Pastor Karen Karpow
January 2, 2011
Wesley Covenant Service
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Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.1
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One evening this week my little white cat, Lily, was sitting on my lap, and I was petting her, and she was purring. I’ve had this cat for about fifteen years, so this is a scene that has been played out countless times. So peaceful, such a nice end to the day. And suddenly she turned around and bit me!
Why was I surprised? Well, we have a deal, you see. The deal is this: I buy her food, and most of the time I put it in her dish. (Sometimes Serge does, and very occasionally Anna or Beth.) I clean her litter box. I clean up the fur balls and rodent parts. I use the FurBuster to clean her up when she’s shedding. And I pet her. Lily’s part of the deal is to inhale her food, use her one mighty tooth to catch any rodents that get into the house, get white fur on everything, and purr ecstatically while I pet her. Thus it has always been.
Lily biting me is definitely not part of the deal.
All of our relationships have deals. Some of those deals are explicit and spoken, but many of them are unspoken. An explicit deal might be the one we make with our child’s piano teacher—so many minutes per week of lesson, at a certain time and place, in exchange for a certain amount of money, with expectations that the child will practice a certain amount each day. We might agree in advance on the cancellation policy, and whether the child will participate in the annual recital. A deal like that covers most of the things we would expect to happen as part of the relationship with a piano teacher.
Our relationships with our loved ones are much trickier. There might be an explicit part of the deal—a wedding vow, for instance, that says “I take you to be my beloved,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
until we are parted by death.”
That is a very beautiful and powerful agreement. It is a promise made before God and witnesses to keep working to be together, no matter what. However, it’s not very detailed. It doesn’t cover whose job it is to do the dishes (or clean up the mouse parts), or when it is time to turn out the lights, or what constitutes a good dinner. So many unexpected things happen as part of our intimate relationships, that it would be hard to craft an explicit deal in advance that would cover them all.
We have all sorts of relationships with many different human beings: spouses, family, friends, acquaintances, church members, co-workers. But there is Another who desires our attention. God wants to be in relationship with us. As with all relationships, there is a deal involved. God’s deals with humanity are called covenants—binding and solemn agreements, with promises made on both sides. The first covenant God makes with humanity is the one with Noah—that God will never again destroy all creation with a flood. God makes a covenant with Abraham, to give him descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky, and land for them to live in. The people’s part of these covenants is fairly simple: to accept God’s goodness and strive to follow God’s will.
After God rescues the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God makes a covenant with Moses and the Israelites. This covenant is much more detailed. It begins with the Ten Commandments, and includes many other laws that the people are to follow. God defines the festivals that the people are to keep; how they are to treat each other, and strangers, and aliens, and slaves; social laws, religious laws, property laws; laws about what to do when you break a law. God promises to protect the people of Israel, and to bring them into the Promised Land. The people promise to follow God’s laws—especially the one about not worshiping any other gods. When it is time to finalize the covenant, Exodus tells us,
7 Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
This covenant was in force for centuries—the obedience, not so much. God’s people messed up over and over—failing to worship only God, failing to act with justice and mercy—and there were consequences for those failures. God became angry, even letting the people be carried off into exile. But God remained faithful, and restored them.
In today’s scripture, God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah that a new covenant is coming. This one will be different, not like the one with Moses, which they broke anyway.
33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
This new covenant will be different. Instead of page after page of written laws—too many laws to memorize, so many laws that it must have seemed impossible not to be breaking at least one all the time—God is going to write the law on our hearts. Instead of priests having to tell people what God says, instead of religious scholars deciding who is okay and who is not, everyone will be in direct relationship with God. And under the terms of this new covenant, all sin will be forgiven.
This covenant has been fulfilled, in Jesus. On one side of the covenant is God’s promise to complete, in and through us, all that God declared in Jesus. What does that consist of? In Jesus, God promises that our sins are forgiven; God promises eternal life with God, beginning now; God promises never to abandon us, sending the Holy Spirit to be our companion and our guide. On the other side of the covenant is our promise to live for God, rather than for ourselves.
In 1747, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, urged his followers to make their deal with God explicit, to enter into the biblical history of covenant-making, by renewing their own individual covenants with God. He wrote a service that was first used in 1755, published in 1780, and has been used ever since by Methodists all over the world. It is often used at times of beginning and recommitment, such as the New Year. This is probably the most deeply, uniquely Methodist thing that we do.
In a moment we will begin a version of Wesley’s original service that I have modified a bit—the original is somewhat archaic and hard to understand. If you look at your bulletins, you’ll see that the service is divided into sections:
Adoring God, our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer;
Giving thanks and remembering all we have received;
and finally, the Covenant itself.
Each of these sections is punctuated with some time for silent reflection. I recommend that you take today’s bulletin home and reflect on it during the week—there’s a lot there, more than I can take in while I’m reading it out loud.
Are you ready?
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.