(Philippians 2:5-11, Romans 7:15)
I hope I’m not the only one who has a hard time with New Year’s Resolutions. My track record past years is mixed. I’ve got as many resolutions as disillusions.
I don’t think I’m alone. The week after New Year’s, I’m always surprised by how many people are out jogging. Well, probably this week it’ll be folks at the Y. It’s going to be really cold.
But either way, you notice this coming week, wow, there are a lot of people who have resolved to exercise more. Which is great, I’m glad for them. But you know this happens every year, and pretty soon cracks form in the resolution, right? Or else it wouldn’t be remarkable how many people are at the gym the week after New Year, right? If everyone stayed resolute in their resolutions, every week of the year would have this many people out jogging and doing the machines at the Y … and they wouldn’t all have such pained looks on their faces.
Look, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of transformation. We can kick bad habits and pick up good ones. We can die to old selves and be born anew.
I have witnessed miracles, as I’m sure you have too: People getting clean, people coming home, people opening hearts that have long been closed like a fist.
But the thing that gets me about New Years is that there’s this expectation that we need to be just giddy with optimism. Look, this year already isn’t off to a good start. Just yesterday there was another terrible terrorist attack in Turkey. We have to be honest about this, especially as Christians.
A healthy Christian worldview manages to balance optimism and pessimism and realism.
Some brands of Christianity go to the extreme of positivity all the time. You have to be hopeful and upbeat and act like it’s all somehow working out for the best. And if you can’t manage that, then there’s something wrong with your faith. This is sugar rush spirituality.
Yeah, I’m being judgmental here, but I for one have seen a little too much tragedy to get too rah rah kumbaya.
But the other extreme which Christianity can take is this super gloomy obsession with how depraved humans are. We’re all just miserable sinners messing things up all the time.
But there are ways of Christianity that have a very healthy, I think, honesty about the tensions in our lives: the push and the pull between the angels and the demons of our nature; our capacity to heal, our capacity to destroy. Not just optimistic, not just pessimistic. There is hope, but we don’t get there without some harshness, without being very real about what’s in the shadows.
Peace is possible. Wholeness is here for us to inherit. But not without us first getting real about how easy it is for us to be destructive, even when – or especially when – we think we’re being all righteous.
The Apostle Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Do you know what he’s talking about here? Have you ever felt that, that hung-over feeling?
Well, so has everybody else.
We all have some of that brokenness in us. We all have that in us, the capacity to do what is hateful to ourselves or to each other.
Yet there is good news. God loves us anyway.
That’s Paul’s insight, which he discovered through Christ. Salvation is not something we can earn by doing all the right things and not doing all the wrong things, and being only the right way and not being at all in the wrong way. That’s not how salvation works. Salvation is a free gift from God. We don’t earn it like a merit badge. We just receive it, as grace.
But in order to do that, to just stop and receive the gift of grace, knowing that God loves us as we are, we have to stop all our busy-ness trying to earn salvation by doing the right things, and we have to stop all our busy-ness beating ourselves up and beating each other up for how much we fall short.
It’s a position of humility. Because it’s admitting we don’t have power over the matter. It’s admitting that we need God’s grace.
That’s where the harshness comes in. There’s harshness because it’s saying that human nature is not enough. We are too deeply broken. Resurrection is only possible after crucifixion has forced us to admit that all is not well and we are in need of grace.
So there’s harshness, but there’s hope. Because God’s grace is real and it is free for us to receive and to be transformed by.
Coming back to resolutions: I find that they don’t work if they come from a place of condemnation, if they come from a place of judgment. When there’s an angry judge and severe punishment, there’s usually a jail break. We don’t like handcuffs, even if we put them on ourselves.
But it’s a whole other matter if the change is coming from care for ourselves. If we know that we are loved for who we are, cracks and crookedness and all, and if we know that’s true for everybody else, then it’s easier to start doing better by ourselves and to do better by each other.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered January 1, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)