Main Text: Jeremiah 31: 31-34 The New Covenant
When we talk about the Covenant Service, we often talk in terms of renewing our Covenant – but it is not.The New Covenant, like the old, is God’s choice, not ours. The Covenant between God and Israel was not one that Israel made, but one that God made in choosing them to be his people. “This is the Covenant I will make with the house of Israel,” God says through Jeremiah. He was not compelled to choose Israel – he could have chosen any other people. Israel was not more remarkable than any other nation, quite the opposite. It was not the most powerful, or the most civilised, or the wealthiest. In choosing Israel, God chose a nation that was not a nation, a rabble of slaves in a foreign country. As the poet put it neatly: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” But this is how God always acts – in love which is free and undeserved (grace).This is what happens in the New Covenant with the New Covenant in Jesus. It is rooted in God’s choice: free, unexpected and undeserved. Jesus chose the poor, the lame, the sinners, those who no one else would have. This is exactly where we stand today. At its heart, this is not a moment when we choose God, but when beyond all hope or expectation he is choosing you and me!
The extent of this Covenant is God’s world. We usually emphasise the importance of the individual in this, and at first sight Jeremiah might seem to be very “Methodist” with his stress on the individual heart. But look again. God does not make his covenant with godly individuals, but with the whole nation. It is true that not everyone responds to God, but in amking this Covenant God has everyone in his view. Jesus is in the same tradition as Jeremiah. He did not make the covenant with individuals but with the 12, a number which symbolises the whole nation. The blood he shed was not for the few, but for the many – a way of saying that it was for all. Religious folk like you and me are good at forgetting how wide God’s Covenant really is. We see it as for us, the baptised, the believers, the select few who respond to God. But no. This is a Covenant for everyone – every class, colour and country. There is no limit set by God. It is for all.Those of us who are here are not the total of those God wants to include in his Covenant. We are the few who are ready at this moment to accept it, but we stnd for the whole of our humanity. The bread is broken, the wine is poured not for us but for the world. God chooses us not merely for our salvation but for the salvation of the whole world. As today we renew this Covenant, as we stand to receive bread and wine, try to imagine that beside you stands your unbelieving brother and sister. If we are going to truly celebrate this Covenant it will be looking towards God, his choice and his world.
The cost of the Covenant is God’s forgiveness. True forgiveness is never easy. If you have ever suffered rejection or betrayal by another, you will know that the only way the relationship can begin again is to forgive – to free yourself and the other from the past and make a fresh start. To forgive always costs us. In a very real sense it costs us everything, because it means letting go of ourselves. How clearly we see the cost of forgiveness in Jesus. His covenant is rejected even by the 12, but Jesus will not let human pride and self-love destroy the possibility of true friendshp with God. He goes on loving so that even when he is crucified he can say, “Father, forgive them.” This is the third thing we need to remember at this Covenant renewal. God chose us, though there was no reason why he should. He chose us for the sake of the world, and we have failed. In worship and witness, in prayer and Bible study, in home and work, with friends and enemies – we have failed him. But his love never lets us go, and in this Covenant he binds himself to us whatever our failure saying, “I will forgive them.”
The purpose of the Covenant is the life of God – it is concerned with communion between God and his people. “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” This new covenant is such an intimate union between God and his people that we talk of Christ as the vine, and the church as branches, or the church as the body of Christ, or the temple of his Spirit. We put this dramatically in our service in the prayer “Put me to what you will…” We are simply asking that we may learn to see and live life in God’s way. This comes not by learning a thousand rules and commandments, but by becoming so closely linked with God as we know him in Jesus that we share his life. This is not something that happens once and forever – each day we need to respond to God’s approach to us.
Why do we hesitate to say the words of the Covenant prayer? Perhaps because it translates being a Christian from a vague commitment to Christ to something very specific. We want to follow him in general, not in particular. Perhaps we only partly want to obey God’s will and keep parts of our lives to ourselves; perhaps we have failed in the past, and do not want to be dependent on God’s forgiveness of our past and his power for our future. It is because of our hesitation that we need to make this very particular response.Discipleship is sometimes dramatic, sometimes ordinary, but always specific. As specific as a word of apology to someone we have hurt, a hand of friendship to someone who has hurt us, a gesture of defiance to an unjust authority. It is seeing life in God’s way and living in his Spirit. We are so closely unite with him in faith and love that his life is lived in and through us.
This service represents God’s continued and continuous offer to renew his Covenant with us: with you and me, and through us, his world. As we receive the bread and wine, so we make this Covenant our own and surrender ourselves to his will. Amen.