Scripture: Ephesians 4: 22-24
Date: January 1, 2017
January 1 only falls on Sunday every 6 years. Usually there is a day or a few days between the 1st day of the year and the first worship of the year. And so by the time we gather for worship, most of us have already had time to break our New Year’s resolutions. Our resolutions to eat better are often at least delayed by the need to finish up all those left over Christmas goodies and our resolution to get back to the gym derailed by the unusually large crowds at the gym and the time demands of getting back into the routine and catching up on all the work that was put on hold over the holidays. Let’s face it, most of our resolutions are doomed before we even get started on them. So why do we do it? Why do we subject ourselves to this kind of guilt and ridicule every year by setting resolutions that we can’t keep? So I got to wondering where this practice of making New Year’s resolutions started in the first place. And I discovered two surprising things. First, making new year’s resolutions is a very ancient practice and secondly, it has it’s origins in religion. In fact, our modern day custom appears to have it’s roots with the Babylonians in the fifth and 6th century B.C, who began a new year by resolving to pay off all of their debts and return any objects they had borrowed from other people. Around the time of Jesus’ birth, the Romans were making promises related to self improvement to the God Janus, for whom the month of January was named. In Medieval times the Knights at the end of the Christmas season were required to place their hands on a peacock and reaffirm their vow and commitment to chivalry. This became known as the Peacock vow. So I guess if we are really serious about keeping the Covenants that we have made, we need to first find a peacock. Well from these customs Christians began the practice of resolving to rededicate themselves to their faith as the new year began. And what came to be known as the watch night service was developed. In the 1600’s the Puritans were celebrating watch night as a service of Vindication of Godliness in the Greater Strictness and Spirituality. I wanted to put that on the bulletin this morning, but there wasn’t room. It’s a mouthful but it was from this service that John Wesley developed the Covenant Service that we celebrate in part today. He first officiated at this service in August of 1755. It was a three hour service. And from that point on Wesley offered the Covenant Service whenever he visited one of the Methodist Societies. It was not until 1780 that he first offered it on New Years Day. From 1780 until his death in 1791, Wesley conducted the Covenant Service every year on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. It is a service of recommitment and rededication in which the participants resolved to improve themselves and their relationship with God, as they focused on this Covenant with God. And so since we are about that today, I just wanted to take a moment, as we prepare for Communion and begin a new year, to reflect on this Covenant that we are resolving to rededicate ourselves to in this service. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Ephesus these words:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
I believe He was reflecting on the words of Christ at the last supper when He offered the Disciples the cup with the words drink all of this for this is my blood, the blood of the new covenant. Because here’s the thing. It was not so much that God’s covenant was new, as much as it was the disciples part in the Covenant that was new. Up until that point the way to connect to the Covenant was through the priests and the law and the Temple. But Jesus went to the Cross so that humanity could be in Covenant directly with God. No longer would the priests Covenant with God on our behalf. And so every time we come to this Communion rail we are renewing our Covenant with God through the blood of Christ. And so the covenant becomes new to all of those who choose to follow Christ. But the Covenant between God and man really began at Creation, and all of scripture then is the story of God seeking to reassert that Covenantal relationship time and again. My Old Testament professor in seminary taught that all of the study of Old Testament Scripture revolved around one question: It was this: At this point in the history of man, what is the state of the covenant between God and humanity? Every story. Every event. Indeed every Old Testament character relates in some way to God’s covenant with man.
So what emerges is a covenant that is:
First of all, simple and basic. Simply stated the covenant that God offers is this: I will be your God and, in exchange, you will be my people. Now, humanity has placed a lot of conditions and requirements on the covenant. By the time Jesus was born, there were hundreds of laws that devout Jews needed to follow in order to be a person of covenant. The Temple and the Sacrificial system developed so that people could atone for their “violations” of the covenant. It had become nearly impossible for the average Jew to be in Covenant relationship with God. What God had offered as a Covenant based on relationship had evolved into a Covenant of law. Even today, we struggle to understand a covenant outside of a legal perspective. A covenant is a contract based on law. One party agrees to provide a service in exchange for something that another party will do or provide. If you look up the word covenant in the dictionary it is defined in terms of a legal contract. And so, just as it was in Jesus day, it is hard for us to understand a covenant that is not born in the law, but requires nothing more than a relationship. That we be who we were created to be. I will be your God and your will be my people. And so the new covenant that Jesus offered was not new to God but was new to us. It was a Covenant based on relationship. On Christ’s relationship with God, and His relationship with His disciples. When we follow Christ, we enter into Covenant with God. We become His people. In Paul’s words, it’s a covenant not written in stone, but written on the heart. I will be your God and you will be my people.
Second it is a Covenant that is eternal. Our covenant with God is forever. The Jewish people tried many ways to break the Covenant, to destroy the Covenant, but every time God found a way to reaffirm the Covenant with them. Because no matter what we do, we can never stop being His people. He made us in His image. He loves us unconditionally. And so His covenant with us is eternal. Now that is certainly not true of our worldly covenants is it? Every covenant we make between humans will eventually be terminated. Even the marital covenant which is probably the most important covenant we enter into on earth, is a terminal contract. When we are married we pledge to be in covenant until “death do us part”. It is a legal contract that we are entering into that has a beginning and an end. Sometimes it is death that breaks the covenant. Sometimes it’s the state that breaks the covenant. But our Covenant with God really has no beginning and no end. No beginning. John opens his Gospel by telling us that Jesus was there in the beginning and that nothing existed before Him. He is always and eternal. And then there’s no end. Paul writes to the Ephesians that “Jesus lives through all ages, world without end.” “Drink from this, all of you, and whenever you gather do this in remembrance of me” He said at the last supper. In other words, my sacrifice is eternal, for all people, in all places, at all times. We, two thousand years later, continue to drink from His cup as His followers have throughout the centuries since the Last Supper. His blood of the covenant continues to wash us clean. To draw us into that covenantal relationship. To, in Paul’s words, offer us a life of righteousness and holiness in Covenant with God. And so the invitation is to take this cup today and become a part of the covenant people of God.
And finally, God’s covenant is not exclusive. All the covenants we make in this world are by nature exclusive. They are between us and another human being, or sometimes group of human beings. If only for a moment they separate us from everyone else. Our covenants exclude everyone else accept those we are in covenant with. When we covenant to marry, no other person can be our spouse, as long as that covenant remains in tact. But God’s Covenant is for everyone. I will be your God, and you will be my people. And Christ sealed the deal, sealed the covenant, when He offered the Bread and cup, and invited all of us to eat and drink. No requirements. No restrictions. Jews and Gentiles alike were welcome to drink from His cup. Drink from this all of you, for this is the blood of the New Covenant, poured out for the whole world. This morning we have spoken the words of covenant, but it is kneeling here at this altar and in the receiving and accepting the bread and the juice that we become a part of God’s covenant people forever. And you are invited, as we start this new year, to come. Come to either reaffirm you place in God’s covenant or become a part of that covenant for the first time in your life. Are you ready? What will you choose? You come when you’re ready. And when you do, the Old Covenant becomes new. And becomes a resolution that you can keep forever.