Sunday Night Live Sermons
COVENANTING WITH GOD
Bexley And Rockdale Uniting Churches
GKM also preached at the Covenant Service 23rd June 1996. This is Rockdale Church’s 150th Anniversary.
Twenty eight years ago this week, the Uniting Church in Australia came into being. It was born into so much hope and promise. Today our denomination is in crisis. Membership is rapidly falling. Large numbers of people have left for other denominations. Whole congregations have turned their backs on their properties and walked away to start meeting under a new name in school halls. We have gone from being about the third largest denomination in Australia to possibly the fifth. Former Sydney Presbytery Secretary, and current the Reforming Alliance Co-ordinator, Peter Bentley, said at Wesley Mission last week, : “I would expect that if the Next Assembly of the Uniting Church does not reject Resolution 84 and come out strongly to affirm Biblical standards on issues like homosexual ministry, that between 15 and 18 thousands members will leave the church. This is on top of all of those who have already left, some 6000 in the past twelve months alone.”
The Uniting Church in Australia has the oldest average age of any denomination. Two thirds of our members are females over 60 years of age. In spite of all we talk about our ethnic congregations we are have the highest percentage of Anglo members of any denomination. We have the lowest retention rate of young adults of any denomination, and have condoned immoral lifestyles among some people in leadership in The Assembly and Synods. It is a sad story when contrasted to the hope and promise, found in the forefathers who established the Church on this site 150 years ago, and maintained by faithful Christian clergy and laypeople in the Rockdale and Bexley areas over all those years. Yet there is hope.
The Presbyterian Church in Scotland faced these same issues in the 16th and 17th centuries. The church was led by liberal clergy who sided with the English King and episcope. The Reformation faith called people back to the authority of the scriptures. Godly men led church members to bind themselves in a covenant to their faith. For two centuries “The Covenanters” bound themselves by commitment to God to renewing their church and their personal spiritual lives. John Wesley saw the established church in England in his day in a similar plight and called his Methodists to use the last night of the year or other anniversary to express their gratitude by renewing their covenant of faithfulness to God. What does that mean? Why should we renew our Covenant with God? The idea of a covenant is central to all of scripture. A covenant is an agreement made by God with His people.
In modern times we define a host of relations by contracts. These are usually for goods or services and for hard cash. The contract, formal or informal, helps to specify failure in these relationships. The Lord did not establish a contract with Israel or with the church. He created a covenant. There is a difference. Contacts are broken when one of the parties fails to keep his promise. If, let us say, a patient fails to keep an appointment with a doctor, the doctor is not obligated to call the house and inquire, “Where were you? Why didn’t you show up for your appointment?” He simply goes on to his next patient and has his appointment secretary take note of the patient who failed to keep the appointment. The patient may find it harder the next time to see the doctor. He broke an informal contract.
According to the Bible, however, the Lord asks: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” Isaiah 49:15 The Bible indicates the covenant is more like the ties of a parent to her child than it is a doctor’s appointment. If a child fails to show up for dinner, the parent’s obligation, unlike the doctor’s, isn’t cancelled. The parent finds out where the child is and makes sure he is brought home. A covenant is the unconditional commitment to love and serve.
The word “Covenant” is translated in Latin as “testamentum” and the Bible is divided into two halves, one called the Old Testament or Old Covenant, and the New Testament, or New Covenant. When we speak of the Old Testament or the New Testament, we are referring to those parts of the Bible that tell of God’s relationship with people. Under the Old Covenant, the agreements were made with many notable figures, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. The agreement was sealed with a sacrifice and a sacred meal. God would care for His people and protect and provide for them, so long as they were obedient to Him and His word. If they were disobedient then troubles would assail them instead of blessings. Throughout history people constantly broke God’s covenant, and God renewed it with the following great leader. The main covenant was with Moses upon Mt Sinai. There was the sacrifice of blood, the giving of the Law to be obeyed known as the Ten Commandments, and the annual remembrance of it in the feast of the Passover. Jewish people still uphold the Old Covenant to this day.
God constantly reminded His people of their agreement, but the people were often disobedient. God indicated however that the day would come when He would make a new Covenant with them. Isaiah quoted God saying: 55:3 “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” Jeremiah foretold of a time when this New Covenant would be established 31:31–34 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers 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. “This is the covenant I will make with the house 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.”
This new Covenant would be put into effect when the Messiah came and the Holy Spirit would empower and regenerate the people. That is why the birth of Jesus is found in the first four books of the New Covenant. There would be a sacrifice made, of Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It would be not on Mt Sinai, but Mr Calvary. It would not be dependent upon our obeying a set of laws but upon our receiving God’s grace through our faith in Jesus. We would not stand in our own spirit, but would receive the Holy Spirit. We would remember this new Covenant every Lord’s Day, when we would partake of bread of wine in remembrance of Him who said Matthew 26:28 “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The New Covenant given by Jesus was God’s final covenant with mankind and was for all humanity, not just the Jews. This new Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant as the author of the letter to the Hebrews says 7:22 “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” Hebrews 8:6 “The ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which He is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.” The New Covenant replaces the Old Covenant. Hebrews puts it 8:13 “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”
No longer would Christians be bound by a Law written upon stone tablets which failed to produce righteous living, but would be written in the hearts of believers who would possess the righteousness of Christ. Hebrews 10:16–17 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” Christians who have faith in Jesus Christ and who are filled with the Holy Spirit are not required to keep the requirements of the Old Covenant. Hebrews 10:9 “God sets aside the first to establish the second.” Some cults do not understand that, and try to keep both the Old and the New Covenants and so urge people to keep the Jewish customs of the Old Covenant such as keeping the Sabbath, compulsory tithing, observing the Old Testament ceremonial laws and rules about eating and the commandments for the use of God’s name and so on. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and The World Wide Church of God fail to distinguish between the Covenants. Some Christian groups like the Seventh Day Adventists make the same error.
The followers of Jesus belong under the New Covenant, and are saved by His blood, and are obedient to His will, but are saved not by effort and obedience, but solely by His grace. God’s covenant with us is clear: we will be restored and blessed as God promised Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. God will forgive us our sins and empower us by the inner presence of the Holy Spirit. Our unrighteousness is cast aside through the righteousness of Jesus seen in His death upon the Cross and His resurrection and ascension. Until He comes again, we are to live by faith. Faith alone brings us into the right relationship with God, and keeps us there. This is the heart of evangelical faith. This is the basic meaning of being a Christian. This is the reason why we rejoice in our salvation.
John Wesley wanted his people to remember that Covenant with God at every communion, and at the beginning of every New Year. On December 25th 1747, John Wesley urged his Methodists to renew their Covenant with God. From 1755 an annual Covenant Service was held at the end of each year, and the option has been brought over into the Uniting Church in Australia. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn which said:
“Come, let us use the grace divine and all with one accord, In a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord. To each the Covenant blood apply which takes our sins away; And registers our names on high and keep us to that day.” The Covenant Service has been held these past 194 years in Australia, and 150 years in Rockdale. Today again, I invite you to stand and repeat with me the ancient words that our forefathers in the faith have said for 240 years on Methodism: THE COVENANT SERVICE.
I.H. Marshall, Jesus the Savior, IVP, 1990, p. 275ff