Summary: Preached as a challenge for a covenant renewal service.
JANUARY 1, 2017
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS, YEAR A
COVENANT RENEWAL SUNDAY
FARM HILL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, HARRISBURG, AR
INTRO. Four times in these short verses, the word “new” is used. The whole language of the passage is of newness, of change, of leaving things behind. “Passed away,” “no more,” “no more,” “no more,” “passed away,” “it is done.” As we flip the page from 2016 to 2017, doesn’t new sound attractive? 2016 was full of ugliness and pain, heartbreak and war. Hope and change went to making America great again, but most places in our world have a long ways to go to become good, much less great. One way to think of new in the church is through covenant. Covenants are different things. We are used to making and breaking deals and appointments. We are used to people not keeping their word. We tell each other we will keep in touch, or call, or write (remember that?), and it never happens. But covenants are not like that.
“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 canceled. The parent finds out where the child is and makes sure he’s cared for. One member’s failure does not destroy the relationship. A covenant puts no conditions on faithfulness. It is the unconditional commitment to love and serve” (Bruce Shelley, sermonillustrations.com). At least that’s how God looks at it. Covenants are for good. They are unconditional.
In 1942, Margaret Wise Brown published a simple children’s book called The Runaway Bunny. In the story, a young bunny wants to run away from his mother. Each time he tells his mother his plans, it is in a different way, but she always has an answer. He will run away and be a fish; she will be a fisherman. He will run away and be a rock; she will be a mountain climber. He will run away and be a flower; she will be a gardener. He will run away and be a bird; she will be the tree that he comes home to. What a picture of the covenant love of God! Always there for us, seeking us out, keeping the promises he makes. And that brings it back to us. As we think about what and how we can covenant with God in 2017, let me ask some questions.
I. WHAT IS NEW? What has changed in our world? I know that each of us would make up a different list if we sat down to write what we have at the beginning of 2017 compared to the beginning of 2016. There are a number of things that stood out to me, but I want to focus on just a few.
A. One is change in America itself. I have lived long enough, I feel, to get a sense of changes and trends in our land. I am an optimistic guy, but we live in pessimistic times. America’s position in our world is at its lowest since the 1920s and 1930s. Our friends do not trust us. Our enemies do not respect us. In many eyes, we are no longer seen as a force for good and right, but for wrong and evil. We have lost our political will, our moral authority, and our military dominance. And all of this retreat internationally has grown out of our decline here at home. Not to depress anyone, but it seems as if these days that, if it is traditional, it must go. If it is respectful of Christianity, it’s religiously intolerant. If it preserves the distinction between male and female, it is sexist. And all these trends accelerated in 2016.
B. Another area of change was in the United Methodist Church. History will record 2016 as the year that the group known as progressive in our church laid down the gauntlet in their push to conform our church to the twisted sexual morality of our society. The next few years will tell us if those who hold to the Bible will have the backbone to stand for the truth. But as it stands now, we speak to a listening world in a very confusing and mixed voice. Just when they need to see us stand for Jesus and share the Good News, they see us stand for everything else and share our church politics and agendas. As you know from what I have said before, this is simply not the way things should be, and they cannot be if the United Methodist Church is to survive. But wait, there’s more!
C. One other thing that stands out to me as new is the changing perception of Christianity. I have spoken before about the “nones,” that rising group here in America that identify with no religion at all. Not Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any of the other false religions. None of the above. The numbers are bad and getting worse. 23% of adults in America vote for none of the above when it comes to religion, up from 16% in 2007. When you factor in that over a third of millennials (those born from 1982-2004) say that none is their religious choice, we have much to be concerned about with the future of Christianity in America. Internationally, the church is on the grow. Here at home, it is in decline.