Always Beginning Again: A Sermon to Begin the New Year
by Loren Seibold | 31 December 2020 |
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 1 Corinthians 5:17-20
One of the first lines that made it to meme status—long before the internet, when memes were still on posters that we taped to our dorm room walls—was this one: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I first heard it attributed to “That Girl” Marlo Thomas, which made people think it was just fluff, since she wasn’t exactly a deep philosopher.
But I assert that it is a profound idea, and one that Christians ought to be talking about all the time. The psychological foundation of Christian faith is that through Christ people can start over again: that this day is the first day of the rest of your life.
It really doesn’t reflect the way most folks think, though. We don’t expect a lot of change from people, or groups of people. There has been conflict in the Middle East since before I was born, and if I live another 20 years, I expect that the last newscast I listen to before I keel over into my coffin is going to have a story about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Similarly, when we describe people we know, whether their problems or their good points, we say, “Here’s the kind of person she is.” We expect (and for good reason) that people are going to continue to be the way they’ve always been even when (perhaps especially when) we don’t like how they are.
On the other hand, everyone has something they want to change, and need to change, and it doesn’t happen easily. You and I have tried to make mid-course corrections—to quit a bad habit, or change something about yourself that you didn’t like, and found it excruciatingly difficult. I remember Mark Twain’s witticism about smoking. “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” The same is true of relationships: married couples, parents and children, have arguments about the very same things for years. Decades.
The reason we expect that most folks are going to be the way they’ve always been is because most folks actually do continue to be as they’ve always been. Change is like turning an aircraft carrier: it can be done—sometimes it must be done—but it takes a long time, a lot of space, and tremendous power.
A new creation
Yet it is precisely here that scripture makes extraordinary claims. (2 Corinthians 5:17) “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
That you can become a “new creation” is an audacious claim, somewhat ridiculous on the face of it. You may say to yourself, as I did when I read this text, “I’ve known a lot of Christians with a lot of faults in their lives; why didn’t this happen to them?” Or, if you’re a little more honest, your first thought may have been, “I’m a Christian, and this hasn’t happened to me, even though I’ve prayed about it.”
I’ve come to see that we’ve probably understood this wrongly. Becoming a new creation is not so much a magic transformation as a process. A process that you and I participate in day after day after day.
Where change starts
It is important to say that most of the changes that make us a new creation, the ones that really matter, are on God’s side. This is a most misunderstood aspect of the Christian faith, and what’s especially surprising is how frequently Christians themselves misunderstand it. It’s not what we do that makes the biggest difference to our lives, but what God does.
I have always told my churches that there are two legitimate topics for religion. One is God’s actions, and the other is our actions. What God has done, and continues to do, and what we have done and ought to do.
Now, here is what you must understand: God always does his thing before we do ours. God always does what God does even if we never get around to doing ours. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. His doing his part is not dependent on our doing our part. Salvation has already been secured. The necessary steps have been taken. This is what the reformers called prevenient grace: grace that goes before us and makes sure everything is in readiness just in case we need it, which we surely will.
No, spiritual transformation can’t be completed unless we pitch in. But I say again, God’s part is not dependent upon our doing our part. God did his part, and will keep doing it. The resolutions that matter in our lives, the resolutions that can transform our lives, aren’t the resolutions that we make. They’re the resolutions God made. Because God will carry through.
And here’s what God did. Before we asked for it. Before we needed it. For those who will never realize that they need it, even. Paul says (vs. 19) God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
This is the heart of Christian soteriology. No matter how you feel about God, no matter if you turn your back to God, God has opened the door to you. Reconciling means to resolve a problem. Put things to rights. Reunite the alienated parties. So from God’s point of view, in the words of the old hymn, there’s “nothing between my soul and the Savior.” Certainly nothing on his part.
I remember a father whose son had been alienated from the family for many years. Finally, after a long time, the son came home. He wasn’t a son one would normally have been very proud of. He had greasy hair and too many tattoos and piercings and was uncouth and smelled like the too-many substances he drank and smoked. That father, though, was so glad to have him home that every time he looked at him you could just see the pride in his eyes. He magnified all his son’s good points, and minimized his bad points. In his eyes, the mere fact that his son was now talking to him made him a new creation in dad’s eyes. It was a marvelous example of grace in action. Reconciliation had happened. As far as the dad was concerned, there was nothing between his child and himself.
If you remember the rest of that old hymn I began quoting earlier, it goes
Nothing between my soul and the Saviour,
Naught of this world’s delusive dream;
Nothing preventing the least of His favor,
Keep the way clear! Let nothing between.
It isn’t God that puts up the obstacles between us and God. Usually the world throws those in there. That father could (and I suspect, will) love that son forever, no matter what he does. The son now has a marvelous chance to change. A place to live, a supportive family. What he does with that is up to him. In the end, some of it is the choice of the son about whether he’ll “get it,” and whether his dad’s love will open doors to a better life for him or not.
Paul gives this as the motivation for us to do our part (vs.14): “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
People debate the metaphysical meaning of the atonement—there have been theological wars over this in the Christian church. I’ve never really spent much time looking into it, because for me, this is the meaning of the atonement: “Christ’s love compels us.” Christ died to convince me that God loves me so much that God wants me to love him back. God seems to be saying, “You folks go about your work and your play down there, your sinning and warring and all that stuff you do, down there, seemingly unaware of my desire that you have something better. Here, and in the next life. What can I do to convince you? Well, how about this: I’ll present myself for martyrdom to help you see just how much I love you. This is the one thing even you people, as out of tune with the spiritual universe as you seem to be, won’t be able to miss.”
Jesus died on the cross to say, “This is how much I love you. Now, doesn’t that make you want to be more loving, too?” (Vs 15) “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
“We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (vs 20) God has already resolved his part of our relationship. God wants you to do your part. But God doesn’t expect you to do it all at once and without a struggle. God knows it is going to take some time. It may well take a lifetime. But in the meantime, you’re already a new creation. Even while you keep striving, you’re a new creation because your failures aren’t accumulating. They’re being erased. Every day, when you say, “Lord, forgive me,” he’s tearing that tape off the cash register that has all your debts listed on it, and throwing it in the fireplace.
And then that attitude that infects you begins to affect how you act toward those around you. Because, as Paul says (vs. 16), “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”
The worldly point of view is a rather rigid one. It is cause and effect. Supply and demand. One is judged strictly by your merits. In the worldly point of view, people who don’t act right get in trouble. Those who act badly enough are put in prison. Those who fail at marriage get divorced. Those who don’t work hard enough get fired. In the worldly point of view, the fittest survive and the rest don’t make it. In the worldly point of view, people are the way they always have been, and we don’t expect any improvement. There’s no flexibility in the world’s way of looking at it. No potential.
But if you can manage to take on heaven’s point of view, as Paul did, you come to see each person as someone known and loved by God. That difficult husband becomes a child of God. That hard-to-live-with wife. That problem child. That unlikable colleague. It gives you a sort of distance, the ability to stand back and look at people in quite a different way. Even people who are our enemies, criminals who would attack us, soldiers who are fighting against us, each one of them is a child of God. And God knows their hearts. God has opened the way for them, too, and God wants them to be new creations in him.
But all of this depends upon our staying somehow within this circle of God’s love. Daily being in reach of those promises. Staying there day after day after day.
Paul surely understood that this change from old creature to new creation wasn’t magical. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:31) “I die every day.” Every day he found himself having to submit again to the compelling love of God. Every day he had to remind himself that he wasn’t living for himself—the old Paul was in that sense, dead—but he was living for God now. He had to remind himself that all the people around him were in the same relation to God as he was, and so he couldn’t look at them critically or angrily, as before.
Shakespeare has old sinful Macbeth, suffering in his guilt for killing all his rivals in order to become the king, say these depressing words:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Who doesn’t understand this? Macbeth sees the utter futility of life, of all our ambitions, all our desires. One tomorrow after another, always hoping the future will be better, but in the end all we see is death. All our wisdom is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But the Christian ethos of life precisely counters that. Ours is a tale told by the almighty God of the universe, who never lies, who never disappoints, a tale full of grace and peace and wisdom, signifying everything! For a Christian, the cry is “Today and today and today.” Each day is new! I get the chance to start today as a new creation! To make progress in my walk with God, and in my own character development! And should I fail, then guess what: tomorrow is a new today that I can start again as a new creation! That is the great blessing of God’s grace: I can have as many recreations as I need!
Here is the truth; even when I have had a lifetime of chances, I still won’t be as much like Christ as I want to be, or as I need to be.
But then there is going to be one more today, a day in which you and I will come up out of the earth, will change from corpses into living breathing people, and Paul says that in that moment, in a twinkling of an eye, we shall be changed. We shall suddenly be clothed in immortality, in righteousness, in goodness, all that we have struggled with finally, once and for all stripped away. That’s the day I’m looking forward to.
So as you begin a new year, I hope you’re making some resolutions. But remember, first, what God has resolved to do for you. Today you are a new creature in Christ, and tomorrow you will be a new creature in Christ too, and the day after that, and as long as you keep on the road, you will get there, with God’s help.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today