Few things which Methodists do are unique. Methodism as a rule tries to be nothing more than expression of mainstream Christianity, with an emphasis on active discipleship. One of the few things which Methodists do which we and others regard as distinctive is the Covenant Service. This is an annual service held, usually at the beginning of the year, in Methodist churches where we renew our relationship with, and our commitment to God. This sermon was written for such a service.
There is a rather deep irony in reading this part of Jeremiah’s prophecy in a Covenant Service. It is entirely natural that we choose this reading. This is one of those places where the word “covenant” is explicitly used. It is used as a word to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. And Jeremiah’s words promise a new covenant, which we interpret to imply the new relationship between God and people established in Jesus. But! And it is a big “but.” But there is a deep irony in reading these precise verses on this occasion. Because God says through Jeremiah:
No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other ‘know the Lord!’
The covenant that God has in mind will be so strong and so pervasive, and so much part of the people’s existence, that they will no longer need reminders of their relationship with God. It will just be who they are. And yet, the irony is, we read these words in a service which is nothing other than an annual reminder of that relationship! The irony is we read these words in a service where effectively we teach one another what this relationship is. And say: “Know the Lord!”
Covenant is a slightly obscure word. If we use it at all, it will be be almost without exception in the context of this service. The covenant service and the prayer at its heart is a distinctively Methodist way of thinking about what it is to be a Christian. But beyond the name of the service we might only have a vague sense of what the word itself means. Jeremiah’s illustration of what the form of covenant is, is marriage. Though he only refers to this obliquely. Marriage is a covenant because it is a solemn agreement between two parties. It is an agreement made with oaths that establishes a permanent relationship between husband and wife, a relationship that is intended to be unbreakable. But actually Jeremiah’s reference to marriage is made because despite that intention the opposite is true. He says:
A covenant that they broke though I was their husband.
Through Jeremiah God points to the relationship he has had with with Israel. And in fact compares it to what we would call a failed marriage. That is often the OT’s view of the history of God’s people. Time and again they have broken the solemn agreement between them and God. Which is perhaps why marriage is such an appropriate illustration. We are perhaps painfully aware that despite the intention, despite the solemn agreement that marriage be a permanent, because human beings are involved, and because human beings often can’t be as good as their words or are unable to live up to their best intentions, many marriages are not permanent, and the solemn agreement that formed them becomes broken. Which is perhaps why, in relation to the covenant that exists between us a God there is a need for the constant, at least annual, reminder that such a solemn agreement does exist between us and God, to point us back to our words and remind us of our best intentions.
As well as form, a covenant also has content. In a marriage it is expressed in the promises that are made:
“I take you to be my wedded wife/husband, for better, for better worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, from this day forward, until we are parted by death; and this is my solemn vow.”
What that promise does is describe the relationship which is the covenant of marriage, a relationship in which the parties agree to “love and cherish one another.” It is a commitment to each other which is not altered by the circumstances that they might find themselves in: “for better for worse” And it is intended to be permanent: “Until we are parted by death.” Jeremiah describes the content of the covenant that exists between God and God’s people In the passage we read God promises:
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The covenant service unpacks a little further what that means for us as Methodist Christians. Again in the form of a promise, we are reminded: “In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ. For our part we promise to no longer live for ourselves but for God” And what this means is that the content of our side of the this solemn agreement is that we make God the determining factor in our lives. The service says: “This means that we are content that he (God) appoint us our place and work and that he himself be our reward” And a little later in the service we say together: “I am no longer my own but yours.” What is clear is that the requirements of the covenant – the content of the solemn agreement between us and God are incredibly demanding. They run against everything that the world tells us we should think about ourselves. Especially it presents the idea that we should give up choosing who and how we want to be and allow God to shape our lives, in order that we might know God and find life in Christ. No wonder we need an annual, or a weekly, or even a constant reminder of this!
In the words of Jeremiah God holds out a promise of a transformation. It offers a change in the nature of the people involve in the covenant. Which is a transformation that makes the content of the covenant sustainable:
I will write my law on their heart.
God promises that being God’s people will come naturally. God says that the terms, the content of the covenant agreement will be so internalised by God’s people, written on their hearts, that it will be who they are. There will be no possibility of the covenant being broken, because to do so would mean they would have to stop being themselves. This idea is echoed in the New Testament and in the covenant service in the idea of “new life in Christ.” That in being a disciple we become a different kind of person. So that our lives are shaped by the relationship we have with God in and through Christ. In a way we would hope to arrive in a place where the covenant service would be unnecessary. Because it would have become redundant, we wouldn’t need reminding anymore.
Now and Not Yet
In his prophecy Jeremiah sees that God will bring about this change in nature by his great reconciling act:
I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.
What Jeremiah looked forward to, we as Christians recognise has already taken place. Jesus is God’s great reconciling act. The covenant service, as we usually hold it, happens just after Christmas. Where we have celebrated God intervening in our world and in our lives in person. Which means, also, this service is placed before (by a few months) the other end of the story the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter where God completes that reconciling act. But as with so much of the gospel this means we live in the tension between what God has already done: That great reconciling act in Jesus. And seeing its full completion: The writing of God’s law on our hearts. Christians live between the now and not yet of the gospel. Which in part is what we are expressing in the covenant service.
Know the Lord
We know that we shouldn’t need to be reminded to “know the Lord.” But we also know enough about ourselves to know that we are likely to forget. So we do it anyway. And remind ourselves also of the terms, the content, of our commitment to God, in the form of this service. We do it in this service in the hope that we can remain God’s people for another year. Even as God’s commitment to us remains unbroken and unbreakable
Covenant, Form and Content by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0