No Longer a Starry-Eyed Bride
First Baptist Richmond, January 1, 2023
New Year’s Day Covenant Service
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Today’s service is brought to you in two distinct movements: we’ve already had the first one—that was a continuing celebration of Christmas, with readings and hymns appropriate to the season—but the second takes advantage of the fact that we stand at the beginning of the New Year. It’s the renewal of our covenant with God, an idea which probably got its start on Christmas Day, 1747. That was when a young preacher named John Wesley stood before his congregation and urged them to give themselves up to God completely, and to renew at every point their covenant that the Lord should be their God. A few years later, Wesley made the same proposal to nearly eighteen hundred worshipers at the French church at Spitalfields, and was amazed when they all stood up in agreement. “Such a night I never saw before,” he wrote in his journal. “Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever.”
So, it’s not a complicated thing we are doing in this part of the service, but it could be life changing. In just a little while I will urge you—as Wesley urged his congregation—to give yourselves up to God completely, and to renew at every point your covenant that the Lord should be your God. I can’t think of a better way for Christians to enter a new year. But before we get to that point I want to talk to you about what a covenant is.
When I used to teach fifth-and-sixth-graders in Sunday school I told them that a covenant was a promise, and not just any kind of promise. No, a very special promise, like the kind you might make at a wedding. It’s true. The marriage covenant is among the most sacred of all promises human beings can make, and yet I am often surprised at how glibly they do it.
The twenty-three-year-old bride, for instance (whom I have had to ask not to chew gum during the ceremony), seems to be only half listening as I say, “Will you, Ashley, have Brandon to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?” And then (and I can tell she is mostly thinking about how adorable Brandon looks in his tuxedo) she says, “I will,” as if she were standing at the counter at McDonald’s and I had just asked, “You want fries with that?” It’s enough to make a minister shake his head and wonder: “Does she have any idea what she’s getting into?” That’s why I was so pleased to find this piece, written by a woman who was renewing her vows with her husband of twenty years; a woman who had been around the marriage block a time or two; a woman who knew what she was talking about. She wrote:
My dear husband,
On our wedding day we stood before God, family, and friends and promised to love, honor and cherish each other. We swore to be faithful to our Lord and one another. It seemed so easy to make those promises that day as I stood there, a starry-eyed bride. I loved you, and as we walked through the doors of the church that day I pictured the perfect life I would have.
The reality has been slightly different. We have loved, we have fought. We have laughed, we have cried. We have seen each other in the morning, unshaven and bleary-eyed. We have determined that you make better coffee but that I don’t burn popcorn in the microwave. We have gained a few pounds, picked up a few gray hairs, and seen the wrinkles begin to creep in. We have nursed each other through colds, flu and viruses. We have shared our secrets with one another. We have been close. We have been distant. We have walked innumerable miles and talked for thousands of hours. We have experienced marriage. We now know what love is and what it is not.
I am no longer a starry-eyed bride. I cannot promise that I will always have your socks matched or that I won’t lock myself out of the house. I won’t always have more than a quarter tank of gas or be able to tell you where the flashlight is. Much as I might like, you will not always come home to an immaculate house nor will I always be perfectly groomed when you walk through the door. I cannot promise that I will always be agreeable or easy to live with. We both know that those kinds of promises should never be made.
What I can promise is this: I will always be your number one admirer, your staunchest supporter. I promise to be your encourager as you follow your dreams; to be your comforter when you are downhearted; to be your conscience if you are confused. I will rejoice with you in your victories and I will console you when life is unkind. And, as of today, I promise to NEVER EVER make shepherd’s pie again.
Isn’t that refreshing? And isn’t it the right thing to do? I think this is what every covenant needs from time to time: an honest look at that very personal relationship and a reassessment of those old promises. Some people wouldn’t agree, and especially when it comes to our covenant with Christ. Some Baptist people, for example, might say that once you are saved you are always saved; that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, that’s it; your destiny is sealed, your future is secure. That may be true, but that’s the language of a contract, not a covenant. A contract is a formal agreement, legally binding. A covenant is different: it’s personal.
So, we haven’t gathered on the first Sunday of the New Year to renegotiate our contract with Christ, but to renew our covenant with him. That’s very personal. And like the woman who wrote this piece for her husband we might need to look back at the whole span of that relationship, to the beginning—when we stood before a church full of people, feeling a little embarrassed, wearing a long, white robe, standing waist-deep in the water—we might need to look back to the day we were baptized.
It won’t be hard for most of us to recognize the difference between who we were on that day and who we are on this one. We were so innocent then. We were so glib. We said, “Jesus is Lord!” as if saying so would make it so. We came up out of the baptistery thinking we were done with sin. Now, when we look at our lives, we see how far we have fallen from that early innocence, and how frequently the church is NOT the starry-eyed bride of Christ. But the wrong thing to do is to look at the mess we’ve made of this relationship and give up on it. The wrong thing to do is to look at the institution itself and say no to Christianity the way some people say no to marriage. The right thing to do is to look on the one who loved us in the first place and wonder,
“If he asked me again, would I say yes?”
—Jim Somerville © 2023
PART 1: CONFESSION OF SIN
Let us humbly confess our sins to God:
O God, you have shown us the way of life through your Son, Jesus Christ.
We confess with shame our slowness to learn of him,
our failure to follow him, and our reluctance to bear the cross.
Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.
We confess the poverty of our worship, our neglect of fellowship and means of grace,
Our hesitating witness for Christ, our evasion of responsibilities in our service,
Our imperfect stewardship of your gifts.
Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.
Let each of us in silence make confession to God.
Have mercy on us, Lord, and forgive us.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
In your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Now the message that we have heard from God’s Son and announce is this:
God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him.
If we live in the light – just as he is in the light – then we have fellowship with one another,
And the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.
But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right;
He will forgive us all our wrongdoing.
Amen. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
Father, you have appointed our Lord Jesus Christ
As Mediator of a new covenant;
Give us grace to draw near with fullness of faith
And join ourselves in a perpetual covenant with you,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
PART II: THE COVENANT
In the old covenant, God chose Israel to be a special people and to obey the law.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection,
Has made a new covenant with all who trust in him.
We stand within this covenant and we bear his name.
On the one side, God promises in this covenant to give us new life in Christ.
On the other side, we are pledged to live not for ourselves but for God.
Today, therefore, we meet to renew the covenant which binds us to God.
Please stand, as you are able.
Friends, let us claim the covenant God has made with his people
And accept the yoke of Christ.
To accept the yoke of Christ means that we allow Christ to guide all that we do and are,
and that Christ himself is our only reward.
Christ has many services to be done;
Some are easy, others are difficult;
Some make others applaud us, others bring only reproach;
Some we desire to do because of our own interest; others seem unnatural.
Sometimes we please Christ and meet our own needs,
At other times we cannot please Christ unless we deny ourselves.
Yet Christ strengthens us and gives us the power to do all these things.
Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.
Let us give ourselves completely to God,
Trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.
I give myself completely to you, God.
Assign me to my place in your creation.
Let me suffer for you.
Give me the work you would have me do.
Give me many tasks
Or have me step aside while you call others.
Put me forward or humble me.
Give me riches or let me live in poverty.
I freely give all that I am and all that I have to you.
And now, holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours. So be it.
May this covenant made on earth continue for all eternity. Amen.
—from The New Handbook of the Christian Year