The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you;
he will never leave you nor forsake you.
Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
The Methodist Church the beginning of the year is the season of the Covenant.
A period when we re-evaluate the promises we make to God and to each other. The covenant service was established as an important event in the Methodist Church by John Wesley in the mid-1700’s, and is commemorated annually by Methodist tradition.
Covenant is custom of binding one to another. The ancient world was a dangerous place and in order for a nation to protect itself and stay alive, weak insignificant rulers would ‘pledge allegiance’ to a powerful king in a neighbouring kingdom. The covenant between the weak and the powerful involved an unbreakable oath which was enacted by walking through the blood of animal sacrifice. Both parties would walk together, binding their fates and witnessing the outcome should the covenant be broken. A feast of the animals would be shared by both nations after the covenant ritual. The blood Covenant described in Genesis 15:7-21 involves YHWH , Abram, a familiar blood covenant ritual and a surprising shift from cultural tradition.
Read *Genesis 15:1-20*.
The opening of Genesis chapter 15 begins with *Fear Not, I am your shield, and your reward will be very great*. Abram wasn’t convinced by the reassuring words in the vision he had. In fact, if we look at verse 2, Abram starts on a bit of complaining: *You have given me no offspring*. But YHWH continues to remind Abram of the promise found in Gen 12:1 *I will make of you a great nation;… I will bless you so you can be a blessing*. In today’s reading YHWH guides Abram through the covenant ritual, telling Abram to collect and divide the sacrifice of heifer, goat, ram and birds. In ancient culture both parties would walk together through the bloody space of one, divided into two. This ceremonial act bound their fates, visually enacting the potential outcome should the covenant be broken. Beasts cut, blood seeping into the spaces between the halves, a violent reminder of the consequences of breaking the covenental oath. The ritual walk through the bloody area between the animals was to take place, Abram fell into a deep sleep. Verse 12ff *The sun went down and a deep sleep fell. A dreadful and great darkness fell on Abram*. In narrative language one cannot help but notice the repeated notion of falling, deep, down, darkness, dreadful, and even finally the notion of ‘sleep’, which is often a euphemism for death. However Abram did not die in this passage, because YHWH was his shield.
If Abram had walked in the blood covenant with YHWH he would have been destined for death. Abram could never maintain his part of the covenant. His ability to maintain his ‘allegiance’ to YHWH was impaired by his sinful nature. So God took responsibility of both ends of the covenant. Gen 15: 17-18 describes the presence of YHWH in fire and smoke. The presence of YHWH embodying the notion of *Fear Not, I am your shield, and your reward will be very great*.
The Covenant proclaimed annually in the Methodist service is powerful. We are reminded that in Jesus Christ, God has established a “New Covenant” with us. A covenant where God as our shield has created a way where we too can fall, deep, down, into darkness, dreadful sleep; where Jesus is the blood sacrifice of the new covenant taken on our behalf. In the “New Covenant” God again takes on the burden of both sides of the covenantal oath so that our sins are forgiven and God’s law is written on our hearts.
For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach each one his neighbour and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward all their inequities and remember their sins no more.
The Covenant Prayer helps us to respond to God’s grace even when we doubt our ability to follow the oaths we promise.
We say to God:
· “Yes, this is what we want to be part of. We love You, we trust You and we give ourselves completely to You”.
· We can do nothing without You, through the sacrifice of Jesus.
· We express our absolute faith that You, Lord God, will protect us, provide for us, and guide us.
The Covid pandemic has taken it’s toll on all of us. There are many times, and for many people, where hopelessness threatens to overwhelm and defeat us. More than ever this year we need reminding that the power of the Covenant is through the sacrifice of Jesus., and not through any goodnesses of our own. In this difficult time it is comforting to know that YHWH is our shield (Gen 15:1), and has an eternal plan for us. Jeremiah 29:11 proclaims: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Like Abram, we choose to believe the Lord (Gen 15:6), and in God gracious and loving nature, God steps into the gap of our eternal salvation that we ourselves cannot achieve.
In our weakness, God becomes our strength.
In our doubt, God becomes our shield.
In our inability, God is more than able.
National Covid restrictions have delayed the Covenant Service for Metro Methodist this year, however we will proclaim our covenant commitment in 2021. Over the next few weeks we will explore various covenant relationships and expressions. Ultimately we will prepare our hearts to say the covenant words which have been proclaimed by Methodists for over 260 years. The Covenant Renewal Service will be celebrated when the church re-opens. At this stage we are conservatively considering March to reopen our in-person worship.
In the meantime the invitation is to consider:
The Covenant Prayer, (Typed below)
The depth of commitment which is only possible through Christ, &
The Covenant Power found in unity of Spirit.
May God be with us, our shield, our blessing, our salvation.
For over 260 years Methodists have held an annual Covenant Renewal Service. At the heart of the service is the Covenant Prayer written below in contemporary form:
I realise that I belong to you, God so show me what you want me to do, whether it means I become important or not. In everything I do or have to endure, when I work and when I have nothing to do, when I am successful and when I fail, when I am full of joy and when I am sad, when life is going well and when things are in a mess, I willingly offer myself and everything I have to serve you - wherever you want to use me. I am your child and you are my Father. May it be so for ever and ever.
I am promising this, but it is only with your powerful help
that I shall be able to keep this promise. Amen
Or in the more familiar old English form:
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.