The foolishness of the cross

I wonder if anyone knows what the earliest picture of Jesus is? The answer might surprise you. The earliest known artistic depiction of Jesus dates from the second century. It is not in a church. It’s not an artwork on a catacomb, nor precious jewellery. It’s a piece of graffiti, scratched by Roman page boys on the wall of their boarding school.

The legend says Alexamenos Worships His God. And you can see a cartoon of Alexamenos himself. A little figure holds his hand up in an attitude of worship towards the crucified Christ on a cross. But in the picture Jesus is not as we know him. He has the head of a donkey. The meaning is clear: look at Alexamenos, worshipping a crucified fool. What an idiot! A God who is crucified – what’s that about?

In 1st Corinthians chapter 1, verses 18-31, Paul urges not to be ashamed of the cross. Do not be embarrassed by the message of a crucified Saviour, for it is the power of God. What appears to be foolishness on God’s part is wiser than the greatest human wisdom. The cross appears to be folly, but it addresses our deepest needs.

From our reading you get the impression that the people in the church at Corinth wouldn’t have appreciated the Alexamenos graffiti. They wouldn’t have laughed it off nor taken it on the chin. For the Corinthians were very concerned with appearances.

They took pride in their education and their achievements. They noted who had spiritual gifts, and who didn’t, who had the power of persuasion and influence. The Corinthians admired people who were self-sufficient, not depending on others; they valued connections and the esteem of the wider community. Had there been Facebook in those days, they’d have spent all their time on it, updating their status with sunny holiday destinations, pictures of their children’s latest awards, and namedropping their connections. They did it ‘their way’

They wanted their leaders to model success. So Paul the tentmaking unmarried itinerant apostle was a bit of an embarrassment. Next week we’ll hear the criticisms against him – all the areas where he was deemed lacking and not the right sort of apostle for a place like Corinth.

Now Paul could have stood on his dignity. He could have asserted his right to lead, or argued that he was as good as any other of the leaders. Instead Paul challenges the very base of their value system. What they cherish does not matter – Jesus upends the worlds’ values. The Kingdom turns the tables upside down – just look the prime example – the cross.

In v.18: ‘The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’. This surprising wisdom was foretold in the Old Testament, and Paul quotes an example from Isaiah 29. Verses 19-21 observe that what humanity did not guess, God revealed. Did any of the scribes or philosophers foretell the cross, God’s way of saving us?

Paul says that there are Biblical truths which are so far beyond our understanding, so counter-intuitive, that they must be revealed by God himself. God tells us the deepest things through Christ and the Bible.

Our human understanding is limited, it is also tainted by sin. So the power of human reasoning: logic, science, philosophy cannot unaided discover God’s deep plan. Of course, once it is revealed to us, God’s character and plan do not contradict science – God’s two books of Scripture and Nature are not opposed to one another – but we need God’s revelation to show us the whole truth. And sometimes that revelation, truth from God, will look like foolishness to the world.

What does that mean? In verse 23 Paul says ‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ The cross was foolishness to the Greeks because it didn’t resemble any philosophy they recognised. Instead of being mystical speculation, the Christian message is about events that happened in this physical world: God became man, he died on a cross to save us and rose to life again.

The Greeks understood moral guidance and there is instruction in the good news. But morality wasn’t the main point. The cross is not about how to live a moral life, but about how God himself deals with the problem of our sin. It is a rescue. On the cross Jesus takes sin upon himself, he bears the burden of evil, he suffers the consequences of human wrongdoing. Our sin deserves punishment but Jesus willingly takes the penalty for us so that we do not have to endure it. That is the power of the cross – Jesus standing in our place – but the idea that God might actually do something was a huge thing for Greeks to accept.

There are plenty of people today who like their religion philosophical, without the call to act and follow a crucified a Saviour. The church would be very popular if all it did was preach morality – but Christianity without the cross is empty of power, not really Christianity.

For Jews it was harder. How could a true Messiah end up like that? Today Muslims have a similar objection. Islam teaches that Jesus was just a prophet – and in Islam prophets always triumph. So most Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified – it’s a huge step to imagine that God could be human and offer himself to suffer for them. How amazing that love is – and yet it can be hard to grasp.

I wonder in what other ways the cross is a stumbling block or foolishness today? Last Easter there were newspaper reports about people who were deeply offended by an outdoors Good Friday service. It was a re-enactment and apparently the crucifixion bit wasn’t very nice. After all religion must be nice, mustn’t it? Never bring you up short.

Many of us struggle with the idea of the wrath of God. The belief that God is righteously angry at sin, and that he will ultimately punish evil is something that we naturally resist. But if God was not a judge who stood up for justice, could he really be a God of love? In other words if we want a God without judgement are we asking for a God who doesn’t care? And why would Jesus endure the cross if it weren’t necessary? The Bible tells us that what we see on the cross is God’s way of forgiving us.

In our society belief in God’s judgement on sin is difficult. Not least because we’ve all done wrong. As Rom 3:23 says ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…and are now justified by his grace’

Freely put right with God through his immense love. So the cross is good news for everyone. Anyone can come to Christ and be forgiven through him. The cross holds out to us the vast compassion of God. It shows his incredible sacrifice for us. Yet in order for the cross to be good news, people have to first understand that they need it. If we cannot accept that we need to be forgiven, the cross is a stumbling block. But if we know our need, the cross is the wisdom of God

There is wisdom in forgiveness. Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him, and taught his followers to forgive just as they had been forgiven. One person who showed that in her life was Jill Saward – you may have read her story which was widely publicised when she died a couple of weeks ago. Jill was horrifically assaulted when her father’s vicarage was burgled by three men in 1986. Later on she said:

‘If I had carried on hating, it would have destroyed me and I didn’t want those men to have that sort of power over me.” That is a very hard-headed approach to forgiveness – it recognises that forgiveness heals. The foolishness would be to carry on hating, to imagine that the hate in your heart is a way at getting back at those who’ve hurt you. Of course hatred has no effect on them at all. Instead, forgiving turns the tables – the one forgiving has power: to present the attacker with a choice – will they accept forgiveness and the responsibility for change, or will they stay locked in a prison of denial?

So the cross is the wisdom of God. In apparent weakness comes its power. It seems foolish but is wise. This is a principle God uses. He can use people who are weak – as Paul points out in verses 26-31 the Corinthians weren’t actually remarkable people. Not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. God chose what is weak to shame the strong, so that no-one might boast in his presence.

This isn’t to say that Christians should be incompetent! We should always give of our best to God. It’s good to try and understand what we believe and to communicate it in the best possible way. And Paul is not saying that God isn’t interested in capable or privileged people – we all matter to him equally. It’s just that those who are able can easily end up relying on their own ability, doing their own thing. Capable people have to be able to understand their own limits, their own need of God, before God can really use them. It’s when we apply the cross in our own lives that the power works in us, when we grasp forgiveness and our new identity in Jesus.

And so the cross has become the Christian symbol. Interesting that. The symbol of our faith could have been many things. The Trinity is central but the symbol of a triangle hasn’t caught on. Nor has an empty tomb for the Resurrection. I’m not sure how you’d represent the incarnation – it doesn’t help that there’s no record of what Jesus looked like. And while the ancient symbol of a fish has been popular recently it’s far from universal.

No, the symbol of Christianity is the cross. Twenty foot high on the face of a towering cathedral, painted on a rocky outcrop in India, a gold chain on the neck of a girl or scratched on a prison wall, the cross is the instantly recognisable reminder of a crucified and risen Saviour. It speaks of a God of love; of strength shown in forgiveness; of mercy triumphing over judgement; of compassion in suffering. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, his weakness is stronger than human strength. Let us therefore proclaim Christ crucified.

 

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Good News

I have some excellent news to announce. A great start to the New Year and a huge opportunity for us locally. A little bit of background first: There’s a lot of change in the Church of England at the moment. Over the past few decades some churches have grown but many have shrunk. The big change is that rather than continue this situation, the church has decided to reallocate some of its money to support places which are growing so that they can support places which have growth potential.

After a very full bidding process, I’m delighted to announce that our Deanery of about 30 local parishes has received a grant of three hundred thousand pounds to support mission in this area. Over the next four years it gives us the chance to employ new people who will help us all make a difference for the Kingdom of God locally. It’s not about getting an extra vicar to shore things up or a bolt-on ministry that will stop when that person goes. It’s about equipping the whole people of God to serve his purpose here. So each of us can share the good news effectively by word and deed.

Of course, this comes with real responsibilities and we’ve got to be really careful and accountable in using this money to the best long term effect. But it’s a great vote of confidence in our churches and our area, and a massive opportunity. Such good news, I just had to share it.

When was the last time you had something you just had to share? Good news that you couldn’t keep in? Our reading from John 1:29-42 is all about the Good News of Jesus that just can’t be kept in. Do turn with me to page 88 in the pew Bibles so you’ve got it to hand.

‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ cries out John the Baptist. He just can’t hold it in. John has been preparing for Jesus all his life. His whole ministry has been about getting people ready for Christ. And now he’s here! With joy and a sense of completion he points to Jesus.

What John the Baptist says about Jesus matters. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, people inspired by God who waited for the Messiah. We know from Acts Chapter 19 that even a long time after his death there were still people following John the Baptist’s teaching. Those disciples needed to be told that Jesus was the Saviour that the Baptist had looked for. So in John’s gospel, which of course is written by a completely different John, the story of Jesus goes straight from the words we hear at Christmas, to the testimony of John the Baptist.

And it’s full of good news which makes sense for us today. In verse 29: ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. Now, would people in the time of Jesus have been wandering around thinking: ‘what on earth are we going to do about the problem of sin? How will God forgive us?’ They did after all have an entire temple system to bring forgiveness. There was the regular sacrifice of lambs and other animals to cleanse the worshippers from their sins.

But people with spiritual insight might have realised that system didn’t go far enough. An annual sacrifice for sin is fine, but you’ve got to come back next year – and what about the things you do wrong in the meantime? What about all the people who aren’t Jewish? And what about the bits in the Old Testament where God says that the blood of bulls and goats doesn’t really take away sin?

Anyone ever had Japanese knotweed in their garden? If you’ve got the dreaded knotweed you can cut it down, you can burn it, you can pour weedkiller onto it. That will knock it back. And if you keep on doing so you can kind of keep it under control, at least stop it spreading. But unless you take out the roots or the bits coming in under the fence from the next door, you won’t get rid of it. Let up a moment and it will return

The Old Testament sacrificial system is like that. It addresses the symptoms, gives a symbol of forgiveness but doesn’t fundamentally deal with the root cause. It limits sin, but isn’t radical enough.

Jesus the Lamb of God is different. He is THE Lamb of God – in other words he died for sin once. His sacrifice need never be repeated, he is the only one who really counts. He takes away the sins of the world – in other words he died for all – anyone of whatever race who comes to have faith in Jesus is forgiven.

For us today that is great news. There’s a certainty and a peace about what Jesus has done. A freedom. Christians can be sure we are forgiven. There is an ongoing battle against sin, but we fight it not as a desperate rearguard action, nor a frantic game of Whack-a-mole, but as an offensive action knowing that the main battle has already been won.

And it has been won by God himself. In verse 30 John speaks: ‘This is he of whom I said: ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ In that society, the more senior person had more status. Although Jesus was born six months after John, he was the senior, because before that he was the Word of God, who was with God in the beginning. As John says in verse 34: ‘This is the Son of God’.

The implications of this are huge. God himself came to us! When we look at Jesus we look at God himself! God lived as one of us in the world that we know. God suffered and died and rose again for us. But John is making the point that Jesus is greater than any human teacher. He is far above any prophet. It’s not just that his words carry a greater authority – they carry a different kind of authority – the unmediated words of God himself. Anyone looking for the source of truth, anyone seeking reliable religious authority can find it in Christ.

And it gets better. Each one of us can know him as a living reality in our lives. In verse 33: ‘He is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ What do you think of when you think of baptism? A little splosh of a water on a baby’s forehead? Put that image to one side. Baptism comes from a word that means drench. Immerse. Soak. John’s not talking about a little dab with the Holy Spirit, he’s talking about being filled.

We don’t really know what experience the average Old Testament believer had of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was given to particular individuals for a special task from time to time, but as Joel tells us the Spirit wasn’t poured out on all believers until Pentecost. So what was it like for them? Perhaps we may remember our own lives before we became aware of God’s Holy Spirit?

A sense that God was at arm’s length? That he loves us like a Father, but perhaps in a distant sort of way? Prayer that is dutiful, peaceful, heartfelt but not intimate? Religious literature which is rather legalistic compared to the creativity and compassion the Spirit of Jesus brings? Life lived in a way that with hindsight seems monochrome now the spirit has brought colour? Evergreen winter trees rather than spring-time’s new growth?

When we ask to be filled with God’s Spirit, and ask each day, God gives what he has promised. There is an amazing power and intimacy in God’s Spirit, available to us all so let us keep on asking.

One thing the Spirit will do is help us share our faith. In verse 37 the two disciples probably don’t understand much of what John has said, but they go and follow Jesus anyway. ‘What are you looking for?’ he asks, and the reply where are you staying is much more than a request to stop by for a cuppa! Being a disciples involved much more than turning up for the odd lecture – you stayed with your teacher. You ate and drank and walked about with him, living like he did. You slept by his feet, not wanting to miss out on any pearl of wisdom.

And the transforming effect of knowing Jesus is so great that Andrew immediately invites his brother Simon to come and see Jesus, who gives him a new identity.

I just want to finish by thinking about that invitation. There’s not much to it. Just ‘we have found the Messiah’, come and see.

One of the most important ways that we can help other people come to Jesus is by a simple invitation: Come and see. I’m going to the Carol Service, would you like to come too? We’ve got a pancake party in the church, why don’t you bring the kids? We have this interesting discussion in the pub – I think you might like it.

Yes, there are those who nag and put people off. Occasionally you do meet people who are more like recruiting sergeants for an institution or those who tot up scalps. And none of us want to be like that. But I suspect most of us are the other way: we could do with a bit of encouragement and help to invite others to things which will help them meet Jesus.

So I’m going to ask for some feedback. What would help you invite others: to church; or Alpha; or a social where they can just meet Christians being more or less normal?

What would help? More special events like an evangelistic service or a men’s group? Flyers so you’ve got something physical to put in their hands? Some training in how to invite people, building your own confidence?

Or are there things we could do to build confidence in what we’re inviting people to? When I first arrived in my last post, church members would say ‘We won’t be here next Sunday, we’ve got guests coming.’ After a few years, people began to say something different: ‘meet Philip and Sue, they’re friends of ours who are staying for the weekend’. That told me the church was moving in the right direction when people felt able to invite their friends.

Let me know afterwards/Anyone got any thoughts now?

We have amazing good news in Jesus. It’s something we will want to share. What can help us grow in confidence pointing others to Christ?

Epiphany

I wonder if you did much travelling over Christmas and the New Year? And if so, how was it for you? A long journey that must just be endured before you arrive at the destination? Traffic jams, road closures, pop songs playing in the back, until at long last we reach Granny’s and the celebrations can begin.

For many of us, much of the time, the point is the destination, not the journey. But there can be times when the journey itself is significant. For me, driving over to the 8 am communion is a spiritual preparation – the stillness of the sleeping villages, the orange-misted sun rising over the frosted fields – it’s a time to connect with God and prepare for the day. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination – in The Canterbury Tales we hear the stories the pilgrims tell on the way, but Chaucer never describes their arrival.

Our reading today from Matthew 2:1-12 shows us the wise men on a journey of discovery. Like a treasure hunt, they follow each clue until eventually they arrive in the presence of the infant Christ. Today the story encourages us to think about life’s journey. How does God speak to us now? How does he call you and me to know Jesus better?

For God is a God who guides. The God of the Bible communicates. He calls us to know him; he invites us to respond to Christ; he tells us what is best for us. The story of the wise men wouldn’t make sense at all if it weren’t for a God who guides. It completely depends on the idea that God is drawing these people towards Jesus. It’s often worth looking at unstated assumptions – and the big one behind this story is that God wants to communicate with people and can communicate with people.

That may seem obvious. But it’s really worth pointing out, because this is quite distinctive in the Christian view of God. Some faiths and forms of agnosticism believe in a God who is distant and leaves us to the task of working out what’s best. Even many Christians imagine God giving us direction in the 10 Commandments, then leaving us to get on with it.

But Biblical faith believes in a God who’s interested in each one of us individually, who cares that each person should encounter Christ, who guides us through our own situations and prayers. We believe in God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit, and I want to reflect on that today.

And what a surprising God we worship! I did briefly wonder about showing a clip from The Life of Brian at this point – because Monty Python really do get the complete bizarreness of it. The grand visitors from the east, their peculiar gifts, worshipping a baby Messiah in a peasant’s house.

The wise men are not the people you would expect, nor the guidance that’s obvious. Magi were the scientists of the day, wise ones who studied the stars. Yet mixed in with their planetary observations and predictions of orbits was a great deal of what we would call magic. The science of astronomy was not yet separated from the superstition of astrology – about which the Old Testament is sometimes disapproving.

Somehow though God spoke to the Magi through this star – they grasped its symbolic significance. He can speak to people today through natural wonders: many see in the order and beauty of creation a testimony to God. And it’s true that there are many scientists who are also Christians. Indeed God is perfectly capable of revealing himself to all sorts of people who, perhaps even unwittingly, are seeking him. There are many stories of Muslims having dreams in which Jesus calls them; accounts of New Age spiritual seekers sensing the presence of God. They may be doing unorthodox things, but that is no barrier to God who can call anyone to a better understanding of himself.

What does mean for us? If we have found Christ, we will want others to know him too. We must understand that people will express their spiritual hunger in ways that may challenge and stretch us. We need to be able to engage with them, hear well, listen for the presence of God, and share without condemnation but with love and clarity.

It’s good to think about how we might explain our faith in ways that make sense to them, without slipping into a kind of relativism in which all beliefs are portrayed as equally true. You know the kind of thing: it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it! Yet that ignores the differences between faiths. Nor does it explain why the Magi bothered.

For the Magi represent all Gentiles, All nations now invited to be part of God’s family. They show the good news is not just for the Jews, but for everyone! Anyone who comes to Christ can be part of God’s family. This was revolutionary in the first century – in our time the idea that everyone needs to come to Christ might sound radical. We are used to hearing the idea that all religions are essentially the same. But if that is true, why did the Magi bother? Why travel all that way if they already had the truth? Why ask all those questions if they already had the light?

The other thing we can learn from the Magi is that they act. They see, they understand, and they do something about it. If you want to steer a car you turn the wheel, but if you’re not moving, the power steering will just grind holes in your driveway. Similarly, with God’s guidance we need to be moving to get a sense of direction.

If we have an important decision to make, we should pray that God will show us what he wants us to do – and then try and push some doors to see if they open. Apply for that job, look at some houses, test out a new ministry. For instance, the Diocese are holding a day entitled ‘Am I called to be a LLM’ – if the thought has ever even crossed your mind do go along –Reader ministry may be different from what you expect!

So the Magi act. A huge contrast to the Priests in v. 4-6. Imagine it, the Magi have turned up, announcing the birth of a new King. Everyone knows about it – verse 3 says all Jerusalem is in turmoil. So Herod calls in the religious experts, who know all the answers. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea just like the prophet said’. And, er, that’s it.

So exotic visitors say ‘We’re looking for the new King of the Jews. We’ve seen his star. Can you tell us where he is please?’ And the priests reply: ‘What, the Messiah? The promised Saviour? The one who will redeem Israel? The one for whom the prophets looked? Promised and foretold these three thousand years past? The long-awaited Redeemer who will be the fulfilment of our religion? He’s been born? He’ll be in Bethlehem then. Good luck and cheerio.’

How could they not go? Did they not actually believe it could be here and now? Would the coming Messiah upset their comfortable position? Had it just not occurred to them that the words might require action? Or were they afraid of Herod and his reaction against the truth?

Lord preserve us from hearing the words of the Bible and thinking it does not apply to us! Lord protect us against having defended hearts explaining away every Scriptural challenge! Lord keep us from saying with our lips ‘Christ will come again’ whilst never imagining in our hearts that it might be in our time! Lord strengthen us against the fear which says ‘We could never actually do what Jesus teaches because…’

Whereas the Bible is the main way that we get general guidance from God, there are many ways that he can guide us individually. The Old Testament told the Magi in which region to look, the star guided them to the precise house. With us the essentials for living as a disciple of Christ are all in God’s written word – what it is to have faith, how to treat one another. The individual decisions: where to live; what career step next; how to be involved in the community – these are discerned through personal prayer.  So it’s important that we spend time with God regularly, because prayer enables us to see him at work.

We might also notice that the Holy Spirit can give us the benefit of hindsight. No doubt the wise men’s gifts seemed bizarre at the time, but when the gospel was written down, Matthew would have seen in them a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

So was the journey more important than the arrival? Or has the journey only just begun? In one sense the Magi have reached their destination, they have found Christ. But in another sense, this is the beginning of their story. Now they must return to their own country, work out what it means to live by the promise of a world’s redeemer. For Mary, Joseph and Jesus too a new episode unfolds: of sudden flight, refugee status, and being uprooted to a new home. Much of it is left to our imagination as the journey continues.

So too with us. Finding Christ is only the beginning. Then follows a lifetime of discipleship, of listening to God. How will he guide us? Through the world around us – earthly wisdom and good friends; through his Word; through prayer as we seek as his personal direction.

I wonder with which of those you are most familiar? And which might need development? Could you watch to see God at work in the world around you? Reflect on your own background, formation and understanding? Could you benefit from the shared wisdom of others? One of the best things about our Lent groups is the way that members from different churches share their experiences and thoughts and we learn so much from one another.

Is it Biblical guidance that you could develop most? If so, there’s nothing which builds up our understanding quite so much as reading a passage of the Bible each day. It needn’t be long, in fact it’s better to read a paragraph or two slowly and thoughtfully than try a big chunk in one sitting. It needn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes before bed or in the morning each day quickly adds up and makes a huge difference.

Or would you want to focus on developing your prayers? Again, a time each day for prayer is a great blessing. At the end of the day, try looking back at it. Where can you sense God’s presence? What has he been saying to you? How has the day been guided, held in his love?

And above all, act. When God speaks, may we hear him and put what he says into practice. May our lives be like the Magi, characterised by a listening obedience. Amen.

 

A New Year Covenant

I wonder how those New Year resolutions are going? Three hours since we woke and still going strong! Someone once said that a resolution goes in one year and out the other. My favourite is the chap who said: ‘May your troubles last as long as your New Year’s Resolutions.’

Why do they have that reputation for fading quickly? Perhaps it’s because of what they are. A resolution could be defined as a promise to make a dramatic, sudden and major change in one’s life, usually for one’s own benefit, and attempting to do so by one’s own will power and strength. Often once the resolution is broken, we throw in the towel and go back to having a drink every day, or whatever it may be.

There is a Biblical alternative. A model which has very deep roots in the Christian tradition and Judaism before it. Something we’ll be doing later in the service. It speaks, not of a one-off change, but of being continually transformed by grace. It calls us, not to a brittle promise, but a lifelong journey with God, where when we fail we are picked up again, forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Biblical alternative is the Covenant. A committed relationship, a promise of faithfulness between God and his people. It’s almost like an agreement: there are duties set out, blessings for obedience and consequences for failure. But it’s not a legalistic thing like a property covenant – a Biblical covenant is always held in God’s grace and love, and though people broke them many times, God never broke faith.

Why today? We’re thinking about Covenants this Sunday because the 1st January is the eighth day of Christmas, and as it says in our reading from Luke 2:21 ‘On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.’ Jewish people circumcise male children because it is commanded as one of the Old Testament covenants. Circumcision for Jews is a sign of belonging to God’s people.

The background is that when God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, God also commanded that all Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised as a reminder of this promise. There were other covenants God made with his people – for instance the giving of the Ten Commandments after the Exodus was also part of a covenant.

There’s a pattern we can see. The initiative is always God’s. God called Abraham. God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. It wasn’t the people who approached God, rather he moved in grace and love towards his people. Then, as they respond to his call, God instructs them in the right way to live. He shows them how to thrive. These commands are for their good, so if they keep them they will experience blessings showered upon them. But if they turn away from the right path, it’s like putting up an umbrella against the shower of blessings. In other words, sin stops us enjoying the life God has called us to.

The idea of the covenant is that God and his people are bound together forever. Think of a marriage – which is often described as a covenant, the relationship is meant to endure through thick and thin. For richer and poorer, for better and for worse, God will be faithful to his people. When they sin they experience his faithfulness as judgement, discipline which brings them back. When they repent, God’s faithfulness means they are forgiven. It’s not two-faced but two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get one thing clear. A covenant isn’t about winning God’s favour. Sometimes people think that a covenant is all about doing good and avoiding evil so we can get into heaven. That is not Christianity. That would be like one of those comedies where someone is trying to catch a train – their legs go faster and faster but still the carriages draw away from them.

True Christianity teaches grace: it’s more like Jesus is the train driver who stops for us so we can get on. And a covenant is a bit like not doing anything stupid while you’re on the train: don’t get off before the destination; don’t stick your head out of the window when a tunnel is coming up. Covenants keep us abiding in the grace of God. His love brings us in and the covenant stops us messing up.

Christians don’t see a covenant as an attempt to earn salvation, because Jesus has already done it for us. That is what St. Paul is saying in our reading from Galatians chapter 4. In verse 4: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ – this refers to the circumcision we thought about earlier. Jesus lived in the covenant, he kept the Jewish law fully, the only person ever to keep it both in letter and in spirit.

In verse 5: ‘In order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children’. Redeem means buying back, giving a payment in order to rescue someone. The payment that Jesus makes is his own life. He offers himself as the perfect substitute in our place, a sacrifice which brings forgiveness and wipes away the wrong we have done. Only a sinless person who did not have to account for his own sin could stand in our place and take our sin upon himself.

The result is in verse 6 ‘Because you are his children, God has sent his Spirit into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ So we are no longer slaves but children, and if children then also heirs through God. In other words, because Jesus was perfectly good, we can be forgiven in him, and we can have perfect confidence coming to God through Jesus.

That is the covenant God makes with us now. To gives us peace, forgiveness and new life through Christ. It is God’s initiative, his covenant. That’s why Christianity is not a religion of outward observance. Christians don’t need to keep Old Testament law – but we also don’t have to do the external things which are so important in other religions.

Sikhs have their turbans and Kirpan daggers, but Christians do not have to wear a cross. Muslims pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan. But Christians can pray anytime, wherever they are; Christians can fast during Lent – if it’s helpful, or any other time, but we don’t have to.

Rules do not define Christians, because the heart of our faith is a relationship with God through Christ. Jesus fulfils God’s perfect requirements for us; we then live out our faith, not in ritual observances, but in love and in service for God and one another.

For Christians that covenant begins in baptism. It is continued in confirmation. But it can also be helpful to renew those promises from time to time – and what better occasion than the New Year?

As we look to the future and think about how we would like to act in 2017, our New Year service invites us to affirm our covenant with God.

There are some wonderful words of commitment and openness which we’ll be hearing in a moment. Let me just quote some:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both… We’re invited to trust in God’s use of us, to be at his disposal.

and later on we say together:

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,

It’s a radical openness to God. Whatever may come our way, God will be faithful. He sees a bigger picture that we cannot; he knows what is best for us, what will grow us and how we can benefit others. God walks with us on the journey, leading and teaching us through the hardships. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

We can trust in God utterly because he is faithful. He has made a covenant with us, the covenant we remember at the Eucharist, the blood of the new covenant. God has given us a promise which is unshakeable because it is grounded in his consistent character, his covenanted love.

I’ll end with a poem which is well known, deservedly so. It was quoted by King George 6th in his 1939 Christmas broadcast – if we think we live in uncertain times, how much more so back then!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”