December 31, 2000
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
1st Sunday after Christmas
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; John 15:1-8
What promises have you made to yourself to begin the new year, to begin the new century? Have you chosen the typical promises made after an over indulgent December, more exercise and less food? Have you resolved to be a better friend and relative, to write more letters, make more calls, have guests over more often? Have you resolved to end an old habit like smoking, over spending or TV watching or pick up a new one like reading, eating more vegetables or dusting? January first is a beginning so it makes sense that we would consider how we will live in the new beginning. What will be different? What will be the same?
It's a shame, however, that we pick only milestone days for our new beginnings, birthdays, New Year's Day, the day after major events or holidays. In God's time there is no day nor moment that is better for beginning a new. All are alike and hold out the promise of renewal and hope.
Today we consider new beginnings in our covenant with God. The covenant is the heart of God's love relationship with people. In ancient times there were two kinds of covenants. One made between equals and the other between a sovereign leader and his people. This second type of covenant is the one that God makes. God always dictates the terms of his covenants, which assert his sovereignty and the people's obligation of faith and obedience. God's plan is to redeem his people. Covenants are sealed with solemn oaths and in ancient times often involved sacrifice. God agreed from the beginning of time to care for creation, including human beings. In return God expects that all creation will love and obey. In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve fail to obey God, but even as they are sent out of the garden, God vows to protect them. Cain kills his brother Abel, and yet God places a mark on Cain that is a warning to all who would harm him. God makes a covenant with Moses and his family and after the great flood God promises never to destroy humanity again.
God's covenant is revealed to Abraham, Moses, and David. God promised Abraham a land (Canaan), a nation (Israel), and that he would be a blessing to all people (Gen 15:9-21; 17). Abraham believed God's promises and faithfully obeyed God by submitting to the covenant sign of circumcision. God's people found themselves in slavery in Egypt, and remembering the covenant, God called Moses to draw them out to the promised land. God promised to protect and defend Israel and to be her God. God gave Moses the law for God's people on the side of Mt. Sinai, and obedience to that law meant blessing and life, disobedience meant curses and death. Unfortunately, the people entered the promised land and soon forgot the directions of God. They forgot their covenant. They refused to be led by God and created a kingdom. King David came to power. Under the terms of the Davidic covenant, God promised David's family an eternal throne and kingdom (2 Sam 7:5-16). This covenant pointed to the future Messiah, David's greater Son Jesus, who would finally fulfill all God's promises of redemption.
When this kingdom failed and split in two, the people continued to willfully ignore the promise of God. The prophet Jeremiah had direct warnings for the people of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. They would either have to stop listening to their own counsel and follow God or they would end up overrun by outside armies. The people did not listen to Jeremiah and in the end the nations of Assyria and Babylon captured the promised land. Jeremiah, did however, speak words of comfort in the midst of his awful prophecies. Chapters 31-34 within Jeremiah have been called the Book of Consolation because it brings words of hope in a terrible situation. You heard some of those words today from Chapter 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." Jeremiah said that it would not be like the covenant that God made with their ancestors when God took them out of Egypt. That covenant they broke. This time God would put the law within their hearts. They would be his people, and he would be their God. All people will know God, from the least to the greatest, and God will forgive and forget their sin. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Despite the willful wandering from God, God is willing to start anew. This passage speaks to who we are as people of God, rather than what we have to do to be people of God. God will overcome past shortcomings. God says, "Let's just forget the past and start here." There are no "dead ends" when God is in the picture. This promise was made, and confirmed, at the Cross.
At the Last Supper, the night before the Crucifixion, Jesus explained the symbolism of the communion cup. He said, "This is the blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28; cf. Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Co 11:25). Just as the other covenants were oath-confirmed, so the new covenant would be made by a covenant-initiating sacrifice. But this time the offerer and the sacrifice were one, and the blood that sealed God's commitment was that of his own Son. The new covenant has now been made and confirmed. The promise of forgiveness is assured.
In Jesus Christ the covenant of God was fulfilled and opened to all people. What can we do to respond to the promise of God? Only one thing. We are to believe the promise and consider God's Word trustworthy. We are to consider God's Word so trustworthy that we step out to act on what he says. It was this faith that saved Abraham, long before either circumcision or law was introduced. It is faith alone-faith in Jesus, the seal of God's new covenant-that saves us today. In John 15, Jesus explains the covenant this way: Read John 15:1-8.
Each time we pray, in all times we worship, each time we call on the name of Jesus our Lord, we accept the gift of covenant. We accept the gift of salvation and we commit ourselves to discipleship. Covenant means renouncing idols and choosing faithfulness. It means expecting that our lives will be transformed and fully under the direction of God.
In 1756 John Wesley began to use a Covenant Renewal Service each time he worshipped with Methodist Societies, groups that were meeting all over England. He reported in his journals that the services were a time for remarkable blessing and an occasion for a variety of spiritual experiences, a fresh manifestation of Jesus' grace and a healing for backsliding (UM BOW, p. 288). By 1775 the Covenant Renewal Service was a regular part of New Year's Eve or New Year's Day services. This morning we participate in this service. It follows the basic pattern established by John Wesley, but with updated language. Like hundreds of thousands before us, we will, this morning, remember the covenant recommit ourselves to God.
Do you have resolutions you've made or desire to make? Do you have new commitments for the New Year? I invite you to start here, with a reminder of God's covenant and a recommitment to faithful living. If we choose to live with this divine covenant, attached to the living vine of Jesus Christ, all strength and wisdom, all joy and hope, are ours through our Savior, Jesus Christ.
United Methodist Book of Worship. Nashville, Tennessee: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992 Douglas, J.D. NIV Compact Dictionary of the Bible. Electronic Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing.