This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 8th January, 2016 at Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church at our annual covenant service. This is a very traditional Methodist service, where once a year we renew our commitment to serve God and the world. The readings for that day were Genesis 12:1-8, Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 14:22-25, all of which speak about different kinds of covenant (or agreements) between God and humans.
In any age there are always certain buzzwords that become very popular among preachers and commentators. When I was at theological college, ‘liminal’ or ‘liminality’ was one such word. Everything was about being liminal or on the edge, to the point of ridicule. It was all about ‘being and yet not being’, being church and yet not being church, being present and somehow also being absent. It all got rather tiresome eventually!
One of the buzzwords of our present age perhaps is “the journey”. We are continually being bombarded with the concept that we are all somehow on a journey – be it celebrities, nations or even superheroes. Movies and novels must have characters who are ‘on a journey’ – perhaps a mental journey of self-discovery or a physical journey across communities and continents. Exhibitions must show visitors the artist’s journey. To win Strictly come dancing or the X Factor, you have to show people that you have been ‘on a journey’. Even TV adverts are meant to take their viewers on a journey somehow – presumably from a place where they don’t want the product being advertised to one where they believe they desperately do!
As with so many ideas and concepts, though, the Bible got there long before anyone else! Our scriptures are full of people on journeys: travellers, wandering prophets, pilgrims, refugees, seekers after the truth, missionaries, and many more. The followers of Jesus Christ himself were not initially known as Christians, but rather as followers of ‘The Way’ – literally people on a journey. And before that, God’s people were taken on numerous physical journeys: some of their own freewill; some because they are directed by God; others because they have no choice.
In the Old Testament, these travels, and travails, are often punctuated by covenants. By times when God reaches out to humanity and makes promises to them, and in turn asks them to respond to his generous love. Our first reading today, from Genesis 12, is one of the first of those covenants, and is made with one of the first of God’s journeying people: Abraham (Genesis 12:1-8). God calls Abraham – or Abram as he is then – out from his homeland, from all that is familiar and easy, to the perils of a dangerous journey into the unknown: across deserts and wildernesses, into the hostile land of Canaan. But before he sets out, God enters into a covenant relationship with him – a covenant to which you and I are heirs – in which God promised Abraham that, somehow, out of him would come a people, who would eventually become a light to all the nations of the world. And God kept his promise to Abraham.
In our second reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34), the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God’s people at an incredibly difficult time. They have forgotten their covenant with their God: they have worshipped idols made by their own hands, they have valued wealth and power over God’s commandments, they have neglected the poor and needy. And now they are going to reap the whirlwind they have sown, as the Babylonians descend upon their cities and force all those in authority to take the arduous and exhausting journey across the scorching desert into exile. Even now, though, in the midst of such suffering and despair, God’s prophet offers his people the chance of a fresh start: a new covenant, written not on tablets of stone but on their hearts. A covenant based on the most straightforward yet most important of principles: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)
Christians see this promise as being ultimately fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (Mark 14:22-25). A new covenant, based like all the others upon God’s generous out-reaching to his creation: this time, though, in the person of his only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. A new covenant, which would require Christ to follow a path that he did not choose; a journey that would end at the Cross. A new covenant, sealed by blood and sacrifice, like many of the others. This time, though, not the blood of a lamb or a goat’s, but the blood of God himself – shed to show the depths of his love for each one of us and his deep desire that we might truly take our part in that covenant and respond by loving God and our neighbour as ourselves.
So many journey; so many covenants. All of them, though, pointing to the central tenets of our faith. The faithfulness of God throughout all time and space. The desire of God to have a genuine relationship with us, his creation. The need for us to respond to this generous love by trusting God and abiding by his teachings and commandments. Many covenants, many journeys but all beginning and ending at the same place: with God.
It is appropriate that we renew our covenant at this time, as one calendar year gives way to the next and our minds are still full of new year resolutions and hopes. It would be good if those in authority across the world did something similar – reminding them of the ultimate source and purpose of their power – and re-committed themselves to the common good. It is also, of course, the season of Epiphany when we recall the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child in Bethlehem so long ago. A journey on which they continually drawn further and further away from all that was comfortable and familiar, by a force that they could not understand or control. A journey, which changed them forever, and foreshadowed the changing of the world order.
What all of these Biblical covenants and journeys remind me of, though, is that God always keeps his promises. God always travels with his people. Be it symbolically, carried on poles with the Ark of the Covenant for example, or physically, in the person of Jesus Christ. And as we stumble and fall, as we forget his teachings and cause suffering as a result, God is not marching on ahead like some impatient tour group leader. He is there waiting for us to return to him and to find our way once more. In the coming days, months and years, as we face an uncertain future as individuals, as a church and as a nation, let us cling on to that abiding presence, to the promise of the faithfulness of our journeying God.
I will close my remarks todays, as we prepare to renew our covenants together, with some words of Thomas Merton, the 20th Century Catholic writer and Trappist monk. I read them recently with a woman in our Circuit who was beginning her journey as a trainee Local Preacher. This prayer begins the new training manual for all preachers and I think that whoever chose them is a genius, because they say everything that is needful and are incredibly appropriate for the beginning of this new year:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
 Excerpt from “The Love of Solitude” from Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1958 by the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Copyright renewed 1986 by the Trustees of the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust.