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A Brief Sermon For Christmas Eve Midnight Communion: The Christmas Covenant

Luke 2:8-20

Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)

On Friday, Debbie and I took the children to the Wintershall Estate to see their annual nativity play. We began outside, witnessing Joseph accompanying Mary on a donkey, walking from a distance, picked out by a spotlight in the darkness of late afternoon December. Having then followed them to the inn, we found ourselves witnessing the shepherds. And while it rather stretched the imagination to behold a female shepherd singing ‘In the bleak midwinter’, one effective part of the play had those shepherds debating Israel’s history and hopes before they were shocked by the sudden appearance of the angel. It was a fitting context for what was to come in the angel’s message.

Why? When the angel says, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord,” this is about the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes. It’s why we sing in the carol,

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

The angel uses covenant language in announcing the birth of Jesus. Israel was well used to this. They had known it from the time they were on the borders of the Promised Land as described in the book of Deuteronomy. When Moses preaches back to them there their recent history, he does so in the format of an ancient covenant.

It was like this: a great king would make a covenant with a weaker group of people. The powerful king would bless the weaker party or nation by delivering them or protecting them in some way. In return, those he had saved would promise obedience to him in certain ways prescribed in the covenant. So, on the borders of the Promised Land, the covenant recalls that God, the great king, has provided a miraculous deliverance for the children of Israel from Egypt. Now, in return for his salvation, he asks them to follow his laws.

It’s similar here: the baby is called ‘the Messiah’. He is to be the great king who will deliver Israel, and hence he is also ‘Saviour’. Certainly, Israel was looking out for such a figure. The shepherds in the play at Wintershall recounted how their nation had been exiled in Babylon, but even after returning to their own land they had been invaded by Greece and now by Rome. They were like exiles in their own land.

Of course, with hindsight we know that the Messiah who was born, Jesus, would save his people in a different way from that which they expected. Deliverance from their sins was not to mean an army raised up against the Romans but a Saviour nailed to a Roman cross.

Furthermore, the Messiah’s coming to bring salvation is not just for the Jews, it is ‘good news that will bring great joy for all the people’ (verse 10, italics mine). What begins with the people of God will extend to the world.

The basic truth is clear: the long-awaited Messiah has finally come, and he is bringing salvation. We celebrate this at Christmas. Christmas will make complete sense with Easter: the One who came in poverty and weakness, ‘wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (verse 12) will die in poverty and weakness, hanging on a Cross while soldiers gamble for his clothes. But in doing so, he will absorb all that the darkness will throw at him, and he will conquer evil. The first half of the covenant is clear: God’s king will save his people.

But what of the second half? The king saves a helpless people: what does he demand in return? Again, it is all clear in the angel’s announcement: ‘a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (italics mine). Just as God saved his people from Egypt and then called them to obey his Law, so now Jesus the Messiah comes. He will save his people, and in response he calls them to recognise who he truly is – Lord.

In other words: salvation is freely given. God in Jesus brings it of his own initiative. It is not our doing. But while the gift is free, the appropriate response costs us everything. As Lord, he has the right to direct our ways. What is more, in the life of the Messiah he will show us that explicitly himself. He will not demand of us what he does not demand of himself.

However, it will be costly. In a world ruled by the Romans, to call someone Lord is to imply that the person who usually claimed the title of Lord is not. Caesar claimed to be Lord. To enter into covenant with God’s Messiah involves declaring that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the world are not. Jesus claims our ultimate allegiance, not the world.

Some Christians think that Christmas is just the prelude to the real message, that of Easter. But really they are of a piece. Both announce that the king has come. He is proclaimed at Christmas, and enthroned at Easter, on the Cross. Christmas proclaims Jesus as the Saviour, and Easter delivers on that proclamation. Christmas also says that the Saviour is the Lord, and Easter says he is declared as Lord in the Resurrection.

At Christmas, then, we see that Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with people. He is the King who comes to save his people. He is the Lord who calls all who receive that salvation to follow him as their Master.

This Christmas, may we come to worship the baby king who was given for our salvation and who commands our allegiance, not our tinsel.

Pastoral Letter To The Methodist People

Following the recent controversy over the address by the President and Vice-President of Conference to the Church of England’s General Synod (covered here on this blog and in numerous other places), a pastoral letter has today been issued to the Methodist people by the President, Vice-President and Secretary of Conference to clarify the position. I am pasting it below. It will be in the Methodist Recorder this Thursday, and copies will be read out or given to congregations this Sunday. Comments, as usual, are welcome.

A Pastoral Letter to the Methodist People from the President and Vice-President of the Conference and the General Secretary

(following the address of the President and Vice-President to the General Synod of the Church of England on 11th February 2010)

And are we yet alive? Our answer, despite some recent press speculation to the contrary, is a resounding “Yes!”. We have seen the evidence in various ways through our complementary roles. As President and Vice-President we have represented the care, oversight, authority and support of the Conference as we have visited local churches and situations in different parts of the connexion. We have seen the Methodist people being faithful and the Spirit at work in them and through them. We mentioned some examples in our address to the General Synod.   As General Secretary, Martyn  is responsible for leading the development of the mission of the Methodist Church.  He too has seen evidence of energy being released amongst us.

We are all convinced that God is not finished with the people called Methodist yet. We began as a discipleship movement within the wider church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in worship and mission. In Wesley’s time and through succeeding generations we have continually adapted to circumstances to fulfil that calling as effectively as possible. It is still Our Calling today. And mission has never been more needed than it is now. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty, and torn apart by questions of how we care for the natural environment and the morality of financial systems. We live in a world where people need to hear the word of God in a language they can understand, where they need to see the love of God through people like us and experience it as good news for themselves. We live in a world where not enough people are being attracted and formed into disciples of Jesus Christ, responding to the promptings of the Spirit.

Responding to situations like this, allowing God to transform us so that we can be most effective in doing so, supporting each other in that through our interconnections, is what Methodism has always been about. We best honour those who have gone before us by doing the equivalent in our time and our circumstances of what they did in theirs. It is our DNA as a people to be a group of disciples who are committed to glorifying God in worship, to holiness and to being obedient and active in mission. We are therefore delighted to see an increasing interest in and commitment to discipleship amongst us.

We believe that God has a role for us in this mission, and we are increasingly embracing it. We have about 265,000 ‘card-carrying’ members, and that number has been decreasing because of the age-profile of our members. But more churches are making more members each year; a quarter of our churches are growing; the numbers worshipping with us on Sundays and, increasingly, mid-week is rising; fresh expressions are starting to flourish; we have regular contact with over 800,000 people; and we are part of a growing world-wide Methodist communion of over 70 million. There is a growing self-confidence amongst us accompanied by an appropriate humility about ourselves, and a releasing of energy for mission.

But we are not the whole of the church, and we cannot do it all by ourselves. So we have voted consistently over the years for unity schemes that are designed to increase the whole church’s effectiveness in mission. This is not a death wish, but a desire to be obedient and a willingness to be transformed. We can countenance ceasing to exist as a separate Church because we know that we will still be the Methodist people within a wider Church.

As our major statement on the nature and mission of the Church Called to Love and Praise put it in 1999 “the British Methodist Church may cease to exist as a separate Church entity during the twenty-first century, if continuing progress towards Christian unity is made”. Methodism will still contribute some of the riches of its own distinctive history and mission to any future church. We know from that history that we can be the Methodist people either in our own separate church or in some wider expression of the universal church. Helping to create a wider expression of the universal church and becoming part of it will require not just us but other churches to be prepared to move forward together and to leave some things behind in the process for the sake of the Kingdom. So it is not a question of Methodists being submerged or absorbed in the Church of England or any of our other partners. It is not a matter of Methodists returning to the Anglican fold, but of seeing whether together we are prepared to become a ‘new fold’.

This is not just true of our relationship with the Church of England. We have also signed a Covenant with other churches in Wales, and recently a partnership with other churches in Scotland. We have many local partnerships with other churches, the United Reformed Church in particular. And we are all part of wider denominational groupings. For example, the world-wide Methodist communion is over 70 million strong and the world wide Anglican communion about 78 million. Both are faced with questions of how they cohere in the 21st century, and how they deal with situations where there are competing and even contradictory convictions within them. In addressing these we have a lot to share with each other.

When we addressed the General Synod it was only the second time that the President of the Conference had done so; the first since the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England was signed in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen in 2003; and, importantly, the first time the Vice-President and the president had been invited to address the Synod together. What we were saying to the General Synod was that Methodists have always been committed to unity in order to create greater effectiveness in worship and mission. We said that thinking like this comes naturally from our spirituality. We approach our Covenant with the Church of England in the light of the Covenant Service in our Worship Book which we pray each year. We were gently but urgently asking the General Synod whether the Church of England was prepared to make the same commitment and allow itself to be transformed for the sake of the gospel. And what we say to the Church of England we say to our other partners.

So what happens if other churches are not prepared to be changed in order to become more effective in mission with us? Rather than being groups of Methodist people in a new and wider church, we shall continue as a Methodist people in a separate Methodist Church faithfully trusting in God’s continuing leading of us. We could do that, and we currently do. But even as a separate church we shall have to continue with our commitment to co-operate with others in mission wherever possible and to whatever extent it is possible.

Whether co-operating with others or allowing a wider expression of the universal church to come into existence will require a lot of working together in mission locally. Doing that will throw up some obstacles that will have to be removed and some issues that will have to be resolved if mission is not to be hampered. Some of those include matters of interchangeability of ministries, common decision-making structures, the role of women in the church, and how oversight is embodied. Much work has been done on these and some people will have to be asked to keep working at them on our behalf. When we signed the Covenant we committed ourselves to working to remove any obstacles to visible communion so far as our relationship with the Church of England is concerned. Any solutions will have to be agreed by all of us in due course and by due procedure. But in the interim we must all keep striving to engage as effectively as possible in worship and mission.

We have found the Methodist people in good heart, and an increasing sense of the energy of God’s love being released amongst us. We are a people of one book, the Bible. We allow the gospel to both comfort and challenge us. We let the love of God both confirm and transform us in the body of Christ through the Spirit.

We are yet alive. We shall be alive in the future in whatever form God wills. God has not finished with us yet!

The Revd David Gamble

President of the Conference

Dr Richard M Vautrey

Vice-President of the Conference

The Revd Dr Martyn D Atkins

General Secretary

[End of letter]

UPDATE,  Wednesday 24th February, 11:45 am: Pete Phillips has just blogged on the letter and vibes he’s picked up from the C of E that they’re not even minded to respond. Does that once again leave the Methodist Church as the bride jilted at the altar? Are we – as I suspect – the party making all the running in the Covenant? Why? Is it an issue of power, as I suggested in my orginal blog? Where does that leave one of my churches which on Palm Sunday will be renewing its covenant with the local parish church for another five years – something both parties enthusiastically embrace?

Comments, debate this way please!

UPDATE 2, Thursday 25th February, 1:00 pm: The Church Mouse has weighed in with an impassioned plea from an Anglican perspective.

Sermon: Some Basic Christian Convictions About Marriage

Genesis 2:18-25

I wonder whether you know the story of the devout Methodist who refused to get married on principle? He said he didn’t believe in games of chance.

The Lectionary today presents us with readings about marriage and divorce. When these lessons came around three years ago, I preached on the Mark reading and explained that Jesus does not here completely prohibit divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the prohibition on a woman to divorce her husband is actually about not deserting him.

But today, I want to go to the reading from Genesis. In some ways, this is the most fundamental text in Scripture about marriage. Both Jesus and Paul quote this passage when they teach about relationships, especially verse 24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

And in a culture where marriage is regarded as simply one of a number of relationship options, we need to think again about our Christian beliefs regarding it. We hear that ‘marriage doesn’t work’. We hear that people should do whatever two consenting adults decide between themselves to do, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else.

Before I launch into this, I want to say one other thing. As both a minister and as someone who didn’t marry until he was forty-one, I am aware this subject may not immediately apply to everyone. We are a mixture of single, married, widowed and divorced people. However, it’s hard to look at all these in one sermon. Just as I explored divorce from the Mark reading three years ago, this time I am thinking about marriage. On other occasions (not in Chelmsford, admittedly) I have preached about singleness. Another time it would be appropriate to think about widowhood and bereavement. Nor do I have time to offer any reflections this morning about homosexuality.

So come with me back to this ancient, inspired text as we explore some basic elements of Christian marriage.

The first point I want to make is that marriage is social. This is not an argument for wife-swapping! It is to say, though, that although marriage is exclusive, it isn’t private. What do I mean?

The context of our passage is about how the man will look after the garden God has created[1]. He needs a helper, a partner. The woman is created so that she and the man may steward God’s creation together. Marriage has a social function. It is designed to bless the world. Whatever goes on in our relationships, they affect the world. This has a negative and a positive consequence.

Negatively, this is where I beg to differ with those couples who choose to live together and not marry, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to prove their commitment to each other. I don’t doubt their sincerity. However, I believe they are mistaken in thinking their exclusive relationship doesn’t have social implications. That’s why marriage is a step of social recognition.

Positively, it means a couple when they come together do not do so simply to enjoy one another and support each other. As a couple, they can have an effect for good on other people, on society and on the environment. Let me repeat something I said in a different context once. The love between the members of the Trinity had to be expressed from and beyond them, hence the creation of the universe. Likewise, the love that exists between a couple has to go from and beyond them to others. The most common way in which this happens is if they are blessed with children, but they may also share their love by serving the community. Marriage is designed to radiate the love within the home to the world.

This can involve simple acts of kindness. Opening up our homes in hospitality to those in need is one obvious way (and of course is not limited to those who are married). Just the other day, Debbie and I found ourselves talking to a friend who is Australian but married to an Englishman. A dear friend of hers back home is gravely ill with cancer. We promised to pray for her and her friend, but we also said our door was always open if she wanted a coffee. It was just a simple way of extending our love to her. It is something married couples and families should, I believe, normally aim to do as a token of God’s love.

Secondly, marriage is equal. You may find it surprising to hear such an argument from the Bible. Isn’t the woman here called a ‘helper’, and doesn’t that make her subservient to the man? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell women to submit to their husbands, and wasn’t he an ignorant single man? Let’s dismantle this.

Take the ‘helper’ description first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God is called ‘the helper of Israel’, and it’s the same Hebrew word for ‘helper’ as here. I hope we are not going to suggest that God is subservient to men! The great Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this point about the woman being made from the man’s rib: She was

Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.[2]

As for the texts about submission, let it simply be said that we also need to note what Paul required of husbands: we are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church – that is, we must be ready to die for them! The equality of marriage is not so much about equal status and rights, it is an equal relationship of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is what makes for the companionship of marriage. It is not whether we have compatible personalities, it is what we are each willing to do for our spouse for their well-being. The Bible teaches an equality of helping that leads to deep companionship.

Oh, and by the way, Paul probably wasn’t single! He says in 1 Corinthians that he isn’t married, but as a Pharisee it would be unthinkable that he hadn’t married. It’s far more likely, I believe, that he was a widower. I think he did have experience of marriage when he was young.

Thirdly, marriage is a priority. When verse 24 says, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother’, that is a rather curious statement for a Jewish text. Usually it was the other way around: the bride left her parents to move in with her husband, who stayed close to his parents.

But ‘leaves’ may be translated ‘forsakes’, and this is a relative term. Marriage establishes new priorities. It is not that we stop caring about our parents, but they are no longer our first concern: our spouse is.

And I might suggest that this reordering of priorities applies not only to our parents. It applies to the rest of our lives. Which comes first, work or family? Some large companies think their employees can just uproot their families and follow the latest economic whim.

But before we get too self-righteous, we should remember how the Church has sometimes expected members and ministers to show commitment to meetings and programmes at the expense of family life. There was once a church where mysteriously a banner appeared one week across the notice board. It said, ‘All meetings cancelled.’ The stewards set up an investigation to find out who the vandal was. They discovered it was the minister’s teenage son, who felt he wasn’t seeing much of Dad.

It’s why, although I technically work a six-day week, one of the first things Debbie asked me to do when we married was to block one night a week just for us. We can’t get by as a couple simply on one day off a week. So when I look at weeknight meetings from Monday to Thursday (allowing for Friday as my usual day off), once three of those four nights are filled with appointments, I refuse any more. I don’t always get my priorities right as a husband, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing that myself, but it’s what my wife needs and it’s right to do it. After all, those who want their pound of ministerial flesh would soon express disapproval if we drifted apart and separated.

This area of priorities is one where Christians could go against the flow of society. We might not all get the promotions in our jobs that we want, but marriage makes for new priorities.

Fourthly, marriage is a covenant. In verse 24, the man ‘leaves’ or ‘forsakes’ his parents and ‘clings to his wife’ – the old word for ‘clings’ is ‘cleaves’. He leaves and cleaves. It has the sense of sticking to his wife. It is about ‘both passion and permanence’[3]. And that raises the idea of covenant: a permanent commitment that is not simply a legal contract (marriage is more than a piece of paper), but backed with passion, with love.

This, then, is the ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death’ element of the marriage vows. The man sticks to his wife and sticks with his wife, if you like.

Sometimes people say their marriage just died. I suggest that’s based on a false understanding of marriage. I once read some wise words on the subject. The writer said, it’s not love that will keep your marriage alive: rather, marriage will keep your love alive. In other words, it’s that decision by the grace of God to stick with your spouse in bad times as well as good that makes the difference. It’s the covenant love that loves even when we don’t feel like it. We stick to one another.

And that, I know, can be enormously difficult. A musician friend of mine, Bryn Haworth, once wrote a song called ‘Working for love’, which sums up what the covenant nature of marriage sometimes requires of us. It requires work and effort to maintain that ‘stickability’. But the good news is that the God who calls us to such effort in order to maintain and grow our marriages offers us grace and power all the time and especially at our time of need. For where God guides, he provides.

Finally, marriage is a unity. In marriage, man and woman ‘become one flesh’, says verse 24. In an age of individualism, the unity of two people in marriage reminds us we are not isolated and separate people who make our own decisions regardless of anyone else. The partners in a marriage may be very different, and that may cause tension and conflict, but they act as one. Marriage is not about ‘me’: it’s about ‘us’.

But note the unity isn’t simply that the man and woman ‘become one’, Genesis says they ‘become one flesh’. This is, I believe, a poetic allusion to the act of love. For Christians, sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued, like buying an ice cream (although God does intend it to be pleasurable, as the Song of Songs attests). Rather, it is, as the great spiritual writer Richard Foster says, ‘a life uniting act with life uniting intent’[4]. The sexual act is virtually sacramental for Christians in marriage. No wonder we talk about it as the ‘consummation’ of a marriage.

This means, though, that we find ourselves vastly differing with the beliefs and practices of millions today, who believe in mutual consent but not necessarily in union. It’s another reason why I don’t believe Christian faith can agree with living together, however sincere many cohabiting couples are. If they live together as trial marriage, that makes little sense. Marriage is about total commitment, so you can no more have trial marriage than you can have trial death[5]. Besides, all the research I have ever read shows that couples who live together are much more likely to break up than those who marry without living together first. Sexual relationships without the abandonment to unity are houses built on sand.

In conclusion, then, I cannot state an entire Christian view of marriage from this one passage, but we can find some fundamental building blocks. And what we have here makes for a distinctive witness in our society, if not a thoroughly counter-cultural approach. We take marriage to have social implications rather than being entirely private. We agree with today’s view that it is between two equals, but we say that is about mutual service and sacrificial love, not inflicting my rights over and above another person. We see the marriage relationship as a high priority above the allure of money and career. Furthermore, it is not merely a piece of paper or a legal contract, it is a covenant requiring total commitment and love. Finally, the one-flesh unity cemented in the sexual relationship distinguishes us from the tentative approaches to commitment today and the disposable attitudes to sex found in some people.

This lines us up to be distinctive in today’s world, even to the point of being mocked. May God grant us the grace to hold to our witness, and to hold to it winsomely.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p51, calls this ‘the far agenda’ as opposed to ‘the near agenda’ of sexuality and sin.

[2] Cited in Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p69.

[3] Op. cit., p71.

[4] I’m sure this quote is in his book Money, Sex and Power but I can’t find the page number.

[5] I owe this insight to Doug Barnett in a seminar at Spring Harvest some time in the 1980s.

Covenant Service Sermon: The Renewal Of God’s Purposes

Deuteronomy 29:10-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Methodist Worship Book, p290.

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

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Covenant Love

John 15:9-17

My name is David, and I am an addict.

A book addict. I can’t stop buying them. I can’t stop reading them. The statutory thirty yards of bookshelves in my study have been complaining about my habit for years. Every now and again, I reluctantly dispose of some old titles, to make room for newer ones. But really, I don’t want to live in a manse, I want to live in a library.

One of my biggest addictions has been to Bible commentaries. Thirty years ago, I started off with a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible. But it just wasn’t enough. I needed bigger thrills. I began to collect commentaries on individual books of the Bible. Many years ago, I achieved my ambition of a commentary on every book. But now, I have to have more commentaries on each book.

And when it comes to the Gospel according to John, I have ten commentaries. You may think that’s excessive. I can’t understand why.

For when I began to explore today’s Lectionary reading, it was one of those ten commentaries on John that I hadn’t pulled down from the shelf for a long time that gave me a fresh way of seeing these famous verses.

What is that fresh way? Covenant. It’s to see this passage as being about Jesus establishing the New Covenant with his people. I think if we explore John 15 in terms of Covenant, we may see not only old and familiar things, but gain new insight into the odd difficulty some people have with these verses. Stay with me, and see whether this helps you, as it has me.

God Makes The First Move
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,’ says Jesus (verse 9).

Everything starts with God’s love. The Father’s love for Jesus; his love in Christ for us. Always in salvation, God makes the first move. If we track this through the Bible, we’ll see this.

God is love, and out of that love between the members of the Trinity comes an action of love, creation. Love is expressed beyond the Trinity to something else.

Then – who’s the first missionary in the Bible? God. God comes walking in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s sin. Later, God takes the initiative to call Abram when he wants to start forming a people for himself. God hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and sends Moses. God sends the prophets.

Finally, at the right time, God sends his Son (Galatians 4:4). Or put it like this: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). No approach from the human race. Yet because of our sin, a loving God makes overtures to his creation. It all starts with God.

Why is this important? It affects a number of things. First of all, it means that the love of God humbles us. We can take no pride in knowing God through Jesus Christ. It is not down to us. It is entirely a matter of God’s grace and mercy. We owe everything to the grace of God. Knowing God does not make us superior. There is nothing in knowing God that means we are worthy of that honour. It is a matter of sheer love.

We glimpse a little of this in ordinary human relationships. Parents conceive children out of love. They delight in their children. Even when their offspring pain them by their behaviour and they have to impose discipline, they long that the relationship be fully restored. One parent goes up to the bedroom where the child is sulking, in the hope of bringing harmony back to the home.

For some of us, we need to be humbled by knowing that the whole spiritual life begins with God, not us. We need to be brought low from our pride.

But for others of us, the news that life in the Spirit starts with God is good news, if not a relief. We know we’re not worthy of God’s love, and so it is the most wonderful, liberating news to learn that for all our unworthiness, God has set out from the very beginning to woo us with his love.

Yes, whether we think too much of ourselves or too little of ourselves, it is essential good news to understand that God makes the first move in establishing a covenant relationship with us, with the world and with creation.

But this good news that God moves first is not only for us. If it is for us, it is for others, too. If God makes the first move, then it affects how we view sharing our faith.

We heap a lot of guilt on ourselves and other Christians when we talk about the importance of sharing our faith with others. We make it sound as if it all depends on us. Now I’m not about to argue against the importance of talking about Christ to people who don’t know him – it’s essential. But it doesn’t all depend on us. Not if God makes the first move.

In spreading the Good News, we should remember that God always moves first. God will go ahead of us. It has often been said that mission is finding out what God is doing, and joining in.

I’ve given you an outline of God doing this in the Bible already, from creation to the Fall to making a people for himself and ultimately sending Jesus. One Gospel story that brings this out for me comes in Luke 10, where Jesus sends out followers in pairs ahead of him to various villages. He gives various instructions to them, but I find one of them particularly interesting: he tells them to look for ‘anyone who shares in peace’ (Luke 10:6) [or ‘man of peace’ in older translations]. What is such a person if they are not someone in whom God has already begun to work? I think Jesus is telling his disciples to look for where God is already at work, and to concentrate their efforts there.

So when we set out to share our faith, let us start cultivating an attitude that looks for signs of where God has already made the first move. Let us ask him to open our eyes to where he has already been preparing people to receive his love.

I have to cop out to some extent here and say that how God shows us he is making the first move ahead of us in people’s lives requires a whole sermon to itself, so at this point I have to confine myself to saying that we simply pray and seek God’s guidance. Let’s be open to the leading of the Spirit – the leading, I say, of the Spirit, because – God moves first.

We Respond To God
Back to verse 9: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ Abiding in God’s love is what we are called to do in response to God making his overtures of love towards us.

‘Abiding’ (or ‘remaining’ in some translations) is a word that communicates a sense of permanence. The covenant between God and ourselves is rather like the covenant of marriage. It comes as a lifetime commitment. God has made a ‘lifetime commitment’ to us; he calls us to respond in the same way. In fact, in the light of the Resurrection it’s more than lifetime: this cannot be limited to ‘till death do us part’. This is a commitment for ever. Because God has shown such remarkable love to us, we make a radical commitment to him. Ours will be an abiding love.

And if it is an abiding love we offer to God through Jesus Christ, it is one that will not depend on our feelings. Sometimes our faith gives us great feelings, but our level of commitment to Christ cannot depend on them, any more than a marriage can depend on the times of ecstasy. Sometimes it’s not so much that love keeps a marriage alive, more that marriage keeps love alive. The commitment is primary, and it’s great when the feelings follow, but they don’t always.

And I think it’s in that light we can understand the difficult language of this passage where Jesus makes love into a commandment. Keeping his commandments is a sign of love (verse 10). He commands us to love one another (verse 12). And we are his friends if we do what he commands us (verse 14). How can love and commandment go together?

But isn’t this a peculiarly modern problem? We think that love is about how I feel. But it isn’t. People say, ‘Our marriage didn’t work’, or ‘Marriage doesn’t work’, as if ‘marriage’ is some separate entity to blame when things go wrong. But before love is a feeling, love is a commitment. Even when love is not a feeling, it is still a commitment. Why? Because it is a covenant. It’s why I tell wedding couples they won’t say ‘I do’, they’ll say ‘I will’. It’s about promise and commitment to that promise.

God has poured out his blessings to us, supremely in Christ and his Cross, and we respond to his commitment to us with a commitment of our own to him.

So in that sense, Jesus can command us to love him and love others. He’s telling us what the nature of the covenant commitment is. Turning love into a command isn’t bullying, because the One who commands us to love is the One who laid down his own life for his friends as the greatest love of all (verse 13) – words that are sandwiched right into the context.

And so love isn’t ‘I do’: it’s ‘I will’, even when I don’t feel like it. And maybe the times when we don’t feel like it are when we prove that our response to Christ is real. Because we’ll respond out of love, even if we feel nothing and even if there’s nothing in it for us.

Actually, the bride and groom say, ‘With God’s help I will’, because they cannot do so alone. And again, it’s similar when it comes to God’s covenant with us. Obeying by showing love to Christ and others is a tough call. It challenges the self-centredness that is at the heart of sin. Remember that old saying that sin is a little word with ‘I’ in the middle?

So as we respond to God’s love for us in Christ with our own covenant commitment to love others and obey Jesus, we find it’s remarkably difficult to do. But for us, too, like the couple getting married, it’s ‘With God’s help I do’. For Jesus does not leave us helpless when he shows us that the right response to God’s first move of love is a radical commitment. He promises the Holy Spirit. And though the Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned in these verses, Jesus name-checks the Spirit over and over again in this section of John’s Gospel.

So when we rejoice in God making the first move of love towards us (and his whole broken creation); when we consider the appropriate response of love to him; and when we realise that response is likely to be a major and at times demanding commitment; let us rejoice, not only in God’s love, but in the gift of his Spirit, through whom God enables us to make that response and live a life of commanded love.

Advent 4

Fourth Advent video from Damaris Trust. Andrew White explores the theme of covenant.

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more about “Advent 4“, posted with vodpod