Monday, December 31, 2012

Improve Your New Year: Live in Covenant With Christ

This is a special post for the New Year. I’ll have my regular post up on Wednesday, January 2.


            It’s evening in the Middle Eastern desert, and an old man stands watch over the carcasses of a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon. He cut the large animals in two and placed the body halves on either side of a trench, which now runs with their blood. He drives the vultures away as he awaits nightfall, when he expects the King to arrive to seal the promised covenant with him.
            The old man looks nervously into the darkening sky and murmurs, “How can I possibly keep the promise I am about to make with this King? What will He do to me if I break it?”
            As night falls he’s tormented by a vision and the King’s voice telling him what will become of the man’s descendants for hundreds of years. Then, as the sky darkens and becomes saturated with twinkling stars, the old man sees a smoking oven and a burning torch pass between the animal bodies, right through the blood soaked trench.
Then the man hears the King say, “To your descendants I have given this land…”
            The King seals the covenant – alone – while the man watches.
            Hundreds of years later, the King renews this covenant with the man’s descendants at the base of a smoking mountain. The King gives them laws, and the people agree to them. “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, “ the King says, “then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In this covenant, the people agree to be the King’s servants, and He agrees to care for and protect them. They enter into this covenant not only for themselves but also for their children’s children.
            Hundreds of years later two young men stand before one another in a palace. One is the son of an earthly king, and is the next one in line to the throne. But the prince knows that the man in front of him, the one he loves as much as he loves his own soul, has been chosen – anointed – by the King of the Universe to ascend to the throne. Without malice, guile or jealousy, the young prince makes a covenant with his sheepherding, giant-slaying friend and gives him his royal robe, his armor, his sword, his bow and his belt. This act symbolizes his submission and unfailing loyalty to his friend. It is a covenant that will surpass time and death.
            Hopefully those stories sound familiar to you, and you can give names to all of the characters.
            In the first story, it is with Abraham who God, the King, makes a covenant. Yet God knows that as much as Abraham wants to keep his promise, he won’t be able to do so, and God has let him know through a disturbing vision, that his descendants certainly won’t be able to keep it. This seemingly brutal act of cleaving animals in two and walking through their blood was a standard way of making what was called “cutting a blood covenant,” when both parties would walk through the blood to show that they bound themselves together in agreement and, when they did so, were obligated to follow the terms of the agreement, or risk facing death at the hand of the other person. By walking through the blood alone, God agrees to keep His side of the covenantforever – no matter what Abraham or his descendants do.
            In the second story, God gives the law to the nation Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. It’s a renewal of the covenant with Abraham, with some variations and rules added.
            The final story is of Jonathan and David, the story of a human friendship that seems to exceed all others in history. The story of two young men whose love for one another is so deep that after Jonathan is killed in battle and David ascends to the throne, David hunts down Jonathan’s surviving son, Mephibosheth, not to kill him, as everyone thought he’d do because of the potential threat to his rule, but to invite him into his house – “for Jonathan’s sake” – so Mephibosheth can be treated with dignity and respect, like the son of a king. In addition, David restores all of Jonathan’s family property to Mephibosheth, so he has an inheritance to give his descendants.
            Throughout their history, the nation of Israel makes covenants with God that they break. Over and over again, they suffer because of their unfaithfulness to Him, and then, when they seem to have learned their lesson, He restores them to Himself. It is the longsuffering love of God that restores them.
            It is this longsuffering love that caused God to send His only Son to Earth to join Jews and Gentiles alike into a New Covenant with Him.
            But do you really understand the significance of this covenant you ascribe to when you take Communion, or understand what Jesus meant when He initiated it in that upper room?
            During the Passover meal, four cups of wine are blessed. And it is the third cup – the Cup of Redemption – that becomes the special cup Jesus raises and refers to as His blood. So let’s take a close look at that third cup, the cup that signifies the New Covenant we entered into.
            When a young man wanted to marry a woman in Israel, a bride price needed to be decided upon between the young man’s father and the woman’s father. This price wasn’t to “purchase” the young woman, but to replace the great loss of a daughter. It was a high price, like buying a house.
            When the price was agreed upon, the young man’s father would pour a cup of wine and raise it to his son. His son would turn to the young woman, lift the cup and hold it out to her, and say, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood, which I offer to you.” In other words, “I love you, and I’ll give you my life. Will you marry me?” Will you become my bride?
            The woman had a choice. She could take the cup and give it back and say no. Or she could choose to answer by not saying a word, and take the cup from him and drink of it. Her way of saying, “I accept your offer, and I give you my life in response.”
            During the last Passover meal Jesus ate with his disciples, He took that third cup – the Cup of Redemption – and blessed it with a traditional blessing.
            Then He probably shocked the disciples when He interjected the marriage proposal into the service. Jesus said, in essence, “I love you,” and compared His love to a passionate, pure love of a husband for his wife. Jesus said, “I love you, and I’ll pay the price for you.”
            First He says, “This is my body, broken for you.” Then He says, “This is my blood, sacrificed for you. Drink of it so that you will be My bride and we may covenant together for eternity.”
            Instead of a blood covenant made with the blood of animals, God’s Son became the covenant sacrifice. Christ was the sacrifice; His blood paid the redemption price for you and sealed the covenant.
            When someone enters into a marriage covenant, they promise to love, honor, protect and serve the other person – forever. When we partake of Communion, we are saying that we, His bride, willingly enter into this kind of covenant relationship with Him, our bridegroom. You say you accept His offer and give Him your life in response.
            This new covenant of grace is based on faith that brings life and righteousness. If you have stepped out in faith and accepted God’s grace, then you are a legitimate child of God; son or daughter – a treasured possession – of the King. John 1:12 says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” Then in his first epistle, John remarks, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” Exclamation point! That the King of the Universe calls us His children. It’s why Peter says in his first epistle: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who…have obtained mercy.”
            But what do royal priests look like? What are their responsibilities? Jesus paid a high price for you. How do you – the bride of Christ, a child of God – live in covenant with Christ and return His love?
            As one writer put it, “We look to Jesus’s teachings, and the teachings of His inspired Apostles, to see the way that Christian faith should work in our lives. As the Apostle John says, ‘“…let us not love in word and tongue, but in deed and in truth.’”
            We are children of God’s promise, and we are free. But our freedom does not give us permission to sin – it gives us permission and the privilege to serve Christ. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6); love shown in our good works.
            And what are those good works? They are our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.
            Of all of these, prayer must come first. Prayer helps us accomplish all that God wants us to do. Through prayer we acknowledge that God is our Father, a loving father we are so close to that we can call Him by the intimate name, “Daddy.”  We remember His rightful place in the universe and in our lives by acknowledging that His throne room is heaven and that only His name is holy. We ask that His will – not ours – be done, and we ask Him to show us His will. Then we ask Him to help us obey it.
            In prayer, we ask God to supply our needs, not just ours, but the needs – both spiritual and physical – of others, particularly our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are humbly reminded that we all struggle in this life – to provide for our families, to forgive people who have sinned against us – and that we need God to forgive us for the sins we commit so our relationship with Him will in no way be hampered. We also remember that there is an evil one in our midst who desires our destruction, and only God can protect us from him.
            Through our presence with others, particularly through weekly worship together, Bible study and small group meetings, we give strength, hope, and joy to one another. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). We spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). Paul tells us to gather together so that we may encourage on another…(Hebrews 10:25). And that includes joining with brothers and sisters outside of your immediate church community to worship, such as when you are traveling, just as the apostles and disciples did.
            We give monetary gifts, striving to tithe as cheerful givers for God’s work in our particular congregation. We give extra, as believers sacrificially did in the First Century Church; to meet others’ needs both outside of our own congregation and around the world. This is the one area in which God tells us to test Him. In Malachai 3:10 He states: “Bring all the tithes into the storehouses, that there may be good in My house, and try Me now in this, if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” I can tell you from personal experience that God faithfully upholds this promise.
            To serve, we identify our spiritual gifts and talents so we are able to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1). As members of one body, working together, we demonstrate and use our spiritual gifts of mercy, teaching, helping, serving, relieving burdens, exhorting, giving, leading, administrating, and greeting people in hospitality. We do not strive to “be everything” but to perfect the specific gifts God has individually bestowed upon each of us. Utilizing your gifts glorifies God and makes the body of Christ healthy and the congregation rich.
            Finally, we can witness to others. Through our prayers, words and actions we can invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Like David who went looking for Jonathan’s son, the physically crippled Mephibosheth, to bring him into his house to treat him like a favored son, with all of the rights granted to a prince, we need to look for the broken and broken-hearted, to bind up their wounds, to help make their spirits whole; to make and treat them like treasured possessions, the treasured children of the King; to bring them into God’s eternal family; to give them a heavenly inheritance.
            Remember, you are an ambassador for Christ. The way you act, dress and talk affects people. Someone is always watching you.
            As my pastor reminds us, Christianity is a team sport, and love is an action. Love helps us run this difficult race together. Christ’s love compels us; our foremost goal should be to please Him in everything we say and do. All of these labors are our way of working out our salvation. Not “doing” to get saved, but doing because we are saved; because we are grateful.
            Yet, we ask ourselves, “How can I possibly measure up and keep this covenant with Christ?”
            It is a serious, important question. God does not want you to enter into a covenant lightly – with Him or with anyone else. He says He’ll call us to account for any oath we utter with our mouths. So we count the cost and enter into this covenant soberly, but joyfully, after much prayer and repentance, for we know that He, by His mercy and grace, will always be with us to help us keep it. And we also know, that by His mercy and grace, He will forgive us when we fail, as we all repeatedly do.
            As the United Methodist Church Litany of Thanksgiving states: God remembers us when we forget Him; He follows us even when we try to flee from Him; He meets us with forgiveness when we return to Him; and He does all of this with unfailing patience and overflowing grace.
            Today, as we look forward in anticipation of a new year, and all that God will bring into our lives, it is the perfect time to reflect upon how we have upheld the covenant this past year, to ask forgiveness for our failures, and to step out in faith into the future by renewing our commitment to follow the Lord where and in the way He alone will lead us.
            May God give all of us the wisdom, strength and discipline to do it.
            May we live wholeheartedly in covenant with Christ.

            In this next year, may you embrace your life-giving covenant with Christ with joy and thanksgiving. May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers. And may God make His face to shine upon you and grant you peace!

Thanks for joining me! Have a Happy (and safe!) New Year celebration!



Note: Some of the information for this sermon was derived from Ray Vander Laan’s “That the World May Know” video series produced by Focus on the Family.