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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s a popular saying at the end of December, “New Year, New Me.” But let’s be honest. Many New Year’s resolutions to bring about the New Me just aren’t as effective as we would like. Consider your own New Year’s resolutions. I’ll join a gym. I’ll eat less. I’ll reconnect with old friends. I’ll save more money. And then along comes January 17, the official ‘unofficial day’ to break it. In Britain, it’s known as Ditch the New Year’s Resolutions Day, and in the US, simply-D-Day. It’s not that all our New Year’s resolution are unrealistic, but rather they are not always manageable, and so we find ourselves 3 weeks into a “New Year, New Me” looking back on our resolutions through the rear-view mirror. Surprisingly, John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton writes about 40 percent of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at the six month mark.
I rather suspect the crowd who gathered in Nazareth’s synagogue to hear Jesus must have consisted of the other 60%. They were a hard crowd to please. When Jesus finished his reading, he gave the scroll back to the worship assistant in the synagogue and he sat down. The eyes of all in the congregation were fixed on him. Then Jesus began to preach his nine word sermon, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And we read that all spoke well of him-except for some longtime church members who were sitting toward the back of the church, which is where they liked to sit. Okay, I know. This story doesn’t take place in a church. It took place in a synagogue, the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. But I’m trying to imagine Jesus coming to St. Olaf Lutheran Church in my hometown of Austin. You might picture your own church, back home- somewhere far away, and stir his words may have caused in the back pews. As a preacher, I am glad to know that even Jesus, who attracted thousands around the Sea of Galilee, had a few problems with the back rows in his own home town. The crowd was initially pleased by Jesus’ reading, but I have a sense that that particular Sabbath Day must have been January 17th, because by the end of the day, his good neighbors were ready to ditch Jesus and throw him over the side of a cliff. Yes, they were ready to leave Jesus in the rear view mirror.
My friends, January often begins with a resolution of a “New Year, New Me” – even for Jesus’ disciples. We want to experience a new and more vibrant faith in Christ, but by January 17th, we’re ready to ditch the whole plan. Don’t give up to quickly. Like Jesus, you and I need to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit to experience and live out true change in our lives. It is one of the most intriguing verses in today’s gospel, and should be our New Year’s goal. Jesus had discovered the “New Year, New Me,” and so we read, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.” So how do you and I capture just a bit of that power of the Spirit that changed Jesus?
Of course Jesus had an advantage. He had forty days and nights of training and conditioning. . Earlier in the gospel we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Yes, for forty days and nights he was tempted by the devil to ditch his “New Year, New Me” resolution, while at the same time he was encouraged by the Holy Spirit to hold on. Most of us don’t have an intentional forty days and nights to work solely on our faith. Life’s daily routines and distractions take over, so if there is a going to be a spiritual “New Year, New Me” you have to be realistic about your time and commitment.
Begin by setting attainable goals. Don’t make too many changes at once. Make specific goals that you feel you can achieve and that have concrete results. In simple ways, this involvement may be as minimal as staying around for coffee or showing up to a Bible study, or singing in the choir. People often don’t know what they can expect as realistic change, because they have never taken a real first step. You see, whether swearing off junk food, promising to watch finances or aiming for more time with the kids, you always need a realistic first step. The same is true for a deeper, and more vibrant spiritual life.
Next, you have to have an action plan and track your progress. You can’t just say, I am going to be more active and faithful in the New Year, but you have to imagine what that looks like. By monitoring progress, you hold yourself accountable. I am sure that the long time members of the synagogue who were critiquing Jesus’s sermon were saying, “He didn’t say anything about forgiveness, and it’s not a real sermon unless you talk about forgiveness.” Another added, “And he didn’t say a word about sin. How will we know how our neighbors should be behaving, if he doesn’t mention sin.” Fortunately, there was an old rabbi sitting with them, a son of the congregation who had returned home, who chimed in appropriately, “Now wait just a minute; you don’t have to say everything you know in one sermon.” Some people laughed, but others didn’t think it was very funny. You’re not going to be able to cover everything about the faith in a single visit or activity, but monitor the things you do.
Remember, you’re only human. Changing behavior, even religious behavior, is a learned skill. Don’t get down on yourself if you fail to follow through one day. Don’t let one failure derail your goals entirely. As psychologist Norcross noted, “Most successful resolvers slip in January. But a slip need not be a fall.” Always think of the progress you’ve made rather than the detriment your slip could cause. So get help from others. Christians often make the mistake of doing everything on their own. If you want to be successful in your new year’s resolution of faith, you need to let your friends and family know what your resolutions are. If you’re public about your goal, it’s better than keeping it yourself.
Then remember to avoid triggers. Sometimes, to make a true beginning, you do need to get rid of the distractions and obstacles-. Get the junk food out of the house. Join a gym. Place the alarm clock across the room. Make the adjustments necessary to carry out resolutions and foster a better environment. Truly achieving your goals will also probably lead to a larger lifestyle change, too. That may even mean leaving a party earlier than anticipated on a Saturday night. My wife Janna still laughs politely when I announce at a wedding reception, “The pastor is leaving now, so you can all have a good time.”
Finally, celebrate your victories. When you have a spiritual “aha” moment, share it. Reward yourself when you have accomplished your mission. Celebrate the success with others, especially if they reach their goals, too. And remember that faith is a marathon, and not a sprint. It takes three months for a change to become routine. It won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t take years.
Now as followers of Jesus Christ, once we have developed a source of steady strength, how do we learn to set great goals for ourselves and our lives that are worth living and striving for? Over the past thirty years of ministry, I have learned an important lesson. Never set your goals based solely on who you think you are or what you think you can accomplish. Instead, set your goals based on who you know God to be and on what God can accomplish in you and through you. As God’s holy children, you can afford to dream great dreams. You can dare to do great things for God, not because you think you can, but because you know God can! God is the One who is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
And so we return to Jesus’ reading from the Book of Isaiah. Jesus’ vision for the church is clear and straightforward. Bring good news to the poor. Proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
These are earth-shaking words. They are life-changing words. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus meant that we should preach about the poor, and then as a church we should do something about it. Jesus truly meant captives, including those imprisoned in his own time. And so he truly meant that the church should do something about the prisoners still being held justly and unjustly in this world. For the church, this New Year, New Me resolution isn’t merely, lofty words, but it is also about tangible acts. As the Norwegian literary giant Henrik Ibsen penned, “A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.”
The American President Harry S. Truman once wrote, “I studied the lives of great men and famous women, and I found that the men and women who got to the top were those who did the jobs they had in hand, with everything they had of energy and enthusiasm and hard work.” He may be right, but I would dare say, that the great men and women that I have known began by “practicing life giving spiritual habits in their lives” and then setting “great goals.”
My friends, do not abandon your New Year’s resolution of a more faithful, spiritual life. But embrace a new discipline that will allow you to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Let this be for you, a “New Year, New Me.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.