New Year’s Resolution (1/1/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
It didn’t take much time and effort to come up with the title of today’s sermon. This is, after all, January 1st. I think most of us have made a New Year’s resolution or two. If not this year, we certainly have a long history of making, and breaking, resolutions brought forth by the arrival of a new year.
I wanted to make a really meaningful resolution this year. My first thought was to resolve to rake the leaves in my back yard before spring. And I may get around to that one, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s not really that important.
Most of us have a vice or two we can target at this time of year—alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, chocolate. But I honestly don’t think God is too concerned with those things. I’m sure God occasionally looks down on a beloved child and thinks, “Why in the world is Bobby chain smoking cigarette after cigarette? Doesn’t he know what those things can do to a person?” But I don’t think God gets mad about it.
Many of us resort to a nice general resolution that we know will be impossible to measure, thus allowing is to at least claim we have kept that resolution. I mean, if we vow to give up chocolate, there’s a measurable result. Either we keep eating the stuff or we quit, but we can’t hide the truth from ourselves. We know whether or not we keep that resolution. That’s why we like the vague ones, the “I resolve to be a better person” type of resolutions. Who is to say whether or not we are a better person than we were in the past? So we can claim a moral victory with such resolutions without having to make any real changes in the way we live.
But this year I wanted to make a resolution that has some real meaning. As I was searching for such a resolution I was reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and it came to me. I knew what my resolution would be. But before I reveal that resolution, let’s turn to Galatians and the verse I was reading when I had my little epiphany. You heard this verse read from the lectern this morning. I want to read it again, but first I want to provide some background about this New Testament book we call Galatians.
Students of Christian theology know there are three books of the Bible that are often considered the most important books with regard to Christian theology. These three books are each letters Paul wrote to various churches in the decades following the crucifixion of Jesus. The three books are Romans, 1st Corinthians and Galatians.
Many people read the Bible as the inerrant word of God, as if God reached down his mighty hand and scratched those sacred words across those ancient parchments. But that’s not how it happened. There were countless religious writings in the ancient world, and several hundred years after the life and death of Jesus the bishops of the church picked the 27 writings they believed should be a permanent part of the Christian canon. Those writings, called “books” in spite of their brevity, now comprise the New Testament. They include 13 epistles, letters, that were attributed to the Apostle Paul.
When Paul wrote a letter to a church, he did so for a reason—usually for a specific reason. Paul started churches all over the ancient world, and he often heard reports that a particular church was practicing Christianity in a way other than what he had taught them. So he would write that church a letter, sometimes offering praise, other times encouragement, and still other times a rebuke.
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But the letters had a specific reason for being written. It was not Paul’s intention to establish the holy and inerrant world of God for future generations. It was Paul’s intention to solve the problems of a particular congregation of practicing Christians.
Consider his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul had been told there were people in that church who were sinning rather boldly. Since when Paul started that church he had told them God loved them no matter what, and that Christ’s work on the cross forgave their every sin, there were evidently a few folks who decided to take advantage of the situation. They used their newfound freedom in Christ to act in very unchristian ways. And Paul writes them a letter telling them to behave. He tells them they have been freed from the law—they don’t need to be circumcised and follow all the Jewish dietary restrictions. But if they are acting in unholy ways they don’t understand the message of Jesus at all. In fact, it was important to follow the law, not out of compulsion, but out of the love of God.
Compare that with his letter to the Galatians. Paul started that church and was terribly upset years later when he learned some Christian missionaries had appeared in Galatia after him and taught a new set of rules. These new missionaries taught the Galatians that they must follow all the Jewish laws to be true Christians. There are 613 laws in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and those laws must be followed.
Paul wrote the Galatians a letter very different from the one he wrote to the Corinthians. In this letter Paul stressed the importance of faith, and explained that the Galatians were no longer under the old laws. Christ had freed them from the Jewish laws.
This is quite confusing for the person who insists on treating every word of the Bible as an eternal and unchanging truth. These two letters offer mixed messaged. To summarize and oversimplify the messages of the two letters, one says it is important to follow the Jewish laws, and the other says it is not important to follow the Jewish laws.
The third book that is so vital to Christian theology, Paul’s letter to the Romans, is important because Paul had not started the church in Rome. He had never been to Rome when he wrote his letter to the Romans. So instead of addressing particular problems, Paul talks about the Christian faith in a more general way. Those three books—1st Corinthians, Galatians and Romans—taken together, give us a well rounded view of the faith.
Now let’s turn to Galatians. Paul had established congregations in that region, and other Christian missionaries visited those churches, insisting that Christians must obey at least the more critical points of Jewish law. Male children should be circumcised. Jewish calendar celebrations should be observed. And the Jewish dietary laws must be followed.
And here is the key to understanding Paul’s theology. Paul believed that to rely on the laws and the commandments was to deny the work done by Christ on the cross. There is no way a person can be good enough to earn God’s favor. Our sins, our flaws, our selfishness, will always leave us short of the perfection of God. But that is okay, because God has covered all the bases for us. Through Jesus Christ we have been freed from the law, freed from our sin. In the relationship between God and a human being, God is the one who acts. God has built the bridge between eternal holiness and time-bound creatures. God is ultimately in control, and God’s love, through Jesus Christ, has achieved salvation for humanity.
That is the heart of Paul’s message. God sends Jesus for the salvation of humanity. It is a story with four elements. There is a subject, a verb, an object, and a purpose. God is the subject. The verb is “to send.” The object of the sending is Jesus. And the purpose of the sending is the salvation of humanity. God sends Jesus for the salvation of humanity. Our relationship with God is made right not by our own actions, but rather through God’s action.
This should be the most comforting message in the world. Think about what this message really means. God loves us, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. We can look back over our lives and see things that we are not proud of, things we wish we could change, harsh words we have spoken that we wish we could take back. But there is not a single thing we could change that would make God love us more than God loves us right now, even with all the mistakes we have made.
We remember that when the Corinthians heard this message some of them started causing all sorts of problems in the church with their irreverent behavior. But the point is, if one really understands that God loves us; if one really understands that the universe is a friendly place because of God’s love; if one really understands that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more than God already does; if we really understand what this means, we respond to the world around us with love.
The reason we do this is because we are basically good. I reject the notion that humankind is depraved, that there is no goodness inside a human being until God places the Holy Spirit inside that person. Human beings are holy creations of God from birth. I don’t claim to understand evil, and I know there are those rare people who seem to be bad through and through. Most of us don’t personally know any such people, but we can’t pretend there was never a guy named Adolph Hitler. Evil is real, and it takes hold of some people and won’t let go. But those people are the exceptions to the rule. Human beings, by nature, are good, created in the image of God, and made for the purpose of caring for creation and for one another.
And once we realize that we are in a no-lose situation; once we realize that we have nothing to fear, not in this life and not in the mystery that follows this life; once we accept that God’s love really has covered all the bases; then we are free to be the good people we were created to be.
So what is my new year’s resolution? Simple. I resolve to trust God more completely than ever before. I resolve to trust God. That, after all, is the heart of our faith. I vow not to place my faith in myself. I place my faith in God. Especially with the health problems I now face, I realize that things are simply out of my control. I cannot heal myself. I cannot wish myself well. I cannot pray myself well, even though I do a great deal of wishing and praying.
Some might think that sounds like a hopeless situation, but it is having the opposite effect on me. As you may remember, my doctoral thesis was on the subject of surrender to God. I am finding it easy to surrender to God. And the only way to surrender to God is to have complete trust in God. I am glad that we can see God’s nature in the person of Jesus Christ. Loving, forgiving, merciful, empowering, nurturing… What more could we want in our God?
Let’s return to that verse from Galatians that serves as the foundation for my New Year’s resolution:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
We are not enslaved by life. We are not enslaved by a moral code that we cannot possibly live up to. We are the children of God, heirs to God’s kingdom. We are free, in the most radical sense of the word. Free to be ourselves. Free to live life to its fullest. Free to be the good people we were created to be, not because of the promise of some future reward, but rather because being good is our nature. God has acted. We need only trust God.
I think it is important to realize one needn’t wait for some tragedy to put your trust in God. God is good, all the time. And learning to place our trust in God changes the way we live. Let’s consider some of the implications of truly trusting God. What would it mean to have unconditional trust in God’s favor toward us?
If we were able to truly trust God unconditionally, we would face every day with fearless joy. Fearless joy. Think about it. Why do we experience fear? What is it that makes us fearful? Loss. At the root of all our fear is the idea of losing something. Our primary fear is grounded in the idea of losing our life. That is the ultimate loss, and that is why so many people are unwilling to think about death. They are afraid to look the truth that squarely in the eye. But if we trust God with our fate beyond this life, our fear goes away. The matter is not in our hands, but fortunately we are the children of God, heirs to the kingdom. And God has taken care of all our sins, forgiving us for all our shortcomings. What’s to fear?
The other fears we face are also founded on the idea of loss. We are afraid we will lose our job. We are afraid we will lose our house. We are afraid we will lose the respect of our friends and loved ones. All those fears are built on a foundation of loss. The answer, of course, is to stop clinging. The answer is to get past the notion that any of us actually has clear possession of anything. Everything belongs to God. All the things we cling to in life will still be around long after the hands we use to cling have turned back to dust. Those things were never ours. They were just on loan from God. What’s to be afraid of? It’s not as if those things we possess define who we are.
And if we can trust God enough to really let go of our clinging, thus losing our fear, then our lives become filled with joy. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, If God is for us, who is against us? A life free of fear—a life lived with no fear of death, no fear of losing our possessions—that is a life filled with joy.
We make life so complicated. Religious people have a tendency to complicate life in unnecessary ways. We like to draw up lists of rules and regulations with which we think we can please God. We like to think that we can earn God’s favor by practicing religion the right way. But when we trust God—really trust God—we understand that God’s love is not something to be earned, but rather something to be accepted. It is freely given.
I resolve to trust God more completely than ever before. That is my New Year’s resolution. And I hope to be more fearless and more joyful than ever before in the year ahead. For the person whose trust is in God, life becomes very simple, and pleasing God is as easy as breathing in and breathing out. The prophet Micah said it best:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?