Contracts and Covenants (Wednesday Night Reflection)
I’ve been asked several times during the time that I have been pastoring congregations, “what is a covenant?” I’ve often asked the question of others, “what do you think of when you hear the word covenant?” We read the word frequently through Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, but sometimes within the New. In the life of the church we hear it when we talk about the Baptismal Covenant or a Wedding Covenant. Tonight we join together and will observe a Covenant Renewal Service, so I thought it would be a good time for us to consider the question together, “What is a covenant?”
Far too many times when I have asked folks what a covenant is…and sadly I’ve even heard some pastors present it this way, they look at covenant is just being the biblical word equivalent of “contract.” We know what contracts are. We sign a contract when we purchase a new car or a new house. We might sign a contract for employment opportunities or a credit application. There are times in schools or even families where there might be behavioral contracts put into place.
The thing is, my brothers and sisters, there is a vast difference between a contract and a covenant.
Let’s consider a contract for purchasing a boat, since we are here on Harkers Island, and I’ve seen quite a few more for sale here than I have in other places I have pastored. Let’s say Dale has decided to sell his boat. I am interested in purchasing the boat. Dale and I work out a deal. I agree to pay him $18,000 for his boat, he agrees to give me the boat in exchange for $18,000. The key to understanding a contract is each person’s action is dependent upon the actions of the other person. In other words, if I don’t give Dale the $18,000, Dale doesn’t give me the boat. If Dale doesn’t provide me with the boat, I don’t give him the $18,000.
We can give thanks to God that a covenant is nothing like a contract. We see the stark difference between the two as we read through God’s Word. God does not contact individuals and say, “Let’s get together and draw out a covenant with one another.” What we read in Scripture, from Noah on, is that God declares, “This is my covenant I am establishing with you.” God initiates the covenant in a one-sided manner. He invites Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the Hebrew people as a whole into a relationship with Him that He is establishing.
Once God initiates the covenant, once He invites the individual or the nation as a whole into a covenantal relationship, the people are asked to respond. The invitation to covenantal relationship includes expectation. God establishes the covenant with Noah and sends he and his family out to be fruitful and multiply. God establishes the covenant with Abraham and tells him that he must leave his homeland and go the land that God would reveal to him while in journey. God establishes the covenant with Israel through Moses, offering them the Ten Commandments and tell the people they are now to abide by the Law.
We begin to see a little difference between the contract and covenant here…with the one-sided initiation…but so far, it doesn’t seem like a great deal of difference with a contract…but we aren’t finished yet.
With a contract we noted, that if one person doesn’t fulfill their part of the contract it renders the agreement null and void. If Dale and I had the contract about my paying him for the boat, and we set that arrangement upon on payment plans, and I stop paying, then Dale will likely either sue me or come and take his boat back…and our contract is null and void.
Covenants don’t operate this way. Just as we repeatedly see God establishing covenants with His people throughout Scripture, we as often see the people of God turning away from God. If covenants operated like contracts, God could simply say, “Fine. You lost your chance. I’ll go find another people to be my people.” However, Scripture reveals to us that is not how God works.
Contracts are often sealed by handshakes and/or signatures. Covenants, on the other hand, are sealed and bound by love. Throughout Scripture we see time and again that even as God’s people fail on their part of the covenant, God is standing there waiting for them to return—waiting for them to turn their lives around in repentance. Not only does God wait for the people to return, He aids them in making that return.
God does the same with each of us. God has established a relationship with us by pouring out His Holy Spirit and drawing us to Himself. Our baptism is recognition of that invitation to relationship and our surrender of our lives to Him. Often, though, we fail to live out lives that are reflective of that invitation and surrender. We sin, taking our lives back for ourselves rather than given over to God. Yet, no matter where we have been in our lives…no matter how far off track we have strayed from God and lived contrary to the will of God…no matter how far we have drifted away from the time of our Baptism…God remains there, waiting for us to return…pouring out His Spirit beckoning for us to return…giving us the strength to return…loving us the whole time….ready to renew a relationship with us and give us the ability to live out our side of the covenant. He does this through His Son, Jesus Christ, who offered His life in our place for our sin, paying our penalty…and giving us His Spirit that we might actually become holy. That’s covenant living…that would be like Dale telling me to keep the boat, enjoy the boat, keep making the payments, and here’s the money to pay me off.
Tonight we gather to renew the covenant made at our Baptism and commit our lives once more to live for God. We have come here because God loves us so much that He sent his Son into the world that all might be saved, and that we might have the chance to begin our lives with a fresh start.
Through the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, God has given us the ability to live out our side of the covenant. He continually fills us with the Holy Spirit that we might be made holy and be able to live holy lives. He has brought us together tonight, to receive His Spirit and ask us to turn our lives back over to Him. We come tonight to be a part of the new Covenant that God has established through Jesus Christ as promised by the prophet Jeremiah. We come here, gathered as the people gathered around King Josiah and together renewed their covenant with God. We come here, my brothers and sisters, offering our lives back to God and allowing Him to put his law within us and write it upon our hearts.
Praise be to God!
The Covenant Renewal Service that I invite you to participate in tonight, was of particular importance to John Wesley. He began using it in the 1780’s with the Methodist Societies that met. The Covenant that we will offer up today is almost an exact replica of the service that Wesley celebrated in 1780.
The Invitation and Covenant Prayer that I now offer for you to participate in should be done with complete reverence and sincerity. The prayers that we offer up, we offer as a vow before God. I invite each of you to participate and take your bulletin home and sign it as a reminder of your commitment. Place it somewhere that it can be a reminder of the Covenant between God and yourself.