Yesterday we posted the first message of a three part sermon series preached six years ago. Dr Dow preached these sermons to his congregation (Glasgow City Free) on the topic of 'covenant renewal'. This is sermon two - enjoy!
Why should I Renew my Covenant with God?
Read: Revelation 2:1-7
Generations of children were brought up watching a program which has recently been voted Britain’s favourite ever children’s show. Only 13 episodes were ever made of Bagpuss – the ‘old, fat, furry catpuss’ along with his friends Gabriel the toad, Madeleine the rag doll and Professor Yaffle the woodpecker. I remember Bagpuss well as a child, but haven’t seen it for years. But now, the original creator has sold the rights for Bagpuss to a production company, and they are busy making new episodes. In the near future, a new generation of children will be introduced to what we all loved when we were young.
Last week, and over the next two weeks, we here are also being re-introduced to something which generations of Christians loved, but has fallen out of practice and fashion. The devotional exercise known as ‘renewing our covenant with God’; or recommitting ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ – for us to be His and for Him to be ours – was used by generations of our forefathers to re-kindle their Christian faith and to boost their growth in grace. Tonight, I want to ask why our ancestors in the faith renewed their covenant with God – why, from time to time, they recommitted themselves to Jesus Christ. Why also should we, at certain times, renew our covenant with God – to be His and His alone?
The foundational reason why we renew our covenant with God is that we have changed. We have either grown in our Christian faith; or we have gone back – we have seen new things about God and ourselves; or we have stopped seeing the things we once knew about God and ourselves. We are not the people we once were – either for good or for ill. Ultimately, that’s what lay behind the call of Jesus in Revelation 2 to the Ephesian Church to renew their covenant with God – among all the good things they were doing; they had changed because they had forgotten the height from which they had fallen. What then are these things which perhaps we had never seen about God before, but which seeing, have forced us to our knees in the renewal of our covenant with Him; or these things which once we knew and then forgot, but having glimpsed them afresh we feel the need to recommit ourselves to the Lord Jesus? There are four things which, having seen either in the course of Christian growth or Christian backsliding, encourage us towards renewing our covenant with God: first, a question of God’s brilliance; secondly, a question of God’s holiness; thirdly, a question of God’s strength, and lastly, a question of God’s presence.
[A] A Question of God’s Glory
The glory of something is the impression it makes upon you. When a heavy man walks on a sandy beach, he leaves deep footprints behind him – he leaves an impression on the sand – literally, he has great glory. When we talk of the glory of God, we are talking of the impression He makes on us – not a footprint, but the reverence, awe and godly fear which we experience when we encounter Him as He really is. In Revelation 1, the Apostle John is confronted by the glory of the hyper-exalted Jesus. The glory of God the Son is such that John is paralysed in His presence – he falls at His feet as though dead. He is awestruck in the presence of the glory of God, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. There are occasions, albeit far too few, when we too glimpse a vision of the glory of God and we also are filled with reverent awe. Perhaps, in the context of Revelation 2, it is when we come to a new appreciation that the exalted Christ holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lampstands. Through the public preaching or private reading of the Word, and in prayer, we see the glory of God afresh and we lovingly renew our covenant with Him. There are two aspects of His glory which may bring us to our knees in renewed dedication: first, the glory of God’s character and secondly, the glory of God’s love.
1. The Glory of God’s Character – the Shorter Catechism gives a great answer to the question, “what is God”. It says, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” Each of these attributes of God are firmly embedded in the clear teaching of the Bible. In our reading of the Bible, and in our experience of God, we often rediscover one of these attributes of God, or it strikes us with new freshness. For example, reading Psalm 139, we may come to a new appreciation of both the way in which God knows all about us; and the way in which He is always with us. We realise that God is greater and more glorious than we had previously understood. We are filled with reverent awe before Him and we bow in adoration – recommitting ourselves again to being God’s and His alone. All the idols of materialism and worldliness which we bow down to worship pale into insignificance beside Him and we cast them away, resolving only to embrace God in Christ. The glory of the character of God brings us to our knees and we humbly renew our covenant with Him. If God is this great, then He is worthy to receive the worship of all things, everywhere and always – and more besides. How many attributes does God have; and how many different ways are there to appreciate and discover each of His glories? If we should answer these questions, there will be enough to keep us renewing our covenants today, tomorrow and forever.
2. The Glory of God’s Love – although we don’t always appreciate it, the pre-eminent attribute of God presented to us in the Bible is that He is Love. He is pre-disposed to an attitude of love towards us. Most of the great ‘salvation’ texts in the Bible begin by describing the reason why God saved us; and most usually His reason is love. One example is John 3:16 – “for God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son”. Another example is Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Whereas we might be brought to our knees by the glory of the character of God; what truly prostrates us before Him is the Glory of His Love – that love which reaches out to the downcast and lifts up their heads; which reaches out to the desperate and gives them hope; which reaches out to His enemies and gives them forgiveness through the Cross of Christ. And yes, whilst we might be continually amazed at how God could love a sinful world such as this; what truly paralyses us is the Glory of His Love in loving us as individuals. Despite all He knows about me; He still loves me. Perhaps you despair of yourself and you don’t like the person you are; but God loves you so much He gave His One and Only Son for you; God demonstrated His love for you in that while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you. That is the true weight of glory – the impression His love makes upon us. When we appreciate afresh the quantity and the quality of the love of God for us in Christ, we cannot but recommit ourselves to Him in covenant renewal.
Perhaps you are going through a stage of rapid growth in your Christian life at the moment – you are learning much and understanding more besides. That’s great – but make sure that you turn what you are learning about God into the praise of God. Use this wonderful truth about the God who loves us, the Son who gave Himself for us and the Spirit who is with us – use His glory as the foundation of renewing your covenant with God. Learn and renew.
[B] A Question of God’s Holiness
The Christians in Ephesus were some of the most blessed in the world. The Apostle Paul had taken a special interest in Ephesus and had devoted an epistle to it. The Apostle John – the same John who sees the vision of Revelation – he made his home there. Such blessings had resulted in the Ephesian Christians making significant progress in their Christian faith. According to Revelation 2:1-17, there is much about the Church there which draws the approval of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. And yet, this one thing He has against them – this One thing which nullifies the good which otherwise they might have been doing: Jesus says to them, “you have forgotten your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” The repentance which the Lord Jesus Christ commands is brought about by remembering the height from which they have fallen. Repentance, or as we would term it in covenant language, ‘renewing their covenant with God’ would be brought about by acknowledging just how sinful they are.
It reminds us of the great vision of Isaiah when he sees the Lord, seated on a throne, high and lifted up. He sees the mysterious seraphim and hears their mighty voices. Before this revelation of the burning purity and holiness of God, Isaiah is paralysed and says, “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Before the piercing holiness of God, Isaiah became only too aware of his own sinful ugliness. His lips are unclean because his heart is unclean. The holiness of the Lord God Almighty brings him to his knees in confession and repentant sorrow. It is almost like Isaiah has looked into the dazzling rays of the sun and his eyes have been burned out.
Have you seen the holiness of God recently – or more accurately, have you allowed the holiness of God to search you? Perhaps youknow that you have been living a worldly life, and you have been shocked by how little sin affects you anymore – you are worried because you have become hardened to sin’s corrosive influence – your conscience doesn’t bother you like it used to. But then you see the great holiness of God afresh and you feel like Isaiah the prophet dazzled by the glory of His purity; or perhaps the Spirit of Christ has spoken to you through the Word commanding you to remember the height from which you have fallen and to repent. You know you can’t go on the way you are doing, for as we know, there is no-one as unhappy as a worldly, lukewarm Christian. And so, even tonight, you feel compelled to renew your covenant with God – to rebuild the broken walls of your relationship with Him and to recommit yourself to Christ.
Perhaps you are a Christian who has been growing in your faith – you are getting to know Christ better; but the closer you get to Him, the more you realise just how sinful you really are. But you really do want to get rid of your sin and to be more like Christ. In many ways, you are in what should be the normal state for the Christian – the closer your get to Christ, the more you realise your own inner sinfulness. If you pardon the irreverence of the illustration, the closer Quasimodo gets to Esmerelda, the more he realises just how ugly he really is. Now is the perfect time to push on in your faith by renewing your covenant with God by repenting of all you know to be wrong in your life.
But perhaps you are somewhere in the middle – perhaps you are apathetic about all this – you can appreciate the logic of it all from an intellectual point of view, but you are neither convicted of your sin nor worried by the hardness of your heart. Perhaps you are not affected at all by a call to repentance and renewal. The reason you are in this apathetic state is because you have neither seen God in all His Holiness; and you have not seen yourself in all your sinfulness. If you really knew how sinful your heart was – how, in thought, word and deed, every second of every day, there are sins of commission and omission, nothing would keep you from repenting and renewing your covenant with God. If you really knew just how holy God is, that His burning purity even causes the mighty Seraphim to shield their eyes in His presence, nothing would keep you from repenting and renewing your covenant with God. If we are in this apathetic state, we need to turn again to the pages of the Bible and make a study of God’s Holiness; we need to pray for God’s Spirit to search us and show us our own inner sinfulness. Break out of the apathy, for apathy is the enemy of our spiritual lives.
[C] A Question of God’s Strength
We all know that one day we are on the heights and the next we are in the depths. Perhaps we aren’t particularly flappable, but over a period of time, the pressure mounts, the stress increases, one piece of bad news piles on top of another piece of bad news, and we just can’t cope anymore. A couple of years ago, our Queen called the year that she had an ‘annus horriblus’ – a horrible year. Perhaps there are some of us here who could echo her sentiments. Whoever we are, however we like to cover things up, we struggle. Behind every pair of eyes is a hurting person – a person with their own issues, doubts, fears and inner weaknesses. I had to laugh recently, although I’m not sure I should have, when I read in the paper of a Peruvian man who was having stomach pains. He was taken into hospital for an operation. Surgeons operating on Requelme Alvarado removed almost a kilogram of nails, scrap metal and coins from his stomach. Alvarado seems to have a mental problem which makes him eat metal. But never mind nails, coins and metal, if spiritual and emotional doctors could open us up, what would they find? Things as weird and wonderful? They’d find phobias, fears, suspicions, paranoia, worry, greed and all kinds of vice. Although we’re all very good at hiding it, we’re each just one piece of bad news away from throwing our hands in the air and giving up. We just don’t have the strength to cope – we’re just one mile away from utter exhaustion. Maybe you don’t feel that way tonight, but maybe you do. And even if you don’t, do you really know yourself as well as you think you do?
Perhaps you feel like a Heron which was recently pictured trying to swallow a turtle. The heron’s beak couldn’t quite spread wide enough and try as it could, the heron couldn’t break through the turtle’s shell. Perhaps you have something ahead of you in life which is so daunting you and worrying you that you just don’t know how you are going to cope. How are you going to swallow tomorrow, when you can’t stomach today? And so you are aware of your deep weakness.
By contrast, we see the great strength of God. We understand that by His Word the Universe was created and it is kept in motion moment by moment by His power. By His strength, the hills were established – the mighty Himalayas and the Andes; by His power the deep sea trenches were gouged from the sea bed. We read of Him stopping the sun still in its tracks; of healing the sick and making the lame walk. And we pray that His grace would be sufficient for us, that His power would be made perfect in our weakness. We grasp a new understanding of His strength; and we admit a new level of our weakness, and we are left pleading with Him for the ability just to keep going. In the depths of our powerlessness and impotence, we drop to our knees and renew our covenant – we recommit ourselves to Him in humility and sheer dependence.
Perhaps though you are happily sauntering through life without a care in the world! You haven’t had any sticky moments in life yet that you have needed help from God. Far from envy you, we should pity you, for you have never experienced the soothing balm of God’s grace flooding into a broken heart; the strengthening resolve of God’s Spirit empowering us to meet our deepest fears and confront our most paranoid issues. But even if you have never experienced the low’s of life, be sure that these low’s are coming – and what will you do then? Prepare now for them by renewing your covenant with God.
[D] A Question of God’s Presence
I am convinced that the main difference between Christians today, and the great Christians of yesteryear lies in our awareness of the presence of God. We live so little of our lives in the awareness that God is present; nor do we particularly desire His presence with us. And yet, that awareness of, and desire for the presence of God with us is the key feature and the major barometer of our Christian progress. If we are growing in our Christian faith, then we are more aware of God’s presence and more desirous of His presence; if we are going backwards, we become less aware of God’s presence and we don’t want Him anyway. A change therefore in His presence will prompt us to renew our covenant with Him – it will encourage us to renew our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. In this context, there are two things which, having changed in our lives, may prompt us to covenant renewal:
First, there is the awareness of His presence. Perhaps the greatest piece of literature detailing the impact that the awareness of God’s presence has upon a man is to be found in Psalm 139. The psalmist is aware that he can’t go anywhere, anywhen, without God knowing all about it and being right there with him. God’s with him in the day and in the night; far away and near. God’s with him inside his head and knows his thoughts before a word comes out his mouth. It’s a thought which is almost too much for him to consider – that even before he was born, while he was still in his mother’s womb, God was with him. He can’t get away and the knowledge is almost oppressive. He’s just so aware of God being with him. Is that the way it is for us – that we are aware of Him? Or is every day lived in godless ignorance? We don’t experience him in our sitting down nor our rising up; in our goings out nor our comings in. We never feel His presence everywhere. Perhaps we do – perhaps His presence lies thick upon us and we can’t get away. What then should we do if that is, or is not the case? In both situations, we follow the pattern of the Psalmist who says in Psalm 139:23-24 “search me and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts! See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The awareness of God’s presence led to covenant renewal! The more he experienced God’s presence the more earnestly he renewed his commitment to be God’s and God’s alone. And conversely, perhaps also the less we experience God’s presence with us, the more desperately we need to renew our commitment to be His again, that we may know Him.
Secondly, there is the desire for His presence. Ultimately, Christianity isn’t a rule, but a relationship; not doctrine, but desire. Our greatest fathers, though they were highly proficient in doctrine and knew their own minds when it came to behaviour, were truly outstanding in their desire for God. After all, it is normal if there is a loving relationship for there to be desire between the two parties for each other’s presence. Our father’s longed to experience the presence of God. There were times when their expressions of longing became indecent. Samuel Rutherford, and before him Thomas a Kempis and before him the apostle Paul, were Christians whose desire after Christ’s presence caused them almost physical pain – like the pain we might feel if we were denied the fullness of presence of our spouses. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment – how much do we really desire the felt presence of Christ in our lives? A little bit, not at all, a lot? A time of deep longing after Christ is a perfect time to renew our covenant with Him. Just like, perhaps, being filled with longing for someone you love but you can’t be with, you resolve that you will always love them; so when you are overtaken with desire after Christ, you resolve in the renewal of your covenant with Him, to be His and His alone forever. But perhaps you once knew what it felt like to long after the presence of Christ – you couldn’t get enough of Him – but it’s been a long time since it’s been that way for you. And there are just moments when you miss that feeling of desire. The renewal of covenant is for you – another opportunity for you to draw close and commit yourself to ruthlessly pursuing again His felt presence in your life.
Perhaps you’ve no clue of what I’m talking about here – perhaps you can’t identify with Paul when he says, “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Perhaps you don’t have the foggiest what the woman of the Song of Solomon is saying when she says of her beloved, “he is the chiefest among ten thousands.” Pity you that you’ve never experienced the joy of His nearer presence. Pity you, but even now come and make a new covenant with the Lord who sent His One and Only Son to die on a Cross to take away all our sins – come now, and know God’s presence, His strength, His holiness and His glory. AMEN