take from this in the passage is our relationship with God has been sealed and confirmed.
Our covenant is, of course, sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross. His death does not only mean the forgiveness of our sins, it means a permanent relationship of mutual commitment has been settled. Through the Cross, we become not only forgiven sinners, but disciples and friends of Jesus.
In other words, this is what we say in the Covenant Prayer when we conclude with the words, ‘you are mine and I am yours.’ It is a declaration of such close fellowship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit that we are united. The covenant is not simply an exchange of deeds – God’s salvation and then our obedience – it is the making of a deep and lasting relationship.
Can it be broken? The Old Covenant was broken by God’s people, as we heard in Jeremiah 31. Some say the New Covenant cannot be broken, but John Wesley said it could – albeit only in extreme circumstances.
Again, think of the parent-child relationship. When that has been built on sacrificial love, it takes something extreme to break it completely. Wrong-doing can seriously weaken it and make parent and child distant instead of close. Likewise, it takes something on the scale of our utter rejection of God to break the fellowship of the covenant. We can by our sin weaken the relationship so that it is not as close, rewarding and joyful as it could be, but that should not make us complacent. Instead, would it not be good to think that as we renew our covenant this year, we commit to building and strengthening our relationship with God through the use of spiritual disciplines (what Wesley called ‘the means of grace’) and by doing his will?
And that leads neatly into the third and final feature of the covenant: eating and drinking. Listen again to the curious way in which the reading ends:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Verses 9-11)
You have the close fellowship, culminating with those words, ‘and they ate and drank.’ You can soon think of other biblical examples of people ‘eating with God’, even if not quite so directly. The Passover meal. Jesus dining with sinners. The Lord’s Supper – of course. The wedding feast of the Lamb and his Bride in Revelation. It’s very physical and material, hardly the ethereal, spiritual occasion that many assume a religious experience to be. No wonder C S Lewis called Christianity ‘the most materialist of all the religions’.
Again, in ancient times, after a covenant had been sealed with the sprinkling of blood, the parties to the covenant would sit down and feast together. We shall do this at the climax of our service with bread and wine, although when we speak of the sacrament being ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ and then swallow a tiny piece of bread and a thimbleful of wine, it is a pretty microscopic foretaste!
This God enjoys our company, meets us in the ordinary and necessary areas of life, and transforms the mundane into feasting. This God turns everyday grey into multi-coloured celebration.
Most of all, perhaps, the thought of us sitting together and feasting with God confirms the notion that the covenant has brought us into a family. Like a family sitting down to eat in the evening when everyone has come in from school or work, so we reflect together on what we have done with God and what we shall do tomorrow with him. And we do that with food and drink, bread and wine, at tables and in cars, in homes and in shops, breathing air and using our five senses, because we can not only taste and see that the Lord is good as the Psalmist said, we can also touch, see, smell and hear that he is good.
We live out this relationship which the covenant has established and confirmed not waiting for heaven but seeking to do his will on earth as it is in heaven, all the while giving the world an advance taste of the new heavens and the new earth which God will bring with the resurrection of the dead at the end of all things as we know them now.
What does this have to say to us as we renew our covenant this morning? We are called not only together into the fellowship of the church with God but also to go into the world with him and celebrate his love there. We can find him in the normality of daily living just as we can also find him in the specialness of Sunday morning. And as we encounter God in the physical world, so we rejoice in that love as we turn material things back into the stuff of his kingdom.
May that be what each of us does this year.
‘I am the vine,’ says Jesus (verse 1). The moment you allude to vines and therefore grapes – and hence to their product, wine – you get into difficulty in Christian relationships. In one Anglican-Methodist church I knew, the bishop was so intent on the communion wine being alcoholic and the Methodists equally determined to use non-alcoholic wine that a way forward had to be found. The bishop wouldn’t tolerate the Methodist suggestion that both forms of wine were made available at the sacrament. He therefore insisted that the wine be made by local worshippers trampling the grapes before the service, so that the Methodists could believe they were drinking grape juice and the Anglicans could believe that the fermenting process had begun. The one time I attended a communion service there under this regime, the lighting was poor and I felt like I was drinking something mushy – it was more like a thick New Covent Garden soup than wine.
But we need not worry ourselves with such farces this morning. When Jesus says ‘I am the vine’, he is making an important statement to people who can hear the Jewish background. In the Old Testament, Israel – God’s people – was described as a vineyard. Isaiah 5 is a notable example. So for Jesus to call himself the vine is for him to claim that he is all that God intended the People of God to be. If we are to be joined to him as branches of the vine, then he is teaching us how to be and to grow as part of the People of God. Jesus is telling us here, then, about how we grow as God’s people. And hence why we read this passage at a Covenant Service.
First of all, Jesus makes it clear that all we do in the process comes under the rubric of responding – that is, responding to God. The passage is filled with assumptions that God acts first, and we respond. Jesus is already the vine, the Father is already the gardener, the Father already loves Jesus, and Jesus already loves us. God’s saving actions come first. Everything we do is because God has already reached out to us in love through his Son.
This is the very nature of a covenant. Ancient Israel’s covenant with God at Mount Horeb was similar to the covenants of their time. A powerful king rescued a weaker party. In gratitude, the weaker parties then responded to the wishes of the powerful one who had saved them. That is what we see with Israel when God has delivered her from Egypt. The covenant is set in place at the mountain of God, and the Ten Commandments are given. Thus Israel was never to keep the Ten Commandments and the other laws of God as a way to earn salvation, because their salvation had already been freely and graciously given in love: God had saved them from the evil power of Egypt. All that Israel did was a response.
That is what we are coming to do today, as well. We are not coming in order to make impossible promises to God, fingers crossed behind our backs, hoping that we might manage to twist his arm into pleasing us. No: we are responding to God’s love for us in delivering us. We come to this Covenant Service, because God has already come to us in Immanuel, God with us, his Son Jesus Christ. We come to make our vows today, because God has already set us free in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is continuing to set us free from the penalty, the power and the presence of sin. Today we come, then, not to a severe God who wants to torture us with unreasonable demands, but to the God of outrageous grace.
Let us come and make our promises today, because we are already loved by God. We do not have to win him over. It is rather God who wants to win us over to him. Do not let past or recent failure put you off. His arms are open wide from the Cross. He has stopped at nothing to love us. Our promises today are where we recognise that with joy, and say that we will stop at nothing to love God and love our neighbours in response.
The second theme to pick out here is of remaining – as the branches of Jesus the Vine we are to remain in him in order to be fruitful. We need to be attached to receive the sap that enables us to make a difference in the world as Christians.
‘Remaining’ suggests something continuous, not a one-off event or action. Other translations speak of ‘abiding’, which implies permanent residence. Why is it important to emphasise ‘remaining’ in this way?
Because there is a strand of Christianity which tends to reduce faith down to the moment of decision for Christ, and little else. Do not mistake me, deciding to trust Christ is important, but my point is this: the Christian life is not simply about a decision in the past, it is about on-going discipleship. Jesus called for disciples, not decisions. And disciples are those who are committed to the long haul. By definition, a disciple is a learner, or an apprentice. We do not learn our trade as Christians overnight. The training and the study take a lifetime – maybe more!
So Jesus therefore calls us to ‘remain’ in him. That way, he can nurture us. Remaining in him involves staying closely connected to him, through all the classic ways: prayer, Bible reading, worship, the sacraments, fellowship, solitude, silence, simplicity, fasting and so on. One renewed commitment we might make today is to our spiritual disciplines, or ‘means of grace’, as John Wesley called them.
As well as that, there are a couple of general applications of this notion of ‘remaining’ that come to mind. One is that we simply say to God, ‘I am not going to be a fair-weather Christian. I am going to stick with you, through good times and bad, through times when I feel blessed beyond words and times when for I can barely feel your presence. I will not just be your follower because I receive good things from you, I will be your follower simply because it is the right and good thing to do.’
And in a slightly similar vein, I think not so much of those who are only up for expressing their faith when everything is sunny, I think of those who are struggling to hang on. For those who are finding the going altogether too difficult for whatever reason – painful life circumstances, things getting on top of us, dreadful things happening – I invite you to see the Covenant promises today as just a simple commitment to staying with Christ. I see some of us effectively saying words rather like this: ‘Right now, Lord, I really don’t feel much like this Christian stuff. I can barely keep my head above water. But even if it’s only by one finger, I’m going to hang onto you.’
I believe that when we say things like that, there is good news for us: God’s grip on us is stronger than ours on his.
The third and final element I want to talk about this morning as we seek to grow as God’s people is obeying. ‘You want to know how to remain in my love?’ asks Jesus. ‘You do it by keeping my commands, just as I obey the Father.’
Let me illustrate the point like this. I was once asked to complete a questionnaire to discover what kind of a learner I am. There were four different learning styles that you could be. Most people were not exclusively one type, but a varying mixture of the four. In my case, I was predominantly someone who learned knowledge by studying the theories behind it. I was also someone who learned by reflecting on things that had happened. I learned a little bit by putting things into action, and I learned little or nothing at all from a pragmatic approach. If you know me well, none of that will surprise you – academic, theoretical and impractical.
But for someone like me, Jesus says the way to learn discipleship in the People of God is not by theory. Or at least doing the theory is not enough on its own. It has to be put into practice. I have commended the spiritual disciplines yet again this morning, but just doing them is not enough on its own. What we learn from our devotions has to be put into practice in the form of obedience to Christ.
Two weeks ago I mentioned in passing when I talked then about practising spiritual disciplines that one of the church members I had known in the past who had been most faithful in daily Bible study had also been one of the cruellest Christians I had come across. She was someone who did the theory but didn’t translate it into action. Indeed, unless we act on what we learn we will earn that common charge made against Christians, namely that we are hypocrites.
Ultimately, the need to obey is about love. Jesus links keeping his commands with remaining in his love. Does that sound tough or unfair? Well, granted we often think of love in terms of equal relationships, and so obedience is not the first category that comes into our minds, and we would have to acknowledge that our relationship with Christ is not one of equals. Nevertheless, love is possible, just as we call a child to do what a parent asks in the context of a loving family. If we love someone, we have more than warm feelings for them: we want to do what pleases them. When we do so, that strengthens the relationship we have with them.
And that, I think, ties together everything this is about today. For, as I said first of all, we are responding to a God who in Christ has reached out to us in love in the first place. All that we do is in loving response to his love. And in the light of that love, we secondly want to remain in the relationship: we are in this for the long haul in a disciplined way, even if there are also times when we are able to do no more than cling on. And so thirdly we want to demonstrate that remaining in Christ’s love by obeying.
These things bind us more closely to Jesus the Vine, the True Israel. We become more truly what we have been called to be by grace: the People of God.
The Feast of Epiphany, when Christ was revealed to the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi, is one that sometimes gets overlooked in Methodist churches, because it frequently clashes with the annual Covenant Service. Today, I thought I would try combining the two. The Covenant Service is the time when we renew our commitment to Christ, and the Magi are a great example of that. They arrive in Jerusalem saying they have come to pay homage to the child born to be king of the Jews (verse 2) and when they finally get to the house where the child is, they get down on their knees and do exactly that (verse 11). This morning I want to highlight some of the elements in this story that make them into true worshippers that we can emulate in our way in our day.
Firstly, they were listeners. They were more attuned than anyone else in the story to what God was saying and doing. They are the least likely candidates for that, yet that is true of them. They are pagans, they are Gentiles. They are astrologers, following a practice condemned in the Old Testament in the prophecies of Isaiah. They come to the land of God’s chosen people, yet they are the ones who are keen to know the purposes of God and act on them. You might think that Herod would know the Scriptures, but he hasn’t a clue and he has to call in the experts. You might think that those experts, the chief priests and scribes of the people (verse 4), would know their Scriptures. Well, they do, and they quote them. But they do nothing about them.
In this respect, it is sad to say that too many of us in the church are like either Herod or the experts. Either we don’t know our Scriptures at all, or we know them but we don’t put them into practice. It is a scandal that many professing Christians only engage with the Bible in a Sunday morning service. They listen to it being read but never pick it off the shelf in the week. And even among those who do read the Bible frequently, it is too common an attitude to read it and forget it.
In other words, we are shamed by people with less knowledge about the faith than we ourselves have.
In my youth and early adulthood, a relative we used to visit often as a family was a woman we called ‘Auntie Rene’. She wasn’t really an auntie, but she was a relative: she was my Mum’s cousin. But rather than get into complicated discussions about what kind of a cousin that made her to my sister and me, we called her ‘Auntie’.
She had poor health. In 1969 she was given six months to live, but – despite smoking – she stretched that six months out to eighteen years, and she finally passed away in the Spring of 1987. Sometimes we wondered about where she stood on matters of faith, but when she died, someone (I think it might have been my sister) discovered that by her bedside was a Bible. She had been reading Jeremiah.
As we talked about this, we came to the conclusion that in her life Auntie Rene had responded to as much light as she had come across, whether that was the full Gospel of Jesus Christ or not.
I suggest to you that the Magi are a group of people who respond to as much light from God as they find. It starts with following the star, it continues with going to Bethlehem when they hear about Micah’s prophecy and it ends with their obedience to the dream that leads to them avoiding Herod on their way home.
Now if that’s the case, what excuse do we have – we who have had decades of Christian experience? Maybe we feel we don’t know much about our faith – well if that’s the case, can we like the Magi start by responding to what light we already do have?
And if we do have some Bible knowledge, then will we start putting it into practice, unlike the chief priests and scribes? Christian teaching and learning is not simply about filling our heads with knowledge, it’s about assimilating what God wants us to do and then getting on with it.
Now that leads to the second element I want us to consider about the Magi: they were pilgrims. In other words, they went on a journey, a spiritual journey. Based on what light they had received from observing the star, they left their homeland. Based on what light they received when they heard Micah’s ancient prophecy, they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Based on what light they received in their dream, they took a different route home. We would never have heard of them unless they had been willing to travel on a journey – that is, to be pilgrims.
Now surely the point about a pilgrim is that you travel somewhere with spiritual intentions, but in doing so you leave behind the familiarity of your home in order to arrive at somewhere unknown and in the process to encounter God. To go further in the spiritual life as a pilgrim requires getting off our familiar home territory to go to new places.
And that’s the challenge. How many of us are willing to move away from the places where we feel safe and comfortable in order to draw closer to Jesus Christ? Isn’t one of the problems with the church the fact that too many of us just want to keep everything familiar and cosy? Jesus calls us to an adventure. He calls us to what the Methodist Church called a few years ago ‘Holiness and Risk’.
There are so many areas where our unwillingness to be pilgrims onto new, uncharted ground means that the church withers. It can be in the area of evangelism, where any small efforts we make are all based on the assumption that people want to come to where we feel comfortable, in a church service, rather than us being willing to go to where they feel safe.
It affects our general profile in the community. Only the other day I was having to explain why the regular ecumenical lunch time meeting of the Knaphill ministers happens in a pub, rather than in the Christian coffee shop in the village. We feel it’s important to be off home territory and visible in the wider world. But some Christians think that anything other than doing things with overtly Christian tools is somehow wrong. Back in the 1980s, the Christian musician Steve Taylor satirised this in a song called ‘Guilty by Association’ with lines such as, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.’
More generally, our unwillingness to get away from the safe and the predictable afflicts any possibility whatsoever that the church might innovate in a creative way. Perhaps you’ve been told what the seven last words of a dying church are? ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’
Real disciples of Jesus are willing to go on pilgrimage. They will leave home territory behind to venture somewhere new as part of their longer journey to the New Jerusalem. It goes right back in our heritage to Abram, when he was called to leave his homeland. It is there in the incarnation of Jesus, who left the glory of heaven. We see it here in the account of the Magi. Why, then, do we not see it much in the life of today’s church? Might the New Year and our renewal of the Covenant be the time when we finally take this part of our Christian inheritance seriously?
Thirdly and finally, the Magi were givers. We had a bit of fun with this at Knaphill during the Christingle service on Christmas Eve. Following a throwaway comment, we based the whole service on the theme of ‘Elf and Safety’. We retold the Christmas story in dramatic form, but every now and again an elf would appear and object that something broke ‘elf and safety’ rules. For example, the donkey should not have been allowed to cover so many miles in such a short time, and it should have had a tag on its ear.
When it came to the arrival of the Magi, another elf sprang out when they produced the gold, frankincense and myrrh. He wanted to know whether they had an import licence for these goods.
I think some of us have trouble with the gifts of the Magi. They are so expensive and extravagant. Surely they are beyond us? Or maybe we don’t want to be challenged. So we resort to ancient explanations that the gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense his priestly role and the myrrh his death. We do so, despite Matthew never claiming that meaning in the text and despite none of the major commentaries seriously entertaining that interpretation.
But perhaps the key to understanding this example of devotion is not the contents but the container, not the gifts but the treasure box. The Magi ‘[opened] their treasure-chests’ (verse 11), and I think that is the call to us. What are our treasure chests? What are the things we treasure – which might be money, possessions, talents or a whole lot of other things? Our treasures may well not be gold, frankincense or myrrh, but there are aspects of our lives that are inordinately precious to us, and the Christian disciple lays them down before Jesus as an act of worship and commitment.
I believe that is something well worth thinking about as we make our solemn vows again this year in the traditional words of the Covenant Prayer. Our treasures may not be just money, talents or possessions. They may be people, ambitions or dreams we have had for our lives. All these we bring to the feet of Christ and say, “Here is all that is most precious to me. I offer it to you. Use it as you will.”
That was what made the Magi different. Herod was desperate to clutch tightly onto what he considered to be rightly his. The chief priests and scribes had great intellectual gifts, but those talents were not offered to the true King of the Jews. They were just intellectual dilettantes, not servants of God’s kingdom.
There may be ways in which our churches are mixtures of mini-Herods, priests and scribes and Magi. We have little Herods who secretly find Jesus a threat to their whole way of life. We have priests and scribes who are full of religious knowledge but empty when it comes to practical obedience. But we also have Magi, people who may not be the likely suspects but who actually are more committed to Jesus Christ than anyone else in the neighbourhood.
But in truth, each one of us may be a mixture of the three. Sometimes we are antagonistic towards what Jesus wants of us. Sometimes we are apathetic. And sometimes – thankfully – we are as passionate for Christ as the Magi were.
Let us identify these different aspects of ourselves this morning, so that we may put aside our Herod tendencies and our priestly and scribal complacency, in order that we may renew our to listen for God’s will and obey it the best way we know how; to strike out on the pilgrim way, even if that means going far from what we would call home; and to offer our treasures in devotion at the feet of Christ.
May that be the attitude of our hearts in a few minutes’ time, when we come to recite again the – truly – awesome words of the Covenant Prayer.
Finally getting back to posting sermons. My church at Knaphill holds its annual covenant service today, where we renew our promises to God. Here is the sermon.
Henry Gerets was the American padre appointed as a chaplain to those Nazis who were put on trial at Nuremberg after World War Two. It was not a job he wanted. His only son had been killed by the Germans in the war, and so you can imagine his feelings towards these evil people.
But eventually he accepted the post. He went to Nuremberg, and he set about visiting every notorious Nazi held there. Gerets went from cell to cell, sharing the Gospel with men who were about to pay for their crimes by being hanged. Some went to the gallows, proudly defying the God of whom Henry Gerets spoke.
But some got down on their knees, and begged for mercy.
And mercy is a fundamental quality of the Gospel. ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy,’ says Paul in Romans 12:1. It is the mercy of God that has brought us to this Covenant Service. We, too, are the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ beloved of Jesus and brought into his Father’s presence by grace.
In fact, it’s better than ‘mercy’. What Paul really says is, ‘in view of God’s mercies’. How many of us have known God only to be merciful once to us? Is it not our testimony that God is merciful to us over and over? Like the author of Lamentations, we know that his mercies are ‘new every morning’. Mercy upon mercy, grace followed by more grace, love poured out over more love – is that not the God of the Gospel?
And we come to make our promises today ‘in view of God’s mercies’. Paul has given his readers eleven chapters about God’s mercies. We know many years of God’s mercies. In view of all he has done for us in Christ, we offer ourselves.
How are we going to do that? Paul says it’s going to take all we are and all we have. He calls us to make two responses – one with our bodies and one with our minds.
Firstly, then, our bodies:
‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship’ (verse 1)
‘Sacrifice’ – for Paul as a Jew, this is the language of worship. It is appropriate to use our bodies as expressions of our worship. Some Christians do this quite naturally. They may do in set liturgical ways such as kneeling for prayer. I have to say, that I have found that simple bodily act of kneeling for prayer in, say, an Anglican church has been a profound reminder for me of my need to be humble before God. Similarly, I remember asking one Anglican friend why she signed herself with the cross before worship. She told me it was a particular reminder to herself that the Cross was the reason she could be in worship at the first place. It therefore prevented her from approaching worship casually.
Some Christians, especially those of a charismatic of Pentecostal spirituality, use their bodies more spontaneously in worship, perhaps most notably when lifting their hands in praise. It is, of course, an ancient Jewish practice to lift up holy hands to God in the sanctuary. It is mentioned in the Psalms. The Jewish tradition is more to raise hands in intercession, whereas the charismatic-Pentecostal style is more about praise. It’s as if to say, ‘I am already lifting my voice to God in praise. What else can I raise as a sign of how much I want to worship God?’
One thing that strikes me about prayers in worship and before worship is that a common theme is this: ‘Lord, we thank you that we are free to worship you in this country.’ Now that’s a laudable sentiment, and we should not take that freedom lightly. But I wonder whether it morphs for some of us into, ‘Thank you, Lord, that we don’t have to pay a price in order to worship you.’ Because if it does, then we have lost sight of the fact that worship is a sacrifice, and that surely means it will cost us something.
How, then, are we going to offer something costly with our bodies as an act of worship to God? It may not be in terms of persecution, but if worship costs us nothing then it is barely on the level of a hobby or a pastime. They probably cost us more than worshipping our God of mercy does.
That cost may come for some of our more elderly and frail family in the physical effort it takes to be at worship, and to participate. Their faithful commitment to worship is something the rest of us will only understand when we get to their age and condition.
But of course this is not all about Sunday services. This call to use our bodies sacrificially in worship is also about our expression of devotion every day. Think of how the old marriage service contained the promise, ‘With my body I worship thee’ – it says, ‘With my body I honour you’ in the modern service. is that not what we are to do? God created our bodies. They are not empty shells for the ‘real person’. They are part of who we are. Tomorrow morning, you will see there are ways in which you can make a physical effort with your body as a way of honouring God. There will be something you can do that will be ‘holy and pleasing to God’ with your body.
I’m sure you have little problem with the idea that worship is ‘holy’ – that is, it is something we set aside for God’s service. When we do something that is specifically for our Lord – whether it is explicit or implicit – the fact that we have made it for him means it is holy.
But what about the idea that Paul tells us here that this offering of our bodies is ‘pleasing to God’? Will you just take a moment to reflect on the fact that we can give God pleasure with what we offer him? Our images of a solemn, severe old-fashioned Headmaster God need tempering with these words. Right now, I believe God is looking forward to what we can offer him. Why? Because it will be what Paul calls here our ‘true and proper worship’. That is, when we have reasoned how we should respond to the mercies of God, it will become apparent that the offering of our bodies is an appropriate response.
Let us each think this morning, especially as we renew our covenant promises: how are we going to offer our bodies in worship to God?
Secondly, our minds:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Verse 2)
This may sound like a negative question to get into this point, but bear with me: what do we think the effects of sin are? I would suggest that we have underplayed the effect of sin upon our minds, because our society has for the last three hundred years placed such value upon the powers of human reason. We sometimes overlook the effect of sin upon the mind. So, for example, we rightfully laud the achievements of scientists, whose use of their minds have brought wonderful benefits to our lives. But we miss the way scientific minds have been used to bring terrible harm to our world – nuclear weapons, environmental damage, climate change and so on.
I suggest we are all like that. Our minds are capable of great things, but they are also corrupted. They are as much affected by sin as any other part of us. Earlier in the epistle, Paul spoke about the ‘unfit mind’ (1:28) and that is what we have. So our minds need renewing, because as Christians we are not finally to be part of this sinful age but of the glorious age to come, the kingdom of God.
So if we are grateful for the mercies of God, we shall submit our minds to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. What does this renewal of our minds look like? We get some idea when we realise that the end product, according to Paul, is that we ‘will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will’. In other words, having renewed minds is not a matter of just reading a list of rules and following them. That is what machines and computer programs do. It is impersonal. No: the renewed mind can ‘test and approve what God’s will is’. That implies personal involvement, a journey of discovery.
And so I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit renews our mind not by filling them with rules but with the mind of Christ. The Spirit shows us more of Christ – his person, work and teaching. This becomes the matrix by which we are guided into evaluating what the will of God is. We are involved in working out what that will is – it isn’t simply dropped into our empty minds.
How, then, do we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s renewing work in our minds? Well – if it means getting in touch with the mind of Christ, then yes, this is another time when I need to urge us to engage in those spiritual disciplines that soak us in the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament and especially the Gospels. It may be daily reading of the Bible using Bible reading notes. It may be taking a reading and using our imagination to get inside the story by wondering what our five senses would tell us or how we would feel if we were one of the characters. It may mean taking a passage, looking for the one thing that particularly strikes us and then chewing that over. Whatever methods we use, we need to be as diligent about our Bible reading as we are about nourishing ourselves with food, and we certainly need to respond prayerfully to whatever we have encountered. We shall also do this not only on our own but in conversation and fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. For the mind of Christ will come in exploration with them as well as individually.
And I must also remind you that none of this is a quick fix. In a society that is addicted to instant solutions (so says he whose Internet connection speed is about to double!) the renewal of our minds is a long process. If the old mind is, as I said before, an ‘unfit mind’, then the renewal that makes our minds spiritually fit for the kingdom of God is a long training process, much like the years of training our Olympic and Paralympic heroes of recent weeks have had to follow.
But … it’s worth it. Because this leads us to discern ‘God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ Did you notice that? His will is ‘good, pleasing and perfect’. Although our Covenant promise will balance the ideas that some things we are called to will be enjoyable and others will be difficult, it is common among some Christians to assume that the will of God will automatically be hard, if not unpleasant and maybe downright tortuous. Yet Paul says it is ‘good, pleasing and perfect’. Yes, of course sometimes following God’s will can be painful – in talking about our bodies we used the word ‘sacrifice’ – but it can also be a joyous thing. Our faith is resurrection as well as death.
So let us embrace the call to dedicate our bodies and minds to God, in the light of his never-ending mercies. Let us be willing to sacrifice, yes, but let us also relish the thought that discovering his will and walking in it may bring joy not only to our Lord but also to us.
This Sunday, my two churches begin a five-part series on the Book of Ruth. At the one where I’m preaching this weekend, it also coincides with the annual Covenant Service, where we Methodists renew our commitment to Christ. Hence there is a lot of reference to that in the sermon below.
I should add that before you read it, I owe a huge debt for background issues on this sermon to Daniel I Block’s magnificent commentary on Judges and Ruth in the New American Commentary series.
There was no monarch or President. Transport was primitive and you couldn’t go to the shops for retail therapy. There was no Social Security system and women were entirely dependent upon men.
It sounds a world away from our lives, and you could say it is. Yet human nature being what it is, and God’s nature being what it is, the story of Ruth is one that can have a surprising number of connections with our call to be Christian disciples today. Today, as we begin a new year, it can even frame the renewal of our covenant promises to God as we ponder the dedication shown in this opening episode.
Firstly, there is a context to set, and it begins with a famine (verse 1). That might seem a long way from our experience, situated in the middle of fast food outlets and just down the road from a Tesco Extra. But we of course are putting our weight behind the establishment of a food bank, and the economic prospects for Western society remain poor. People are struggling.
Indeed, in that fact there is another potential similarity. The famine in Israel happens ‘when the judges ruled’ (verse 1), and you may recall from reading the Book of Judges that when disaster hits Israel it is usually the displeasure of God at his people’s sins, following on from the warnings in Deuteronomy. This famine, therefore, could well be one of God’s judgments against his people.
Now without wishing to be too dramatic, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible to me to construe some of our current economic woes as a divine judgment on our society. We can blame the banks for selling credit too easily, but in our desire to munch up everything a consumer culture threw at us, we accepted it. As a result, we face stark measures to try and tame our colossal national debts. Could it be that God is letting us reap the whirlwind of our choices to seek pleasure instead of him? I do not think, therefore, that it is too remote an idea to consider that we too face the challenges of discipleship as part of a society which makes God weep, and where his severity is part of his call to return to him.
There are hints, too, right at the beginning, that this story is going to turn from pain to tragedy. We see this in the names of the two sons. Mahlon probably derives from the Hebrew verb ‘to be sick’, and Chilion from the verb ‘to be finished, to come to an end’ (verse 2).
Not only that, if I am right that there is a background of God’s judgment, Elimelech makes a bad move. Instead of sharing in some corporate repentance for the sins of his people, he takes what he thinks will be the quick and easy way out, which is to move to Moab. But this is to embrace one of Israel’s ancient enemies. In doing so, he leaves Bethlehem (verses 1 & 2) – at this time a small and insignificant community, but one destined to be central in the purposes of God. Elimelech misses this, because he wants his instant solution.
Having set the scene of despondency and desperation, the second thing we find is that it all gets worse. Elimelech isn’t saved: he dies (verse 3). And then the two sons marry pagan women, outside their clan (verse 4). In fact, it doesn’t even sound like a normal form of marriage: when our English translations say they ‘took’ Moabite wives (verse 4), ‘took’ is quite a forceful word. It implies they abducted Ruth and Orpah. These were far from pleasant young men. The women are effectively the victims of domestic violence. You wonder what the resulting relationships were like. Certainly, within the understanding of the time the fact that in ten years of marriage no children are born to either couple and then the husbands die (verses 4-5) indicates more displeasure on God’s part.
For many of us, that will all seem rather remote. But the awful truth is that many Christians today are victims of domestic violence (I can certainly think of some people I know), and that means in some cases the violence is perpetrated by Christians. It is not a wild suggestion to make that today in Methodist churches around the world, there will be people renewing their covenant promises who do so against a background of consistent suffering at home.
Yet it is desperate in a new way when these thuggish young men die. This is a society where no men means no hope. Men were the providers. What on earth are these three widows – Naomi, Orpah and Ruth – going to do? Yet into this horrendous situation comes the third element of our story: God’s grace. Naomi hears good news in the midst of her grief:
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. (Verse 6)
God has visited his people in mercy. ‘His people’: the language of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Judgment is not the last word in God’s vocabulary, grace is. And he has not simply ‘given them food’, the word is ‘bread’, which is significant for Naomi, as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. The house of bread is being restocked. This is grace: not only forgiveness, but provision for needs.
It is grace like this and far more that brings us to a covenant service. The grace of God in which he gives up his only begotten Son for the salvation of the world brings us here. The grace that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself brings us here. The God who not only mercifully withholds judgment in favour of justifying us but who also in grace blesses us with many things we do not deserve – all this brings us to a covenant service. If it were only about the solemn promises we make, this would be a severe and sombre occasion. But we are here because God’s grace is extravagant and healing.
Therefore the fourth movement in this episode is Naomi’s response. Grace has shown her where she belongs – not in Moab but among the people of God, and so she heads home, accompanied by Ruth and Orpah (verse 7). Having heard of God’s mercy to her own people, she offers mercy to her daughters-in-law. She urges them to go home, so that they might have the chance to remarry and thus find their own security in having a husband provide for them – and this time, hopefully treat them better (verses 8-9). Naomi, the one who has come to know grace, must first of all respond in kind to others. In today’s parlance, she ‘pays it forward’ to others. The very essence of our own response today to God’s grace is that we seek to offer grace to others.
Now in the fifth stage of the story, Ruth and Orpah react. Have they been affected by Naomi’s graciousness? Had they all been bound together in their common suffering? They promise to come with her (verse 10). However, Naomi assumes they will be doing so in order to find husbands – not an unreasonable assumption. She moves quickly to show them that gaining new husbands through her is a ludicrous idea (verses 11-13a). But in doing so, it exposes an unhealed, unredeemed side of her. At heart she is angry with God for her circumstances. There is no self-examination, just a lashing out at God. She says:
No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me. (Verse 13b)
It may well be that today we need to reflect on this. We are at our covenant service because we know that God has shown grace to us and we are making a gut response to that of wanting to show our gratitude by demonstrating that grace to others. However, we have those areas of our lives that may be forgiven but which are not yet transformed. Someone has said that the Gospel is about salvation from sin in at least three different senses: we are saved from the penalty of sin (that is, forgiveness), one day we shall all be saved from the presence of sin (when God brings in his new heavens and new earth), but in the meantime God wants to save us from the practice of sin (that is, enable us to grow in holiness).
And if the covenant service is anything, it is a commitment to holiness. I believe that one reason why we sometimes feel uncomfortable about the promises we make today is that they highlight those areas of our lives we have not yet been willing to hand over to Christ for purification. I don’t want to promise to follow Christ with no strings attached: I want to retain a veto over what he asks of me. For Naomi, it was an issue of anger, bitterness and, I would suggest, trying to justify herself. In the final part of today’s reading, we shall see that she still has not resolved it: she says God has dealt bitterly and harshly with her, taking everything away from her (verses 19-21). What is it for us? Can we at least say to Christ today, I do not feel that willing to be changed, but I am willing to be made willing? May we not let it fester, as Naomi appeared to do.
Orpah, then, takes the natural human course and returns home (verse 14a). She is not to be blamed for this. But Ruth clung to Naomi (verse 14b) and from this springs the most remarkable and beautiful sixth phase of this story, where her commitment is worked out in the way she devotes herself to Naomi. It’s really quite astonishing, because we have yet more evidence of Naomi’s rather fragile faith here. She implores Ruth to follow Orpah back to Moab ‘to her people and to her gods’ (verse 15, italics mine). Naomi, a follower of Yahweh, the one and only God, speaks as if the Moabite claim to other deities is true. Sheer heresy! Yet Ruth is attracted to her mother-in-law and her feeble faith. Ruth will travel and live wherever Naomi goes; Ruth will transfer her allegiance from her people and gods to Naomi’s people and Yahweh; Ruth considers herself part of Naomi’s family now, because she wants to be buried in the same family grave (verses 16-17).
Do not let the weakness of your faith prevent you from speaking out for Christ. God does not wait until you have it all together for him to use you. God uses a woman like Naomi, with her unresolved feelings and her theological errors, to draw out a true sense of covenant from Ruth. Come, with whatever weaknesses you know you have, to renew your commitment to Christ in our service today.
But of course, as it is often said, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. For that reason, aspire less to be like Naomi and more like Ruth. For Ruth becomes a wonderful example of what it means to make a covenant commitment. She is committed to God and to God’s people. This is what covenant means. We bind ourselves to our Lord, because in grace he has bound himself to us. But we do not do so in isolation. God’s covenant is not merely with individuals, but with a community, with his people. The purpose of his covenant is make us more truly into the community of his kingdom, a living, breathing witness to his love. Like Ruth said to Naomi, so we say to each other today, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ And as Ruth also said to Naomi, so we also say to one another today, ‘Where you go, I will go.’
Today, in a context of suffering and judgment, even from the pain of our own lives, let us acknowledge with joy the grace of God in Christ and respond by seeking redemption for our brokenness, and by binding ourselves to our Lord and to each other.
Let it be so.
1 John 2:3-11
One thing we did at college was to take a survey to find out what kind of a learner we are. A man called Peter Honey had invented what he called his ‘Learning Styles Questionnaire’, and we all had to complete it. There were four types of learner you could be. I came out very strongly as what was called a ‘theorist’, someone who learns in a theoretical way. Next, I was a ‘reflector’, someone who reflects on what has happened and tries to interpret it. I only had quite a low score as an ‘activist’, someone who learns by doing, and I hit a big, overweight zero as a ‘pragmatist’, someone who learns on the basis of ‘if it works, it’s right’.
Today’s passage from 1 John poses us a question about learning or knowledge – specifically, our knowledge of God. The theorists like me can use knowledge of God to go off into our ivory towers (or onto another planet, Debbie says of me), contemplating all sorts of deep things, but not doing anything about it. We might be able to write complicated sentences with long words, but what happens as a result?
Whether we learn by theory, reflection, action or pragmatism, John tells us there is one basic test for true knowledge of God: does our knowledge turn into action? And this is the first theme I want to share this morning. Knowledge of God is only shown in obedience. Here again verses 3 and 4:
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, I know him, but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
You can be as clever as you like, but if you don’t turn knowledge of God into obeying him, it isn’t true knowledge of God, says John. On the other hand, you can have a simple faith, but if you have grasped certain things about God and put them into practice, then you have more knowledge of God than the most learned professor.
This seems to be relevant as we renew our vows to Christ at this Covenant Service. Today we say again that we shall obey him. Today, then, we promise that we shall put our knowledge of God into obedient action.
A story is told about the great stunt man Charles Blondin. He had a tightrope stretched high above Niagara Falls, from one side to the other. Before a crowd, he walked the length of the tightrope, from one side of the Falls to the other.
When he got to the other side, he addressed his audience. “I am Blondin! Do you believe I can carry a man on my back all the way back along the tightrope to where I began?”
“Yes!” shouted the crowd. “We believe!”
“Then if you believe,” asked Blondin, “who will volunteer to climb on my back?”
From a crowd of thousands, only one person volunteered.
How many people knew Blondin could accomplish this feat? Only one.
It’s easy to affirm our knowledge of God. We sing hymns, say prayers and read the Scriptures. But the only people who truly know God are those who obey. I have been in Anglican churches where the person leading the worship has said after the sermon, “Let us affirm our faith by saying the Creed.” Well, I have nothing against the historic Creeds of the Church. I affirm them, too. But the real place we affirm our faith is after the service and in the world, by our obedience. You could say that it isn’t now that we know we are covenant people, it’s this time tomorrow – when our obedience matters.
Now if the first thing John does here is link knowledge and obedience, the second move he makes continues the sequence. He links obedience and love. This is summarised in verses 5 and 6:
But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
Now why would John make the link from obedience to love? For one thing, he is saying that obedience is a sign of love. We say we love God, fine: how do we show that? Is it enough to sing hymns and songs? To say our prayers? To read our Bibles? To make solemn promises? However worthy any of those are, they mean nothing unless they are translated into action. So one thing John is emphasising here is what we have just said about knowledge and obedience: what counts is putting it into practice. Knowledge of God must be put into practice as obedience, and love of God must also be put into practice as obedience. We can make the most fervent declarations of devotion today, but what will they mean if we do nothing about them tomorrow?
Think of it this way: two weeks ago, I conducted a wedding at Weybridge. I had the privilege of taking the couple phrase by phrase through the solemn vows. They promised to love and cherish each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until they were parted by death. Heart strings were duly tugged. Eyes became moist on cue. But what would the point be if they didn’t go on to love each other through thick and thin?
In a similar way, then, our love for God is shown only by our actions – in this case, our actions of obedience, because unlike marriage, our relationship with God is not one between two equals. Knowledge cannot remain abstract and theoretical; neither can love.
But maybe there is another reason. Perhaps we also need to be careful that love, and nothing else, is the motivation for our obedience. There are people in church circles who say all the right things on a Sunday and who then lead good lives in the week, yet still something is missing. They have things the wrong way round. They obey in order to be loved, instead of obeying because they are loved.
What I mean is this: our churches still have people who think that if you do all the good things, you can twist God’s arm to love you. If you are good enough – whatever that is – God will love you.
But that stands in contradiction to the Gospel. John will put it eloquently in a couple of chapters’ time: ‘We love, because God first loved us.’ In other words, the love that is translated into obedience is only something we do because God loves us in Christ in the first place. Jesus has died for us, therefore we love in return. None of us can be ‘good enough’. God knows that. He has made provision in Christ for that, at great cost. Today, we affirm that we receive the love of God, because he has made the first move, and we shall love in return as a sign of gratitude, and we shall express that love in our obedience to his will.
To sum up so far – knowledge is linked to obedience; obedience is the sign of responding love. Finally, John makes a third link: from knowledge to obedience, from obedience to love, and finally from love to light. In the middle of verses 9 and 11 where he discusses how those who hate a brother or sister are in the darkness, not the light, we get the positive side of the coin in verse 10:
Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.
Again, hear a double meaning: the first meaning is again about putting it all into practice. If we claim to live in the light, we will love. Christianity isn’t about receiving some enlightened knowledge and then posturing around like some élite spiritual class. Coming into the light only happens when we live a life of love. Living in love in response to Jesus is what prevents us from stumbling. To continue living in hatred is to remain in the darkness, says John.
And is not that pertinent on this tenth anniversary of the so-called ‘9/11’ attacks? The American Methodist bishop Will Willimon has been reflecting on the anniversary, and he sees darkness not only in the terrorists, but also in his own nation’s response:
The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.
But I want to suggest another meaning here: living in the light by living in love is not simply something we do in order to benefit ourselves – we don’t stumble – how can it be? Love is for the sake of others, not ourselves! The light does not shine on us in private. Love is something done in the world. If we live in responsive love to Jesus by loving him and loving others, and if that means we live in the light, then … will not others see the light shining, because we love in the name of Jesus?
That is to say, there is a missional reason for love. We want the light of Christ to shine in the world. OK then, says John: get on with loving people!
Put it this way: some churches exhaust themselves with endless reinventions of their worship, their buildings and all sorts of other accoutrements, thinking they can make themselves attractive to non-Christians. But are non-Christians beating a path to their doors? No. Are they beating a path to many churches? No, again. In one previous appointment, I inherited a building refurbishment project that ran to a six-figure cost. The congregation sincerely thought that having swish new premises would attract the community. It never did.
But what if we were so committed to an obedience of love in the world that the light of Christ shone through what we do? What if we were the people known for loving the broken, loving the wounded, loving those whom society is too afraid to love?
Do we want more people to meet Jesus and follow him? Then let’s see what we can do to reduce our church bureaucracies that consume so much of active church members’ time and concentrate on the essentials: worship, community, discipleship and mission. If something doesn’t build up worship, community, discipleship or mission, we should jettison it. We need to be freed to love the lost and the needy in the name of Christ, so that Christ’s light may shine in the world and people may realise they have a choice to make between the light and the darkness.
This Covenant Sunday, may it be that the promises we renew in the light of God’s faithfulness to us take us on a journey from this building to God’s world. May our knowledge of God issue in obedience. May our obedience be motivated by love, a responsive love because God first loved us. And as we love, may the light of Christ shine: in darkest Knaphill, in darkest St John’s, in darkest Bisley, in darkest West End, in darkest Pirbright, in darkest Lightwater, in darkest Camberley. Everywhere we go, may we take Christ’s love and reflect his light.
In one of his books, Brennan Manning tells this story from a Catholic priest in the Bahamas:
A two-storey house caught fire. The family – father, mother, several children – were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified and ran back upstairs. Seconds later he appeared at a smoke-filled window. His father, outside, shouted at him: “Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.” The boy cried, “But, Daddy, I can’t see you.” “I know,” his father called, “I know. But I can see you.”
I wonder whether Covenant Sunday is a day when some of us Methodists are afraid of jumping. Afraid of jumping into our Father’s hands. We are afraid of the solemn covenant promises. Making those promises is like jumping out of a window, and fearing what will happen.
I have long been convinced that a way to approach the renewal of our covenant with God is to appreciate first the nature of the God into whose arms we jump. That, like the father in Brennan Manning’s story, he says to us, “I can see you”, and stretches out sure, strong arms to catch us and to keep us safe when we jump.
How are we going to do that? I want to take our Gospel reading. It is challenging and quite open about the fact that being a disciple of Jesus is not always an easy or comfortable experience. But at the same time, I believe we also find in the passage the Father who can see us, and whose arms are outstretched to catch us.
Firstly, Jesus talks about pruning. Whenever this passage comes up, I am fond of observing that I am no gardener. The only value of a garden centre is if it has a good café with decent coffee and cakes. Gardens hold little pleasure for me, hard as that may be for some of you to understand. But then you may not appreciate my love of cricket and computing! Debbie keeps the manse garden tidy, thankfully.
But for all my lack of interest in gardening, I do know that pruning is something that looks unpleasant. I have seen the implements, and they look like instruments of torture. If Jesus uses an image of pruning for the Father’s work in our lives, then that sounds painful to me. The removal of unfruitful branches and the cutting back of others – no, I don’t fancy being first in the queue for that. It’s like the little boy’s fears as his father calls him to jump from the window – he thinks he will break bones.
However, in a detail we easily miss in English, Jesus says any pruning the Father does is not for the first time. He says,
You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (Verse 3)
‘Cleansed’ sounds all right, doesn’t it? A nice, refreshing bath or shower? Except that in the Greek, ‘cleansed’ comes from the same source as ‘pruned’. Jesus effectively says that his word has already pruned us.
That’s what the Gospel does. It prunes us. We know that the call to follow Jesus involves not only faith but also repentance, where we change our minds about the way we lead our lives, where we perform a u-turn in order to go his way. That repentance is a pruning. Certain things go from our lives. The Gospel message of Jesus cuts them away.
So when Jesus tells his disciples here that the Father will continue the pruning process, he is telling us something about the ongoing nature of Christian discipleship. He does not call us to an act of repentance when we come to faith. Rather, he calls us to a life of repentance. Our salvation is more than forgiveness. To sign up to Jesus’ project is to enlist in a process of transformation. To be a disciple is like the road sign, ‘Danger: men at work’, except that in our case it reads, ‘Danger: God at work.’ Or, as the t-shirt puts it, ‘Please be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet.’
To reinforce it further, the apostle Paul had a positive take on this process of transformation. He told the Philippians,
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
Or, as the worship song puts it,
Jesus, You are changing me
By Your Spirit You’re making me like You
Jesus, You’re transforming me
That Your loveliness may be seen in all I do
You are the potter and I am the clay
Help me to be willing to let You have Your way
Jesus, You are changing me
As I let You reign supreme within my heart
So, to mix metaphors, is the ‘pruning’ worth the ‘leap’ out of the building? Marilyn Baker, the author of those song words, says ‘yes’. She says that Jesus is changing her so ‘that your loveliness may be seen in all I do’.
And that is similar to what Jesus says here, when he says that the Father prunes us so that we ‘bear more fruit’ (verse 2). Is it not our longing to be more ‘fruitful’ in the life of faith? If so, we have to recognise that God will want to cut certain things away from our lives. Some will be obvious sins. Others will be good things that we have idolised. Others might be good, but not God’s best for us. The call to repentance is not a diatribe from a severe God who wants to paint a grey coating of misery on our lives. It is, as Paul tells the Romans, his ‘kindness’ that leads to repentance. It is because he has good plans for us in his kingdom purposes.
Is it worth submitting to God’s pruning? Is it worth saying ‘yes’ to that as we renew our solemn promises today? What do you think?
Secondly, Jesus calls us to abide in him as he does in us. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you,’ he says (verse 4). What is this about?
An abode is a dwelling place, a home, a residence. We sometimes say that homeless people are of ‘no fixed abode’. Jesus, however, abides in us. He has taken up residence in our lives. He has not come for a holiday, he has not come as part of a house-swap or to be a house-sitter. He has come to live in us.
So if we are called to abide in Jesus, we are called to live permanently with him. Not only permanently, but in close relationship. He draws near to us; we draw near to him. This mutual abiding is the spiritual version of living in each other’s pockets. That may sound wonderful to some people, and terrifying to others. What might it involve? I can’t cover everything, but here are a couple of areas.
Firstly, abiding in Christ means the disciplines of staying close to him. The most important thing in church life is not the property, it is not the finances or anything like that. The most critical aspect of Christian life is staying close to Jesus. Our property and finance can be in perfect order, but if we are not walking with Christ, we are wasting our time.
Therefore, if we are to heed the call to abide in Christ, we shall want to practise those disciplines which draw us close to his presence and his voice. So, yes, we renew our commitment to worship and fellowship, to personal prayer and Bible reading, to Holy Communion and fasting. All of these matter far more than the typical business preoccupations of many congregations.
But to say that we should renew our commitment to things like prayer and Bible study is to sound rather like I am asking us to make a New Year’s Resolution. And we know how easily we break those. If we just treat these things like that, we shall fail quickly and be discouraged.
I want to say, therefore, that the call to draw close to Jesus with spiritual disciplines is one we do out of response to his love for us. It is not something we do as an ‘ought’ or a ‘must’ or a ‘should’; it is something we do because Jesus has already drawn near to us, to abide in us. It is in gratitude for the love he extends to us.
Of course, we shall fail along the way. But instead of being discouraged that we have not reached the mark, we shall instead feel his abiding love in us that encourages us to get up again, dust ourselves down and keep on going. These things do not always come naturally. We can be like a toddler learning to walk. We fall down, but we get up again and have another go, because we are loved. On the way, I can offer you help with plans for Bible reading and approaches to prayer, but do not be afraid to try and fall down. Just get up and keep going again as you learn to draw closer to Christ.
The other thing I want to say about abiding in Christ is that being so close to him, we want to do what he says. That’s why Jesus links abiding in his love with keeping his commandments (verse 10). If you are close to someone, not only do you want to spend time with them (spiritual disciplines, in the case of our relationship with Jesus), you also want to please them. Abiding in Christ will mean a desire to obey him.
And that’s where the fear of jumping out of the building looms large again. What will he want me to do? What will I have to give up? What dark and strange place does he want to send me to?
But again, the promise is that if we jump, he will catch us. The promise, too, is that he will enable us to obey because he is with us. We are not dependent upon our own strength to do these things.
However, he kicks us off with a commandment that is simple to state, and highly important to take seriously:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Verses 12-13)
So let’s get going with that one – loving one another. We can take some simple steps straightaway. We can say that we shall no longer treat someone else in the church like they are our servant, but as a valued child of God We can commit ourselves to stop assuming that someone’s motives are wrong and seek to believe the best about them. If we jumped into such a love for one another that disowned the backbiting, backstabbing and character assassination that is too often seen in our society, what kind of witness would that be? Remember what was said of the early Christians:
See how these Christians love one another.
Let’s forget every other distraction and concern for a season. Let’s be known as a community of love. What importance do all our other debates, business items and ideas have in comparison to Jesus’ call to love one another?
Go back to that young boy at the smoke-filled window. Hear the call of the father again. “Jump, son, jump. I’ll catch you.” Is today the day to jump – and find ourselves held in the arms of God? What if we were to risk letting him prune us in repentance? What if we were to risk getting closer to Christ in devotion and obedience, specifically in loving one another?
What if …
What if we jumped?
Still finding it difficult to get back to regular blogging – the diary has been frantic for the first couple of weeks in the new appointment. I hope to resume soon. Meanwhile, here is tomorrow’s (no, this morning’s) initial sermon for Knaphill. It’s Covenant Service, and I’ve introduced a sermon series on Jonah to highlight the theme of mission. A Local Preacher did Jonah chapter 1 last week. I join in at chapter 2.
Last Sunday morning, while I was innocently engaged in taking my first service at Addlestone, something dastardly happened here at Knaphill. I understand that Graham Pearcey brought the rest of my family up to the front where they were asked to share information about me.
I understand you were told that I cannot sing. Well … that is entirely correct. You will want to shower the AV team with chocolates and expensive unMethodist liquids for them fading down my microphone during the hymns and songs.
But while I am poor at singing, I nevertheless love music. Not without cause did I mention in a piece I wrote for Flight Path, the circuit magazine, that one of my favourite gadgets is my iPod. One band I particularly enjoyed during early adulthood was Talking Heads. Their most famous song was called ‘Once in a lifetime’. The lyrics to the first verse go like this (don’t worry, I won’t be singing them):
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?
And that – it seems to me – is a good place to begin looking at Jonah chapter 2 in this series on Jonah, the reluctant missionary. How did I get here? There are three questions I want us to ask about Jonah from this chapter, and they take us a little further along the road of his journey into the mission of God. So the first question is this: how did Jonah get here?
And I think my short answer is that Jonah has a warped view of the life of faith, and this leads him away from God’s call to mission. When the call first comes to go to Nineveh, he heads for Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was a luxury destination: King Solomon’s fleet had returned from there with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). In the ancient imagination, it was like Paradise. It was Shangri-La. Jonah preferred comfort to calling. That’s something we might well chew on as we renew our Covenant with God later in this service. Are we opting for comfort or calling?
One of the circuit Local Preachers clearly thought we had come to the land of milk and honey in moving from Essex (oh dear) to Surrey – as if it were some contemporary Tarshish. Maybe not so much land of milk and honey, but land of Waitrose. Many others have informed us that the manse is in the most desirable road in the village. So have we come to Tarshish? Let me make one simple observation: by coming here, our insurance premiums have increased!
A recent report suggested that one reason many children of church families don’t continue in the Christian faith is that what they witness from their parents and their church family is not radical, risk-taking faith in Jesus Christ, but comfortable, respectable living. It has no attraction. It is Tarshish faith, and you end up living in a fish.
Jonah has another warped attitude to faith. Let me introduce it this way. Suppose I ask you what the main purpose of Christian faith is. In my experience, the answer most Christians give is, ‘to worship God’. Wrong answer.
Are you shocked by my saying that? Consider this: it was Jonah’s answer. He told the pagan sailors in 1:9, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. His life was about worship. But just focussing on worship didn’t stop his disobedience and his destiny in the alimentary canal of a large fish.
A better answer about our purpose is not that we are here to worship God, but that we are here to glorify God. The Westminster Catechism, so beloved of Calvinist Christians, more correctly says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We glorify God both in the church and in the world, in worship and in mission. A church that simply concentrates on worship and on internal matters is one that will find herself sooner or later in a predicament.
In this respect, Jonah stands in the book as a representative of ancient Israel, who was called by God to be ‘a light to the nations’, but who was reluctant to fulfil that destiny. The historical Jonah described in 2 Kings 14:25 is one who is more concerned with nationalism than with the blessing of the nations.
If we want to end up – metaphorically speaking – inside a fish, spending our time swimming in half-digested food and toxins, then we could do no better than to concentrate on worship and internal matters, and give no thought to engaging in the mission of God. That – and his preference for comfort – is how Jonah ended up in the fish. Are there warped faith priorities that have put us in a similar place?
The second question is this: why is Jonah in the fish? You may say I’ve just answered that question. But I want to take it further. Why has God put him in a fish? There is a surprising answer.
We may think that his hotel reservation in the belly of the fish was God’s punishment for his disobedience. However, Jonah was booked for drowning, when the pagan sailors threw him overboard. God sent the fish, not to punish him, but to rescue him. The fish is like some underwater lifeboat, come to save him from going to what the Jews called Sheol, the place of the dead. In his prayer, Jonah sees it as deliverance (vv 1-7).
This location of filth and acid is actually God’s salvation for Jonah. The disgusting stench of the fish’s belly is … grace. By this drastic course of action, God preserves Jonah for his purposes of mission.
Grace isn’t always prettified and beautiful. After all, it depends on nails hammered through the flesh of Jesus onto a cross of wood. We affirm that ‘God works for good in all things for those that love him’ (Romans 8:28), and that means he acts in grace as much through the nasty episodes of life as the joyful ones. One author called it ‘A severe mercy’. You may identify with this from your own life. How many of you look back on certain painful or traumatic seasons of your life and realise – at least in retrospect – that God was working for good through that experience? Maybe he did something in your life that could not have happened unless you had endured something unpleasant.
I believe we can apply this to the life of the church as well as to our individual lives. Think of it like this. Jonah is rescued from death by God’s provision of the big fish. Consider the number of churches that have died. Look at their buildings now turned into carpet warehouses or places of worship for other religions. Now reflect on the fact that this church is still alive. Say what you like about things having been better in days gone by – although I believe that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and that the golden days were probably only nickel-plated. Whatever your fond memories of what you believe to have been better times, and whatever you might not like about church life as you know it today, the fact is that God has preserved this church.
So the question is why he has preserved us in grace. Surely it must also be that we might glorify him. Surely we are here not only to worship him but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, through our deeds and words.
Which means you now know why I picked Jonah as the opening sermon series for my time here. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I do not believe I came here ‘to run the church’ or ‘to keep everybody happy’. I came with a vision for a church that both gathers for worship and disperses for mission. I believe God has preserved this church in his grace and mercy for such purposes. At this Covenant Service, will you join with me as we renew our commitment to Christ in walking this way?
And that begs the third and final question: what will Jonah do? We read his response in verses 8 and 9:
“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ “
He rejects idols and promises to sacrifice and keep his vows. Idols are those things or people we set our hearts upon, and to which we will sacrifice. They can be good things to which we wrongly assign absolute status. I am sure you can think of many examples without much problem, especially within our society.
However, since we are considering our own lives right now, let me offer some suggestions about the sort of idols that can afflict religious people. We can be guilty of racial or denominational pride. We can be guilty of moral or doctrinal superiority. But let me offer one particular idolatry that afflicts us all too much: church work itself. This can manifest itself in various ways. Here are a couple of examples.
At one stage in a previous circuit, I had to look after an additional church temporarily for eighteen months. During that time, one of the faithful elderly ladies died, and I was asked to conduct her funeral. I met with her relatives, who told me that the church had been her whole life, not just in terms of worship and fellowship, but it had formed her entire social life, too. Clearly, they thought I would be pleased to learn of this.
However, it saddened me greatly. Why, when we are called to glorify God in both worship and mission, would we spend all our time in the church? Could it have assumed a level of importance far beyond what the New Testament calls it to have?
The other story goes like this. Some of you may remember the controversy in the mid-1990s over the dramatic charismatic-Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit that were labelled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’. At the height of that time, I flew to Toronto and spent a week at the church which was at the epicentre of the movement. As well as their regular Sunday morning services, they were running seminars for pastors morning and afternoon every weekday, and they were holding renewal meetings six nights a week. Without exaggeration, thousands of visitors from around the world came to the church every week.
You will not be surprised to know that in such a spiritually intense time and with the church attracting so much attention, enthusiastic members of that church were volunteering left, right and centre to help at the renewal meetings. Some wanted to come and be on duty every night.
But the church leadership said, ‘no’. Much as they needed the help to run all the meetings, they limited church members only to helping with one evening renewal meeting per week. On other nights, they wanted them to attend a home group, do something for Christ in the community and spend time with their families. I think that by doing that they not only encouraged balanced Christian living, they helped their members avoid church idolatry.
So, no, I don’t consider it a badge of spirituality to be down the church every night of the week. Renewing your covenant with Christ today might mean lessening what you do at church in order to give more time to family and community.
And we ought to take this seriously, because in these words of his I quoted a couple of minutes ago, Jonah uses language that is pertinent to the theme of covenant. ‘Those who cling to idols forfeit God’s love for them,’ reads verse 8 in the TNIV. But God’s love here is a weak English translation of a word that stands for God’s faithful covenant love. Dealing with the idols in our lives is about maintaining the faithful covenant relationship with God. Idolatry is something we should examine at a covenant service. It gets in the way of our calling to glorify God in the church and the world, however worthy it appears to be.
When we deal with it, then – like Jonah – we can offer our sacrifices and keep our vows – the vows we make at something like a covenant service.
So – in summary, God is calling us to renew our commitment to glorify him in worship and mission. To that end, as we make our covenant with him afresh today, will we stop making our personal comfort and other things – even church work – our personal idols? Will we reject those things that lead us to treat internal church life as a priority that has excluded our involvement in Christian mission? Will we recognise that the difficulties and uncongenial aspects of our lives individually or together may even be tools God has used to preserve us for this twin calling to worship and mission?
Could it be that God has brought us to this point – like Queen Esther – ‘for such a time as this’?
 Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant, p 15f.
 As suggested in Tim Keller’s book above.
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.