The following was preached on January 3, 2015, in Hemphill and Pineland UMC’s.
Scripture: Matthew 26:17-30
Perhaps the best way to start is with a bit about yours truly. Growing up, especially in my early days, video games were not nearly as abundant as they are today. Now, most of you have more games on your cell phone than many had on their entire catalog of games back then. Because of this, there was a big difference in the way you played games. Only the very privileged were able to afford a console like an Atari 2600, Commodore 64, or Nintendo Entertainment System. The rest of us, until it became more affordable, had to make do with arcade machines.
Many a gas station and restaurant had at least one or two arcade cabinets, and on special rare occasions I was able to go into town and go to a proper arcade with a whole ton of machines. I relished these occasions like no other. I was able to tap into something really amazing when I got to go to the arcade, even if it was just an old cabinet with Centipede on it.
I loved playing on them. Perhaps this was so because they were so few and far between–constant access has made the specialness of video games somewhat worn away. But I would save up all my quarters and all my spare change just for the off occasion I got to put in my quarter and play a game. For a few minutes, sheer skill and prowess was tested in the blinking hi-resolution lights of the arcade. However, because these were rare occasions, and I wasn’t especially affluent, I wasn’t very good at these arcade cabinets, and suffice it to say, the games back then were a special brand of difficult. No punches were pulled, because games were designed to suck quarters out of the pockets of dumb kids like me. Inevitably, I would squander my turn on the machine, and in front of me would flash a countdown from 10, and one large word in all capital letters.
It was a question in the form of one word: Continue?
Given the countdown, the question though simply posed was fairly imposing, and somewhat intimidating. Did I want to continue playing? Did I want to spend more of my hard saved quarters on this game, or do I want to play something else, or save for something else? Did I even have any more quarters? It was a hard lesson I learned then: if I wanted to keep going, I was going to have to put something I valued into what I wanted.
It’s one of the many hard lessons we have to learn during our brief and fleeting lives on this little blue dot of a planet we have here. As with many things, it’s the same for we who believe in God. We even have a special little word for this kind of a situation, of an agreement between two parties, of putting something in and receiving something in response. It’s called a covenant.
It’s more than just a promise, more than just a contract, more than just an agreement even. Another one of the ways a covenant can be interpreted is as an alliance–and that makes things just a bit more interesting, doesn’t it?
So often we are tempted to pose God as almost some kind of cosmic detention administrator, stoically and severely watching us, and documenting every small move we make. If we so much as twitch out of line by accident, we imagine all heaven and earth will collapse around us and we’ll be plunged into eternal fire! Okay, so I may be going a little dramatic, but you get what I mean. Even if you come from a tradition where judgment isn’t’ necessarily the emphasis of our religious persuasion, there’s always that sort of background radiation going on when it comes to talking about God. Either it’s background radiation, or it’s radio televangelists preaching hellfire and damnation, one of the two.
In any case, that’s a false set-up when it comes to God, and that’s why I like the idea of not just an agreement or a contract, because as formal as our covenant is with God, sometimes saying “formal agreement” conjures the image of two opposing parties coming to some begrudging cease-fire. No, this is an alliance! This is a willing, loving agreement that God is coming to us with. There is no grudge, no ill will, no anger, no nothing that comes between God and us.
You want proof? What better proof do we have than Christmas? Hemphill and Pineland have been walking with each other through Mike Slaughter’s “Different Kind of Christmas,” embracing the idea that Jesus coming into the world is a much more poignant, much more meaningful kind of event than just a great big party with presents, food, and fun sing-a-longs. Not that there’s anything wrong with the fun, that is.
However, with all that fun comes too much stress, too much spending, too much stuff that’s NOT Jesus that Jesus gets lost in the fray. Looking back through advent from here, the day of the epiphany, the day the magi arrived at Bethlehem, we see how far of a journey it has been. At the end of it all, we do not come to the cradle of Christ seeing a kingly court, resplendent in gold and silver, but a feeding trough in an animal stall. We recognize that this God we worship chose not to be imposing or terrifying, but to come in the flesh, weak and vulnerable, to remind us that God knows what life is like all too well. So you see, God does not make this covenant with us as a domineering tyrant, but an earnest and loving father, a humble son, and a spirit of holiness
Going back to the idea of covenant, already God has put forth his own flesh, fully human, fully divine, on the table as a matter of good faith in us. However, it would have been sufficient if that were it alone. The work of salvation began truly when Christ came into the world in the flesh. That being said, Jesus took it one step further, way beyond simply being incarnate.
The passage from Matthew today is something often quoted, but not usually in association with the Christmas season. The story of the Last Supper is usually dwelt upon more in the Easter season, but we have been given a special opportunity today to look at it, given the circumstances of the new year, and our situation of my being here. Jesus, eating with his students, his disciples, his friends, shares a Passover meal with them, going through the holy meal as good Jews would. At the end of it though, Jesus adds his own ritual, breaking the bread and pouring the wine with different words. He says that, in doing this, this wine was the sign of a new covenant between us and God, that this bread was his body, his very flesh, given for us.
Suddenly, the promise of the incarnation is made even more intimate to us, as this grim ritual precedes the events of the following day, the crucifixion of our Lord. Here, in the bread and wine, God is made real to us, and God’s very flesh and blood is given to us in good faith as a sign of agreement, of alliance, with us.
For a covenant to be complete though, both parties need to make an offering. That’s where we come in today.
We are given a great opportunity in coming together today. It is a new year, and as it is a new year, we see it as a new opportunity to start fresh. Be it with ourselves, with our friends and neighbors, with our family, and even with God.
Several months ago, when I met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee of our two churches, Pineland and Hemphill, I was told that this day was to be the culmination of a discipleship commitment season in this church, and that today was New Covenant Sunday. I was given due warning, and I was even told that, if I was uncomfortable with that, that we could postpone this event until later. I however declined, because I believe that there could be no better day than this to make a New Covenant. What better way to start the new year than by making a new covenant with each other, and with God?
However, like I said, it takes both parties to make an offering for it to be a covenant. It must be made willingly, honestly, without reservation. So here’s what’s going to happen. Let’s make a deal, and let me go first : I’m offering myself to you.
I am going to be here and be your pastor. I will love you. I will try my best to walk with you on this journey of faith. I’ll do whatever I can to help you in your own ministry, and fulfill your vocation as baptized people. I will laugh with you. I will cry with you. I will be here for you.
Now then, it’s on you: will you continue to be God’s people? Will you faithfully participate in the life of the church? Will you give of your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? Will you give of yourself, in whatever way you can, to further the ministry of Christ? Will you work in the vineyards, be fishers of people, and follow where God leads you?
If so, I want to close with something special. There is a prayer attributed to John Wesley that is rather special to me, and if you will make this covenant with me, join with me in this 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 for 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, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
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.