Sometimes our shorthands come back to bite us on the bahookey. It is true enough that the concept of covenant contains within it the concept of contract. It does not, however, reduce down to contract. Covenant is the marriage of the legal and the familial. Contract covers the legal – covenants have responsibilities, obligations and sanctions. But covenant is also relational, transcending the merely mercenary. God has every right to command whatsoever He will. But He is also our God, the one who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Marriage is likewise a covenant, complete with legal obligations, and relational closeness. Covenant renewal in worship is much like the renewing of wedding vows. In both instances we are not actually starting something new, or repairing something broken. Instead what we are doing is entering into the joy of our continuing commitment. We are remembering the world-changing commitment we made, and the soul-changing commitment that was made to and for us.
We are likewise remembering with care the obligations made in both of those commitments. We ought to, in both instances, reflect on our failures along the way, while rejoicing in the grace shown to us by our beloved. As we so remember we walk away from the renewal more grateful, more committed, and more astonished.
How then do we do this? We begin with the call to worship, a calling from God to appear before Him. We come, however, still in ourselves as sinners. And so we respond to His call to appear by confessing our sin. We acknowledge that we cannot pass inspection, indeed that we are covered in muck. In response to our confession, however, we hear the assurance of pardon. He affirms His forgiveness of us and our sins. Note again we haven’t moved from unforgiven to forgiven, as if His grace expired during the week. This isn’t the given of fresh pardon, but assurance of the pardon that has always been ours in Christ.
We cannot then but rejoice and so we sing praise for His grace. And under His forgiveness we now find ourselves joined together with the saints around the globe, and the souls of just men made perfect. The church militant and the church triumphant, when we come together, are one. And what makes us one is the faith that we profess. So it is fitting in our renewal that here we would confess that faith once delivered. At Ascension Presbyterian Church, where I serve, that means singing the Apostles’ Creed.
The same peace that causes us to break out in song, however, likewise causes us to break out in prayer. And so we lift up the prayers of His people before His throne. And God then responds with His Word. The sermon here isn’t a pastor pretending to be a comedian and entertaining us. It isn’t the pastor pretending to be a professor and informing us. Rather the pastor is a shepherd leading us in the paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake.
Having been instructed and charged, the congregation responds by confessing that all that we have, and all that we are, are His, by the giving of our tithes and offerings. The covenant renewal, however, lacks one thing- the covenant meal. God’s assurance of our pardon, His acceptance of us in Christ, becomes all the more potent for us as we join Him at His table, which He lays before us in the presence of our enemies. There we feast with our husband, eating of the one true acceptable sacrifice. He draws still more near to us as we enter into the holy of holies.
This isn’t, of course, some innovation, some sort of strange fire. It is instead the pattern of worship that can be traced back to the earliest days of the church, built on principles that go back to the tabernacle. For centuries the saints have been blessed to move into their week mindful of the peace Christ won for them, and looking forward to feasting with Him again. How blessed am I to be among those saints.