No doubt by now you have thought about, made, and/or already broken at least one of your New Year’s Resolutions. What is it that makes the first week of a new year magical? Full of promise, purpose, and passion for . . . (groan) change?
A better way to put that question is why do we love beginnings so much? In one survey of over a thousand people, 66% said they were optimistic and looking forward to a new start in a new year. 34% expected to break their resolution by February. I can relate. I resolved this year to stop eating so much sugar. I finished a barrel of caramel corn left over from Christmas as my breakfast of champions this morning. Even the cranberry juice I’m drinking as I write has high fructose corn syrup. I have no idea exactly what that is but it sounds alot like sugar. What’s a poor wretched sweet tooth like me to do? Who will save me from this body of death and syrupy addiction?
Part of me wonders why we do it. Why do we continually make these promises even when we know we will break them. It reminds me of what I saw as a kid in the revival belt of Mississippi. Right there on the calendar every year, we planned a revival as if revival is something you could coax out of congregation just by circling a date. Every year there would be preaching and promises to change once and for all. We would sing what seemed like 200 verses of Charlotte Elliot’s amazing hymn “Just as I am” and just like that 30 or so people would come down just as they are and pray and leave just as they were–until the next time we planned revival. What I saw was completely human. We long to make a new start. We need to make promises even when we know they will be broken.
And lest I sound too cynical, I am just as guilty. It wasn’t revival, with me usually. It was those youth retreats where the music wasn’t hymns but the idea was the same. I “rededicated my life” so many times I can’t even remember. What I do remember is that every time I left the colliseum, or mountain cabin, or beach house, I resolved to “read my Bible” and “have a quiet time” with passion and fervor and (I was so sure) the power of the holy spirit. I also remember the huge let down when three months later I was right back where I started from.
Reminds me of a joke I heard about a guy that lived a life of weakness and vice until revival time came around. Then just like in my childhood, he would come down during the invitation at revival to repent and cry and confess, “Fill me Lord. Fill me!” over and over. But within a few days he was back to his old life of indifference and vice. This happened year after year. One year however, during his annual repentance, as he was shouting “Fill me Lord. Fill me!” at the altar; A youngster, wise beyond his years, stood up and shouted, “Don’t you do it Lord. He leaks!”
That’s it. We are caught between our need to start over and our nature to vacillate between dilligence and indifference. I wish I had some brilliant response that hasn’t been preached in sermons, plastered on bumper stickers, or proclaimed in colliseums. I don’t. But what I do have is hope because as my old Greek professor, Thomas A. Howe, once told us when we were all wondering how we would use this Greek stuff; God’s forgiveness isn’t just about kindness–its about justice. Let me explain.
1 John 1:9 says,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Now, like you I’ve read that verse a thousand times. I’ve quoted it, diagrammed it, and even written it in glitter on a paper plate in vacation Bible school. But Dr. Howe is famous for getting people to observe what the text says keenly. He once had us write down 50 observations from the 4th chapter of John for a homework assignment. When we turned it in, he then asked for 50 more. Needless to say, you learn to read very, very closely. (He told us however, that when he had to do the same excersise, his assignment was one verse-Acts 1:8) When it came to 1 John 1:9, he asked us a simple question fraught with complexity, “Why does the text say ‘faithful and just’ rather than kind and loving?” Huh. You would think when God wants to speak of forgiveness it would be about grace, love and kindness. Instead John emphasizes God’s faithfullness and justice. Justice, really? The key, I think, is the context and in verse 7 which says:
but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
The reason forgiveness is about justice not kindness is the sacrifice of our Lord. The implication being, if God didn’t forgive our sins, he wouldn’t be unkind (for we deserve his wrath) but he would be unjust. He would be breaking the covenant sealed in Christ himself and his sacrifice. God would be unjust which is impossible because He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (verse 5).
The reason we can have hope is that every moment, our standing before God isn’t predicated on our failure, but rather on his acceptance of Christ. That means, we can start over anytime because Christ’s sacrifice is both once and for all and for all time (Hebrews 9:26). Which means that every moment is a chance to start over. Michael Card says it better than I do in his song “The Beginning”:
The beginning will make all things new, new life belongs to him
He hands us each new moment, saying,
My child begin again
My child begin again
You’re free to start again
This very moment is filled with his power, that we might start anew
To break us away from the past and the future, he does what he must do
And so the Alpha brings to us, this moment to commence
To live in the freedom of total forgiveness, with reckless confidence
We have confession to fill our need to start over and forgiveness to answer the nature that draws us to indifference. Justice and kindness.
May we all put less stock in the magic of a new year and a little more in the present moment filled with grace and God’s justicie. Now, you’ll excuse me while I go look for some grapes to quell this sugar craving I just got.