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.”