COVENANT SERVICE - 2007.

Throughout the year, Christian festivals encourage special thought, and prayer, about matters of our faith: especially salvation in Christ; new life given through him; spiritual guidance to lead us; and the grace to follow.
 
Down the centuries: the Church has added other ‘stopping-off’ points: special times to think about our Christian progress, so far: and to pray about our ongoing spiritual journey. Today we share in a particularly important one.
 
For just over 250 years, the Covenant Service has held a significant place in Methodist practice: and other denominations have found it to be helpful.
 
Here is a reminder of its origins, taken from John Wesley’s Journal, dated August 11th 1755. “I mentioned to the congregation, another means of increasing serious religion, which had been frequently practiced by our forefathers, and attended with great blessing; namely, the joining in a Covenant to serve God with all our heart, and with all our soul.
 
I explained the nature of such an engagement, and recited the tenor of the covenant proposed, in the words of that blessed man, Richard Alleine. All the people stood up, in testimony of assent, to the number of about eighteen hundred persons. Such a sight I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it shall remain for ever”.
 
As his ‘Journal’ makes clear, Wesley borrowed the covenant words from someone born about a hundred years earlier. Obviously: the words, and the intentions that undergird them, were not original to Richard Alleine, either; for they spring from God’s initiatives and actions; recorded in the Bible.
 
As its name implies: the ‘New Testament’ tells of the ‘New Covenant’ that God made with his people. It shows that, like all earlier covenants, it belongs to God alone: he decided upon it; he laid out the terms of it, and he ministers the grace, necessary to apply its benefits to our lives.
 
 What we do today: and the manner in which we live out our faith, in the coming year; very much depends upon our understanding and attitudes.
 
In order to help us to take hold of the service; in a personal way: the compilers of it have included these words: “Therefore, let us make this Covenant of God our own. Let us give ourselves anew to him, trusting in his promises, and relying on his grace’.
 
It is at this point: in the past; that misunderstandings have arisen: making some Christians very reluctant to take part; and speak the ‘Covenant Words’.
 
The misunderstandings were based upon the belief, that the words used form a contract, a ‘Covenant’ that we make, with God.
 
That belief caused some people to feel that the statements and promises, to which they were expected to give assent; were too demanding: but, surely, all of the main tenets and requirements of the Christian faith, are demanding.
 
Others were reluctant to speak the covenant words, for a similar reason. They felt that, without great care; ‘Covenant Promises’ could become like New Year resolutions: easily made, and just as easily broken.
 
However, our service gives no ground for thinking along the lines that we make a contract with the Lord.
 
Having touched upon Old Testament covenants that God made; and placed particular emphasis on the ‘New Covenant’: effected by him; through Christ: it goes on to say this:-
 
‘Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own’.
 
‘This covenant of God’ relates to what he has already brought into being; and continues to make effective, in the lives of his followers. It is impossible for us to add anything to what the Lord has done: or to diminish it in any way.
 
We make this covenant ‘our own’: through affirming our acceptance of it.  In so doing: we highlight afresh; the place, purpose and direction, in God’s great scheme of things, that we have, through belonging to Christ.
 
If we continually acknowledge the importance of the ancient covenant: and allow it to empower our lives: no further requirement will be laid upon us.
Put in modern-day terms: God does not expect us to re-invent the wheel. Instead, he desires that we continually avail ourselves of what is already firmly in place; and that we live accordingly.
 
In principle: our full acceptance of the terms of the Divine Covenant: and completely trusting God, to keep the promises that he has made, will always lead to spiritual growth and maturity.
 
In practice: it isn’t, just like that. The Lord is the supreme realist. He knows that our lives have weak points, and bumpy places. If perfection, on our part, were the only way ahead; then which of us could win through?  But, it isn’t!
 
Out of realism, and through his graciousness: God rejoices with us, when we consistently do the very best that we can.
 
There is a sense in which God also rejoices when our ‘best’ is not good enough. Obviously, divine gladness does not have direct relation to any lack of perfection, and consequent failure, on our part.
 
Instead: it comes about when our spiritual understanding persuades us that, having done our best, we must reach beyond it.
 
Every time that we reach beyond what we can do, and claim afresh what Jesus has done for us; and continues to do: we become, as St. Paul wrote: that bit more ‘Hid with Christ’ (Col.3:3) and God rejoices accordingly.
 
A brief look at some of the covenant-related promises of God: shows how they still touch and bless the lives of those who love him, and follow him.
 
Ezekiel 18:21 says: “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins that he has committed, and keeps all my decrees, and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die”. Further on, at verse 32 the Lord says: “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone: therefore, repent and live”.
 
Because mankind continued to sin; and seemed unable to find a way through and beyond it; God himself undertook to make such a way possible.
 
There is no simpler, or finer, description of God’s loving action, and its profound effect, than at John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world, through him”.
 
In a prayer to the Father: Christ said, about his followers: “This is eternal life, to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17: 3).
 
One kind of ‘knowing’ is built upon gathered information: but another and greater kind, grows out of ongoing and deepening relationship. God, the supreme realist: has something very positive to say to us, in this matter, too.
 
His word is: ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). “Be still (enter into a deep, inner quiet) ‘and know that I am God” (from that knowledge of me, take comfort).
 
God the Father says: ‘I will never leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Deut: 31:6).
Jesus Christ who is ‘The same yesterday, today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13: 8). says to his followers: “I am with you, always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
 
To those concerned about the power of evil: seemingly very active, all around; Christ says: “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33) To those concerned about their personal standing in the sight of God, Jesus says: “You are already made clean, by the word that I have spoken to you” John 15:3).
 
Whenever we allow loss, or downcast feelings; misunderstandings; broken promises; self-distrust, stress or any other human condition: to come between us, and the full expression of our faith; then we must place these things upon the altar of God’s forgiving love.
 
Our action, in placing all things in the hands of the Lord, in loving trust, helps make: ‘This Covenant of God, our own’ as the service-book puts it.
 
Through Christ, every need is met: not wants, perhaps, but needs, certainly.
 
If, in the future, we slip and slide again: we should not despair, nor wait for any particular moment to pass, nor hope that a better moment will arrive.
Instead: we should, at once, hand whatever troubles us, to the Lord: and rejoice afresh in his ongoing mercy, love and grace.   Amen.
 
Texts taken from Hodder & Stoughton’s ‘Thompson Chain Reference Edition of the N.I.V.