WELCOME AND INTRODUCTION
Good morning! It’s great to meet with you all at Leeds West Hunslet this morning, even if we have to be restricted to a “virtual” presence! Today in our worship, we’re turning again to the theme of “covenant”. We’ll remind ourselves of that new covenant, foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, and fulfilled in Jesus, through whom God gave himself to us at such great cost, and through whom the way is opened for us to be re-created as new people.
So let’s commence our worship with that great song, “At the name of Jesus”. It begins with a brief helpful comment scripted by Commissioner William Francis, and presented by Kevin Larsson, and then sing along!
CONGREGATIONAL SONG – SONG BOOK 74
“At the name of Jesus”
And now here is a prayer for our worship this day, based on the writings of Archbishop William Temple:
Father, help us to worship you in spirit and in truth;
that our consciences may be quickened by your holiness,
our minds nourished by your truth,
our imaginations purified by your beauty,
our hearts opened to your love,
our wills surrendered to your purpose;
and all of this gathered up in adoration
as we ascribe glory, praise and honour to you alone,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
During the last two Sundays, we’ve been reminded that when we enter into covenant with God, we can always be sure that, however prone to failure and to breaking covenant we may be, God always keeps his covenant promises, for he is faithful in every way.
Let’s be reminded of this, as we continue in prayer through the means of that great song, “Lord, I come before your throne of grace” …..
CONGREGATIONAL SONG – SONG BOOK 378
“Lord, I come before your throne of grace
(What a faithful God)”
During this time of crisis for our world, we may need to pray for ourselves, for the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, and we certainly need to pray for those who are on that “front-line” of battling the pandemic, and those who have been impacted by it through very tough illness and even bereavement.
A recording of the classic band arrangement of the hymn tune “Colne”, this morning paired with some specially written words for this time, will hopefully help us to pray for ourselves and others, as the words remind us of that “faithful God” who is always present with us.
MINISTRY FROM THE BAND – Hymn Tune Arrangement “Colne” (Thomas Rive)
BIBLE READING – JEREMIAH 31:31-34 (NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION)
31 ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.
33 ‘This is the covenant that I will make
with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’
MINISTRY FROM THE SONGSTERS – My hope is built (Words: Edward Mote – Music: Douglas Court)
What better songster music could we have today than this recent arrangement from the USA Southern Territory of well-known song book words, reminding us that even in the most trying circumstances, it is God’s faithful promises and covenant, established and proved through the sacrificial death of Jesus, which give us both an anchor and a firm foundation.
Here, next, is an excellent video by the Bible Project which I found really helpful, as it explains clearly and graphically, in a few short minutes, the thread of covenant which runs through the Bible, through some of God’s major covenants which culminate in the “new testament”, the “new covenant”, dawning with the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
THOUGHTS FROM GOD’S WORD
Living in God’s Covenant ….. Creation and Re-creation
What drives the drives the biblical idea of covenant? It isn’t a deal or a bargaining position resulting in a contract. It is the foundation of an everlasting relationship between God and people that reveals the incredible truth … God wants to be with us … to love us. Our God is not isolationist. He loves to live in relationship.
This truth about relationship is seen right from creation … the Godhead in relationship, working together as partners with a purpose. God created (Genesis 1:1); but nothing was made without Jesus, the Word (John 1); and it was the power and peace of the Spirit which hovered over the face of the dark and formless waters (Genesis 1:2).
As seen in the video clip, this perfect, loving, creative relationship is what God wanted to replicate in Eden with our first parents. The essence of their falling from this creative, fruitful, loving and life-giving relationship was in going their own way … “I did it my way” (Genesis chapter 3).
As a result God suffers … humankind suffers (embarrassment/pain/loss of blessings/death) … the earth suffers. This, in a sense is the start of environmental damage … the climate emergency started then, when humankind said … me, not us … us, not the planet (our gifted home) … what can I get now, rather than what I’m leaving for the future.
Whereas humankind wants “now”, the cult of immediacy, which stemmed from the very moment Adam and Eve gave in to Satan, the idea of covenant, as seen in the Bible Project video film, is that God is working through the ages, patiently, not wanting that anyone be lost.
Covenants and creation
As we saw in the video film, the Bible’s story on one level, is the story of continually broken covenants, as we have just recalled right at the start in Genesis. The idea of dependence on God and the resources he freely offers, and the idea of partnership with God are both continually side-lined. In the first of the Gowans and Larsson Salvation Army stage musicals, “Take-Over Bid”, the late General John Gowans summed it up in that one line … “Our stupid independence is our universal sin”.
The story of Noah and the flood rehearses the lesson of what happens to a world which continually flouts the wisdom of God’s ways. But God promises a new order, a new relationship with the whole of creation through the sign of the rainbow.
The story of Abraham and the promises of God to protect him, to make him the inheritor of a new land and also the father of a great nation, all are initially put in jeopardy when Abraham seeks to go back to his own devices, hatching his own plans to protect himself through deception when he comes under the influence of powerful kings, and falling foul of the temptation to find other ways of fathering an heir, when God has specifically promised to give him and Sarah a child.
The people of Israel repeatedly stepped out of the orbit of God’s covenant promises and their potential to prosper them, when they broke the commandments, turned to idols, and made unwise alliances with other nations.
But the story of even the Old Testament is a story of a God who will not give up on his people. The lived-out message in the life of the prophet Hosea (also re-told in a Salvation Army musical), is a message which speaks of a God who, even in the face of the grossest provocation, seeks to re-institute the covenant relationship, to repair the breach made by our folly.
Thankfully the line from the musical continues! “Our stupid independence is our universal sin, and who sees this has seen the place where miracles begin!” It is this admission which opens up the way for covenant relationship to be restored. It is the message which lies at the heart of the parable of the prodigal son, and the wayward son … “When he came to his senses, he said … I will set out and go back to my father” (Luke 15:17-18).
Covenants and re-creation
So if it seems that humankind are the ones who are prone to break the covenant – it has never been broken by God, and never will be! The God who lovingly created equally longs to lovingly re-create. Look back to our Bible reading and Jeremiah …..
The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part as their Master … ‘This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them – write it on their hearts! – and be their God. And they will be my people … They’ll know me first-hand … I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them’ God’s Decree. Jeremiah 31:31-34 (“The Message” Bible)
The truth of the matter is that God would have been, certainly from our human perspective, more than justified in letting us have our just desserts. We have always been tempted in any thoughts of justice to lean strongly towards an emphasis on retributive justice, that is, the twin aims of punishment and getting our own back, rather than restorative justice, that is, with the twin aims of rehabilitating and putting things right. The result is, of course, overflowing prisons and a shy- high re-offending rate, but that’s another story.
In the face of humankind’s record of broken covenants, God’s idea of justice is always restorative justice. A contract is based on our ability to bring something to the relationship; it is heavily biased towards our ability to keep our side of the deal. It implies that we can earn or deserve God’s love, favour and help. Human pride revels at such a prospect.
Jeremiah suggests that the days of contractually based covenants are over and that God is doing something ‘brand-new’ (v. 33). The proposal being placed before us is God saying, ‘I am going to do it all from my side of our relationship.’ This goes against humanity’s ideas of what is right and fair! But God says, ‘I will do it all – and I will never give up on you!’ One of the most powerful parables of Jesus is found in Mark chapter 12 in the parable of the tenants, which graphically illustrates God’s unwillingness to ever give up on us or on the keeping of his covenant.
Parents often love their children unconditionally. The parent does not expect the child to merit or earn their love, but realises that little children aren’t capable of earning love and care by behaving or performing to order. A good parent’s love is not conditional on their child’s capacity to earn or merit their love. Love can be reciprocated naturally as the child absorbs the parents’ love. This kind of relationship transforms both the child and the parent.
God knows that we humans can never keep our side of the agreement. We break the covenant, mess up and fail to measure up – this is the human story. The premise of grace is that God does it all for us … God fills up the gaps and cracks with his mercy and grace, and re-creates something beautiful from that which had been either carelessly or even cruelly smashed.
Retributive justice has a large measure of “getting equal”. The dying Saviour on the cross says instead, and astonishingly, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The restorative justice made possible by Jesus dying on the cross in our place and shedding the “blood of the new covenant”, offers a re-creation of that which was broken.
Going forward together with this understanding of covenant brings us back to where we started these thoughts. It means that we must love each other to the extent that all of our relationships are transformed. The Church is to be characterised by the extent of our love for others. She is a loving, tolerant, accepting and inclusive community of people that is like nothing else on the planet.
Which leaves us one more important thing we ought to say as we think about covenant and re-creation. It is summed up in a quotation from the prolific and multi-award winning Canadian poet, author and activist Margaret Attwood, referring to the story of Noah and God’s rainbow covenant which we touched on earlier …
‘Then God establishes his Covenant with Noah, and with his sons, “and with every living creature”. Many recall the Covenant with Noah, but forget the Covenant with all other living beings. However, God does not forget it. He repeats the terms “all flesh” and “every living creature” a number of times, to make sure we get the point. (Margaret Atwood)
I have to admit this understanding of the “rainbow covenant” is something I’d missed before. God covenanted not only with humankind, but with all creation, and promised never to destroy his work. Yet humankind is well on the road to do it instead, and in spite of God’s covenant. If we are to understand the concept of covenant and re-creation, then the Christian church must be in the forefront of those who not only partner with God in the re-creation of broken lives, but in God’s ages-old, covenanted work of caring for the earth and all living thing. It seems to me that a failure on our part to partner with God in this work is something for which we will have to account.
Let’s reflect on these thoughts of a God who continually seeks to restore and re-create, whatever it might cost him, as we listen to some verses of the beautiful song, “In the love of Jesus”, with compelling filmed images, as it retells from a personal perspective Jesus’ story of the good shepherd.
Let’s rejoice in the love of Jesus that provides all we need to be able to live in covenant relationship day by day with our heavenly Father, and everything we need to live out this relationship by being his partners in his work of re-creation!
IN MUSIC AND FILM
“In the love of Jesus”
A COVENANT WITH GOD (from the annual Methodist Covenant Service)
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.'
The Methodist Covenant Prayer
CONGREGATIONAL SONG – SONG BOOK 861
“In Christ alone”
Our final song this morning sums up beautifully the firm hope and solid foundation that can be ours when our lives are built on living in, and living out, God’s covenant promises fulfilled in Jesus.
Today we can sing to Liverpool Walton Corps’ worship group as we conclude our worship.
FINAL PRAYER AND BLESSING
A Franciscan Benediction
May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep with our hearts.
May God bless us with holy anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that we may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and transform that pain to joy.
May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
Thank you for reading
Prepared by Major Stuart B