It is a new year and with a new year comes new opportunities and new challenges.
And I could not think of a better way to being my new year then by going to the gym to get my body moving, my heart pumping, and my mind clicking. So, on New Year’s Day, I made my way to the gym and when I arrived there were hardly any people there – which honestly is the way I like it – but then they began to show up. You know, those people I affectionately call “the New Year’s Resolutions”.
You see, it is estimated that in the month of January, 200 million people are going to make New Year’s resolutions. But in February, 80% of those will aggressively abandon or fail in those resolutions.
I believe this happens because of how we think about New Year’s resolutions. Most resolutions are simply confessions based on regret, shame, and guilt.
Sure, there is a yearning deep within us for something to change but honestly, our resolutions are simply an acknowledgment of our failures and so to lift ourselves up, we make lofty plans that are way too ambiguous. We say things like, “This year, I’m going to get in shape” but what does that really mean?
Are you going to train for a marathon or a 5K, maybe walk up a flight of steps without getting winded? Is that the kind of shape you’re talking about? Are you going to buy new workout clothes or yoga pants and hope for the best?
Sometimes our resolutions are superficial, and we say things like, “This year, I’m going to be a better person”. Better than who? Better than a family member, a co-worker, or someone you rub shoulders with on a daily basis? You can look at their lives and say, “Well, at least I’m better than that”.
Sometimes, there are just too many resolutions. Too many plans. We try to do something about everything but it becomes too overwhelming and so we just give up and the very regret, shame, and guilt you were trying to fix, just becomes more regrettable and you feel more shameful and more guilty and we say things like, “Well, maybe next year will work”.
Does anyone know what I’m talking about?
So, last year I challenged us to think differently about resolutions and to ask a different question. Instead of asking what do I want to become - how can I make up for my past failures and become a better version of me - ask, what does God want me to become?
And so, many of you carved out some time to ask God for one word to be placed in your heart. One word that would capture God’s desire for your life. One word that would shape, inform, and give you a fresh perspective for the coming year.
But none of saw what was coming, did we?
And so now as 2020 has come to close, I am wondering, did your One Word help you? Or was it like a typical resolution where it sounded cool in the moment, but you quickly abandoned it?
Did you allow your word to shape, inform, and give you fresh perspective for all that took place in 2020? Did your word serve as a lens for you to see God’s work in the world around you?
I do not know what your word was or if it helped you navigate 2020 but again, this year, I am going to challenge you to choose One Word because I know that words have power. They make us think, they cause us to laugh and to cry, and they can shape and transform our lives, in good and bad ways.
You see, words not only have the power to lift us, but they also have the power to break us, damage us, and destroy us. We’ve seen a lot of that this past year, especially on social media.
So, some of us, need a healing word to overcome the negative words that people have said very carelessly to us, words that have caused us to believe that we’re not good enough. Words that continue to haunt us and do damage to us, even months or years after they were said.
We need a word that will allow us to walk in the truth that through Jesus, we are accepted, forgiven, and invited into God's grace in fresh ways.
As we enter 2021, I want you to find that word that will lift you, guide you, give you a new perspective, and help you grow into a deeper dimension of love for God and for one another, so that you can become who God has called you to be.
As I think about transforming words, I can't help but think about Jesus. The gospel accounts of his life don't really detail too many periods of internal angst for Jesus, but I have to believe that there were times in his life where he had questions about who he was in the larger picture.
You see, one of the things that makes Christianity unique is that at Christmas we declare that God is with us . . . that God stepped into human skin and lived a human life.
In today's passage, Jesus walks down a dusty Galilean road, right at the beginning of his ministry to the banks of the Jordan River and it is here that he receives a word from God that gives him perspective and defines his life and his mission.
READ TEXT: Matthew 3:1-17
Here is John the Baptist, this rugged, un-kept, smelly and dirty, bug eating prophet, and he is standing in middle of the Jordan River shouting “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”. And it says that, the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.
We’ve seen those people; holding up those signs and shouting on their bull horns as people walk by, but nobody really listens to those people. If they do, it seems to be more about mocking or arguing.
So . . . why are they going out to him? Why is there any credibility to what is taking place in this story?
Because these are Jews and Jews consistently practiced ritual cleansing for the purpose of purification. In fact, many would have experienced ritual cleansing at least once a year around what is known to us as Rosh-hash-ana . . . the Jewish new year.
Rash-hash-ana is a time that the people of God renew their covenant with God by reviewing the mistakes they had made over the past year and resolve to make improvements for the coming year;
"I want to be a better version of me".
The ultimate goal is that God would not judge them for their sins and make the coming year miserable because of their sins . . . but rather forgive them for their sins and bless them in the coming year.
There are a lot of symbolic things that happen during this time but one of those things revolves around cleansing water. It is symbolic of “out with the old and in with the new” through cleansing, kind of like a New Year’s resolutions.
Now, High Priests would always begin this time with their own baptism on behalf of the people. They represent the people of God renewing their covenant with God because they are the only ones who can go on behalf of God’s people. They are baptized so that God will bless His people.
And their baptism is always followed by 40 days of quite reflection and contemplation. At the end of the forty days – the high priest can begin their ministry with the people.
So, with this understanding, let’s go back to our narrative.
Here is John in the middle of the river shouting “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”. It is probably Rash-hash-ana and he is telling the people “get right with God – confess your sins and be cleansed” . . . So, this isn’t all that unusual.
But amid preaching these words, Jesus shows up and begins to make his way into the waters to be baptized and immediately John recognizes him and asks, why are you getting baptized?
And Jesus says . . . “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
With these words, Jesus identifies himself as the high priest who is coming on behalf of the people – to be blessed by God and to mark the beginning of his ministry.
Jesus waded into the muddy water and asked John to dunk him and to bless him.
Just as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove . . . And Jesus and everyone else standing there in the sticky mud of the Jordan riverbank, heard the voice from heaven”
“This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is not only being blessed by God – as the high priests were blessed – he is proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God and that he is Loved.
God’s word for Jesus was “love”.
And with this understanding of who God had sent him to be, Jesus is set on the course to not only be the great high priest but also the ultimate sacrifice.
Jesus is showing, “all of your repentance and the cleansing you desire and the new life you are longing for, I’m going to make that possible.”
Next week, we'll continue this story and see that Jesus is immediately led to the wilderness by the Spirit for forty days – just as the high priests did.
And there he would be tempted – just as you and I are in our faith journey - but he overcomes temptation and renews his covenant and resolutions with God and is obedient to his calling – a call to be a servant, a call to become flesh and blood and to dwell with us, and a call which would lead him to the cross for the forgiveness of sins for those who believe in him.
All of this because of God’s word to his son, “love”
And for those who believe, we too are given the spirit of God who dwells within us and gives us a new name . . . loved.
And so, on this first Sunday of a new year, I invite you to pause . . . even for just a moment, to notice the divine spark of life and love placed in each of us through Jesus and begin to discover who we are – who we really are.
And once we know who we really are, we're bound to do audacious things, like . . . serving the least of these . . . or love someone we couldn't love before . . . or forgive, even ourselves. Not because we have to but because that’s just who we are.
Knowing who we are, who we really are and who God has created us to be is where we begin today.
And the question we should be asking as we reflect on our past year is not, did I succeed but rather, am I still loved? . . . and the answer is always a resounding “yes.”