Sermon for New Year Covenant Service, Sunday, 3rd January 2010Dec 30th, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Sermons
‘My people will be filled with my bounty, declares the LORD’. Jeremiah 7:14
It is extraordinary to look back at the newspapers of three years ago. The economy was booming, millions were being made, there was nothing that could go wrong. The economists on the radio assured us that all was well. They would concede that prosperity could not continue to grow as it had done, but were firm in their belief that there would be a ‘soft landing’. Like false prophets in the past, they said what the rulers wanted to hear and they would accept no dissenting voices.
Three years on and things are in a bad way. There are complex economic explanations of how we arrived where we are, but at the root, there is pride and arrogance. There is a belief that greed could be pursued indefinitely without any fear of the consequences. Perhaps what has happened will make us think again about human nature, about the idea that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest can produce a common good.
Christians, in particular, need to look at our own role in the boom years. There were few voices saying that we should be cautious and responsible, few pointing out that making a god of Mammon meant we lost sight of the God whom we claimed to serve.
As we come to renew our covenant with God, our commitment to serving him in return for claiming his promises, we need to look at the processes of which we are part, these rises and falls in the economy, in our national life, in our history. We assume that our own times are unique, that we are different, that the circumstances we face are something that has never happened before, yet history goes in cycles: economies, nations, whole civilizations rise and fall.
If we read the history of the people of Israel through the pages of the Old Testament, read particularly through the Books of Kings and we see the sequences of history being repeated again and again. All is well and the people become proud and arrogant which leads them into serious problems until they turn from their old ways and are sorry for what has happened, whereupon things improve and the good times come back. You read through the pages of the Bible and you think, ‘Surely these people could see what would happen if they persisted in going the way they were going?’ But they weren’t willing to see what lay ahead anymore than most people in Ireland were prepared to accept that the boom would be followed by bust.
At the heart of people’s covenant relationship with God, there is the requirement that blessing meets with faithfulness. Just as we thought the money would carry on coming in, whatever we did, so the people of Jerusalem thought that they were guaranteed God’s blessing, no matter what they did. They believed that being the chosen ones meant that they were not under obligation and they go headlong down the path of destruction.
Jeremiah the prophet tries to speak to his people against the background of the collapse and invasion of his country. Jeremiah is confident that a right relationship with God will be restored in the future, at one point he even buys a field as a sign that he believes there is a future for God’s people in that land. The lines we read from Jeremiah Chapter 31 are Jeremiah’s prophecy that the wheel of history will turn and that there will be good times again in the land, but it is important to note what leads to that restoration.
The people are promised joy; they are promised a return from exile; they are promised good crops and plentiful herds; they are promised protection; my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the LORD. But look what leads them to that point: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back”; “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow”
It is no easy path that they are following: weeping, mourning, sorrow and prayer. There is an acknowledgement that they have failed to play their part in the covenant relationship. Read the book of Deuteronomy and Chapter 8 or Chapter 28, and there is warning there of what will happen if people go there own way; if in pride and arrogance they decide to ignore God and do their own thing.
We make the mistake of the people of Jeremiah’s times, assuming that we have some automatic right to blessing, assuming that things should go right for us because of who we are. Certainly, God is present, but God never compels us, God allows us choice.
Our prayers in this service acknowledge that God seeks us out, but also acknowledge our freedom, “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”. Here are the two sides of the covenant relationship; here is the divine initiative and the human response. God remembers us, he follows us, he meets with us, but that meeting takes place when we return to him.
When we come to the covenant prayer, we shall acknowledge God’s grace, but we shall also declare that we intend to respond to that grace: “I do here covenant with you, O Christ, to take my lot with you as it may fall. Through your grace I promise that neither life nor death shall part me from you”.
Had the rulers of Jerusalem taken more seriously the demand that there be a human response to what God had done for his people, then their country would not have been overrun and their city would not have been destroyed in 587 BC. They lost sight of the need to build a society based on what was right and they paid a heavy price; their exile would last fifty years and many of them would never see their homeland again.
How seriously do we take what God asks of us? Do we assume we have a right to be blessed, or do we recognize that a covenant relationship is one where there are two parties to the agreement?
When the wheel of history again turns and good times return, may we not forget how we came to be where we were, may we not forget the God who promises, in dark times, “my people will be filled with my bounty”.