EVERY newborn baby, observed a wise man, is a sign that God has not given up on us. I suppose the same is true when we enter a new year. God has not given up on us.
The annual covenant service is a uniquely Wesleyan contribution to the worship and spirituality of the church. The first formal covenant service was held in 1755 by John Wesley. The words for the service were written by Wesley himself. Today, various forms of the covenant service exist using the old texts adapted into more modern language. Traditionally, the covenant service has been held on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day or the first Sunday in January.
One of the primary themes in the covenant service is making a commitment to serve God with all our heart and soul, and renewing that covenant. This is clearly expressed in the well-known words of the Covenant Prayer that Methodists have been using over the years:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
These are great words describing the highest forms of discipleship. If only we can live them out in our daily lives. But alas, all too often our resolve to follow Christ, no matter what, flounders in the face of distraction and difficulties along the way.
Hence, another primary theme in the covenant service is repentance and confession. As Wesley said, even the best of us is guilty of a thousand imperfections. This service at the beginning of the year offers us an opportunity to realise where we have failed God, where our love for God has grown cold, and where we have forgotten what we have promised.
In this respect, we can learn a lesson or two from Gideon, an Old Testament character. He was one of the judges who led Israel in the days before the nation had kings (Jud. 6-8). Israel was living disobediently against the Lord. As a result God allowed the Midianites to oppress the nation. When the Israelites cried out to God for help, God called Gideon to act for Him and His people. In the events that followed, we see Gideon as a man who obeyed God in faith but also as one who was so very careful about saying “yes” to God that he had to be assured by God through various signs. God was very patient with him.
Whatever his hesitancies, Gideon was used by God to secure a great victory over the Midianites. The people of Israel were so impressed that they came to Gideon and told him, “Rule over us – you, your son, and your grandson – because you have saved us out of the hand of Midian.” (Jud. 8:22). Gideon is to be commended for his great answer. Instead of accepting the tempting offer, he replied, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” (v. 23). He reminded his fellow Israelites that in the theocracy, God is to be their Ruler and King.
All this is wonderful except that the story does not end there. We are told that later, Gideon had 70 sons and many wives (Jud. 8:30), a social arrangement that only kings could really afford in those days. The man who refused to be king and declared that only God is to be king, unfortunately began to live like a king. Worse, he had a son whom he named Abimelech. This name literally means “My father is king.”
It appears that Gideon had forgotten his earlier commitment that God alone shall be king. That commitment seemed to have been eroded by years of negligence. Gideon, who was greatly used by God in his earlier years, appears to have backslided and gone back on his promise made in the presence of God and His people.
The same thing happened to Simon Peter. When Jesus predicted that when He was arrested, the disciples would flee, Peter was the disciple who said with over-inflated confidence that he would not flee like the other disciples and that Jesus could rely on him (Mk. 14:29). He broke his proud promise when put to the test. In fact he denied that he had anything to do with Jesus, not just once, but three times, just as Christ had predicted.
He felt so terrible after this that he spent his time weeping. Later when he met the risen Christ, he was given a new chance to commit himself to Christ, but only after carefully considering his calling (Jn. 21). When Jesus asked him to love Him, serve Him, and follow Him, Peter responded with faith and obedience and never looked back after that.
This New Year season, God has given us a new chance to examine how we are following Christ and to renew our commitment to Him. We have an opportunity to renew our covenant with God. In the words of the covenant service, may our prayer be:
I come, Lord. I believe, Lord. I throw myself upon Your grace and mercy. I trust Your saving death alone to save me. Do not refuse me. I have nowhere else to go. Here I will stay. I will trust You, and rest in You, and risk myself for You. On You I lay my hope for pardon, for life, for salvation. If I perish, I perish on Your shoulders. If I sink, I sink in Your ship. If I die, I die at Your door. Do not bid me to go away, for I will not go.
Let us each resolve to love God with all our hearts, follow Christ all the way, and obey the Spirit all our days. For who knows how many more new years we will get to see.