The Service of Covenant and Renewal of Baptism Vows
Sermon preached by The Reverend Neil Bramble-Chapman 11 January 2004
Have you ever heard the phrase, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine’s me own”?
I first heard it at about the same time that I got married, but it wouldn’t make a very good basis for a Marriage. It is rather self centred and self serving. Now God is not like that in the Covenants which he has made with His people the Israelites and with us.
All Contracts and Covenants are made in legal language, which in many ways is largely incomprehensible to the rest of, but is used out of habit and convention to make a detailed point of law which is unlikely to be misunderstood at least by other lawyers! The First Covenant that God made between himself and the Israelites through Moses, was expressed in the language of a suzerain-vassal treaty of the ancient near East. We know this because there are records of such treaties from the Hittites of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE. Such treaties basically concern a more powerful king making a treaty with a less powerful one. They are constructed along the following lines:
1. A Preamble in which the King identifies himself and gives his names and titles,
‘I am the Lord you God….’
2. A Prologue in which the king reviews his relationship between himself and the vassal., stressing his benevolent acts which obligate the vassal to perpetual gratitude.
‘who brought you our of the land of Egypt’
3. Stipulations which state in detail the obligations imposed upon and to be accepted by the vassal. These forbid foreign relations and oblige the vassal to have faith in the King and not to allow bad words to be said about him. There must be annual tribute paid and a willingness to be called to arms.
The Israelites were told to serve only Yahweh and have no other gods but him.
4. Deposition A copy of the agreement must be deposited in the vassal’s shrine and be read publicly to remind the vassal of the obligations which they were under.
This has a parallel in the Deut 10:5, 31:9-13)
5. Witnesses are called to the treaty heaven and earth (Josh 24:22,27)
6. Sanctions are laid down in the form of blessings and curses for those who obey or disobey the treaty.
Blessings and curses are seen in Deut Chaps 27-28 and Judges 5:23
In addition to these political and religious elements being present, there is an additional social feature in the Old Covenant. The Israelites are the Children of God Deut. 14:1 “You are the Children of God”. So would could say that the underlying principle of this Covenant is one of Care and Instruction, Guidance and Protection, as a parent towards their children. God will provide all these for his children, if they respond with loyalty, faithfulness and obedience.
Yet we know that throughout Israelite history, the people are repeatedly disobedient and unfaithful. They form alliances with other Kings, rather than relying upon God and they fail in maintaining proper worship and sacrifice. The Prophets are continually crying out to the people, pointing out the error of their ways and their abuses of the laws and their unfairness. Amos 4:1 describes one part of the rich community as “You fat cows of Bashan”. How rude! But Bashan was a particularly fertile stretch of land and the cattle from that region were always fatter than the rest. The people of Israel and their kings can be seen to be disobeying God and turning away from his path of holiness and faithfulness.
Yet God continues to show them favour and seeks to pour out his love upon them. Why?
The answer is God’s Grace. The Old Covenant may be expressed in the legal language of it’s day, but underlying the Covenant is God’s Grace. This can here be understood as God’s undeserved love and favourable disposition towards humanity. We can see this grace at work in the Salvation History of Israel as God continually seeks to redeem his people and bring them into a closer relationship with himself. When the old Covenant had begun to collapse, God’s Grace comes to the fore again as he says through the Prophet Jeremiah, “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...For I will forgive their sins and will remember their sins no more” Jer. 31:31-34.
The Old Covenant has been broken and God promises to initiate a new one and as Christians we believe that the New Covenant has been brought about through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God in Jesus Christ freely gives of himself for us and for our salvation, even though we do not deserve this of merit this expression of love.
When I first became a Christian, I said to a very close friend that I did not consider myself worthy that Jesus should die for me. I just did not deserve it. My friend replied that none of us are worthy of the death of Jesus Christ for us, but that he died anyway, because he loves us. That conversation made me determined to offer my life to Jesus Christ and to seek to serve him as my Lord and Saviour.
God gave of himself in Jesus Christ so that we might know him and serve and enter into a relationship with God which draws us ever closer to him. The Grace of God is also then the underlying foundation of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
As we enter into this relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we enter into a relationship of love and faithfulness, a relationship of obedience and service, a relationship where God seeks to transform us into his likeness. The Early Church Fathers understood this action of divine Grace upon our lives as called it theosis or deification, where we grow gradually into the image of God. This is God’s grace at work within our lives and our response of faithfulness, obedience and service.
So today we stand in the Grace of God to renew our covenant relationship with him, trusting in His goodness, mercy and grace. We come with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the undeserved Salvation he has offered us in Jesus Christ. Let us then respond to the Grace of God, by offering ourselves anew to Him, acknowledging that through God’s Grace, we are transformed ever more into His likeness.