Luke 4.14-21 and 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a
Covenant Service

Our covenant service each year is a reminder of who we are. It is a reminder that as Christians, our identity is founded on Jesus. And to say that our identity is founded on Jesus is to say that our lives are founded on his promises. We do nothing to earn our salvation, or to earn our own goodness or even to exist at all. We somehow all feel that we should earn that right, but our best efforts are so pitiful compared to God's perfection that they amount to nothing whatever in comparison with God.

But alongside that humbling realisation of our sinfulness and weakness stands Jesus' unfailing promises. And those promises are articulated pretty neatly for us by Jesus himself in our Gospel reading this evening. His promises are that he will:

bring good news to the poor.
proclaim release to the captives
recover the sight of the blind,
let the oppressed go free,
and proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'

In other words, everything that we yearn for - riches, freedom, sight, release and being favoured (loved and valued) all come from Jesus as a gift, founded not on what we do, but on his promises, his faithfulness, his being.

So in the deepest, truest sense, our identity is founded on Jesus. We are no longer our own, but his. We exist because of him. We stand because of him. We have a future because of him. And not because of anything else. And that is what gives us hope. Because if our hope were dependent on us, we wouldn't have much hope, would we? We're flaky, weak, forgetful, self-centred and all too ready to give in and seek compromise (unless it's just me). But Jesus is strong, faithful, completely selfless, and totally uncompromising in his love of justice, of mercy and of us.

And it's that uncompromising commitment to us that we celebrate in our Covenant service. It reminds us that God only relates to us within the framework of a covenant - not just a vague manifesto of aspirations; not just the nice, easy words of mere courtesy; not even the sincere intentions of a promise, but a covenant - an unbreakable oath in which his whole life is invested.

And the only way that we can enter into this covenant at all is because he is faithful. We're not. We made these same promises last year, and the year before that, and goodness knows how many years before that. And we broke them every time. But Jesus has kept his side of the covenant each time we renewed it. And that means that every time we break our side, he releases us from our guilt, sets us free from its consequences, helps us to see again, speaks good news into our poor lives and declares God's favour deep into our souls. And so we find, when we stand before God for judgment, we are not faithless failures. We find that we have kept our side of the covenant because Jesus's side of the covenant guarantees our side. And so we cannot fail. His promises shape the very people we are. Not faithless, but faithful. Not sinful, but pure. Not lost, but redeemed. Not loveless, but deeply loved. And in this way the words of the gospel become true: we love God because he first loved us. All because of his promise, his side of the covenant.

So even though I know that this year I will break my side of the covenant again, I can have confidence, because its guarantee is not my promises, but Jesus' promises. Because of him, the covenant I enter into tonight will be fulfilled. Because of his faithfulness, my identity as God's child is secured. I only exist because of his faithfulness in this covenant. I am no longer my own, but his.

But this covenant is not just about me. It is deeply about me and who I am, but it is not just about that. It is about me putting myself at Jesus' disposal for service:

"Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me employed for you
or laid aside for you…"

Why do I offer myself to serve him? Not because I am brilliant, not because I deserve it, not because I can do anything that God couldn't do without me, but because I love him. Because I am no longer my own, but his. And if we love him, we will want to serve him. That's simply a natural consequence of love. And because he is faithful and keeps his promise, if we set out to serve him, he will use us to serve him. Use us so powerfully indeed, that we cannot fail. If we only say one good thing, do one act of kindness, he will make sure that it has its full impact - beyond anything we can imagine. If we mess up, he will turn it around for his glory. If we forget something, he will make it up somehow and use it to his advantage. Because of his faithfulness, all things work for good. All we need to do is say "yes Lord. I want to serve you. Send me." and he will do the rest, because our lives are founded on a covenant - a covenant that is founded on his promise.

So we can have complete confidence in offering ourselves for service. We don't have to wait until we're good enough, or have been trained, or know enough of our Bibles or have a powerful enough prayer life. We can offer ourselves just as we are right now and Jesus can use us powerfully.

But the other remarkable thing about Jesus is that he uses us in a very deep and personal way. He didn't just create a single all-purpose human being that he could use in every situation. He created an infinite variety of human beings and brought them together as a body. Paul was marvelling at this in our first reading tonight:

"There are many members, yet one body…and you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

Each of us is truly individual and it is our own unique individuality that God wants to use in his service. He wants to use you, just as you are for purposes that are beyond our understanding or imagining, yet which have profound consequences in the eternal cosmic purposes of God. You! How mind blowing is that?

You see, the trouble is that we live in a world where we are encouraged to be like everyone else. The power of popular opinion is like a vast force field drawing us in to think and behave like everyone else. The trouble is we can't. None of us fit, because we're all individuals. But that force is very hard to resist and it creates a terrible sense of shame and guilt.

And the consequence of that is that we judge ourselves by our perceptions of everyone else and we never match up. We all fall into the trap of thinking that God did make a single all-purpose human being, which he rolled off the production line one after the other. And that everyone else was fine, but we were the ones that didn't come out quite right. Not clever enough, or fast enough or strong enough or beautiful enough. We really belong in the seconds shop. Or, even worse, in the rejects bin.

But that's judging ourselves all wrong. God doesn't make us like that. He makes each of us unique and for purposes that only he fully understands. Paul points out that it's just like a body. We're all different bits of the body, but each one counts. The hand is different from the eye and the eye different from the ear and from the nose, but we, whose body this is, know that each of these has a particular function. Our eye is not a failed ear. It has a different purpose. And you are not a defective doctor or engineer or prime minister or archbishop. You have a different purpose. You are you. And Jesus, whose body this is, knows what your function is.

Now we Christians call this function our 'vocation' - our particular purpose in God's plan, our particular way of serving God which is individual to us. And tonight, in this covenant service, we are promising to serve God and to live out our vocation. But for most of us, we don't even know what that vocation is. It's easy if you're a vicar - everyone kind of knows what that vocation is about. But what if you're an ordinary humdrum Christian sitting in the pews? How can you possibly know what your vocation is? What could God possibly want with you?

Well that's partly why here in the Parish Church, we are having a particular focus on Christian vocation at the moment - trying to understand what God wants from us ordinary Christians. And whether you are Anglican or not, I warmly invite you, strongly encourage you, to join one of our Lent Groups when we are following a course to help us understand our vocation - what God could possibly want with an ordinary Christian like you.

But for the purposes of tonight, you don't need to know what your vocation is. You simply need to be willing to put yourself at God's disposal, to trust that he will accomplish in you what he wants because he always keeps his promises. You just need to recognise that it is you he wants. You are not a manufacturing error, not a reject. Yes, you are marred by sin, but Jesus can deal with that and even turn it to his advantage. You are not defective. You are you for a reason. God wants to use your particular combination of gifts and characteristics and faith in his service.

And that means it doesn't matter whether you are young, intelligent, gifted and beautiful or old, wrinkly and forgetful. It doesn't even matter if you're sick or, like our brother Philip, incapacitated and hospitalised by a stroke, God has a purpose for you and your life. A purpose that is beyond our understanding or imagining, but which God understands and which has profound consequences in his eternal cosmic purposes. So, whoever we are, we can say:

"put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me 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."

Because I am no longer my own, but yours. Amen.

Preached: - Bolton, 24 January 2016