One of the most popular posts on this blog over the last year was A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service. I preached it at our annual All Souls service at the end of October last year, and it has regularly been one of the posts found on Google searches. It seems to be something people need.
This weekend is the All Souls service for this year, and here I am posting tonight’s sermon. I hope people find this helpful, too.
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Verse 4)
Tonight, we gather as people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, we are still walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We have lost loved ones dear to us – some after a good, long life, some to cruel diseases and some far too young.
In walking through this darkest of valleys, we sometimes expect that at the time of bereavement we shall plunge into the darkness, but then we shall slowly climb out, bit by bit. The remarks of friends and acquaintances who naïvely expect us to have recovered after a length of time betray this unrealistic idea. I often remark that the experience of grief and bereavement is more like ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.
And it often starts before the death. Those of you who have been alongside a family member or a dear friend who received the news that the doctors could do no more know that your grief started early. Something similar is true for those of you who witnessed someone descend into Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. You have a double bereavement: first, you lose the person, and later, you lose the body.
There is a number of emotions that we can go through in these seasons of our lives. One is denial. It can’t really be happening. I don’t want to believe this is happening. Or, it doesn’t feel real. Wake me up from this nightmare. This is just a TV show, right?
Or when we realise it is real, we turn to bargaining. Maybe we can strike a bargain with God. ‘Lord, if you’ll heal my loved one, then I’ll do things for you.’ It makes me remember the old Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’
in which she sings,
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
And maybe when God doesn’t sign up to the bargain we offer him, we move into anger. Anger with God. Anger with doctors. Anger with our loved one, if they did something foolish. Reading recently how Steve Jobs refused potentially life-saving surgery for his pancreatic cancer at an early stage, I wonder how his wife and children have felt.
Finally, we get through to some form of acceptance. We know our loved one is going to die, or we accept that yes, they have died. We start to rebuild our lives, knowing they will never take the same shape again, because the one who has gone has left a hole no-one else can fill. It was uniquely their shape.
Given that these are typically the kinds of experiences we are having, how can I recognise Psalm 23’s affirmation that ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’?
I mean, how is God with us? We tend to assume he is remote, in heaven and far away from us. That leads us to think he doesn’t care. However, if he were with us, wouldn’t things be a bit different? The Psalmist didn’t know God physically with him, but he did have a sense of God’s presence in life, that he described as being like a Palestinian shepherd, with his rod and staff. The rod was a club that was used to fend off wild beasts and the staff was the shepherd’s crook, used to guide and control the sheep.
For Christians, admittedly centuries after the Psalmist wrote, the answers to these questions come into sharp focus in Jesus. In Jesus, God did not stay remote from us. It is not simply true, as the song says, that ‘God is watching us from a distance.’ In Jesus, he came up close. He lived in poverty and powerlessness. He died young. And it was an unjust death.
And Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, as he called himself, has a rod and a staff. A rod to beat away our enemies, and a staff to guide us.
It may seem absurd to claim that Jesus beats away our enemies when we are in the presence of what the Bible calls ‘the last enemy’, that is, death itself. The Christian hope is in Jesus not only having swallowed the bitter pill of death as we do and on our behalf, it is also that he was raised from the dead. And while that seems an absurd claim to many today, it is one we back up with strong historical evidence. From it, we hold the hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that we shall all be raised from the dead one day, at the end of history as we know it. Because of that hope, even this worst of all enemies cannot have the final word. Death may win a battle and cause us immense suffering and pain, but it cannot in the end win the war. Through our tears, we have this hope, and in that sense the rod of Jesus beats away the enemy of death in the final analysis.
We also get to experience his staff, his shepherd’s crook, guiding us. Jesus, from his involvement in creation to his bringing in of a new creation in his resurrection, is the one who guides us in hope through the tragedies of death and suffering. He becomes our example of how to live in the face of the certainty of death and the hope of resurrection. How? Let me go back to that Kate Bush lyric:
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
We may not be able to make a deal with God, but ‘to swap our places’ – that actually is more realistic, strange as it may seem. The Christian hope is about the Son of God who chose not to stay in the glory of heaven but take on human flesh in poverty and suffering. It is about the One who on the Cross ‘swapped places’ with us so that death might be defeated and we might be forgiven our sins. Handing our lives over to the One who brings us forgiveness, defeats death and shows us how truly to live is to find him whose staff guides and comforts us throughout life.
So wherever we are in our grieving, I commend a life of trusting Jesus to you. Trusting him doesn’t exempt us from the trials of life and death, but in his birth he is with us, in his death and resurrection he beats away our enemies and his life, death and resurrection we find his pattern and guide for living.
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.