Sermon for Covenant Sunday
Readings: Jeremiah 31,33-34: John 2,1-11
Hymns: O for a thousand tongue to sing, Put thou thy trust in God, Forth in thy name
Last week, we heard that baptism is not just for the day, not just a formula, but a commitment to be lived by everyone here, for in Baptism we are named, God saying, ‘I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…and I will be with you.’ And this week, we shall soon be putting that trust into words as we intentionally and attentively acknowledge the Covenant God made with God’s people through Christ by giving ourselves to God, who accepts us as we are. We’ll not be doing this because it’s a nice way of starting the year or brightening a grey day, or even because saying it might be more useful than not: but because, freely and without expectation of defined benefit or reward, ‘we offer all we have and all we are to God’ as John Wesley put it.
That’s what Jesus did in living his baptism: trusted God-parent, and got down to his ministry in the insignificant village of Cana. In a sign of the place of women throughout his ministry, he was helped by his long-suffering utterly faithful mother when the wine ran out. Despite his curt almost rude response to her, she tells the puzzled servants to ‘Do whatever he tells you’ and fill the empty casks with water. Insufficient wine would have been a bad start for the couple: as Judges 19:4 puts it, supported by no less than John Calvin: “No wine, no happiness.” The particular wine guests got depended on their social status: some got the cheapest wine — a mixture of wine, vinegar, and water like the one Jesus was offered on the cross- while others were offered the very best. Jesus, however, treated all those casks of water equally, and all received of the best to complete the wedding feast in memorable style. Why did he bother? Because two people he probably didn’t know well, if at all, were faced with a very embarrassing situation which could have signalled a poor start for their life together. Just baptised and confirmed as God’s Son, Jesus immediately put his skill, his trust, and his transformative power to work.
Now when the couple, or more likely their families, were organising the wedding, they’d either have made enough wine themselves for the feast or contracted with a wine- seller for so many casks of a certain quality to be delivered. We don’t know if they worked out guests and casks wrongly, the guests drank like fish, or if not all the contracted casks came. But it would have been a simple contract: the wine-merchant provides X casks and the purchaser Y shekels, and as long as both fulfilled their side of the contract, both were happy. We could say, and I find it healthy to do so, that a marriage is primarily a contract, in which two people of equal standing voluntarily pledge commitment, fidelity, respect and care commonly, in world terms, with detailed customary expectations of each person’s role.
A covenant is not quite like that. The parties to the God-people covenant in the Hebrew Bible and thus also the New Testament were not of equal standing, as Jeremiah makes clear. The Lord God gives the Law to his people, who ‘accept it in their hearts, each one of them, and I shall forgive each their sins.’ It’s not a contract or a bargain in the sense that God does specified acts XYZ and the people do specified acts ABC: that could easily imply that short measure on one side cancels the contract. We may talk of covenant, but too often, we see our relationship with God as if it is a contract: I’m praying for X and God is not providing X, whether that is a parking space, a satisfying job, a fair and kind mate, so why should I bother with God if God is deaf, uninterested, or not there? The prosperity Gospel movement works this way: if you give money to the church, God will give you what you want as if fulfilling the bargain for riches, power, women, children, and the more you get, the more you ‘know’ God loves you more than the poor person in the gutter. A pernicious blasphemy, which we can fall into.
A Covenant is more like the ties of a parent to his or her child than it is a wine contract, any inadequacy of quality in which is cause for complaint: weary though they may be, parents’ love is unending and unconditional. Sadly, for we are human, not all parents’ love is unconditional, and as Isaiah says, ‘though a mother may forget her child, I, God, will not forget you.’ Ever. A covenant puts no conditions on faithfulness. It is the unconditional commitment to love and serve, to forgive and love.
Why did I suggest that seeing marriage as a covenant can be unhelpful? Because in my research experience, stressing the covenant aspect of the contract (a recent development) can be used to hold abused parties to the marriage despite the partner having negated a pledge to love, protect and respect. The outcome of living a marriage with justice and love, fairness and kindness, equity and commitment, can indeed be to live as in a covenant, just as a marriage may grow into a sacrament over time, for which all should give thanks. But the covenant we make, the Covenant God makes, does not include the tick-boxes of a contract, being unconditional from the start.
Does that mean we make our Covenant today then sit pretty for the year? If that means failing to risk being transformed by God’s acceptance of us, then no! Jesus’ response to God’s baptismal covenant was immediately to demonstrate his capacity for transforming lives without regard for status, sure of his parent’s covenanted trust. We have that surety, for God’s covenant with us is not affected by our failure to come up to the mark, our doubts, our ambivalence. May our covenanted lives be lived in the sure faith that whatever mess we make, however hard the road, however unclear our life, however horrible our situation or that of those we love: God is there, God is here, and in Julian of Norwich’s words: all is well, all will be well, all will be very well.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, 17th January, 2016