God's Word for today

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Covenant service

Today was our Covenant Service, which is my first one in the Winterhoek Circuit, and accordingly, the first one I have had the privilege of preaching at. Rev Bill Thompson, my Superintendent, officiated at Communion (lest any of my fellow Phase Ones think I am jumping the gun in serving communion before passing the Sacraments Exam!).

I don't normally upload my sermons, but I couldn't think of any better way to share my thoughts on our covenant with God than this.

Scripture readings
Old Testament: Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34
New Testament: Romans 12: 1 – 2
Gospel: John 15: 9 – 17

I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven.

These are the words of the Covenant Prayer, which forms part of this and every other Methodist Covenant Service that has been held since 11 August 1755, which was the first Covenant Service preached by our founder, John Wesley. It has become such a deeply entrenched part of Methodist tradition that the year has not truly begun properly until the Covenant Service has taken place.

Unfortunately these words, in which we commit ourselves to God and place ourselves completely at God’s disposal, have become about as meaningful to us as your average New Year’s Resolution. I made one at the beginning of this year to start riding my bicycle again. So far I have given it a good clean, pumped up the tyres, and fixed the trip computer. But as for actually riding it … well, let’s rather not go there!

And it seems that we take our relationship with God about as seriously as I have taken my cycling this year. We promise ourselves that this year things are going to be different. The “skinnerstories” are going to stop. We’re going to give more to the church this year. We might even decide to join a Bible study – or start one. Yet we end up, similar to me and the bicycle, spiritually fat and unfit. When we are put to the test, we can’t even run around the block!

Just like the Israelites when they left Egypt, in fact. We like to be so spiritual when we read Scripture! God shows the Israelites His mighty power as He brings all manners of calamity upon the Egyptians. Then He makes a covenant with Israel, where they are to sacrifice a lamb and paint their doorposts with the blood. This is to ensure that the angel of death would “pass over” the houses where the blood was painted. Any household where the blood was not seen would suffer the death of their first-born son. Then, after God has brought about this miracle, His power is witnessed again through the parting of the Red Sea. Now you would think that after all that, the people of Israel would follow God wholeheartedly. But nooo … no sooner have they crossed the Red Sea, they start moaning and grumbling. “It’s hot in this desert! There’s no food! We wanna go back to Egypt!”

Now you and I would never do that … would we? Well let me tell you the number of times I have seen people walk straight out of church, and before they’ve even left the parking-lot, they are saying or doing just what the preacher has said they shouldn’t do in his sermon!

So what is a covenant? Of course, none of us were around when God made those Old Testament covenants with the Israelites. Well, put it this way, most of us were not around … but the one covenant that many of us can relate to is the marriage covenant.

And it’s interesting that Jeremiah uses this analogy when he speaks of God loving those with whom He makes a covenant “as a husband loves his wife”. Yesterday at Sister Mabel Swarts’ funeral I shared from Ephesians 5 – that famous “wives, submit to your husbands” passage – and we read in Verse 25 that husbands are commanded to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and laid down His life for it”. When you love someone and are in covenant with them, you give your all for them – food, shelter, companionship – you name it. I always tell people that there is no such thing as sharing in marriage. This “50 / 50” stuff is nonsense. There is no sharing – everything is hers! And I’m not joking! For it’s only when I give all that I am and all that I have to my wife, and she gives all that she is and all that she has to me, can we truly say that we are in covenant with each other.

When we share at the Lord’s Table, which we will this morning, part of the Communion liturgy speaks of the wine as representing the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus truly gave His all to this covenant. He’s kept His end of the bargain – what about us?

Now you might ask this morning, “How can we keep our end of the covenant?” Paul speaks in his letter to the Romans about us allowing our bodies to be a “living sacrifice” to God and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We are to change the way we act, and we are to change the way we think. For if we don’t do this, we are no different to anyone else who doesn’t make any claim to be Christian. If our lives are not going to be changed as a result of us entering into this covenant with Christ, then we are wasting our time. Then we should just stop playing games and turn this place into a movie-house.

“Renewing our minds? Living sacrifices? How?” Traditionally one normally reads from the first seven verses of John chapter 15 during a Covenant Service, but I believe that the key to being truly a part of the covenant with Christ lies in verses 8 – 17, which we read this morning. The one thing that I love most about Jesus, and what attracted me to make a decision to follow Him, is the fact that nowhere in the Bible do we see Jesus expecting us to do anything that He hasn’t Himself done first, and this is no different. In verse 9 Jesus says that “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey Me, you remain in My love, just as I obey My Father and remain in His love”.

And what commandment does Jesus want us to obey? We all know it – we’ve been singing it since we were in Sunday School:

A new commandment, I give unto you
That you love one another, as I have loved you
That you love one another, as I have loved you
By this, shall all men know, that you are My disciples
If you have love, one for another
By this, shall all men know, that you are My disciples
If you have love, one for another

There’s a second verse to this song, which is easy to sing but more difficult to live out. It goes like this:

If a man says he loves God, then he is a liar
If he hateth his brother, whom he has seen
For then how can he love God, Who he has not seen?
By this, shall all men know…

In closing, I have a confession to make. I am a HUGE fan of the Rocky movies. I have all six of them on DVD, and every so often I like to watch them. Now for those of you who have never seen Rocky, it’s the story about a no-hope club boxer in Philadelphia, who gets a one-in-a-million shot to fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. In the first movie Rocky doesn’t win, but manages to go the full distance with the champion. In the second movie, he goes one better and wins the fight in the dying seconds to become champion.

In the third and fourth movie Rocky fights bigger and meaner challengers, yet somehow comes out on top, but by the time we get to the fifth instalment, Rocky’s accountant has swindled him out of all of his money while he was over in Russia, and he is now broke. They move back to their old neighbourhood in Philadelphia, and his son, who is now a teenager, has to go to the old rough school that Rocky attended when he was a child, and ends up getting bullied. I guess that being the son of a former World Heavyweight Champion brings out the worst in some people.

Every day Rocky’s son gets picked on, beaten up, and teased, until one day, after many weeks in the gym, Rocky Junior gets his revenge and beats the snot out of his tormenters. But then an interesting thing happens. Instead of continuing the feud, Rocky’s son extends a hand of friendship, and says to them, “If you want to end this, let’s do it now”. The result is that they shake hands and become friends.

Perhaps this morning you are feeling like that. You’ve been hurt and abused – even by people in this very church. There are wounds and scars that run deep, and you wonder if you would ever be able to forgive. But this morning Jesus isn’t asking us to love one another – He’s commanding us to. Our Lord wouldn’t make us to do anything that we are unable to do, nor would He tell us to do anything that He hasn’t shown us how to do first. No greater love is shown than when people lay down their lives for their friends.

As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning and renew our covenant, are we prepared to lay our lives down for Him? Will we be prepared to forgive past wrongs done to us? Are we ready to obey His commandment to love one another, just as He has loved us?

Some of us have been fighting for far too long. If you want to end it, end it now. End it here.

No comments: