As is our tradition, early in the New Year we meet to renew our covenant with God. This is a distinctively Methodist practice which can be traced back to the first covenant service held by John Wesley in 1755. That first service took place in August, but it soon became the custom for the covenant renewal to take place early in the year, as a day of solemn reflection and rededication. That these were times of great spiritual blessing is evident from Wesley’s descriptions in his Journal. For example, on Sunday 1st January 1775 Wesley wrote:
We had a larger congregation at the renewal of the Covenant than we have had for many years; and I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of his grace, healing all their backslidings.
In Wesley’s time the covenant service would be preceded by a period of preparation, including prayer, fasting and exhortation, which helped to underscore the importance of what was taking place.
These days, coming so soon after the excess of Christmas and New Year, it is more likely to be preceded by feasting rather than fasting and the rigorous seriousness of the covenant service increasingly feels like a much needed spiritual detox. It is unfortunate that the covenant service has become detached from the prayer and preparation that used to precede it, for what we undertake in the service, is no trivial or insignificant matter.
As Daniel Benedict writes, ‘A covenant renewal service is not a seeker’s service… There is no such thing as “covenant renewal lite.”’
The Covenant we make is primarily about a relationship; the relationship between God and God’s people. Or as God says through Jeremiah (31:33)
I will be their God, and they shall be my people. In the service when we make the Covenant Prayer, we will say to God: you are mine, and I am yours. If you don’t remember anything else about Covenant, remember this phrase: I will be your God, and you will be my people. This is the very centre of what covenant is all about. Scripture then continues…
“This is the covenant that I will make” says God: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (31:33)
Now for the ancient Hebrews, the heart wasn’t just associated with emotions, but with the rational, decision-making part of us as well. So when Jeremiah speaks of God writing his law on our hearts he doesn’t just mean that we will have a warm and fuzzy emotional feeling toward God; he means that the desire to put God’s will and purposes into practice will be absolutely engrained in our deepest being.
And then thank goodness, he gives us the means by which we might fulfil this relationship by promising that God’s grace and forgiveness abound “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34)
What a relief, a new relationship – written on people’s hearts – initiated by God; in fact, a gift of God. This is the covenant, which we come to renew at the beginning of each year. We thank God that God not only offers this covenant-relationship to us, but gives us the ability to keep it! If it were not so, the commitment we make in the words of the covenant prayer would be quite foolish and would last as long as many of the resolutions made with the New Year. But there is grace here, and the power of God to change us, and it is this that makes us bold to renew the covenant and say the words of the prayer.
I am no longer my own but yours.
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,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’
Rev Julia January 2018