Sermon for New Year Covenant Service, Sunday, 1st January 2012
‘But when the fullness of time had come’ Galatians 4:4
What does a promise mean?
Not very much in our own times. Look at politicians who promise us great things in their election manifestos and once elected renege on everything they have said. Look at the advertisements that promise us that if we buy particular products, we will look young or stylish, or attractive, or whatever it is that we are seeking. Look at our whole consumer culture that promises us that if we accumulate lots of possessions, then we will be happy—it fails to deliver what it promises us, the more we have, the more we want and the more we hide behind high walls and big gates.
Human promises mean little, but what we gather to think about today is not a human promise, but God’s promise, God’s covenant with us. The covenant, the agreement, the promise, begins with God. It is God’s grace that comes first in our relationship with him. Saint Paul talks of that grace in Romans 5:8, ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. It is not a question of us meeting God halfway to shake hands on our agreement with him, it is that God meets us wherever we are.
Time and again in Scripture, God goes to seek out people. He is pictured as a shepherd in Ezekiel 34 going out to find the lost sheep which, by their own volition, have wandered far from safety. Jesus talks of himself as the Son of Man who has come to seek and save the lost.
The covenant we consider today is not a contract between two parties, it is us acknowledging what it is that God has done for us, even though we have done nothing to deserve it. There is nothing in ourselves that merits the relationship with God that is offered to us, but it is there for us to accept.
When we read the words of the Aaronic blessing in Numbers Chapter 6, we should note that it is a blessing of the whole community, ‘Thus you shall bless the Israelites’ says the Lord in Numbers 6:23. No questions are asked as to whether each individual is worthy of that blessing; it is there for them, to receive or to reject
At the beginning of this new year, we are like the Israelites blessed by Aaron, God’s blessing is there for us and in our covenant service we acknowledge that blessing and we declare that we are going to receive God’s blessing, God’s presence in our lives,
To acknowledge God’s covenant at the beginning of a new year is to acknowledge that time itself is in God’s hands. Saint Paul points to God working out his purposes within the space of human time. ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son’, he writes in Galatians 4:4. He sees time itself as being within God’s purposes.
‘The fullness of time’ conveys to us a sense that there is a right time for things, that there is a waiting for certain moments. To discern any purpose in the way things work out is sometimes impossible, but Paul is saying to us that nevertheless there is a tide, a movement in time bringing things towards a moment of culmination.
Starting 2012, do we have that sense? Do we feel that time is just one year upon another, or do we feel that, even in our own lives, God is working his purpose out? Do we feel that, even when we are not sure about things, the hand of God is there, guiding us?
‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son’, says Saint Paul. We are offered much more than the Israelites blessed by Aaron; we are offered a covenant relationship not with a God who is terrifying, but with a person who walks along with us. We are offered a friendship with someone who knows exactly what it means to be human, who knows what it means to be facing a new year with all its problems because he has known the worries, and frustrations and hurts and pains of human existence. ‘You are no longer a slave but a child’ he writes in Galatians 4:7, the promise we are invited to make today is not one between two legal partners, it is a promise between a child and its father.
We make this promise, this covenant, at the heart of the Christmas season, at the heart of the time when God makes himself known to ordinary people. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” , say the shepherds in Saint Luke 2:15. The Lord makes himself known to us and we are invited to respond as those shepherds did; to set aside the things we are doing and to see what God has to show us. To make the things of God a priority in this coming year; to make seeing what God might have to show us more important than the 101 tasks we feel we have to do.
The shepherds go from the stable telling everyone about this child and Saint Luke tells us, ‘all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them’. Do we ever tell of what we have known of God with such conviction that people are amazed at what they hear?
‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’, we are told in Saint Luke 2:19 and there is a challenge to us not only to tell, but to reflect, to take time to be quiet in the busyness of life to allow ourselves the chance to ponder what it is that God might be doing in our own lives.
The covenant we make is God’s covenant, it speaks to us of God’s purposes in time and it speaks to us of our relationship with the one who has shared our life and who walks with us. May 2012 be a year when we receive God’s blessing and be enabled to speak of amazing things.
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