Renewing Our Covenant with God by Rev. Randy L. Johnson

One of my favorite comic strips is named “Pickles.” The main characters are an older couple, Earl and Opal. In one of their strips this past week Earl and Opal are sitting on a park bench together and Earl says to Opal, “So you want to know my New Year’s resolution, huh?” Opal doesn’t reply, but Earl goes on and says, “Well, here it is…I’m going to spend five hours a week doing volunteer work for charities.” To which Opal responds, “That’s a great resolution, Earl!” And in the final frame, Earl adds, …”Unless there’s something on TV or I don’t feel like it.”

What is your experience with making and keeping New Year’s resolutions? According to research, while the majority of the millions of people who make resolutions believe that they will be successful, actually 88 % of them fail to keep their resolutions. Among all these people who fail, many find themselves making the same resolutions over and over again, new year after new year.

This is an age-old problem. As one antique New Year’s Day card humorously and poetically declares, “Resolve to renew all your old resolves. And add a few that are new. Resolve to keep them as long as you can. What more can a poor man do?” For centuries people across the world have discovered that the issue is not making resolutions but keeping them. Most of these failed resolutions have to do with self-improvement through better physical health or improved mental and emotional well-being. Eating healthier food, losing weight, engaging in regular exercise, replacing negative thinking with more positive thoughts, laughing more often, taking time for friends and enjoying life more are just some of the many popular resolutions that countless people each year make and then break.

The centuries-old tradition of making new year’s resolutions has also included religious resolutions. Ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each new year. The Romans began the year by publically proclaiming commitments to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Over the centuries, many Christian churches have held “watch night services” on New Year’s Eve in which the members prepared for the new year ahead by praying and making resolutions to be more faithful to God in the coming year.

And so we gather on this New Year’s Day of 2017, a good time to reflect upon our lives as people of faith, to recall the past year and set direction for the year ahead. But as we come today to make new our religious resolutions, our personal spiritual commitments to more faithfully follow God and to more fully love our neighbors, we might ask: what will enable us to make good on our resolve? What will set us apart from the 88 % of people who make new year’s resolutions, but fail to keep them?

First, when we consider our covenant with God we need to remember that it is God’s power and love, not ours, that keeps the covenant in place. While the Covenant Renewal Service became an annual Methodist tradition starting in 1755, the idea of having a covenant with God is as old as the history of God’s people as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s covenant with Abraham is found in Genesis 15, the first book of the Bible. In this covenant, God instructs Abraham not to be afraid and promises Abraham that God will always be with him and bless him with many descendants. This original covenant was guaranteed not to fail because God was the one who was initiating it and who was promising to sustain it.

Years later God led the descendants of Abraham out of enslavement in Egypt to the Promised Land. This act of deliverance was a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and for centuries has remained at the heart of the annual celebration of the Passover Meal in the Jewish community. When Jesus celebrated this Passover Meal with his disciples he used it to declare a new covenant – a promise of forgiveness and power for all people who trust in him and who take on his life-giving work. And so we declare in the Great Thanksgiving: “By the baptism of his suffering, death and resurrection God gave birth to the church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant.” Just like the promise of God to Abraham celebrated at Passover, we celebrate at Communion the promise of Jesus to be with us always and to bless and empower us with the gifts we need to carry on his work in the world.

This is what sets apart the covenant we renew today from other resolutions we might make: unlike our resolutions to eat healthier food, or to lose weight or to think more positive thoughts, it is not our good intentions and good will but the promise and power of God which keeps the covenant going. As Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan observed: the Judeo/Christian faith proclaims a God who first of all desires to be with us, ever pursuing us in order to draw us into mutual relationship.

In most religions, people pursue their god, hoping that through good behavior, keeping of rituals, good works or other efforts they will be accepted by the god they pursue. In contrast, as British poet Francis Thompson describes it in his work “The Hound of Heaven,” God is engaged in a tireless pursuit of us so, as Thompson writes, “even as he fled from God he could not outrun ‘those strong feet that followed…with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace.” This same God who pursues us in love is described in the words of Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service when he wrote: “O God…you remembered us when we forgot you. You followed us even when we tried to flee from you. You met us with forgiveness when we returned to you.” And so, as we renew our covenant with God on this New Year’s Day, we do it with the joyous recognition that God is the one who initiates, maintains and faithfully helps us keep the covenant. As the Epistle reading from I John 4 simply put it: “We love because God first loved us.”

Knowing we are loved by God and growing in our love for one another seems especially important for our church as we move from the past year to this new year. 2016 was an emotionally and spiritually challenging year for our congregation. Too many of us experienced the painful loss of one dear to us; too many of us suffered ill health or the pain of watching those near to us suffer; too many of us faced the overwhelming adjustments of leaving behind comfortable homes or losing our marriages or our jobs; too many of us suffered estrangement from a child or from a sibling or other loved one; too many of us were weighed down by indescribable feelings of depression or increasing anxiety about the turmoil and brokenness in our lives or in our troubled world today.

Like the Passover Meal, that included a serving of bitter herbs, so the days of the past year have been mixed with joys and sorrows, successes and setbacks. But, like the Hebrew people of faith whom God delivered long ago, we can this day as people of faith give thanks for God’s protective love which sustains and delivers us as we move on from the past year and move forward into a new year of promise. As declared in the Wesleyan Covenant Service Litany of Thanksgiving: “You, O God, Our Covenant Friend, have been gracious to us through all the years of our lives. We thank you for your loving care, which has filled our days and brought us to this time and place…You have been our light in darkness and a rock of strength in adversity and temptation…”

While we may have our doubts and fears and face with uncertainty what is yet to come, we can together renew with thanksgiving and hope our covenant to be God’s people. As a church we are united and empowered by the God of all eternity, the God who is present wherever his people go and whatever his people face, the God who calls us to love one another and to be signs of hope and means of healing grace in our world today.

In this spirit of hope, let us affirm our faith through the words found in “A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada” on page 883 of our United Methodist Hymnal. Let us read together:

We are not alone, we live in God’s world.  We believe in God: who has created and is creating,  who has come in Jesus, Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.  We trust in God.  We are called to be the church: to celebrate God’s presence, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.  In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.