Renewing the Covenant
Nehemiah 9:38 describes briefly a covenant reaffirmation service. The people of God are gathered in Jerusalem. They have been decades in exile in Babylon and Persia, and now Ezra comes to the end of his long prayer and says, “Now because of all this, we are making an agreement — we are cutting a covenant —in writing. On this sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests” (Nehemiah 9:38). I chose to focus on this verse because first, because this covenant reaffirmation takes place in the midst of a worship setting. They’ve been worshiping the Lord for 24 days in Jerusalem. I want us to understand our own covenanting together and our reaffirmation of the covenant this morning in the context of a focus on the Lord and our worship of him.
The second reason I chose it is that it involves, as you notice, a sealing of the covenant in writing, which is what the elders have felt it would be good for us to do as a church, and which we will do together here in a few minutes.
The third reason I chose it is that it comes at the end of this great prayer, and the focus of this prayer is on the magnificent, sovereign, covenant-keeping grace of God, over against the backdrop of Israel’s disobedience and rebellion. For those three reasons it seemed like a great place to meditate for a few minutes as we move into our covenant reaffirming this morning. Let me try to set the setting here for you, so that you can see why this is so powerful a place to reaffirm our own covenant.
Above All Praise
It’s 445 years before Jesus. Nehemiah has brought back from Persia the third major contingent of Israelite people, and their job has been to rebuild the walls of the city against tremendous opposition. They have worked on it and they finished it at the end of chapter six. Then chapter seven gives a genealogy of those who came back with Zerubbabel in the first wave of exiles returning. Then chapter eight says that on the first day of the seventh month, the month of Tishrei, which roughly corresponds to our September, the people ask Ezra, the priest who brought back one of those first contingence, “Read us the Mosaic law. We have not heard it for a long time.” So he took his position on a big, wooden, erected pulpit, and he read for half a day. When the people heard the Mosaic law read they were broken.
They heard so many things that were God’s will that they had not attended to. One of them was the Feast of Booths. So for seven days they built booths and celebrated the feast of booths, which was to celebrate the coming out of Egypt, when God so powerfully delivered them and they didn’t have any houses to live in. They celebrated that time of houselessness with these booths year in and year out, except they hadn’t done it for a long time, and so they did it. Then some time lapsed, and then they called for a day of fasting and prayer in Nehemiah 9:1–5. As they come to verse five, the Levites lift their voices to God to the people and they say:
Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise (Nehemiah 9:6).
Which means that no matter how well Ezra responds now to this call to praise and exaltation, and no matter how well we respond; no matter how well the choir sings and our hearts are lifted, or the brass plays or I preach or you sing or anything, it will never be high enough. Do you see that? He is exalted above our blessing and above our praise, which I think is why it will take a whole eternity for us to do what ought to be done for God, in him receiving praise and glory. It will never be ended because he will always be above it and beyond it. There will always be something more in God to praise, always something more in God to discover. There will always be something more in his greatness and might and power and beauty and justice and goodness and love and truth that we didn’t arrive at yet, and we won’t for all eternity.
We will be discovering more and more and more of God, because he will always be above our praises no matter how much of him we discover, which means it will never be boring in heaven. It will never be old hat in heaven. A new dimension of glory will be discovered every day in heaven. It will transform everything we’ve ever seen, and God will be new every morning for all eternity. The thought that you had when you were a little girl or a little boy that it’s going to be boring is wrong, unless you weren’t like me. Sometimes you grow up into glory and your imagination takes off with sentences like this, and you begin to grasp a little fraction of what it means that God is great. God is great. Well Ezra does his best here. They call him to praise and bless along with all the people and he does his best, and I don’t think you could do any better in this world than Ezra has done here.
What I want to do with you is walk through Ezra’s prayer from Nehemiah 9:6–31, where he gets to the covenant reaffirmation, and we will join him then in that. He begins where we in our created life begin — at creation. Nehemiah 9:6 says:
You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them . . .
Then Nehemiah 9:7–8 says:
You . . . chose Abram . . . and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land . . .
Then Nehemiah 9:9–11 says:
And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh . . . And you made a name for yourself . . .
It was such a name at the Exodus that centuries later — maybe eight centuries or so — his name is still great because of that great deliverance at the Red Sea.
A God Ready to Forgive
Then Nehemiah 9:12 says:
By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night . . .
And Nehemiah 9:13 says:
You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments . . .
Then Nehemiah 9:15:
You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.
Then Nehemiah 9:16–17 is the response of the people in all of this:
But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments . . . they appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
Then what does God do? What is he like in this kind of situation? Nehemiah 9:17 says:
But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.
Then Nehemiah 9:18–19 says:
Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness.
Grace Upon Grace
Now let’s just pause here in our walk through the prayer and make sure we’re not missing the point. This is the point of this prayer. This is the kind of God he is — grace upon grace, goodness upon goodness, blessing upon blessing. The response of arrogance, disobedience, rebellion, idolatry and blasphemy, is that God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, keeping covenant, good, merciful, and compassionate.
When we come to make covenant this morning with each other and with God, we don’t say, “Well, here we go. Let’s make the best of it. We’ll screw up our courage and get our willpower up.” It’s not the way we come. We come because there’s a God like this in heaven. He has come down, and he has offered to make a covenant with us.
The only hope we have of fulfilling the promises that we’re going to make is that this is the kind of God we have. When we stumble, when we fall, and when we break the covenant, God will come after us, and he will be compassionate and he will be slow to anger. When we turn and say we’re sorry he will forgive. The frown will be removed, the smile will return, and grace upon grace will abound to us. If that is not the kind of God that we have, there will be no success and no point in moving ahead with any covenanting with each other or with him. But he is that way, and that’s the point of this prayer. This prayer is moving to Nehemiah 9:38, where Ezra says, “Because of all this” — and the “this” is that he’s gracious. Let’s keep going, and you’ll see it as the interplay between him and his people becomes even more painful.
Pursuing a Rebellious People
Not only did He not forsake them, but he pursued them with goodness and mercy again and again. Nehemiah 9:20–25 piles blessing upon blessing here:
You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner . . . And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance.
Look at the end of Nehemiah 9:25 where it sums it up:
They delighted themselves in your great goodness.
They bathed and they flopped around in the waiting pool of God’s goodness as little children. It was an ocean of goodness being poured out upon Israel, and the people responded, as Nehemiah 9:26 says:
Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.
God’s response is given in Nehemiah 9:27:
Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies (especially in the seasons of the judges) . . . And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies.
Then their response to that is given in Nehemiah 9:29:
Yet . . . they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey.
God’s response is given in Nehemiah 9:30:
Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets.
Again, their response is given:
Yet they would not give ear (Nehemiah 9:30).
God’s response comes again:
Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands (Nehemiah 9:30).
Raymond Edman wrote a book one time called But God!. It’s about all the times in the Bible where the dead end street of sin was hit, and the next line begins but God. Nehemiah 9:31 says:
Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.
A Humble Request
Now that brings Ezra to the point of petition. He hasn’t asked for anything yet in 25 verses or so. Everything is just the celebration of God against the backdrop of the failure of Israel. But now he comes to ask of God, and he asks that God would look with favor upon his people surrounded by their enemies, and he begins this petition in Nehemiah 9:32 with this word now therefore. Now what? Now that what has been seen? Now that this is the kind of God you are, now that we have seen this and it goes like this:
Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love . . .
That's the now. Ezra is saying, “Now that we have seen greatness, mightiness, awesomeness, covenant-keeping, and loving kindness, now we ask. Because if that weren’t true, we couldn’t make a covenant. We couldn’t ask for your help. There would be no enabling for a people like us.” But that’s the way he is, and that’s the point of the prayer, and that’s the point of the preparation. Now we come to the covenant in Nehemiah 9:38. This is the climax:
Because of all this . . .
Because of all what? Because of all this centuries long, great, mighty, awesome, covenant-keeping, loving work of God — because of all that, we make an agreement and we write it and we put our seal to it.
Together Under a Gracious God
Now we come this morning to covenant with one another, to reaffirm and renew the covenant that we made that constitutes this body as a church. We don’t come in our own strength. We don’t come in our own sufficiency. We don’t even come by saying, “Well, covenant community is a beautiful thing. It’s beautiful enough that we should really try and work hard to make it happen.” Rather, the spirit in which we come is the spirit of Ezra. God is great, God is mighty, God is awesome, God keeps covenant, and God has loving kindness. Because God is that way there’s hope for people like us, that when we lift our voice in the moment and covenant with one another, there’s hope that he will come to us, and when we fail, restore us. That he would give us strength to fulfill our commitments to one another. We do not gather here in our own strength.
What we’re doing now is declaring that we want to be a church for each other. We want to be a church for the wider Christian community. We want to be a church for the world and for Minneapolis and St. Paul. We want to be a church for the glory of God. We are not claiming to be the only church, or a perfect church, or an unchangeable church. We just are claiming to be a church, as best as we understand church in the New Testament.
Now I know that in this room there are dozens and dozens, perhaps a couple hundred non-members, and you are welcome to be here — so welcome that we’re going to move in two stages in our covenanting and our affirmation. The first stage will be to have the members of this church stand and affirm our covenant together. The second stage will be to have everyone stand and to recite from page 14 in our hymnal the Apostles’ Creed; to affirm our participation in the wider Christian community, where we know that there is a holy catholic church, as it’s called in this affirmation of faith.
Before we do this I want to pray. Before I pray, I would like to ask all the members of Bethlehem Baptist Church to please stand. Would you stand?
Bethlehem Church Covenant
I invite all the members to turn to the back of the worship folder, or if you want to read from the copy of the church covenant that many of you have. Shall we read together beginning with paragraph one?
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully affirm this covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage therefore by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church in knowledge, holiness and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality, to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to educate our children in the Christian faith; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger; to seek God’s help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another’s faith.
We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and mindful of the rules of our Savior to secure it without delay.
We moreover engage that when we remove from this place, we will, if possible, unite with a church where we can carry out the articles of this confession and the spirit of this covenant.
The Apostles’ Creed
Now I invite everybody in the sanctuary to stand, and to turn with me to page 14 in the hymnal. This great affirmation has the phrase in it the holy catholic church — that is, the holy, universal body of Christ, far beyond and greater than Bethlehem’s family, which covers all the countries and all the centuries, past and future. Let’s affirm with them our great central affirmations.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From thence he will come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
A Solemn Bond
You may be seated. I’m going to invite the ushers to come now with extra copies of the church covenant. As they walk back, if you’re a member and you neglected to bring yours, just extend your hand toward them as they pass the pew, and they’ll see you and give you one of these. We’ll take a minute or two here to pray silently, and as members this may be the time when you would want to set your seal to the covenant, and then we’ll pass them to the aisle in just a moment. Let’s pray together.
I have my copy here in front of you. I signed one in the first service, and I want to sign another one here in your presence, and say very openly and candidly that along with you as a member of this church, I want to be accountable to live this way. It’s a very high calling.
I want to make myself mutually submissive to the body here, so that if you ever find me walking out of step with this spirit or any of the specifics of this covenant, you as members and not just as elders would have the freedom as a brother or sister in Christ to approach me and call me to account and pray with me about this. In fact, I got one that didn’t have any creases in it, so that I could frame it and put it in my office with my signature on it, and remind myself again and again that I’m part of a covenant community here, and read it more frequently than once a quarter or so as we welcome new members. Before you with my little BIC pen, I want to set my seal to the covenant and take my stand with you in this great bonding.
I want to invite the ushers to come to the front, as you pass yours to the aisles, and we’ll collect them and take them up. While they’re doing that, would you turn to hymn number 700, which will be the affirmation that we make in song together.