Thursday, December 31, 2009

All Things New

It happens every year: I have good intentions for the best possible new year. My intentions bring forth resolutions for a better life. After all, it’s natural to reflect upon the closing of one year and the possibilities of another. Everyone has hopes for a better year. We all instinctively realize that we have a role to play in shaping the year to come. So we resolve to try harder, act kindly, and become better people. Of course, New Year’s resolutions rarely last a week--or sometimes even the night!

The new year presents an opportunity to reflect on how real change comes. I’d like to suggest three pillars of change for Students of Jesus:

Redeeming Time: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) This is worth reflection: we live in time. God has ordained that we experience the passage of time one day after another. The days march by in succession, turning into weeks and months. Yet we are surprised by it’s passage: “What? Where did the year go?” Each day tries to command our attention and draw us into the urgent, the pressing, and the demands of everyday life. Each day cries out with a voice of authority, but it is the voice of an impostor. “Each day is a god,” Annie Dillard observed. Each day attempts to eclipse our relationship with the Lord: work, food, play, entertainment, even sleep. Could any human relationship flourish if it receives only the left-overs of the day? The Apostle Paul cautioned his friends in Ephesus: “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) In fact, the King James version employs the useful phrase, “redeem the time.” True change comes to those who understand God’s gracious gift of time, and rule over that gift as God intends.

The Presence of the Holy Spirit: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40: 6) Real change requires Incarnation. The importance of incarnation does not end with the Christmas story. We need the in-breaking of the Spirit in order to effect real change. The legacy of flesh is corruption. It’s not that flesh is evil, but rather that all flesh is subject to corruption. For example, imagine a perfect tomato: vine-ripened and red, resting on the kitchen windowsill. It’s flawless. You return to the kitchen the next day, and it remains firm and inviting. Now imagine that you leave that tomato on the windowsill for six months: it's no longer perfect, and definitely not inviting! It’s not that the tomato was defective: it simply decayed. This is the legacy of all created things apart from Spirit-infused life. Our plans are no different. “Perfect” well-intentioned human plans are always subject to corruption. We need the life-giving Spirit of God to give birth to our plans. The Apostle Peter reflected on the words of Isaiah and concluded that we need a reminder in order to be open to the Spirit: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1: 23) The new birth implants the imperishable seed, but we can easily be distracted by the flesh: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3) True change comes to those who insist upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in all their plans.

Responding to Grace: There is, indeed, a place for human effort. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God. The Apostle Paul recognized that receiving the grace of God was the initial step--God’s step, but there were steps for Paul to take as well: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 5:10) How many of us associate the phrase “worked harder” with God’s grace? Make no mistake--Paul does not confuse his effort with God’s grace. He understands that his efforts come as a response to that grace. If we expect to experience godly change in the coming year, we must recognize where God’s grace is leading us, and then cooperate with his initiative. No amount of effort will replace God’s grace; we must have eyes to see what the Master is doing. We must also possess the courage to commit ourselves to his leading. True change comes to those who add their best to God’s kindness.

We turn the calendar page, but he gives new life. In the end, we will recognize the work of Jesus in our successes. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I make all things new.”

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