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Now, I realize that most folks think of the season of Advent as simply preparation for Christmas - a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, to make room for him in the "Inn of our hearts" - and, of course, Advent IS that. But it is more as well. Advent is the time we prepare our hearts for another year of study and service as a part of Christ's Church. For the Church then, today really IS New Year's Day.
And, since it is New Year's, what could be more appropriate than some New Year's RESOLUTIONS? New Year's Resolutions. Do you bother with them? "I'm going to quit smoking," or "I'm going to lose some weight," or "I'm going to spend more time with my family." I sympathize with the fellow who was working on his resolutions for the New Year. One was to clean up his desk - he did...and found last year's list of resolutions. Mark Twain offered one of my favorites - "This year I'm going to live within my means... even if I have to borrow money to do it."
New Year's Resolutions. I confess I do not fool with them generally. They prove to be too discouraging when I find out how little real resolve I often have. Perhaps, if I had the support of a whole group who were making the same resolutions and could encourage me when I might be tempted to slip, I might do better. So, for my own benefit as much as anyone else's, what I would propose to you this morning will be some resolutions for the whole group of us...as individuals...as a congregation...and by extension, the entire body of Christ, wherever it may be found.
Let us look at the passage we read from I Corinthians, the lectionary epistle lesson for the first Sunday in Advent, and use them to begin our work. What is the first thing we run into? Paul's greeting to the church (verse 3): "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." If we take those words and then consider the verses immediately following, we find some fruitful direction for resolution building.
Of course, the place to begin is at the beginning. What is the very first word? GRACE! Good word! It is one around which we can, not only build a New Year's resolution, but an entire theology...GRACE! "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..."
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
There is something extra special to me in knowing that the new year BEGINS with grace...God's unmerited favor. Not an easy concept for us to handle. We have grown up in a society which tells us that "You get what you pay for...There is no such thing as a free lunch." But GRACE is never paid for, never earned. It is just THERE.
A Pennsylvania fellow traveling here in the south stopped by a mom & pop restaurant for breakfast. He ordered eggs, bacon and toast only to be surprised by an amorphous white mass on his plate when the food was served. "What's this?" he asked.
"Grits," replied the waitress.
"I didn't order grits," said the traveler.
"No matter," said the waitress, "they just come."
Grace is like grits. It just comes.
For years and years, I have begun every worship service I have been privileged to lead with, "Grace to you and peace...from God our father and our Lord Jesus Christ." Do you know why? It is because I want the first word you hear from me to be GRACE. Now the new YEAR begins with grace...a gift with which to begin the next twelve months.
If the church can remember that God's first word to us is GRACE, then any number of other problems would disappear. We would never have bloodbaths in the name of Jesus Christ...we would never have had the Crusades; we would never have had the Inquisition; we would never have had the Salem Witch Trials; we would never act in an UNGRACIOUS way toward anyone.
You have heard that "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Then in terms of our New Year's Resolution the thinking would be that more people are LOVED into the Kingdom than are ARGUED or INTIMIDATED into it. Our first resolution then might be that "We, as a Church, and we as individual Christians, will BE GRACIOUS - no fault-finding, no back-biting, no pettiness - WE WILL BE GRACIOUS in the way we treat each other and the way we treat those outside the faith." Let us resolve to show God's GRACE!
What do we run into next? "Grace to you and PEACE..." As we move into this special season when we think of "PEACE on earth," it would be most blessed if we could enjoy real peace, certainly in our violent world, but most especially within the fellowship of the Church. Of ALL places on earth, the one which claims to serve the Prince of Peace should be expected to be the most peaceful. But you and I know that, unfortunately, peace in the church is more of a dream than a reality.
Over the course of ecclesiastical history, there have been some incredible church fights. Should infants be baptized or only adults? Should children be allowed to take Communion before confirmation? Do women have the same standing as men in the church? How literally are we supposed to understand the Bible? What do we say about human sexuality, abortion, capital punishment and so on? The fight goes on. In local congregations, there have been some terrible battles and even church splits over crucial questions like whether to get the old heating system fixed or buy a new one, whether the new sanctuary carpet should be red or blue, whether the offering should be taken before the sermon or after. Those are wonderful issues to go to war about, aren't they? But Christians do. No, there does not seem to be a great deal of PEACE in the Church. As a matter of fact, I wonder how much good a New Year's Resolution about peace would really do - sinners that we are, it may be doomed before it starts.
Perhaps we would be more realistic in trying to make any resolution about PEACE by considering what the Apostle Paul does as he gets beyond this greeting in the letter to the church at Corinth. Listen again to what he says: "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind." Paul starts off with something nice.
Now, that might not be particularly surprising under normal circumstances in a letter from friend to friend, but, as you Bible scholars know, in the next fourteen chapters of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul rips into them. He decries the factions that had developed in the congregation; he berates them for tolerating gross immorality in the life of one of the prominent members; he clobbers them about fighting among themselves and taking one another to court; he jumps them about their disorderly worship. Suffice it to say, there is nothing gentle about this letter.
BUT, think again how Paul starts out - he begins on a POSITIVE NOTE. If we really want PEACE...if we want to effectively manage the conflicts that always seem to arise within the church...let us resolve to be as POSITIVE with one another as we can, to accept one another as individuals for whom Jesus shed his blood and loves so very much. When we begin to think like that, many of our inter-church as well as inter-personal problems would evaporate. "We resolve to be positive with one another." To me, THAT kind of resolution has at least some chance for success, and if it does, then one day, we may indeed be able to look at the Church and see something that DOES begin to approach real PEACE.
What do we find next? "Grace and peace to you from GOD OUR FATHER..." How do we make a resolution about God? What do we know about God that would lend itself to preparing for a new year? Well, we have learned since childhood that God is love; that God is all-powerful and all-knowing; that God is the source of everything. The list could go on and on. But if we are giving ourselves some good direction for the coming year, perhaps it would again be helpful to note what Paul talks about as he continues his letter. The Apostle says, "you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." Well, if we have been given spiritual gifts, we know where they came from...from GOD! Okay, how does that become a New Year's resolution?
Well, first of all, there is something in Paul's statement that is really a little surprising. He says the church is not lacking in ANY spiritual gift. Paul explains a bit later on in the letter: "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues."(1) And then Paul goes on at length about the most important gift of all...the gift of love. That is quite a list, but what is most surprising is that Paul says that even as messed-up a church as the one at Corinth had them ALL. And the implication is that the church in our own day CONTINUES to have them all.
Now, we begin to get into something about which we can make a New Year's resolution. If we indeed DO have all the spiritual gifts...if there really is NOTHING we are not capable of doing spiritually...then the resolution is to take those gifts and put them to work. Of course, one of the things that Paul took pains to point out to the people in Corinth was that every individual did NOT have every gift. We only have them ALL as we come together in the worshiping community. For the church, the task is to seek out the spiritual gifts among the individual members; for you and me, the task is to make ourselves available so that the church can put those gifts that God has given to USE in the name of Jesus Christ.
And speaking of Jesus, that leads us to the final note of Paul's greeting to the church: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." We have come up with resolutions concerning grace and peace and God. What do we resolve about the Lord Jesus?
Perhaps we get a clue from how often Paul refers to Jesus in these few verses at the beginning of his letter. I doubt that you were counting as we read the passage, but in just these verses we read, the name of Christ is mentioned six times. In the opening ten verses, the name appears TEN times. That's a lot. Do you wonder why? I don't. I am convinced that if the apostle Paul would come to us this morning and have anything to say about New Year's resolutions for the Church, he would say, "Please, please, please, resolve to be a Christ-centered Church."
It might seem that a church which calls itself "Christian" would automatically be Christ-centered, but we know that such is not always the case. With more frequency than we might care to admit, the church has gotten off on its own agenda or own tangent and seemed to forget about Jesus. The result has been that people's pain has been ignored, people's hunger has been ignored, people's basic human rights have been ignored, and even people's relationship with God has been ignored. That is sad.
Over a hundred years ago, a book was published that, in its day, became the second most widely purchased religious book in history. Only the Bible sold more copies. The book is called In His Steps.(2) Perhaps you have read it.
In His Steps is set in the fictional town of Raymond, Kansas and deals with what happened to that town and the people in it when the folks in First Church there resolved to make their lives genuinely Christ-centered by trying to base all their activities on their answers to one question: "What would Jesus do?" The pastor of the church, the Rev. Henry Maxwell started preaching to the needs of people rather than simply to their intellects; the local newspaper editor, Edward Norman, began being careful about what kind of advertising he accepted; Alexander Powers who ran the local railroad yard began to treat his employees better; wealthy young socialite Rachel Winslow began a ministry to derelicts and their families who lived "on the other side of the tracks"; Donald Marsh, the president of the local college, got into politics to be a voice against the corruption that was so pervasive. One after another, people found their lives changed when Jesus Christ was put at the center.
Oh, they had all thought of themselves as Christians before this experiment of theirs, this asking "What would Jesus do?" to help them decide on their courses of action. But when Jesus Christ was finally a RESIDENT in the home of their hearts instead of just an honored guest, things became different.
Things change when Jesus is really Lord. If we want to put it in the form of a New Year's resolution, perhaps it would be as simple as, "We resolve to be genuinely Christ-centered as we move through the coming year."
New Year's Resolutions: To show GRACE to each other and the world at large; to seek PEACE by being as positive with one another as we can; to honor GOD by putting our spiritual gifts to use in God's service; and to be genuinely CHRIST-centered people, both as individuals and a church. God grant us the strength... the resolve...to follow through. And, oh yes, Happy New Year.
1. 1 Corinthians 12:28
2. Charles M. Sheldon, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935)