This is a transcript from the January 12, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
There's a scripture that we're keeping in front of us all throughout this month and into February. I think it's really a great practice to begin to commit scripture to memory. Some of us grew up on this, some of us grew up away from that. It was not part of my practices growing up. Somehow we were in a phase where that was considered good to do, so there's a lot of us who just didn't do that even as there are some who did, I'd like to bring it back and I'd like to ask you that you would consider keeping this one in front of us this month. We have business-size cards.
I think that's not only a good scripture. I think it's a good invitation. You don't have to raise hands, but as you're looking at that, I wonder if you believe that if that were to become true more and more in your life this year that that would make a difference in your life.
That if you were to live into and experience more and more the fullness of the life and the power that comes from God would that make a difference in your life, would that make a difference in your family, your friends, your community, your work, your church? Would that make a difference?
I say that because this is the time of year when we make resolutions or we sometimes make resolutions because we have the sense, and I heard it this week maybe you did too. Did you hear any of this? Maybe you felt it. "It's a new year. Boy, it's good to have 2019 in my rearview mirror", and then there's a sense of a fresh start. "Okay, this is a new year, there's going to be a fresh start."
We would love to have a fresh start and sometimes we mark it by saying, "Okay, we're going to make some changes. I'm going to do some things, I'm going to eat less, I am going to exercise more, I'm going to watch less TV, I'm going to get more sleep, I'm going to learn French." All those things that we do because we sense there is something in us that, boy, if we could make some changes that would make a difference. We would be better if we did some of those things.
There's a lot of us who don't make those resolutions anymore because we don't really think they're going to happen and you can only go around the circle a number of times and you go, "Well then what's the point?" There's a couple of reasons that resolutions fail in my life and they fail in your life and sometimes the one thing is, it's just not that compelling. Sure, I'd love to learn French, but really?
More than that, it's not compelling because it's not consistent with who I see myself to be, so I could put out lofty goals about how I'm going to read more and watch less but there gets to be that point when I finally let down and the adrenaline goes down, "Just doesn't really feel like me." The second reason is we don't feel like we've got the right tools, or we just don't have the right tools in order to get there.
That is nowhere more true than when it comes to the spiritual goals. Do not raise your hand on this one, but I am going to contend, I'm going to guess whether you made a formal resolution, or you just made one of those things as you're laying in bed at night, as you're coming into the year, "You know this year, I'm going to get closer to God. Now I'm going to draw closer to God." Anytime you say that, can I just tell you? You have already sealed your doom because that is an absolutely doomed resolution. It will always fail, and will always fail in part because of the Scripture that's part of our scripture of the day.
Paul is writing to a church in Philippi and what he says is this, he says, "Not that I have already obtained this, this idea of what God wants from me and my life the fullness of God, or have I already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own." That phrase, boy, there's an umbrella under that umbrella, there is a ton of theology, there's a ton of experience, and that's this, is that you and I don't get close to God, because God is already close to us.
We don't seize and we don't go after and we don't accomplish anything in the spiritual life other than respond to what God has already done. I know as soon as we say, " I'm going to get closer to God", what we've done is we have set up this world where God is here and somehow I have gotten over here and somehow, I'm going to get closer to God. It can't be done, because God isn't there, God's right here.
In the book of Acts, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. There's nowhere you're going to go this year, and there's nothing you're going to do where God isn't already there. As soon as we set it up that boy I have to do this and I have to do this and I have to do more of this because somehow, I got to go and find God and get closer to God, we're already doing something that can't be done and we've already set it up that this is an issue of my willpower and this is an issue of my own accomplishment and it's how much I'm going to be able to love and want God.
This passage says it has nothing to do with it. This passage says it has everything to do with how much God already wants and loves you, and anything you and I do we do in response. It is like sympathetic vibrations, as I am talking do you know that your vocal cords are already moving in sympathetic vibration to my voice, and whatever I am saying they're already resonating a little bit like this. That's exactly what the spiritual life is, we sense this and we say, "Oh look what I am doing."
We're not doing it. All we are doing is we are responding to the presence and we are responding to the love of God that continues to chase after, grab hold and want us. We don't accomplish, all we do is we recognize, and then we align ourselves with what God is already trying to do. There is work, but it is a completely different work isn't it? One of the great poems in the Christian tradition is by a guy named Francis Thompson called The Hound of Heaven and it talks about grace as the Hound of Heaven.
It really is not the easiest poem, it was written in the 1890s and so a lot of it is archaic language for us today, but you read it and you think about it and listen to it and it still has this power, that there's nowhere you're going that God isn't chasing after you and not chasing after you to hurt you, to harm you, not to bear teeth, but to be with you. You can't get away from that, all you can do is to stop and turn around which by the way is what the word repent means. It's, stop running in the wrong direction and realize that God is right there. There's nothing you're going to do this year that's going to make you go farther from God. It's an illusion, that separation.
They'll be things that you and I do that reject God, ignore God, distract ourselves from God, but wherever we are, all we ever have to do is to recognize that God is chasing and God is right there, and to recognize and to align our lives. Spiritual growth is not a goal that we somehow accomplish, it's a reality that we get to realize, we get to revel in it, we get to experience in it.
"I'm not there yet", Paul says. I'm not perfect. I'm not close to God, but here's what I do. Here's what I do, I recognize that anything that's going on in me and that thing that actually feels like me, it's my truest self, that right there that's God chasing after me. That's where I begin to recognize what God is doing, and anything I do that's going to have any value starts there.
"This year is going to be different." That's what we tell ourselves, and it's not just delusional it is actually aspirational. We want it to be different. There's something inside of us that wants to and senses that something could and should change. We would love that idea of something that brings us fully into the fullness of God, to live into the life and the power of God. In a church, this church, any church, we have things we would love to be true about our life but anyone who's lived any length of time will know that no matter how hard we try, we fail and so sometimes we give up or sometimes we try again but underneath there's this sense of failure and there's this sense of whatever it is.
"Maybe I'm just not spiritual enough." "Maybe there is something deeply wrong with me." "Maybe I should just fake it. Everybody else seems to have it together and we'll just go along." This morning I want to hold a different alternative because the result is the sense of guilt and shame which is a completely wasted emotion and contrary to everything that Christ stands for and that what Paul is advocating for us here.
Here's the full passage. The first part we've already read. "Not that I've already obtained this or have already reached the goal but I press on. I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own.
Beloved, I don't consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do forgetting what lies behind and straining to what lies ahead. I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
In the first part, I said we usually have the wrong goals. The idea that somehow this is something we have to manufacture, we have to accomplish, we have to get closer to God, but I'm going to say that the second part is-- Then when we have the wrong goal, we have the wrong strategy for getting there. This series is talking about the tools in the toolkit for 2021 and that's not a typo. It is to say next January 2021, what would you like to think about? How would you like to think of yourself? What kind of changes would you like to see? What would you love to be able to claim? Now, what are the things that we need to begin to work on now so that that can happen?
It recognizes that this is a process. This is not quick. If it was quick, you'd already have done it. I'm talking about the stuff that's hard. I'm talking about the stuff that's inside of us that's hard. What would we do? We were talking about some of the tools that we would have. Last week I talked about-- This is out of the New Hope way, the five by five and that there are five tools that are necessary and one of them is a sense of purpose. I know why I am here. I know the reason I exist in this time and place.
The second one has to do with people. That you have a group of people who are committed to your growth and you are committed to theirs. The third has to do with the sense of a profile. I know who I am. I know I have my strengths and my gifts and my talents. I know what my experiences are. I know what it is I bring to the table of this life. I know what I bring to this world every day and I have a place to put it where it's making a difference.
My goal is that every one of us in 2021 this time next year, we'd be able to say, "I have that. I know who I am, I know why I'm here. I've got people who I can count on and they can count on me for growing. I know what my gifts and my talents are. I know what my strengths are. I know what I bring to the party and I have a place to put it." Would that not make a difference in your life? Would that not make a difference in your family, your church, your community, your world? Yes and no, because there's a fifth thing that's missing, and without this, the rest just stays where it does every year.
I have said that the five tools are purpose, people, profile, and place and the practices that sustain them. The practices that sustain them. If we don't have the practices in place, the power for these tools, then the tools just sit on the counter. They don't do it. We can have all kinds of great tools but if we have to have something that puts them into motion and that keeps them going and that thing is practices.
Paul says, "Beloved, I don't consider it that I've made it my own but there's one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on towards the goal." It's a practice. It's a habit. I'm going to keep getting up. I'm going to keep moving forward. I'm going to keep after it. Just like any other goal in my life. Just like any other thing that's worthwhile, it's going to take some work and it's going to take some practice and it's going to require that the power source for this is different than what you and I have been taught. You and I have grown up with, "I'll learn it from myself."
I come to church to get inspired. I read books to get inspired. I come and I listen to speakers and I do that and I put things in front of me that inspire me and then I want to go out and do that. If that doesn't work, what's the flip side of that? Guilt. All right, if that doesn't work, then guilt will get you going. Guilt will make you give, guilt will make you generous, guilt will help you serve. We have these two things and there's a reason why they always fail because they're never enough and they're never sufficient because even when they work, they create people that we were not meant to be.
The biggest change in me, the biggest changes in my life is when I have learned how to do this power of habit and practices and there's nothing sexy about it, there's nothing glamorous about it. It just works and without it, it doesn't work. Is this biblical? Oh my goodness, is this biblical?
Listen to Luke 4,
Jesus comes in, as Jesus is announcing His ministry and there's this little phrase in there that Jesus, the Lord of life, Jesus, the son of God, Jesus, when He comes into Nazareth, where He'd been brought up, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day,
as was His custom.
It was His practice to show up on those gatherings at the synagogue. It was His practice to learn and to think about scriptures. That was part of Jesus' practice. Paul, when we read in the book of Acts and you begin to see that before they were called Christians, the early followers of Jesus were called people of the way. Because of the translations and sometimes they will put it in lowercase but more and more translators have started to put it an uppercase.
Saul, before he was, Paul, asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues of Damascus so that if he found anyone who belonged to the way, men or women, that's who the Christians were. They were called people of the way and throughout the book of Acts, you will see that. Apollos comes onto the scene here as somebody who was well known in the way. Before it was a religion, followers of Jesus were known as people of the way because it was a practice. There was a way that we're going to live our life. There were certain habits, there were certain things we were going to do differently.
Later on, they got to be called Christians because they did it so well. They thought they were making fun of them. The word Christian just means little Christs and it wasn't meant to be a compliment. They took it as a compliment but it was meant to be a derogatory word. "Look at all these people running around like little Christs all over the world." They started off and they got that way and noticed because they were people of the way. There was practices, there were things they were doing.
If you go and look through any of the letters of Paul and you start to look through the glasses of what are the practices? They are all over the place. It's all about practice. Rejoice in the Lord always, that's a practice. Give thanks in everything, that's a practice. Encourage one another. "When you gather together-" Paul says, "-do it this way." Here's a habit we're going to build in. Here's what you do about anger and here's what you do with forgiveness. They are habits to get into because it's habits that change us, it is the habits and the practices.
It's an old proverb that says,
"Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the bones."
Isn't that the truth? You can know everything you want to know. I can know everything I want to know. I could possibly know about exercise, about the equipment, about heart rates, about optimal levels. It does me no good until I actually exercise. I can know everything that I need to know and fill up my head with all kinds of concepts about God. I can fill up all kinds of concepts and know everything about prayer. I can lead workshops on prayer but until I actually pray and make that a habit, I know nothing.
The same is true for service or generosity, gratitude, community. I can know everything about community except how to be in it, except how to do the hard work of it. Nothing changes until I put it into practice, until it begins to live in my bones. I have suggested and I'm holding out that here are some practices, how this is how we grow with New Hope in this upcoming year. There are some focusing questions and if you'd like to go on to the webpage around the Everyday Spirituality of our homepage, you can look at that fuller explanation, more it's coming. There are these focusing questions that you keep in front of you throughout your day and your night and you're living.
Then daily acts of kindness, gratitude and service. Five by five, five things that push you into a little bit more service, a little bit more gratitude, a little bit more kindness, five times this week. Nurture the things that make your soul grow. What would those be? Because if you don't put this into practice, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how inspired we are, it doesn't matter how guilty I feel, if I don't actually change my behavior, nothing really changes. Five hours of service in that place where you take the best of who you are and bring it to a place that makes a difference.
Again, just start here. Same thing for giving. Take 5% of your income and give it, separate it out from you and put it into a place for the cause of Christ, you choose. We can talk about generosity but until we actually do the hard work of separating out and giving and making it a habit, it's just a rumor. Too many of us live from rumor to rumor. Every year we try but we don't put it into practice.
It is the difference in a power tool between being run on a battery that goes down and needs to be charged and being connected with a wire. Because no matter how much inspiration we have, it's going to run down. Now I have to recharge it in our church and we charged it with being either inspired or feeling guilty too many times. The practice is so much more powerful than passion.
Let me just give you three quick examples that prove it in my mind. You can raise your hand. How many people think it's important to read the Bible if not every day, five times a week? You can raise your hand. You're not going to have to own any of this, so if you just think it's important, okay. How many people think it's important that you brush your teeth every day? Okay, now then put your hands down. You are not going to do anything. How many people were better at brushing their teeth than they were reading the Bible? Again, don't answer, don't answer that one. I'm not trying to embarrass anybody. I'm trying to make a point.
We do that because it's a habit. It's automatic. You do it unthinkingly, you wake up in the morning and you brush your teeth or before you go to bed, you brush your teeth, or it's after a meal, and you're-- You're doing all those things because you have made it a habit. My guess is your dental hygiene is probably better than your prayer life or reading the Bible. Why? Is it because we're not good? Is it because we are failures? No, we don't have the right habits. We have better habits over here than we do here, and we have relied upon inspiration and guilt to motivate us on this one rather than just doing it.
How many people, and don't raise your hand on this one, think it's important to make your bed every day? How many people think it's important to come to church every week? Who's better at making your bed than coming to church? Does this make you bad? Does this make you unspiritual? No, you don't have the same habits that you have over here. How many people think it's important that you take the trash out every week? That you shower or bathe, at least every other day.
How many people think it's really important that you're in community with others and forgive others? How many people are better at remembering to take out the trash and showering and bathing than they are these other things? Are these things more important? Of course, these are huge but we've decided to motivate ourselves around those things with trying to be inspired, or guilt. I don't have to wake up every day and get pumped up with a podcast or a Bible reading to make me want to brush my teeth. I just do it. That's the point. That's what Paul is trying to say. That's what Jesus did with His life.
There are habits, there are practices that we do that somehow begin to put that stuff into our life and it becomes more and more automatic. Let me give you one more example. We did it already once today. May the peace of Christ be with you.
Congregation: And also with you.
How did you know to do that? Did you have to think about that? Did you have to go around, "What is he asking? What's that?" No, you knew that because that's a habit. That's a practice we have. What would it take to be able to put that into practice for who we are when there is somebody who has wronged us and we are able to say, "I forgive you" or "How can I help you?" It's the same motion.
How do we put that into practice? What I'm saying this morning, is that it is a matter of habits that we're building into, its practices, and the real power tools, all those tools that we have, and Lord knows that we have way too many tools sitting on our benches at home that are not being used that we have tried and we've bought, we got books and we got tools, we got resolutions. They don't work not because they're bad and not because we're bad, but we have not connected them to practice, there's still way too much rumor, and they don't live in our bones.
James Clear who writes eloquently in his book Atomic Habits he says, "Listen, do you want some changes? New goals don't deliver results, new lifestyles do. Lifestyle is not an outcome, it's not a goal. It's a process. For this reason, all of your energy should go into building better habits, not chasing better results." When brain science begins to match up with biblical teaching, it seems to me we should pay attention. That's what I'm holding up this morning. I am suggesting that if we want to be different in 2021, the most important thing you and I can do in 2020 is begin to work on our habits.
This week, you pick one of the habits, if you don't have one, pick the one about five acts every day, just try five acts every day, intentionally pushing yourself at acts of service, of gratitude and kindness. Just try that, see what it does to you. When you fail, of course you fail. It's a practice. It's assumed. Forgetting what lies behind, leaning into what lies ahead. "I press on", Paul says. I keep practicing, I keep getting better.
This time, maybe I'll go three days in a row. Maybe five, maybe eight, but I'll keep practicing because of the goal, the promise that you experience the love of Christ, and though it's too great to understand fully, and then you will be made complete with the fullness of life and the power that comes from God. Amen.