Each January there is an annual reevaluation of our lives and a renewed determination to do better and be better in the New Year. It comes with retailers’ barrage of ads for weight loss products, gym memberships, and other self-improvement aids. Like many rituals that have become highly commercialized, making a right beginning of a new year has deep roots for the people called Methodists: early Methodists gathered to renew their covenant with God each year.
Covenant is at the heart of how God has communicated with creation and fallen humanity. Covenant shapes the way God has revealed God’s self to us in scripture and characterizes how God has sought to redeem us. A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, but it is more than just a contract. There is a solemn, spiritual understanding to a covenant.
Our biblical story of creation is told to us in the form of a covenant. The Triune God at creation ordered the world and gave humanity responsibility to care for the entire created world and to yield to the loving authority of God by obeying one simple rule. We all know how that turned out. God had rights to walk away from our deal, our covenant, but God’s love for humanity sent God back to the drawing board for a new arrangement.
The sinful ways of men and women grew after the fall of Adam and Eve. By Genesis, chapter 9, God is so disgusted with the evil on display among humanity that a do-over is planned. God floods the earth to start over with the one half-way decent man he can find, Noah. So with Noah’s obedience to God’s instructions, Noah’s family and a zoo of animals are saved from the near total destruction of creation by flood.
We see God’s love and hope for humanity in the ark. God’s covenant not to destroy the world by flood again is made with all creation. And the rainbow is a sign in the sky to not only remind us but also to remind God, “God said, ‘Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’” (Genesis 9:16)
When I look around at the violence and brokenness in the world and too often within me, I am thankful God set up a reminder of how much God loves us. God’s covenant was not based on the goodness of people, but on God’s love for us, God’s mercy in the face of our bent to sin.
Of course, Noah is only the beginning of God’s redemption plan. It started with one man and then spread to a family. God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai that they would be parents of many nations.
Abram had plenty of time to lose faith in God’s promises. Sarai was promised children, but it wasn’t happening. She was past childbearing age, and they had no children. They took matters into their own hands and had Ishmael by a servant wife. In Genesis 17 a dozen or so years after Ishmael’s birth, God renews the promise that they would have a child of their own flesh. And beyond all reasoning and common sense, they have faith.
This covenant was in the form of a royal grant. A king or leader would make a grant of a gift to a subordinate. God made a gift to Abram, the promise of fertility, land, and relationship. God also changed Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah so Abraham is the “father of a multitude” and Sarah is a “princess,” denoting God’s love for both man and woman equally even in their patriarchal cultural context. God is designating Abraham and Sarah as the new Adam and Eve. This couple began a family that would grow into a nation.
Even though Abram and Sarai were impatient with God’s timing and took the reins of their lives back, God still renewed the covenant with them. Does that mean they could do whatever they wanted? No. There was a response to make, a sign of the covenant, and they were told to “walk before the Lord and be blameless.”
Over 250 years ago, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement wrote in his Explanatory Notes about Genesis 17: “[T]he covenant is mutual, walk before me, and be thou perfect – That is, upright and sincere.” Wesley pointed to this verse as a reminder that we must keep God ever in front of our thoughts and motivating all our words and actions. To help us walk uprightly, we must remember the all-sufficiency of God that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly loving.
God’s people did grow into a nation, but they did not get much better at following God and God’s ways. Yet God continued to renew covenant with God’s people to restore that original intent with Creation. Climactically, God came in person, in Jesus, to make a way for us all to be made right with God and to make a new covenant with humanity. God has done that for us so that whosoever believes in Jesus Christ may have eternal life.
God has revealed and demonstrated love to humanity through covenants. Our God is a covenant maker and a covenant keeper. As humble recipients of God’s love, we can respond with our lives. We can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We can seek to follow Jesus’ mission to invite others into this loving covenant with God. We can follow Jesus’ teaching and example to live a holy life. We too make covenants. Marriage, ordination, church membership are places where we make promises and the other does too, and together we look to God for indwelling guidance and provision. Just as God has been loyal to us through the covenants made and kept with humanity, we are called to be loyal and true to the covenants we have made with others.
The following beloved prayer was part of the annual renewal of covenant Wesley and early Methodists honored. It is never too late to make or renew covenant with God.
“Wesley Covenant Prayer”
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
By Leslie Tomlinson
January 22, 2019
The Rev. Leslie Tomlinson is the pastor in charge at Lutie Watkins Memorial United Methodist Church in Llano, Texas. She is also a leader of the WCA Chapter in the Rio Texas Annual Conference.