Each New Year methodist gatherings in Britain and eventually around the world celebrated a Covenant Renewal Service. It began in the 1750s with a desire by Charles and John Wesley to renew the commitment of the people under their care, and to give an alternative to the drunken parties of the New Year. It continued to be celebrated near the New Year mark in London, but Wesley established it in new societies whenever he went to visit them. This points to the central place the concepts of the service played in early wesleyan discipleship. Eventually it became common practice for this service to fall on the Sunday closest to January 1st. You may consider inaugurating this practice in the coming Christmas season.
John Wesley often spoke of this service as deeply meaningful and moving for the people when writing about it in his journal:
“Many mourned before God, and many were comforted” (April 1756)
“It was, as usual, a time of remarkable blessing” (October 1765)
“It was an occasion for a variety of spiritual experiences … I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of His graces, healing all their backslidings” (January 1, 1775).
The covenantal prayer forms the heart of the service and is its climactic experience for most. In it’s traditional form it is prayed from this model:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
(as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936).
It has been modernized in order to make the prayer closer to the heart language of today’s English speaker in this way:
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.’
The Covenant Prayer, as it has come to be known, is typically in the latter third of the service and arrives after sung worship, read scriptures, liturgical participation, confession of sins, and a verbal invitation to join in with the prayer. In African American communities “Watch Night” Services have had particularly poignant traditions connected to them. Not only was a watch night a night of spiritual renewal and seeking, it was often the night masters reckoned their accounts and decided which slaves would be kept, which sold. In some years it was the last night families had together before they were separated. Watch Nights in churches concerned with racial reconciliation today can also watch for a day when the family of God can be more united, more whole, than it is now.
Jonathan Powers from Asbury Theological Seminary has written several possible worship orders for the service in today’s churches. Here is one of them to work from in adapting it for your own context:
Call to Worship
The Lord’s Prayer
Scripture Lesson (Ecclesiastes 3:1-13)
Scripture Lesson (Psalm 8)
Scripture Lesson (Revelation 21:1-6a)
Scripture Lesson (Matthew 25:31-46)
Words of Assurance and Pardon
The Covenant Prayer
Dismissal with Blessing
The scripture readings and the scripture to be proclaimed will change. The theme of covenant renewal, repentance, renewing of Christian vows, repentance from sin, and a forward looking surrender to God’s will are what holds all such services in common.
Here are a few ways you might start your preaching work on differing texts for this service.
1 Peter 1:13-25
Potential driving question: What have you set your hopes on this last year? What will you set your hopes on in the coming year?
Potential opening: You can tell what you hoped for most yesterday, by what you are most disappointed in today. Describe various disappointments and what prior hope they reveal. Describe the difference between what we say we hope for and what we actually hope for.
Themes in the passage worth exploring: the fleeting nature of life, the fulfilling nature of deeply felt love, our status as children who obey, a sense of “homelessness”, the temptations to pursue old sins to fill a desire, and so forth.
Potential closing concept: When grace is what we hope for, and giving love to others is what we enjoy, we are not disappointed. Set your hearts on these things not on the resolutions of this world. Not on the aims of this culture. Set your hearts on receiving grace, and giving love.
Potential opening: Story of a gift whose enjoyment faded quickly. A remote control car driven into water and shorted. A flat screen TV broken on the ride home. A homemade item no one really wanted. A gift that was really for the giver, not the receiver. Sometimes gifts that deliver things in hand, leave both giver and receiver empty in the soul.
Themes in the passage worth exploring: the empty “gifts” God’s people are giving, the gifts God desires, the lack of need in God (doctrine of aseity), the need for the human to give something, the kind of giving that leaves both giver and receiver satisfied, the sins those who claim to have a covenant commit (theft of many kinds, deceit of many kinds, lust and adultery both physical and emotional, gossip and slander), those who are hungry though God is not.
Potential closing concept: The pop up store in London and New York (Choose Love) where you spend money but leave empty handed. Sometimes gifts that leave us empty handed are precisely what fills ours souls and pleases the heart of God.
Clearly both of these sermons are merely starting points. You will have to do your own exegetical work, wrestle with God spiritually, discern your own illustrative material, and make it fully your own. Consider some kind of spiritually focused renewal this new year. New Year resolutions are only as powerful as the will behind them. Renewed covenants reconnect us to the covenantal mercies and faithfulness of God.
David Ward, © 2018