I was thinking about the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous, which for those of you who may not have come across it before involves the following steps:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
All manner of external interventions can take place in an addict’s life – but until they actually admit they are powerless over the problem – until they get to that point where they acknowledge and own the problem, then no further progress will be made.
If we think about problems in wider human society it is much the same. Any plan to improve human society that ignores the root cause – the problem of sin – then it is destined to failure. It isn’t enough to simply change the external things – the environment around us – as important as they might be; because at the end of the day the heart of every problem is the problem of the heart.
God must change the hearts of his people so that we want to love Him and do His will. That’s why He announced a New Covenant to replace the Old Covenant under which the Jews had lived since the days of Moses, a covenant that could direct their conduct but not change their character and heart.
Jewish history is punctuated with a number of “covenant renewals” that brought temporary blessing but didn’t change the hearts of the people. The Book of Deuteronomy records a renewal of the covenant under Moses, before the people entered the Promised Land. In addition, before he died, Joshua led the people in reaffirming the covenant (Joshua 23-24). Samuel called the nation to renew their vows to God (1 Samuel 12), and both Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29-31) and Josiah (2 Chronicles 34-35) inspired great days of “revival” as they led the people back to God’s Law.
There are only two things I know which, working together, can really result in a deep change of heart and they are:
- Our acknowledgment and taking ownership of “the problem”;
- An encounter with the love and grace of God that helps us turn away from sin.
The love and grace of God is something that comes across in our reading today. Such an encounter is one that invites us and draws us into fellowship with God in which we respond to that love much as a seedling reaches out towards the sun.
We may know a rending of our heart when covenant is broken; it is hard because we come face to face with the wrongness of that. And sometimes to appreciate something fully or to fully realise its significance and value, we have to lose it first. A covenant is not about a set of rules, or a contract. A covenant is about self-sacrificial love and relationship in which we acknowledge the holiness of an awesome God. It is the means of grace by which we accept the relationship God offers and then seek to sustain it.
The Covenant Prayer that features in this service embraces the whole of life, in all its parts. Most people find it quite tough to say this and really mean it, myself included. It is uncomfortable and challenging. It asks questions of our faith and demands that we examine our relationship with God.
The Covenant Prayer has been compared by some to a set of New Year resolutions, but ones that emphasise the importance of doing and being as much as believing. But more than that, the prayer represents a commitment to being a disciple and putting God first in our lives and in everything about our lives: what we do, what we say and who we are. It is both a surrender to, and a trust in, God.
I can’t live this in isolation; committing to this covenant is costly. We are created to be in fellowship with one another as well as with God. The final few words are a gracious reminder: ‘You are mine and I am yours’. We don’t pray and live just in our own strength – but in God’s.
When we are in fellowship with one another, the problem of the heart doesn’t disappear or vanish. There will be times when I will disappoint, cause offence or upset people. If you know me, you will know that certainly is not my intention. Like you I am a work in progress.
I can easily re-write or paraphrase the 12-step programme as follows:
- I’ve messed up and I can’t do anything about it in my own strength.
- I believe in you Lord, and that only you can right the wrongs.
- I give my life to you Lord.
- “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” (Psalm 139:23)
- In my accountability, I confess my sins to God and to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
- “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
- “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:24)
- These are the people I have wronged; in your grace help me to make amends to them all.
- These are the wrongs I have righted, where it has been possible.
- I will reflect on my life going forward, bringing all things to you.
- I will seek to deepen my walk of faith with you and grow as a disciple of Christ.
- I will seek to proclaim the Good News.
I share that because it occurs to me that the 12-step program is at its heart a form of covenant, and of course those sentiments are captured so well in the Methodist Covenant prayer.
I always find it hugely challenging to pray the Methodist Covenant prayer and I wanted to give us some time as a fellowship to think about it more intentionally.
The Methodist Covenant Prayer
Beloved in Christ, let us again claim for ourselves this covenant which God has made with his people, and take a upon us the yoke of Christ.
This means that we are content that he appoint us our place and work, and that he himself be our reward.
Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and place ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own. Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.
Lord God, Holy Father, since you have called us through Christ to share in this gracious covenant, we take upon ourselves with joy the yoke of obedience and, for love of you, engage ourselves to seek and do your perfect will. We are no longer our own but yours.
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 blessèd God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen