January 21: The Hilly Road Leads to Life

January 21: The Hilly Road Leads to Life

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Scripture (0:00), Sermon (1:25), Wesley Covenant Renewal (17:20)

January 21 – Wesley Covenant Renewal Service

Scripture: Mark 1:14-20

Go to: Wesley Covenant Renewal Service graphic indicating external link (written liturgy) [17:00 minute mark in the above video]

illustration of a man with a fork in one hand looking up at a large elephant.

Have you ever heard the philosophical query, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is one bite at a time. One online source attributes this question to Desmond Tutu, who famously asked this question when talking about how one goes about facing large challenges. An elephant, obviously a large animal, is eaten one bite at a time. A challenge is met one step at a time. A life is lived one day at a time; maybe, for some, one hour at a time.

Consider marriage. These days, there’s an awful lot of emphasis put on the first day of marriage, the wedding day. I looked it up–today, the national average cost of a wedding is $30,000. Thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars or more spent on an event which lasts a few hours! If I had to venture a guess as to why people are willing to spend what is for some is a year’s salary on their wedding, I’d say that it probably reflects the relatively modern notion that the wedding day is the most important day in a person’s life. But is that true, that it’s the most important day in a married couple’s life? It had better not be, that is, if they’re committed to their marriage lasting beyond the first year. Because anyone who’s been married at least that long knows that a successful, healthy marriage is not determined by the events of day one, but rather, by the sum of the events of day 1 and day 2 and day 3 and day 4 and so on. A marriage is made one day at a time, each day being a new opportunity to re-commit to the marriage and all that comes with it—you know, the “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” parts of it.

The same is true when it comes to our relationship with God. It’s a daily walk, a daily choice to stick with him. Just because one opts to follow Jesus Christ on day one of the relationship doesn’t guarantee that they’ll choose to follow on day 2 or 200 or 2000. Jesus said as much in the Parable of the Soils in Matthew 13, in which he described how seeds responded to being planted in four different types of soil. Comparing the seeds to people, here’s what he said about one of the soils:  “As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. But because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away.” (Matthew 13:20-21). His point? Not everyone who chooses to follow him sticks with it.

This is why I contend that the path of discipleship is one that we have to regularly re-commit ourselves to following. I say recommit because I think Jesus’ invitation to “Come and follow me” isn’t a one-time only invitation. Yes, there’s the initial invitation to follow him, which requires an initial response on our part. But as I’ve already pointed out, agreeing to follow him at first doesn’t guarantee that we’ll keep it up. Therefore, it’s a daily invitation from Jesus. Follow me today. And the next day, follow me today.

In John’s Gospel, he reported about a time when a bunch of Jesus’ “disciples” (the title John ascribed to these followers) decided to stop following him because they found what he was telling them to be too difficult to either believe or put into practice (the story is found in John 6:60-66).

Each day we commit to staying on the path and following Jesus, even when doing so is difficult. Why? Because despite how it sometime feels, we know that it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s ultimately in our best interest. Concerning the group of disciples I just mentioned, as they were walking away, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Do you all want to leave as well?” In usual fashion, Peter answered for all of them, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We’ve come to believe and to know that you’re the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69, emphasis mine). They knew that despite the difficulty which inevitably comes with following Jesus, it’s worth it because Jesus alone is the source of true and everlasting life.

Fast forward in time. Following the days of Jesus, the church began to spread, eventually bearing witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ on every continent. As most of us know, over the past 2000+ years, the church has gone through its own ups and downs. One of those ups occurred in the mid-1700s, when Christianity in England experienced a revival, these days referred to as the “The Great Awakening.”

Painting of John Wesley: a man wearing a black robe, a white collar; long gray hair.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism

One of the main players in The Great Awakening was a Church of England priest and Oxford University Fellow by the name of John Wesley. While at Oxford, he started a movement among the students to help them put their faith into practice.  Because they were so methodical in how they ordered their lives, the other students nick-named them “methodists.” Eventually, this Methodist movement took on a life of its own and became a full-fledged denomination of Protestant Christianity. In this sense, John Wesley is often called the father of Methodism.

One of the markers of Methodism is the emphasis on the transforming effect of faith on the character of a Christian. Churches rooted in the preaching and teaching of John Wesley strongly believe that as our inward faith grows and matures our outward lives reflect Jesus Christ more and more. Spiritual maturity doesn’t happen quickly; it takes a long time. All of this is to say, we Methodists are strong proponents of a pathway of discipleship that is lifelong. And, as we’ve already noted, this pathway is fraught with steep hills, sharp turns, and occasional rocky cliffs—features which could, if we’re not self-aware, lead us to walk away. Knowing this to be the case, Wesley instituted within the Methodist congregations of his day a worship service in which persons reaffirm their covenant relationship with God. Traditionally, this service was held on New Year’s Eve as a way of symbolically starting the new year afresh.

Within United Methodism, this service has become known as the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service. The heart of the service, focused in the Covenant Prayer, strongly bids persons to recommit themselves to God. This morning, you have the opportunity to participate in the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service. You should have a bulletin insert which contains the entire liturgy for this service. It’ll be up on the monitors as well.

Just to be clear, it’s important to know that just because you happen to be worshipping with us this morning doesn’t mean that you’re required to participate. If you’re not in a place where you feel you can fully participate in this service of renewal, that’s perfectly fine. You’re more than welcome to simply follow along. Take the insert home with you. Read it over. And if you have any questions about what it  says, I’d be more than happy to do my best to answer them. If today is your introduction to the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service, then I’d be surprised if you didn’t have some questions about it! And that’s because, as you’ll see, it’s pretty heavy. Theologically, it’s quite weighty, substantial. My guess is that it probably reflects the seriousness which Wesley himself approached living the Christian life.

I was introduced to the Covenant Prayer during seminary. It was during a Sunday morning worship, just like the one we’re in right now. When I entered the sanctuary that morning, I had no idea what lay ahead. When it came time to pray aloud the Covenant Prayer, the words of which were printed in the bulletin, I joined everyone else and began reciting the prayer. But it was only a matter of a seconds before I realized the significance of what I was actually saying; what, in the prayer, I was giving God permission to do in my life. I’m pretty sure I said the prayer, but, to be honest, it was a bit like eating a jalapeno pepper! It kind of burned going down that first time. However, over time, as my relationship with God matured and I gained a greater understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, I became more comfortable with what’s being said in this prayer. Praying the Covenant Prayer still doesn’t feel good. It one that gives pause to even the most mature Christians. That’s because the spirit of the prayer intentionally flies in the face of our sinful nature, our flesh. It’s not natural to say “let me be empty” and “let me have nothing.”

a drawing of a man standing on open books and reaching upward with one hand toward a star.

So, what I’ll say is this: I’d encourage you to approach the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service the same way you might approach a stretch goal. Stretch goals are those that prompt a person to try to achieve results beyond their normal accomplishments. They’re goals that are overly ambitious and, in all likelihood, won’t necessarily be met. But in course of attempting to meet them, they often have the effect of stretching our capacities.

I see the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service as a spiritual stretch goal. It paints a word picture of what spiritual maturity looks like. It gives each of us something to shoot for in our lifelong walks of faith. Yes, you’ll speak the words, you’ll recite the prayers, you’ll make certain verbal proclamations of what is even though it probably actually is so in your life right now. But it does give you something to shoot for.

Friends, God knows your heart. Speak the words today and eventually God will give you the heart to truly mean what you say today. And by his grace, in time your life will even begin to reflect the words of this covenant prayer.

With that, I invite you to turn your attention to the Wesley Covenant Renewal Servicegraphic indicating external link and participate to the degree you’re most comfortable….

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