Monday, January 30, 2017

3. Field of Fools

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 15, Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 29 2017

Little Joey is outside throwing a ball. Mum yells 'It's dinner time'. 'Just a few more minutes!' Joey protests. 'Now' says mum, 'You'll never get anywhere in life if all you can do is fool around with a ball'.

I'm fairly sure that such is a situation that every professional baseball player, basketball player, and indeed every player that will take part in next weeks Superbowl Game could identify with. That somewhere in their past, there were people who told them that they were being foolish investing their lives in throwing, bouncing or kicking a ball.

But next week there they'll be. Running out onto the field as some of the most admired athletes in the nation, taking part in one of the most watched TV events of the year. A field of fools? Very well accomplished, very well paid, very much admired fools. It does, if you think about it, seem rather strange that the ability to play a game well can bring so much adulation, but that's the way of the world.

I'm guessing that professional artists, writers and musicians had to face similar challenges. The girl in the dance class. The kid with the dream of writing a movie script. The one who is always fiddling about on the computer, coming up with codes and images and little innovations. There has been somebody who told them, somewhere along the line, “Look, that's fine to do as a hobby or a distraction, but you are a fool if you think you can make a living out of it.”

Tell that to Steven Spielberg or Mark Zuckerberg or Carrie Underwood When are they going to stop fooling around and get a proper job? There are many fields for fools out there!

Which brings me to a verse from our bible reading today, 1 Corinthians 1:18. Paul tells us 'For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God'.

There are many in our society who will tell us that we truly are fools, if we allow the message of Christianity to get a deep hold upon us. After all, look where it led Jesus and all those early disciples. He ended up on a cross, they ended up as martyrs. And that resurrection stuff? Get real! It's impossible.

The Christian message does not fit well with the way things are meant to be. Paul tells us, “Jews demand for signs, Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

That phrase here translated as 'stumbling block' is the Greek word 'skandalon', from which we derive our English word 'scandal'. According to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy 21:23 anyone who was 'hung on a tree' was irrevocably cursed by God. How could the Messiah, the anointed one of God, come to his life's end in such an accursed fashion? For those of a Jewish background that wasn't the kind of sign they were looking for! It didn't make sense. Foolishness.

The problem for the Greeks was different. Their problem was that almost everything about Jesus made no sense to them. His concern for the poor. The way He identified with people who didn't really matter in the larger scheme things. His teaching about the pecking order in life. His humility. Wasn't He supposed to be a King? Royalty and humility did not go together.

The power of God, which Paul claimed was shown through Jesus Christ, manifested itself in contradictory ways to established wisdom. The Corinthian Church was a case in point. The gospel message had called together a mixture of folk who, outside of their church community, wouldn't normally get together. There were a few influential folk, probably a few wealthy folk, maybe a few learned folk. But a lot of them were really, to Greek eyes, nobody special.

Paul writes to them, verse 26, “Brothers and Sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are”

Their very existence as a church was an exercise in foolishness that went against the wisdom of the day. I believe that when we are at our best, we as churches, can still do that! Our diversity can speak volumes to a world where everything has to have it's own category.

I am sidetracking here, but one of the things I really dislike about the way music has been marketed over the last few decades is that everything has to have a genre. If somebody asks you, 'What kind of music do you like?” they are expecting you to give a specific answer. “Oh, I'm into post-reformation, adult orientated, 1990's punk opera, with a hint of 2017 dub-step classical Techno.”

There's a lot of division associated with music. Especially with church music. As though certain types of music are much more “Holy” and “Acceptable” to God than other types. And who gets to determine that?

I've known some folks in 'trendy-modern' churches declare their superiority by saying they have done away with those dusty old hymnbooks and put everything up on a screen. And I have had folk tell me that if we are going to start singing those 'Happy-Clappy' songs from a screen then they will find another church to attend. Wow! What tolerant folk we Christians can be! Get with my genre or get another church.

Scripture seems crystal clear that the reason to attend church is to worship God, not for music, be it ancient or modern, but for the inspiration that comes to us through the Holy Spirit, for the message God wants to share with our hearts, to be equipped for God's service out there in a world that couldn't care less about if we sing from a hymnbook or a screen but just wants to know if anybody cares about them!

What God is looking for, is lives and hearts that are humble, and expectant, and truly open to Christ's love, regardless of the way that love presents itself.

Does that found foolish? Well, listen to Paul, verse 27; “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world, to shame the strong

Why? He tells us in verse 29 “So that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”

Whenever we confuse our 'preference' for God's will, then we are on shaky ground. It doesn't matter if it's our preference for the kind of people we want to rub shoulders with at church, the kind of worship service that we enjoy, the kind of music we like, or the temperature we like the church thermostat set at. What we are actually doing, when we idolize our preferences, is making worship, about us, not about God.

The Church in Corinth, like many churches, struggled with that! Such is one of the conundrums of Corinth that continues to haunt us to day. But because the Corinthians were learning to accept each others differences, to see each other through the eyes of Jesus as all equally needing His love to reclaim them and remake them, were accepting the radical thought that we are not all the same, then people were seeing that a different kind of wisdom was at work in their community. It was not the wisdom of this world, but the foolishness of God.

God invites us to make Christ's love and Christ's acceptance our focus. In his letter to the Ephesian Church, Paul writes “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The foolish, scandalous thing about a gospel that focuses on the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus is that every thing is turned inside out and upside down. The little things are the big things. The things we often count as insignificant and, sometimes uncomfortable, are the things of the kingdom.

Jesus offers teaching that transcends the wisdom of this world. We heard earlier, part of His mountain top sermon; “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God..

It does sound a little foolish to suggest that poverty of spirit, mourning, being merciful instead of aggressive, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness are pathways that bring the Kingdom a little closer to peoples lives. And had not Jesus embodied such teaching, we may have been able to ignore it!

The gospel offers to us a radically different way of living. And there will always be people who suggest that to even try and live in such a way is kind of foolish. Paul insists that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”

Rather like the kid who throws a ball, as though they could ever make a career out of it. Or the girl who dances a few steps and believes that one day she could make a living from her skills. Or the church in Corinth, thinking that by coming together across societies boundaries to worship God, the world could be changed. Or Paul, thinking that telling people about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of the Cross might actually be a world changer.

So we are invited today, to take our place on the field of fools, to see beyond our personal preferences and dare to believe that dreams we pursue, and the little things we do, in the service and worship of God, are actually the wisest and most important of all.

To God's name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 23, 2017

2. Church United

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings: Psalm 27:1, 4-9, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 22nd 2017

I recall watching a skit that featured two guys who meet together and begin talking about the churches that they went to. It went something like this.

The first says, 'I go to the Baptist Church'.'
'Really' replied the other 'Me too'. '
'Second Baptist?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist'.
'Second Baptist, American?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal?'
'Yeah! Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal?'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial,King James only, Second edition hymnal, that meets at 10:00 a.m?'
'NO WAY' replies the other 'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal, THAT meets at 6:00 p.m.'

The first one exclaims;
'I knew there was something weird about you!'
and walks away.

As he leaves the other shakes his head and shouts after him; “HERETIC!

The Church United? Paul writes : “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."

I'm preaching a series titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the Church)” You may not know this, but January 18th through the 25th is the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” Seemed like a good week to ponder whether Christian unity can ever be a reality and visit again Paul's teaching to the divided church of Corinth.
Throughout it's history our own Presbyterian Church has divided numerous times into different camps over what seemed at the time to be irreconcilable differences. From attitudes towards slavery, to debates over evolution and creation, from women in ministry, to what creeds we adopt.

The big dividing issue of recent years is sexuality. Who should and who shouldn't be allowed to exercise ministry in the church, and who in our society should be permitted to marry... and... the larger debate in the light of more folk co-habiting and divorce rates spiraling... just what constitutes a marriage in our times?

I know if I raise a subject like this there are going to be a lot of contradictory views in the room. There will be strong differences of opinion. Some may feel that their belief is so deeply held... that all they can do is walk away from those with whom they differ. Which is... an enormous shame.

Jesus prayed that we may be One, as He and His Father were One. And we've already heard Paul encouraging us to have no divisions among us, but to be of the same mind. Which is, of course, very hard to do, if you are not of the same mind! Is there a way through times of disagreement? What does it take to be the church that Paul invites us to become, the kind of church Jesus prayed we would be? Is Church unity an impossible dream?

In our reading today a key verse is 1:13, Paul puts three questions before the Corinthians; “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” “Was Paul crucified for you?” “Is Christ divided?” I'd like to think about each of his questions.

1. Were we baptized in the name of Paul?

Baptism is one of those huge historic issues that has divided the church, so there is a strange irony to the question Paul places before us. Where any of us baptized in his name? Of course not. Paul is clear that he saw his mission as preaching the gospel. He says 'I thank God that I didn't baptize any of you' but then backs up a little and says, 'Well actually I did baptize Crispus and Gaius, oh yeah, and the household of Stephanas, but I think that was all!”

It is as though he's saying that baptism was significant, but there were far more important things, in particular preaching and demonstrating the gospel of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. That task was so high above all the others that it made him forgetful when it came to lesser matters such as baptism.

Baptism marked a beautiful way to begin the life of discipleship. It was a sign of belonging. But of belonging not to the person who baptized you, or even to the denomination that administered the sacrament, but belonging to Jesus Christ. No matter who performed the baptism or in which church it took place, a person was baptized into the name of Jesus Christ.

Baptism is a sign of our Christian identity. Paul was concerned that it was being misused in a way that identified the act with a person or an institution rather than being an act of identification with Jesus and His Kingdom. He suggests that one way to get over our disagreements is by asking whose name we were baptized into.

Of course there will be those who will suggest that our way of baptism isn't really the right way of baptism so it doesn't really count whose name it was in. There are those who use baptism, not as a way of including people, but excluding them! Such did not seem to be John the Baptist's intention when he went down to the waters and invited everybody to turn their lives round. And Jesus identified Himself with us by going forward and receiving the baptism John offered... (even though, he had nothing to repent of.)

If we can get over arguing about the mode we were baptized with and actually remember whose name we are baptized into; then we could recognize that all those who are baptized into Jesus name are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Recognizing each other as brothers and sisters creates a good foundation for unity.

2. Was Paul crucified for you?

According to historic tradition Paul ended his life at the time of Nero's persecution of the church, not through crucifixion, but by being beheaded near or in Rome. Paul at the time he wrote this letter had no knowledge that such would be his fate. We could be pedantic and argue that Paul did give his life as a sacrifice in the service of a church that would be formed by his teachings, but to argue that meant Paul, and not Jesus, died for our sins, makes no sense.

And that is Paul's point! He could not die for another persons salvation. Only Jesus could do and had done such a thing. Only Jesus was the Son of God, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph. Only Jesus had an amazing ministry that backed up every awesome word He spoke. Only Jesus was crucified and prayed 'Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing'. Only Jesus was raised to life on the third day.

Paul's point, very simply, is that only Jesus is our Savior. That no matter what denomination we may belong to, that no matter how correct we feel our particular interpretation of theology is, no matter who we think should be in or out of the Kingdom, no matter how many prayers we pray or services we attend, no matter how generous are acts of charity we accomplish... at the end of all things, only Jesus is our Savior.

Furthermore, Jesus is also our neighbors Savior. Even that neighbor we don't get along with. Jesus did not just die to save us, His salvation will redeem that person we don't see eye to eye with, the one who has a very different understanding of what Christianity is and the one who attends a church with a very different history, culture and tradition from ours. Paul... and even our interpretation of Paul... is no help when it comes to salvation. That's why he teases us; 'Was Paul crucified for you?” Which brings us to our final observation.

Is Christ divided?

The answer is 'NO!' The Church is divided. The church needs a “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”. Christians around the world often find it impossible to get along with each other. We are experts at thinking only we have got it right. We are giants when it comes to building walls, breaking down bridges and fixing what isn't actually broken. We have an innate ability to think that our preferences are God's requirements and our words and doctrines and views are the only ones which carry truth.

But at the end of the day there is only, as the hymn writer so perfectly pictures it, there is only 'One Faith, one Church and one Lord'. And maybe, if we can dream of what will eventually be the reality, we can, in our better moments, step back from judgmental attitudes and shallow opinions and build toward what really matters. That in God's eyes there is only one faith... a faith defined by trusting in God, only one church, the one that Jesus invites us to be part of, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ whom God sent into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved though Him. Christ is not divided.

Let us pray that there will come a time when we see Him as He really is, when our desire for unity, is a strong as His and all things come together as they should!

Paul offers us some pointers as to how unity can be found.
  • By recognizing our mutual baptism into Jesus name, We are sisters and brothers.
  • Be realizing our only hope for salvation is in and through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus,
  • By understanding that despite all our attempts to pull apart from each other, it is ultimately a futile task, because we (and those we separate from) are the body of Christ.
I invite you this week to join with others around the world in praying that our historic divisions may be healed and the unity that Jesus prayed we may find, a unity that resembles that which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, may be achieved.

Disunity is as old as the church itself. It was one of the conundrums of Corinth that is still with us. My prayer is that deeper fellowship and understanding may not be seen as an unreachable goal, but a genuine part of the Kingdom that we pray may 'Come upon earth as it is in heaven'.

That one day people really will know we are Christians by our love... our love for God... our love for each other... our love for those we totally disagree with and that maybe we'll even get as far as thinking about what Jesus said about loving our enemies. To God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

1. Even Good Churches Have Bad Days

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 40:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 15 2017

Corinth was a city located on a high plateau, a four-mile wide strip of land that joined the mainland of Greece to another big bulge of land that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea. In Paul's day, it controlled trade conducted both on the road that passed by it and from sea at two ports, one in the north, one in the south.

It was a thriving economic center inhabited by people from all over the Mediterranean world. Like port cities throughout history, it had a reputation for being a place where anything goes. “What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth.”

It seems an unlikely location for the Christian faith to take root. Yet a series of missionaries had traveled through and left an impression, including the apostle Paul. The first and second letters of Paul to Corinth were written as an answer to many questions they had about being a church and what was acceptable and what had to change.

Now if Paul's first letter to the Corinthians had only consisted of Chapter 1:1-9, our reading today, then we would be left thinking, “Wow! What a Church!” It would be the kind of church we'd be hesitant to join because we'd probably spoil it!

Paul speaks of them being sanctified by Christ and of their call to be holy. He praises them for being enriched in every way, having among themselves great speakers and those who were extremely knowledgeable. He describes them as being full of grace. In addition their church was a place where spiritual gifts were given free expression. Healing. Prophecy. Speaking in tongues.

In verse 9 he promises God will keep them faithful. “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Blameless! Sounds like the perfect church. It's only when you get past verse 9 that the trouble starts.

I'm beginning today a series focusing on the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians that I've titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the Church)” I'm calling this first message; “Even Good Churches Have Bad Days.”

What are some of the things we are going to be talking about?

Disunity. Because the church in Corinth and been founded by different evangelists with a variety of gifts and abilities, people had their favorites. Paul wasn't always one of them, despite the fact he was the person they contacted when they needed advice. As January 18th through the 25th is the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ” it seemed like this would be a good topic to tackle. Though we claim to be all of one faith, the reality is we are a community divided by denominations and differences.

Pride. There were indeed some knowledgeable people in Corinth. The trouble was that it made them feel superior to everybody else. Paul takes them to task by talking about the “Foolishness” of the gospel message and encourages them to humbly seek for the mind of Christ.

Shallowness. While some professed to know it all others seemed extremely content knowing very little. It was as though they just wanted to get by with as little commitment as they could, but still experience all the blessings God had to offer. Paul encourages them to go deeper.

Immaturity Paul really longs to teach them about the meatier things of the gospel, but along with their shallowness there was also an element of childishness about them. Jesus had taught the disciples to be childlike... not childish... and the church in Corinth seemed to be getting the two confused. He complains they could only be given milk and would choke if he fed them meat!

Identity The Church in Corinth seemed to struggle to know who they were really meant to be and how that translated into how they lived. Paul speaks to them of being “Temples of the Holy Spirit” and how if they gave themselves to service of others then their identity wouldn't be such an issue for them.

As I've ministered in different churches, and shared thoughts with many colleagues who have the same task, it is interesting how these themes seem to show up with regularity in many congregations. They are certainly not conundrums unique to Corinth.

But as he begins his letter, flawed as they may be, Paul looks at the Corinthian Church through the eyes of grace and thanks God for them. He is thankful that they are even there! Establishing a Christian community at that time, in that place, was an awesome thing to have been accomplished. He is thankful for their potential. He is thankful, not only for what God had done in the past but what God was going to do in their future.

For sure there were things they needed to work at, and for sure there were things that needed to change. And for sure there would be some things he would not praise them for. But he knew that even good churches have bad days. Without exception.

Here at Mount Hebron there is so much I'm thankful for. I don't always get a chance to say that. I thank God for the opportunity of even being here. I thank God for each of you. I thank God for my morning commute. I thank God for the way you care about our buildings and grounds. I thank God for our worship services and the privilege of being able to preach and lead in worship. I thank God for our choir and our music.

I thank God for the families here. I love to see families together in church. What a blessing. I thank God for those who teach and prepare Sunday School and care for our little ones in the Nursery. I thank God for Judith and our office and the volunteers who help her out. I thank God for Evan and our youth program and that I got to spend at least a week with some of them at the Trinity Youth Conference. I thank God for Vacation Bible School. Always an amazing week.

I thank God for those of you who take care of the finances week by week, paying the bills, setting the budget. Not a task you always get thanks for when you tell us how it is. I thank God for Hebron House and Judy's passion to see it taken care of and utilized by our community. I thank God for our amazing Nursery School and the opportunity to sometimes share in their programming, for Amy and all the teachers and their commitment to creating an environment where learning is fun.

I thank God for our committees. For Session and Deacons and Personnel and Nurture and Worship and Mission and Membership. And all the rest. I thank God when I see people volunteering for ushering or fellowship or helping out in worship. I thank God when I see you reaching out to each other and expressing concern for each other. I thank God when we reach out into the community. I thank God for Operation Christmas Child reaching out to the world. I thank God for the Korean Church and the Quakers and all the other organizations that feel this a home base for them.

I thank God when I have the privilege of being made welcome in your homes or to offer a prayer in the hospital or to be close by when you suffer a bereavement. I thank God when I'm greeted with a smile by a child or a handshake from a saint. I even thank God when I'm called to task for something that hasn't gone well. There's always something new to learn. I make mistakes. I'm human.

Look, I could make this a very long sermon full of thanks. But you might not thank me for that. So I'll quit while I'm ahead.

There are times when disappointment comes my way. When a bible study is prepared and nobody shows. When folk feel that the ministry here can't meet their needs and they leave. When I see people not getting along or being uncaring. When I can't figure out how things are done a certain way or why they ever were done that way. Then I remember; even good churches have bad days.

And this is a good church. You should know that. You need to hear that! Of course we still manifest many of the conundrums of Corinth, but that is how it is. That's how it is in every church. At the end of the day what defines a church is not how perfect it is. A church isn't defined by how large or small it is. A church isn't defined by its strengths and weakness. A church is defined by grace.
  • A faithful church is one that is willing to become something more than it already is.
  • A faithful church is one that has an ability to go forward in faith.
  • A faithful church is one that recognizes it is on a journey, and that it hasn't arrived yet!
  • A faithful church is one that is both thankful for it's past and excited for it's future.
  • A faithful church is one that will acknowledge that it is far from perfect, but recognizes that God is at work in it's midst.
And all those things are a gift of grace. Paul thanks God for the Corinthians because God has given grace to them in Jesus Christ. At the end of his thanksgiving, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God, who is faithful, has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. In between, every verse of the thanksgiving Paul mentions Christ.

His letter is very much written to a community rather than any particular individual within the community. God knows that being a community can be incredibly hard work. Particularly when the only thing people may have in common with each other is a faith in Jesus Christ, and every single person is at a different stage of their discipleship journey with Jesus Christ.

If you are having a “Down on the church day” or feeling a little disconnected or that things are not going the way you had hoped, then remember... “Even Good Churches Have Bad Days.” and resolve not to leave it there, but take it to the Lord in prayer so that you become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

And for some closing words... I'll stay with the introductory verses of 1 Corinthians. We'll get to some of the problems soon enough.

Verse 3 “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And to God's name be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Years Day 2017 Communion

look back, look ahead, look now.
Readings; Psalm 34:1-10, Philllipians 3:7-14, Deuteronomy 4:5-10, Matthew 7:7-12.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 1 2017

It's amazing how much importance we place on one single night. The sun sets on 31st December and when it rises the next morning a New Year has begun. Everything from the last year has passed and gone and the New Year is here. New possibilities, new hopes, new ideas and dreams.

Are you are a resolution person? Some years I am, some years I'm not. Some years I can be kind of flippant about it, “This year I'll give up smoking.” Easy to do when you have never actually taken up smoking in the first place. Other years I'm serious and I'll commit to something like reading through the whole Bible in a translation I've never done before. I've managed to keep that one, but then I am a preacher and Bible reading is a discipline that's part of my job description. Sometimes I'll make resolutions about exercise or diet or to not do certain things, like stay up late watching mindless TV shows and I fail dismally to see them through.

Why do we put ourselves through that resolution thing? Maybe it's because New Year is an opportunity to do some thinking and take an inventory of our lives. We realize what unrealistic and complicated human beings we can be, so we take a breath and contemplate that, maybe, we could do better. Sometimes it works. Sometimes we've already lost sight of our new ideals before we’ve remembered to write the right year at the top of our checks. 

The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus is pictured as a two-faced man. One face looks towards the past and the other towards the future. As we think about New Year’s resolutions we can look, not in two, but three different directions: looking back, looking ahead and looking at now.

Looking Back

The Hebrew people were no strangers to looking back. They were constantly challenged to remember their heritage and God’s dealings with them. Moses once encouraged them with these words: “Be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your hearts as long as you live” (Deuteronomy 4 v 9).

It’s important to face yesterday and the year that has closed. If we don’t our resolutions won’t last. How many times have we made completely unrealistic resolutions because we didn’t take seriously whether last year had left us? We need to face it honestly, not with rose-colored spectacles or seeing shadows everywhere so it might be painful. Last year might have been one you don’t particularly want to remember. On the other hand it might have been so good you’re now worried that it can’t continue.

Whatever the last year has held, I'd encourage you to spend some time remembering. Pull out your calendar or look at some old photographs. Scan through some posts on your Facebook page. What were the highlights? What were the low points? Where did you feel God's presence in those moments?

As much as we might want this year to be a completely new start, it doesn’t start in a vacuum. It follows what’s been. And what’s been has brought us to where we are. Our resolutions can be flawed because they don’t look backwards first. Think about the past year. What can we be thankful for, what is there to be pleased about, what was hard, what did we learn, what habits do we want to get out of, what habits are good ones to keep doing?

If we don’t learn lessons from what we’ve seen and heard, then it’s like looking in a mirror and then forgetting what we just saw. The past is important, we can learn a lot. If we don’t learn, we’ll find things repeating themselves. God doesn’t intend us to live in the past. Looking back is intended to root us firmly in the rich soil of faith, which provides the environment in which we can grow into new things. Paul writes in Philippians 3:13 “Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus

Looking Ahead

We can't spend our whole time looking back and reminiscing about days gone by. Looking backwards all the time can be dangerous. You may well bump into things you can't see and cause yourself serious harm. We need to focus on where we are going.

Remembering what you have learned from the year gone by, and full of hope for what might be, what are you aiming at this year? It has been rightly said that if we aim at nothing, we have 100% chance of hitting it.

It might be that we want to know our friends better by this time next year, or to have grown closer with God, our spouse, our family, to be healthier, fitter, slimmer. Whatever, think about tomorrow, the kind of person you want to be, the kind of friend, mother, father, sister, brother, employer, employee, friend, neighbor you'd like to be.

What are your dreams for your faith community this year? What steps will you take to make those things happen? You know, in church life, I've often had folk come to me and say that they think this should happen or that should happen and what am I going to do about that?

Friends, it's not about what I'm going to do, but what you are going to do. God has given you that vision for a purpose and the reason is not so you can get somebody else to do something about it, but so that you can live into it! If God gives you a vision, it's because it's one that God wants to equip you to fulfill.

So look ahead. Be prepared to dream. But also be prepared to act upon your dreams not re-assign them to somebody else. That's the tricky part about resolutions. We have to resolve to take personal responsibility for seeing them through!

Looking at Now

If our aim is to be healthier, how can we do it? How do you eat an elephant? Answer, one bite at a time, inch by inch. But, to be clear, I don't recommend eating elephants. If you want to get fitter, certainly don't eat an elephant. What can you realistically do?

If you want to develop relationships, then do it in manageable time segments. If it's with your children, then why not resolve to spend an hour more a week with them doing things they want to do. If it's with your spouse set a date night once a month. If you want to grow in your relationship with God, don’t resolve to spend every hour of every day praying, make a resolution to spend at least some portion of the day in meditation, bible reading or prayer. Listen to an audio devotion on the way to work, join our bible study group or volunteer to help out at Daily Bread.

I’m not saying don’t stretch yourself. I want to encourage us all to set our sights high, and work hard at those things in our lives we feel are most important, but let’s be realistic. Because then we can be optimistic. Reachable goals are far more likely to be attained than unreachable ones!

Certainly, as your pastor, I would encourage you to make this year one in which you grow in the grace, love and faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. I'd encourage you to be a regular supporter and attender of our worship services. That's only about an hour and a half out of your weekly schedule. This hour when we gather can really set the agenda for every other hour in our week!

In particular I'd invite you to make the most of this wonderful privilege we have once a month to come around the communion table. Communion speaks to us in ways the preacher will never do. The sacrament communicates not just though words, but though touch and taste and smell and memory.

Jesus was completely purposeful in telling us to remember Him in this way. It calls to mind His Cross. It calls to mind His promise. It reminds us that unless we feed upon His love, our own love quickly fades, our resolve quickly falters and we easily become disconnected to our passion and pursuit of higher things.

So I encourage you this New Year to look back to all that last year was, to look ahead to all that you want to do and to be in this new year, and to face today, to work out how you’ll get there. Don’t just seize the day, seize the year, and all to the glory of God.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.