Covenant Sunday, January 1 2017
Exodus 24.3-11; Jeremiah 31.31-34; Romans 12.1-2; and John 15.1-10
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
It is no exaggeration to say that when Jesus speaks of the covenant between God and humankind he brings to their ultimate height the ideas and the principles the whole Bible proclaims in its description of the potential relationship between God and his people. It outlines how we can overcome the weakness of human response to the revelation of the nature of God in the principles contained in the Jewish Law and through much of the Old Testament. It will happen, not as a result of a weakening of God’s standards: for God to do that would be to deny his very nature as God. It happens through changing the nature of the Law, now no longer something outside us, alien to us, but in our hearts, a part of our nature. No longer when we do wrong can we use the excuse “Well, it’s human nature, isn’t it?” because God has brought into being the state where human nature is itself reformed in Christ.
I love walking upon the mountains of Scotland. When the mist is down the view is very limited, you get some idea of what the area looks like, but it’s only limited. As the day warms up the sun begins to burn the mist off. The result can be that you get glimpses of a much wider view. A crag suddenly appears before you, then a view to the sky, you turn around and you glimpse a mountain ridge. Each of these views reveals something of the area you are in but none of them show it all. Then the mist clears completely and above there is a clear blue sky, and all the slopes of the mountains, the folds in the land, the rock faces, the ridges and the distant summits, and how they all connect together, are all plain to see. Suddenly the world – as it is around you – is clearly visible. What you had formed a vague impression of is now clear.
Understanding the covenant is rather like that.
The ancient Law, revealed on Sinai Mountain, is a key part of revealing it all. Like one of the glimpses seen through the mist, it is perhaps the first time that the general impression given by the story of creation and the Patriarchs, the story of the faith, is clarified so that the person hearing the account gets the wider picture. Unfortunately, the Law was failed by the people.
The failure is illustrated by the apocryphal notice seen outside a convent: “Trespassers will be prosecuted with the full rigor of the law. Signed: The Sisters of Mercy.” If we rely upon the law – what is the meaning of grace and mercy?
The principles that governed the Law, all those years ago, remain the same as the principles behind the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus taught a thousand years later. Many of them are expressed again in the UN Declaration of Human Rights two thousand years later still. They are about respecting others, about preserving the institutions of society, the family, personal possessions, and interpersonal relations in a civilized way.
Jeremiah came to see that the external constraint of the Law was failing and must inevitably fail while free will is expressed through personal desires. For that free will to be consistent with the Law it has to be expressed through willing commitment to God. Jeremiah gives us a glimpse of the lie of the land, an insight through the mist, as he speaks for the first time in the Bible of the need for the Law to be written on the heart. What he meant by that was that it should no longer be a set of rules to be stuck to, but that it become a state of mind adopted so fully that it becomes personal nature. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”. In this two-way relationship there will be a common mission and purpose, expressed by the nature of God himself.
The apostles express this once again in the Epistles as they reflect there upon the nature of what has happened in the coming of Jesus. Paul says: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This is one of the many places in the Epistles when the glimpses through the mist expressed in the Old Testament are replaced by the full description of what they mean. Hebrews takes up the full idea as it speaks of the covenant relationship. John opens his first letter with a description of the significance of the life of Jesus that places it in the covenant relationship of the Word of God. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our eyes have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
But of course the fullest description comes in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Here the mist parts, and the vista is there for all to see. The image of the vine and the branches is an image of a mutual relationship. The vine trunk is needed by all the branches in order that they might have life. But at the same time the trunk without the branches is at the most a potential for growth and life rather than something that is alive itself. Christ offers to us a relationship in which we are not just satellites, but are offered a mutual relationship. The created world will remain fallen, evil, violent, unforgiving, self-centred, unless we play our part in that relationship. The covenant places us so fully in the relationship with God that it is through us that his kingdom will be brought into being. That is not to deny that the kingdom is paradoxically also a gift, however the responsibility for us is considerable if we fail and the world fails. It is almost irresponsible in its staggering extent. This covenant service is the church at its best, calling us to personal holiness and a faith that engages in order to bring about radical change in the world.
The world needs change. It is not sustainable that the violence and division seen across the world at present should be perpetuated. There is so much suffering as a result of the behaviour of one person towards another, of communities of people in conflict with other communities, of nation in conflict with nation. In a nuclear age the world cannot afford such conflicts. Pollution and the unnecessary use of precious resources across the world threaten the future of the planet though global warming. That however begins with each and every one of us. To redress this is hard, it takes commitment, it takes consistency, it takes a love of God.
That though can all be described as negative: Live out the covenant or suffer the consequences. God doesn’t want us to follow the covenant simply because there is nothing better. When Christians work faithfully for God, act as peacemakers, serve in many capacities where they can bring care and love to people in need, when in humility they act as Christ did – as servants of God, walking humbly with their God and making known the Gospel, then they find a gift of life that cannot be surpassed. This is the most fulfilling way of living. It is a central part of what Jesus meant when he said: “I come that you may have life, life in all its fullness.” This now is our true nature, living in the way of Christ, not human nature, but divine. It is a calling to the best of all life.
We are then challenged to take on for ourselves the covenant relationship. It’s not an easy thing to accept, as the covenant prayer makes clear. At first sight, to live in ways other than the Christian way may seem a lot more attractive. However experience over the centuries show that the struggle to live in a Christian way, though hard and on the surface unattractive, yields great benefits and avoids the real pitfalls of life.
May each of us make this covenant with God. May the spirit of God give us grace to keep this covenant. Amen.