Monday, January 5, 2009

New Year's Preparations

As 2008 turned to 2009, I had a random thought pass through my mind.  I remembered the second time I was allowed to preach during a worship service at the church where I served several years ago.  Prior to that, my pastor had asked me to preach, but I had been serving as an interim youth pastor, and when one of our special student ministry days came, I guess he felt he "had" to let me preach that night [smile].

This second opportunity came at the end of the year, on a Sunday evening just before New Year's Eve, and later I joked that letting me have a go at it again towards the end of the holiday period couldn't do too much damage.  Not surprisingly, I spoke on the change of year: moving beyond the past...going forward into the future.  Quite an original idea.

I thought it was a lousy sermon.  Not exactly good biblical exposition.  But the principles were sound.  And at the time it was what God was teaching me, and I thought I should share it with everyone.

So, random as it sounds, the thoughts from that second sermon of mine—from circa 12 years ago—came to mind as we rang in 2009 this week.  I think I need to re-learn those lessons, and I'm publishing them here in case you need to re-learn them, too.

Copy of IMG_7964 It has always intrigued me how people handle the perceived changes that coincide with a new year.  Usually the changes are merely perceptions, since the new year will most likely not bring any radical changes.  But perhaps the unique feature of watching December turn to January is the proverbial turning of a page.  It is the closing of one chapter in order to begin another.  It reminds us of the cycle of life inherent in the seasons, and with it comes the hope of a genuinely new day.  But we humans deal with New Year's Day in interesting ways.

Perhaps the most obvious ones are those who make new year's resolutions.  These are the folks who are determined not to remain in the same old habits.  You probably know someone who has resolved to lose weight, stop smoking, quit being lazy, cease gossiping, etc.  Maybe you are that person.  Frankly, I think those who make new year's resolutions may be getting a bad rap.  Sure, perhaps they should have been doing something already about whatever they wanted to change, but at least they recognize the problem and want to do something about it.

120px-Black-eyed-pea-close Then there are those who have new year's traditions.  Now, clearly many folks love to go to New Year's Eve parties and ring in the new year, sharing the event with someone they love.  But there are also those who have to have a specific meal on New Year's Day.  For some in the American South, if on January 1 you don't have ham, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and beets, you haven't had New Year's Day.

Still others can't wait to read about new year's predictions.  Amazingly, you can apparently find these every January in your grocer's newsstand or check-out aisle, as the tabloids publish what the "experts" say will take place in the new year.  What will Jeanne say about the stars (Hollywood and astrological) this year?

However, the first day of January often does have a therapeutic effect on humanity.  The truth is that God is always ready to bring positive change in our lives, but the problem is that we are often unprepared for the changes God wants to make.  So how do we prayerfully make new year's preparations?

I encourage you to read the story in Acts regarding the Apostle Peter's rescue from prison (imprisoned simply because the king didn't like the Christian church).  Acts 12.1-19 speaks of the miraculous and yet the everyday work of God, and the literal and symbolic nature of the story is refreshing.  The narrative relates, with detail and even humor, the release of one man from his bondage.  I don't think it's a stretch to say that implicitly, allegorically, it reminds us about being prepared for our release—into the newness and the changes God wants to make in our lives.

We would be wise to follow what God said to Peter through the statements of the angel.  Following the metaphor, we need to heed the statements to be released into the change God desires.

1. "Get up!"

The first statement to Peter is to "Get up quickly" (v. 7).  Now, this might have seemed humorous to Peter had the angel not hit him to wake him.  To see how ironic Peter might have viewed this statement, consider how carefully he had been bound.  The story says that he had been handed over to four squadrons (quaternions) of soldiers (v. 4).  That's four groups of four—16 men were guarding him.  Even if they were rotating in shifts, that's quite a bit of overkill for one man.  When Peter was told to get up, he was sleeping between two of the guards, bound by two chains, and more guards were outside the cell (v. 6).  If I had been in this position, I would have at the very least hesitated at getting up.  But notice that God did the supernatural: on the command to get up, his chains fell off.  From what the angel told him to do next, it appears that he got up.

All too often, I feel like saying that I can't get past something—that I am too bound by the circumstances to actually get up.  At times the situations in which we find ourselves seem insurmountable.  We think them to be impossible.  But when God says to get up, he provides the means to do it.  Perhaps the circumstances of this year have some saying, "I don't have the will to get up.  I can't do it."

With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.  Mark 10.27 (NASB)

That verse in Mark pertains to the salvation of those who don't think they need it because they are rich in this life.  But the principle of God being able to do anything He pleases is clear.  God wants you to live in the full, new life that He provides and that will glorify Him.  So whatever difficulties have bound us in 2008, God has the capacity to overcome them, according to whatever His plan may be.

…[God] is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think…  Ephesians 3.20 (NASB)

So trust Him.  And get up.

2. "Get ready!"

The next statement to Peter is to "Get dressed and put on your sandals" (v. 8).  Again, Peter might have balked here except he had just seen his chains supernaturally unlock.  But notice that he shows no hesitation: he immediately dressed and put on sandals.  He had seen the work of God, and was ready to trust Him more.

How many times have I seen the work of God, and yet still balked when I am uncertain of the outcome?  I sense I am not alone.  And yet God patiently waits for us to trust Him more fully.  The problem for many of us is that although we have seen God work in the past, we are grossly unprepared to see Him do so again.  Although all things are possible with God, sometimes because of our unbelief He chooses not to remain working in or among us:

And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.  And He wondered at their unbelief.  Mark 6.5-6 (NASB)

Our unprepared state reveals that we have failed to "put on" that which will prepare us for His plan.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4.22-24 (NIV)

So trust Him.  And get ready.

3. "Get going!"

The last statement to Peter is "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me" (v. 8).  Peter clearly recognized the hand of God at work, he was obedient to ready himself, and he was prepared to go a step further—he was following the messenger.  The language used is interesting in that it says he was prepared to continuously follow him, except that the angel soon vanished.

I've never seen an angel, but I have seen the work of God.  I've never heard the voice of God, but I have clearly sensed His leading.  The problem comes when I do not follow Him in faith.  When God makes His direction clear, our job is to follow.  Continuously.

There are times when God desires that we sit still before Him to learn of Him and be satisfied in Him.  And then there are times when God says to get going.  I've always loved what the "two men in white clothing" said as onlookers watched Jesus ascend into the sky.  Jesus had just told them, amid their questions of the coming kingdom, not to go anywhere but to "wait for what the Father had promised."  It's as though He was saying, "Don't just do something; stand there!"  But then when they were staring at the ascension, they were asked:

Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? 
Acts 1.11 (NASB)

Now as they were staring at the sky, they were essentially told, "Don't just stand there; do something!  Get going!"

When we feel we are bound and can't go on, we are reminded of all that God has done on our behalf.  His unfathomable love for His people should drive us.  The Apostle Paul put it well:

For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  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. 
2 Corinthians 5.14-15 (NIV)

So trust Him.  And get going.

In these early days of 2009, I'm re-learning to make the kinds of new year's preparations that will continue to release me from the bonds of the past and allow me to follow Him into the future.