New Year’s Eve Sermon 2017 – Roslyn Presbyterian Church
Well, as we come to the end of 2017, some of you might think that I’ll be giving a sermon on New Year’s resolutions. Now, there are some excellent examples of godly men and women in history who made significant and profitable resolutions, and many of these around the time of the New Year. The Reformed preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, for example, came up with 70 of them in 1722. But since there are, well, 70 of them, we really can’t do justice to all of Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions in the course of a single sermon.
That said, Edwards was on the right track on several fronts when at the beginning of his resolutions he wrote, “Being sensible (that is, ‘aware’) that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” Jesus tells us as much as well in John 15:5 when he says:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
In summary, if we are to do anything of eternal worth in 2018 it will first of all be due to God’s help and his grace and to the extent that our plans are in conformity to God’s perfect will and providence.
Getting back to New Year’s Resolutions, as I’m sure you all know, the statistics on how many people will actually make good on these are well, quite pathetic. 40% of Americans make some sort of New Year’s resolution, and about 8%, that’s about 1 in 12, make good on them. And what are the most common New Year’s resolutions? Most in the United States have something to do with self-improvement: to lose weight or just eat better, spend less money/get out of debt, or spend more time with friends and family.
All of these are not necessarily bad, and we can also find scriptural warrant for each of them as well. However, as Christians, we need to make sure that whatever we propose to do, that whatever we resolve to do in 2018 is ultimately subject to God’s perfect, providential will. Now that’s one of the beauties of the Reformed tradition, isn’t it? I’m talking about God’s sovereignty, God’s providence. God is ultimately in control of everything that goes on in the world, and that includes our own personal worlds, both in 2017 and starting tomorrow in 2018.
Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says it this way:
What are God’s works of providence?
The answer: God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.
And an implication of this is that despite apparent evidence to the contrary, the world is not out of control. The world and its inhabitants and our lives are all entirely under God’s control. One my favorite hymns speaks to this. It’s by the 19th century Presbyterian minister Maltbie Babcock, and it’s called This Is My Father’s World. It goes like this:
This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done: Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and Heav’n be one.
So, does that mean that we just sit back and as the saying goes, “Let go and let God,” pack our bags and head for the Bahamas, or wherever you might imagine yourself being in the middle of an Upper Kittitas County winter? No, it doesn’t. That mistaken view of providence, what some call hyper-Calvinism has in fact given Calvinism and the Reformed doctrines of grace a bad name in some sectors. No, Scripture does give us answers to questions like, “What should I dedicate my energies to in 2018?” and it calls us to order our lives accordingly.
To help us answer that question in part, we’re going to look at a passage written by the apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 15:58 in particular, but the larger context for the passage is 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians during his third missionary journey in the year AD 55 from Ephesus, which is directly across the Aegean Sea from Corinth. 1 Corinthians is basically a letter that the apostle Paul wrote answering a series of questions that the Corinthian church had in turn asked him. If you’re familiar with the Corinthian church, it kind of looks like a church out of control. They had serious problems of division and immoral living which were ultimately the result of some pretty bad theology that had taken root there. Paul had planted this church himself over an 18-month period, so as we read 1 Corinthians we need to remember that Paul obviously cared about these people because it was a church he planted and where he had invested 18 months of his life. He would, in turn, have known many of the Corinthian believers personally.
Another thing to keep in mind when you read 1 Corinthians or any other of the 13 epistles that Paul wrote and that form part of the canon of Scripture is that before Paul tells his readers what to do, he will tell them why. That is, in Paul’s letters, we’ll normally first find a doctrinal section, which is then followed by what’s called a hortatory section, or put another way, a practical application in the Christian life of the doctrinal section.
So, today we’re going to focus on one verse at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 to see if we might garner some useful insights as to how to best establish priorities for 2018 based on God’s Word, which again, is the application of the doctrinal section that precedes it. Paul tells the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 15:58:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
That “therefore” signals the transition from the doctrinal component to the application. And in a somewhat similar way that we saw how people make specific New Year’s resolutions and that these are primarily focused on self-improvement, Paul points his readers Godward. He tells them: “Be steadfast. Be immovable,” which are basically two words for the same thing, and then he goes on to tell them that they are to “Always abound in the work of the Lord.” Paul says, “Despite all these issues I’ve had to deal with in this letter,” and despite all the issues you all or any church might have to deal with, notice what Paul says. First of all he refers to them as “my beloved brothers,” beloved by Paul and more importantly, beloved by God. Paul tells them, “Don’t worry. Be steadfast. Be immovable. Abound in the work that the Lord has given you to do.” And the Lord has given the Roslyn Presbyterian Church work to do in 2018 and beyond, hasn’t he? And then he adds and additional why: “Because in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
So, when Paul talks about “work or labor in the Lord” what is he talking about? Or maybe put another way, what counts as “work in the Lord” and what doesn’t? Earlier in 1 Corinthians 3:8-9 Paul states:
He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers.
He then goes on to describe the Corinthians themselves as “God’s field. God’s building.” Whatever Paul refers to by “work in the Lord,” it has as its object people, and not just any people, but God’s people, God’s elect, that is, believers in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul again refers to the Corinthian believers as his “workmanship in the Lord.” And whatever Paul is doing, Timothy is doing as well because in 1 Corinthians 16:10 Paul says, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for the is doing the work of the Lord, as I am.”
In order to better understand what “work in the Lord is,” we need only think about what the Lord Jesus had told his disciples what their task was to be. Now, the answer to this at a finer level of detail has to do with the fact that God has blessed each person in his church for service, but in the broadest of terms, Jesus defines our task for us. In Matthew 28:16-20, we read of one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, and the text reads as follows:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In summary, Jesus defines his work to be that of making disciples, placing the covenant sign of baptism on them and teaching them. And notice what Jesus does here. Notice another “therefore” that precedes application or the command. He says, “Therefore make disciples of all nations.” Again, what’s the therefore there for?
The text tells us that when his disciples saw him, they worshipped him, but that some doubted. Do you notice that Jesus does not simply say, “Stop it!” “Stop doubting” without giving a reason why? No, he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In other words, he says, “This is my Father’s world and he has given me full authority over what’s going to play out in his world to me.” Therefore “Go and make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them.” Therefore go, because “I am with you always, to the end of the age, and I and my Father want this done.” And he will be with you all as you step out in faith to do the same through the various ministries of this church.
Now what this disciplemaking enterprise is going to look like is also going to be different for each one of us. Think about Peter. After Peter’s denial of Jesus three times, what does Jesus tell him to do. He says, “Peter, feed my sheep.” “Peter, I am going to bring about new life in people’s souls. I am going to bring about regeneration, repentance and faith in me by my Holy Spirit, and once I’ve done that, Peter, take care of them. Feed them with my Word, apply my Word to their lives, but you Peter, your primary job description is to take care of my sheep. And Peter, you will need to give an account for your work, but don’t worry. I will be providing everything you need for the task I’ve called you do.” And God will provide you all with everything you need to do the work he’s calling you to do in the Upper Kittitas County.
This same Peter denied Jesus three times after he had confidently promised that “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” and, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples in fact said the same thing.” Now there’s a resolution gone wrong for you! How many of the disciples made good on this resolution? Not 8%, not one in 12, not one. This same Peter, however, was later supernaturally gifted by Jesus to do things he would have been unable to do by himself, and he was well aware of this. Scripture records Peter giving us the following instructions in 1 Peter 4:10-11:
10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
Now that’s a good New Year’s Resolution for 2018! The title of this section of 1 Peter in the ESV is “Stewards of God’s Grace,” and this is where the mistaken notion of “Let go and let God” proves to be theologically mistaken whenever it leads it leads to passivity.
When we talk about being stewards of God’s grace, we need to realize that everything we have, we have because of God as a gift from his hand, and Scripture calls us to steward it, that is, think about how to best make use of what I call the three T’s, namely: Time, treasure and talent. We all have 24 hours in a day, we all have some degree of financial resources, and Scripture teaches us that as Christians we all, without exception have some sort of gifting that is to be directed towards what? Towards self-improvement? No, but rather towards making disciples and serving the church, and all this for the glory of God.
Now, is the church the only place where a Christian can invest his or her time, treasure, and talents? No, but I do think that Scripture teaches us that God’s plan of discipleship in the world and the needs of the church, both at a local level and abroad get first dibs, as it were, on these things. The apostle Paul says as much in his letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 6:10 we read:
As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. And Paul tells Titus in Titus 2:14, that “Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Are we saved by works? Of course not, and anyone who tells you otherwise has not understood the gospel. Are we called to be zealous for good works? Yes, we are. Sometimes people criticize Christians for being “do gooders.” That’s great, because we should be! We should be known as people who seek to do good, that is, people are “zealous for good works,” to win brownie points with God, no, but to glorify God, and in serving him, to enjoy the experience of knowing that God is using us both individually and collectively for his kingdom purposes in the world.
As question one of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: “What is the chief end of man?” And I’ll tell you, it’s not self-improvement for our own glory. No, the catechism tells us, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” To enjoy God now, and to enjoy God forever. Christian, are you enjoying God? If not, would you like to enjoy God more? Then put the gifts he has given you, whatever they might be, to use, and see if your experiential knowledge of God, what Jonathan Edwards referred to as our “religious affections” don’t markedly increase.
The Olympic runner Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame said as much: He said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.” If you remember the storyline of the movie Chariots of Fire, what was the difference between Erik Liddell and his non-Christian competitor? Erik Liddell ran for God’s glory and his competitor ran for his own. Erik Liddell enjoyed his life lived for the glory of God and the other runner was continually miserable because whenever he was anything less than perfect, his life felt meaningless to him. Friends, in the history of the human race there has only been one person who lived a perfect life, and that was Jesus, and in the gospel we learn that Jesus lived the perfect life that I can’t live, so that I don’t have to. If we are “in Christ,” if we have put our faith and trust for eternal security in him and him alone, his perfect life is credited to us as if we had lived that perfect life ourselves. Jesus kept all the righteous commands of the law to perfection for us. Jesus is not only savior; he is savior, Lord and he is the second Adam who does what the first Adam failed to do. Christ fulfills God’s righteous demands to perfection for us thereby making a restored relationship with God possible now, in this life, and eternal life possible as well for all those who put their faith in him.
Well, we took a bit of time to discover just what Paul refers to by “the work of the Lord” so that we can then abound in it. But now we want to take a deeper look at why and importantly, how the Corinthians we’re going to be able to be steadfast, to be immovable. For this, we’ll actually go back to the beginning of this passage starting in 1 Corinthians 15:50.
Now, Corinth was a very challenging place to be a Christian, and in some ways Corinth was comparable to many of the large cosmopolitan cities of the United States, including the greater Seattle area, for example. Corinth was strategically located on an isthmus that served not only as a hub for north-south trade, but also east-west trade. Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, but then rebuilt under Julius Caesar starting in 29 BC. This being the case, there was no landed aristocracy in Corinth, and given its importance in the Roman Empire, an aristocracy of wealth arose. In summary, Corinth was a city of social climbers, focused on their own self-improvement and individual betterment, and oftentimes at the expense of those around them.
So, the Corinthian church, rather than focusing on their work in the Lord together, were very much caught up in rivalries. As I mentioned previously, some pretty bad theology had set in as well. Paul, their founding pastor has instructed them that the old ceremonial dietary laws were no longer binding and therefore, they could eat just about anything as long as they could do so in good conscience. However, because of the cultural and philosophical environment they lived in, they then made the following jump in reasoning: “Okay, food has to do with the body, and Paul says I can eat anything. Therefore, I guess I can do whatever else I want to with my body as well!”
What Paul does in addressing these issues is he points them towards the end of all things, that is, the new heaven and new earth. In a way, he wants them to get their eyes off Corinth. In verse 50 he tells them, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” In this context, “flesh and blood” refers to the things of this present world, our physical bodies included. He then goes on to explain a mystery:
Behold! He says, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
In the same way that Jesus was given a new resurrection body, so will all those who have put their faith in Christ also inherit a new resurrection body, version 2.0, if you will. And Paul goes as far as to say that this must happen. That is, this perishable body that we all have, and the one that is the object of so many New Year’s resolutions, simply cannot, because of its fallen nature, it cannot be brought into the presence of a Holy God. The perishable must put on the imperishable. The mortal body must be made immortal. The Corinthians were arguably too focused on living the quote “good life” in Corinth, and despite some tele-evangelists’ proclamations to the contrary, as Christians, we were never intended to “live our best life now” either.
Paul goes on to explain:
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
There are surveys on what people most fear. Do you know what’s at the top of that list for most people? The fear of public speaking. So, you’re off the hook on that one, at least this morning. But somewhere at the top of all these lists is the fear of death. Even the most inveterate atheist worries about this question: what really is waiting for me after I die? Scripture provides us with the answer to that existential question. The writer of the Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 9:27-28
Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Let’s go back and look at our passage in 1 Corinthians in light of this.
Verse 56: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
Do you know why we die? It’s not ultimately because our cells/DNA get damaged with age and deteriorate to the point we die. You see, God originally created a world where this didn’t happen. And here’s the good news. He’s going to bring about a world where this won’t ever happen again. What went wrong that first time was that when God created man and woman, he gave them an imperishable body that was not subject to decay. He also gave them laws for their own good. And he told them that as long as they obeyed those laws they would live forever. But what happened? They chose to go their own way. They chose their own ways over God’s ways and we call that sin. And God had established that this disobedience entailed consequences, namely, the physical decay that we all suffer that ultimately leads to our own individual deaths, without exception, and estrangement from God.
But what does Paul say? “But.” “But thanks be to God.” Why? Because the same God who established that disobedience on the part of his creation would be punished, also provides the solution. Paul says:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, Jesus didn’t just die for your sins, he lived the perfect life that God requires. Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, why do we make New Year’s Resolutions in the first place? It’s because we all know that some things are not right. They’re not right in the world, and they’re not right in ourselves. But the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived the perfect life that we might want to live, but can’t, and by placing our faith in what Jesus has already done in living his perfect life, his perfect life is credited to our account. So, make all the New Year’s resolutions you want, but in so doing, don’t think for a minute that that brings you any closer to God. For that, you need only one thing, or rather a person, and that person is Jesus.
If for some reason you came to church today thinking, “This year I’m going to get
religion. I’m going to turn over a new leaf,” rather than turning over a new leaf, turn to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith and place your trust in him. And what does that mean, “Put my trust in Christ?” In a way, we’ve been singing the answers all morning:
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King: peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!
Trusting in Christ means that I believe that in giving his life on the cross he bore my sins that separate me from God and incur his wrath, but I trust that what Jesus did 2000 years ago was more than sufficient to provide me for me a restored relationship with God and hope for this world and the next. I really like the sign just outside the sanctuary that says, “Come as you are.” Yes, come as you are, but by no means, if you came here today without Christ, don’t leave without him. Christ is the answer for our deepest longings. As we sang earlier:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He, until Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
May that be true for us all in new ways in 2018. God bless you all.