(preached at Alger First UMC on January 4, 2015)
Scripture: 2 Chronicles 34:29-33
So the Scripture this week is about King Josiah, who ruled the Southern Kingdom of Judah starting around the year 640 BC. Does anyone know anything about King Josiah? If we look back to the beginning of this chapter, we see that Josiah was 8 years old when he became king. 8?! What were you doing when you were 8 years old? That’s like second grade, right? Bob Williams probably has socks older than that, right? When I was 8, dad had just been appointed to a church in Hamilton down near Cincinnati and I was just beginning second grade. What were you doing? You were a little kid, right? Doing little kid things. Well Josiah was ruling over the Israelites at age 8. How’s that make you feel?
So when Josiah was put on the throne, Israel was in a really bad place spiritually. They weren’t living as God’s people at all, they were following whatever god they wanted. But Josiah comes to power and he starts to turn that around. He takes down all of the altars to the false idols and purges Israel of all of that stuff. And he has the temple rebuilt so that the people can go back there to meet with God and be God’s people. But when the temple is being rebuilt, the Book of the Law of the Lord was found. This book contained the covenant that the Jewish people had originally made with God.
Before I go on, what is a covenant? Do we know what that means? A covenant is basically a serious or solemn agreement between two people or parties. You’ve heard the term “marriage covenant” before right? In the wedding, the bride and groom covenant with each other, before God, that they will always be faithful to each and will never leave or give up. It’s a serious promise that they have to really commit to, both in their heart and in their head.
This is the kind of covenant that the Jewish people had made with God, and this was the covenant that had been lost. So the Book of Covenant was found and brought to King Josiah. And the High Priest read part of it to Josiah, the part about what would happen if the people followed the covenant and what would happen if they didn’t follow it. And if they didn’t follow it, there were all of these curses and judgment and wrath that would fall on them.
So Josiah hears this and realizes that Israel is not following this covenant. That means all of those curses and judgment and wrath will be falling on them. And he realizes that he’s got to do something about this. So he gathers all of Israel together to renew their covenant with God. And this is what we heard about in our Scripture for today. Josiah went up to the temple with all of the priests and Levites, the elders of the tribes, and all of the people, from the greatest to the least, and he had them all gather around. And then he read to them every single word in the Book of the Law of the Lord that had been found and brought to him. Then, in front of all of Israel, King Josiah renewed his covenant with God. He pledged to follow the Lord and keep all of the commands and laws with all his heart and soul and to obey the words of the covenant written in the book.
Then he had everyone else there, all of Judah, pledge themselves to the covenant, to follow the Lord with their whole hearts, to obey God completely, and to truly live as God’s covenant people.
And after all of that, all of the people went out and took down all of the false idols they worshiped, everything in the country that wasn’t in accordance with the covenant, anything that pulled them away from worshiping God fully. They actually lived out what they promised.
So this was a big moment for God’s chosen people, right? This was a huge deal. The whole, entire nation, turned a 180, repented, and followed God, lived into their covenant with God. It was a huge, blessed, monumental shift for the Jewish people. This wasn’t just a quick decision, this was a serious, solemn promise and pledge to God.
When I think of reaffirming covenants and promises with God, I think of all the times I recommitted myself throughout high school. I went on week-long mission trips throughout high school with my youth group and there would always be one night, usually near the end of the week, where we would be having our evening worship and devotionals and all of a sudden you could feel the presence of God in the room, it was palpable, you could almost taste it. And it would invariably end with some variation of an altar call, it would usually last for a couple hours, everyone would be weeping by the time it was done, you know, all that kind of stuff. And I would always feel like I had to recommit myself to God on those nights. I would feel all of these emotions rising up inside of me and I would come to a larger realization of all of the times that I had sinned, that I hadn’t followed God with my whole heart, and I would feel that I needed to repent of it and recommit myself to God. And I would be on this spiritual high for the rest of the trip and a couple weeks after it, God’s awesome, Jesus is awesome, I’m gonna tell the world about it! Has anyone else felt like that? You know what sucks about these spiritual highs? They end just like that.
Now, why do they end? The problem is that all of those were just big emotional moments. It’s not that the presence of God wasn’t real, it’s not that God wasn’t doing anything there, it’s that I was really shallow. I thought I could rely on emotions to keep me walking with God. And that never works, because your emotions can change at the drop of a hat. The real problem with these big, emotional, Holy Spirit-soaked moments is that it’s all heart. In those moments, I was committing my heart to God, which is great, but my head wasn’t involved at all. And that really makes sense, right? It was the end of a week-long mission trip, I was exhausted, emotions were running high. So it’s not a really good time to have my intellect involved here. But that was the problem. I hadn’t made a logical commitment. There was no intentional planning about how I would actually accomplish anything and no thought was given to what I would actually have to sacrifice, what I was willing to give up. I thought I could really on all of these feel-good emotions about God. And when those emotions went away, when my heart went away, I kept failing because there was no plan in place, nothing else that I could rely on.
Now, I’m not saying that these big emotional, Holy Spirit-soaked Jesus moments are bad. I truly believe that I experienced God in those moments and my faith wouldn’t be the same without them. But I think we all need something more. I think we all need a time to do what King Josiah and the Jewish people did in our Scripture for today. I think we all need a time to solemnly and seriously pledge ourselves to God to be God’s people, a people washed white and redeemed by the blood of Christ and strengthened to follow God wherever it is that God would have us go. And we have to commit our hearts and our minds to this. We have to be intentional about this and think through how we are going to follow God, what it means for us to commit ourselves to God, what sacrifices we’ll have to make, what it will truly take for us to be followers of Christ.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, our denomination, knew this. At his churches in England, he would lead his congregations in a time of covenant renewal on New Year’s Day. My dad would always do this on the first Sunday of the New Year, like what we’re doing today. And the idea is that it’s a New Year, we might have all made some kind of New Year’s resolution, there’s just a feeling of freshness and newness all around us. So it’s a perfect time to renew our covenant with God to follow God wherever God would have us go for the next year.
So what exactly is the covenant that we have entered into and are remembering today? It’s the agreement between two people or two parties, right? So on the one side, God’s side, God promises to give us new life in Christ, the Source and Perfecter of our faith. On the other side, our side, we commit to live not for ourselves but only for Jesus Christ, putting to death the desires of the flesh. Today, we meet, as the generations before us have met, to renew the covenant that binds us to God. Let us make this covenant of God our own.
O God, searcher of all our hearts,, you have formed us as a people and claimed us for your own. As we come to acknowledge your sovereignty and grace, and enter anew into covenant with you, reveal any reluctance or falsehood within us. Let your Spirit impress your truth on our inmost being, and receive us in mercy for the sake of our Mediator, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
O God, our Covenant Friend, you have been gracious to us through all the years of our lives. We thank you for your loving care, which has filled our days and brought us to this time and place.
We praise your holy name, O God.
You have given us life and reason, and set us in a world filled with your glory. You have comforted us with family and friends, and ministered to us through the hands of our sisters and brothers.
We praise your holy name, O God.
You have filled our hearts with a hunger after you, and have given us your peace. You have redeemed us, and called us to a high calling Christ Jesus. You have given us a place in the fellowship of your Spirit and the witness of your Church.
We praise your holy name, O God.
You have been our light in darkness and a rock of strength in adversity and temptation. You have been the very Spirit of joy in our joys and the all-sufficient reward in all our labors.
We praise your holy name, O God.
You remembered us when we forgot you. You followed us even when we tried to flee from you. You met us with forgiveness when we returned to you. For all your patience and overflowing grace,
We praise your holy name, O God. *
Christ will save and redeem those who are his servants, those who obey him. And we are not Christ’s servants unless we agree to it. And the only way we can be Christ’s servants and receive this salvation is if we submit ourselves fully to Christ. Christ will be all in all or he will be nothing. We must confirm this by a holy covenant.
So to make this covenant a reality in your life, consider these things:
Set apart some time to be before the Lord, to seek God’s assistance, to think through everything this covenant requires, to search your hearts to see if you have truly given yourself to Christ. Consider your sins and consider whether you are ready to leave them behind to follow Christ. Be sure you are clear in these matters, see that you do not lie to God.
Second, be serious and in a spirit of holy awe and reverence.
Third, claim God’s covenant, but don’t rely upon your own strength to claim it. Rely upon the strength and grace that God has given you.
Fourth, resolve to be faithful. You have given your hearts to the Lord, you have opened your mouths to the Lord, and you have dedicated yourself to God. With God’s power, never go back.
Finally, be ready to renew your covenant with God. **
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will,
place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it also be made in heaven.
*Taken from the United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992 Edition
**Taken and reworded from the United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992 Edition
***Taken from “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition-Contemporary Version” from the United Methodist Hymnal.