A Sermon for the Covenant Service preached this year.
Covenant is arguably the single most important theme running through Scripture. Scripture is, after all, the human record of God’s people telling their stories of their encounters with God. These encounters were all driven by the sense of covenant, or relationship. That covenant relationship is precisely what made them God’s people. That covenant relationship was precisely what gave God’s people their name and their identity. That covenant relationship was precisely what motivated God’s people to keep going – it was not just their past and present, it was their future direction too.
While we’re here, let’s not make too much of the distinction between the Old Covenant (or Old Tesament) and New Covenant (New Testament). There was no sudden change when Jesus was born. Jesus was, after all, within God right from the beginning of time. There was certainly no sense in which God changed either – so let’s not prop up those tired clichés about “The God of the Old Testament” or “The God of the New Testament”. It’s the same God we’re talking about, whether we read the Old or the New Testaments. The only thing that changed was our understanding of God. When Jesus was born, an awful lot of myths and misunderstandings were shattered. The tables that were overturned were a metaphor for those upended ideas.
This Covenant Sunday, I want to hold before you ten key ideas about the meaning of Covenant. I’ll let you work out for yourselves if there is any link to the Ten Commandments, although to be able to answer that one you would first have to know what the Ten Commandments are, and a recent church survey suggested that most church people who talk about the importance of the Ten Commandments can’t themselves get past naming more than about 7 of them. Anyway, back to the Ten Big Ideas about Covenant.
The first big idea is Incarnation. God becoming flesh; God becoming one of us. God in the midst of God’s people. We first hear of it in the Genesis story, when God is taking a stroll in the Garden of Eden, much to the shame of Adam and Eve. We hear of it in the prophets, when God speaks through a human channel to remind God’s people of the covenantal terms they all agreed but quickly forgot. We see it in Jesus, who embodies the fullness of the Godhead in human form. We see it in the early church, where members are characterised by their love for the unlovely.
The second big idea is Commitment. As with any relationship, it requires effort to sustain it. That effort is called commitment. It’s a giving and not counting the cost. It’s working without seeking any reward. You could use the word ‘faithfulness’ here in this meaning of the word. With Commitment, we see God’s commitment to us and to all God’s people in the Covenant, because God is faithful. God doesn’t give up.
The third big idea is Forgiveness. With forgiveness is the idea too of “willingness to forgive”. Isn’t the story of God an epic story of forgiveness on the grandest scale, over and over again and through century after century? Isn’t the willingness to forgive part of the very nature of God? One of the comedic aspects of the history of the kings of Israel is the alternating good king – bad king nature of successive leaderships, yet time and time again, God forgives the wayward people and the covenant is restored once more.
The next big idea is Kindness. As they say in the internet meme, How old were you when you first realised that “Breakfast” is called that because it is the meal with which you “Break fast” after a long sleep eating nothing? Or, How old were you when you realised that the reason people eat desserts when they are stressed is that “stressed” written backwards is “desserts”. In this case, How old were you when you realised that “Kindness” comes from the same root origin as “Kin” or “Family” – meaning that to be kind to someone is the same as treating them like one of your own family? When God makes a Covenant to show loving kindness to all God’s people, what is actually being said here?
Idea number five is Extravagance. Recklessness. Wastefulness even. Cup running over, Good measure pressed down and spilling over the top. The story of the Prodigal Son was a parable Jesus told to reveal a little about God and God’s Kingdom. “My Gaff, My Rules” as Al Murray’s pub landlord would say. Well God’s Kingdom is God’s Gaff, and so God’s Rules apply – chief amongst them is this reckless extravagance. The Parable Jesus told could more accurately be called The Prodigal Father, since the Father threw that literal kill-the-fatted-calf extravagant party that so upset the other brother who wanted everything to be fair and carefully measured. Right throughout Scripture we see this same extravagance whenever God provides for the people. That’s the kind of Covenant that God offers.
Next is Mercy. What set God’s relationship with the people at odds with the religions of the surrounding people was this sense of mercy, contrasting with the sense of appeasement that had to be bought for other deities. Those other religions were forever offering sacrifices, including human sacrifices, in order to appease the wrath of their remote god figures and ensure good harvests or favourable weather. The God of Israel showed mercy – not of the screaming “Am I not merciful?” from the Emperor Commodus in the film Gladiator, but a gentle loving mercy that had no precedent. Mercy is a character trait that God brings to the Covenant table.
Idea number Seven is Grace. You were probably waiting for that one. Ian Smale, songwriter for kids ministry, summed up the difference between Grace and mercy as follows: Grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve; Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve.
Yet Grace is so much more than unmerited giving. It is a way of being more than doing. It is a way of putting the other first, rather than putting self first. It is an attitude of service rather than control. God is gracious, and God’s Grace is integral to the Covenant relationship.
We couldn’t go much further without Love. This is our eighth Idea. To say God is Love is the closest we can get to explaining the fullness of God in a single word. Some writers have said that God is not a person, God is a verb. Love is an action, after all, and God’s people are all those who receive that love. We are helped in this understanding so much by the metaphors of the Bridegroom and the Bride Church, or by the beautiful and poetic imagery of lovers in the Song of Songs. Poets down through the centuries have tried to explain what love is, especially that rapturous sense of being “in love”. God’s covenant relationship is motivated by love, driven by love and sustained by love. Love is the very essence of who God is.
Idea number nine is Promise. Where commitment was the signing up to the deal at the beginning, and a way to sustain the relationship for the present, promise is constantly looking to the future. Whenever we say “I promise to …” we are talking about our future behaviour, actions and responsibilities. It’s an IOU if you like, just as every banknote in the land bears that famous promise from the Bank of England, “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of…” With the Covenant, God promises a relationship with the words “You will be my people and I will be your God”. Note the future tense there, and note too the emphasis in God’s words on God’s people collectively rather than any individual relationship.
Our tenth idea is … Mystery. Left until last because it was probably the most unexpected in my list, but also left until last because this one is so great that nothing can follow it. When we do our theology, when we talk about what God is like, we must spend the greater part simply admitting we don’t know. God is unfathomable, and any church that claims to have all the answers is therefore blasphemous. We can’t dare to claim we know God, but we can say with confidence that God absolutely knows us, even the bits that we really wish God didn’t know, but also we can say that despite God knowing us fully, warts and all, God loves us unconditionally. There’s so much about God which is and always will be a complete mystery, but we do know that. The mystery of God is absent in so much popular Christian literature, and it is a glaring omission. I would encourage you most urgently to start redressing the balance by reading a book called The Universal Christ by modern mystic Richard Rohr. Highly recommended. Anyway, back to our ten.
These ten ideas tell us ten different aspects of God’s character that God brings to the Covenant table. If we dare to sign up to the Covenant then we must be prepared to offer all ten characteristics back to God.
Except that it doesn’t work like that. We are not called to think of our Sunday Church attendance as our side of the Covenant. In fact I would suggest that our Sunday Church attendance has nothing to do with keeping our side of the Covenant at all. You see, our response to God’s love, to God’s Covenant relationship is not “upwards” but “outwards”. Our response is to our neighbour.
So, we go through all ten of those big themes one more time, very quickly, and in reverse order, as we consider the way we must reflect the ten characteristics of God just mentioned.
The mystery, as Paul says, is the presence of Christ in all humanity. The Universal Christ of which Richard Rohr writes. The mystery of Christ in our neighbour is what motivates us to respond to them. We make a promise today to keep this Covenant, and that promise is to our neighbour – to the oppressed, the captive, the refugee, those desperate. Our promise is to show love to them, a love which is expressed in our grace and mercy. A love which is expressed in the extravagance of our response to their needs, not seeking glory for ourselves, but secret extravagance which blows them away with our kindness. Kindness even, that sees all humanity as we would members of our own family.
None of this is possible unless we as a church are a healthy representation of the body of Christ. Healing comes when we forgive one another, not seeking revenge or demanding justice on our terms. Forgiveness means letting go, for when we forgive we cease to carry around the pain we feel, and in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. That’s how God’s Kingdom comes on earth.
In this Covenant Service we are making a Commitment – not just to God, but to one another and to all our neighbours. The commitment to love God, love others, love our neighbours and even love our enemies, is never one we should enter into lightly, for it demands everything from us. If you cannot make that commitment today then please sit it out and have another go next year when you may feel ready to do so.
Finally, the incarnation of God lies within us. We are called no less to embody Christ in this world. We are called not just to be Jesus’ hands and feet, but perhaps more urgently today to be his words, his prayers and even his anger – joining others to turn over tables in protest at the sickening injustices of today’s society.
Out of the many characteristics that God brings to this table in the Covenant with all God’s people, I have highlighted just ten today. Can you bring those same ten characteristics in your own response as an expression of your side of the Covenant, of your love for God, but most of of your love for your neighbour?
May God give you the strength and courage to say yes today. Amen.
Revd Stephen Froggatt