Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year resolutions: a type of prayer?

Sermon on Mark 1: 9-20 and Galatians 4: 4-7, St Matthew’s, Oxford, 1 January 2012

The theme today is ‘New beginnings’. It won’t have escaped your notice that this is New Year’s Day but you might not remember that is it at this time of the Church Year we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Now New Year is a time when traditionally we review our life and make New Year resolutions. And of course Jesus’ Baptism comes at the start of his ministry and so marks the beginning of a new phase in his life just as, in a minor way, the New Year represents a new beginning in ours.

In my sermon I want to give you some advice on New Year’s resolutions based on Mark’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry that we heard for our Gospel reading just now. This is perhaps rather ambitious Even more ambitiously I want to link today’s Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians to the theme of ‘New Beginnings’. I suspect that you might have forgotten what that said by now as it doesn’t make much sense out of context but it contains an important idea within it which related to our theme.

But first: New Year’s resolutions. Now New Year’s Day has not traditionally been regarded as a Christian festival but perhaps it is becoming so. Like those other previously secular festivals: Harvest Festival, Mother’s Day, etc. the Church should perhaps more enthusiatically embrace New Year’s Day as one of its own special days.

Of course New Year’s Day doesn’t come at the beginning of the Church’s Year which starts four Sundays before Christmas at the beginning of Advent but it does come just after Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. And a birth surely constitutes a fairly important beginning so January 1st feels like the beginning of the year and certainly more so than the end of November/early December.

New Years’ Day is also associated with those resolutions. You might not be planning on making any this year but what I have to say may still be relevant to you. After all reflecting on our lives and making changes in the light of those reflections is something Christians are enjoined to do. Paul’s letters are full of injunctions to the early Christians to think about what they have been doing and then move on, to mature, to be more-Christ-like.

Reflecting on our lives and making changes in the light of those reflections is surely also the essence of repentance: something Christians have traditionally done most of in Advent and Lent – in the preparation for the major festivals of Christmas and Easter, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t do it at the start of the year. The time between Christmas and New Year is a quiet time for many of us – and a much quieter, less busy time than say Advent. And we need a period of quiet in order to make sensible resolutions.

Now I think it is easy to sneer at New Year resolutions. Certainly other peoples’ resolutions are faintly comic. Here are the resolutions of someone called Bridget Jones for 1996:

Stop smoking

Stop drinking

Find inner poise

Go to the Gym three times a week

Don’t flirt with boss

Reduce thighs

Learn to love thighs

Forget about thighs

Stop making lists

Of course Bridget Jones wasn’t a real person but, according to Wikipedia, these resolutions aren’t very different to the most commonly made New Year’s resolutions. But I should say that the Wikipedia page on New Year’s resolutions looks distinctly dodgy and really the only useful thing it indicates is that there is a lack of reliable research on the subject. And this, I think, is because people are reluctant to talk very much about them or if they do only in a jokey sort of way.

One reason why we find Bridget Jones’s resolutions funny is because they resonate with our own desires. Don’t we all want to give up our addictions, life healthier less stressful lives, stop doing those things that – like Paul we do but do not want to do - find more inner poise? OK we may not be so obsessed by our thighs as Bridget but there is no doubt something else about our character which we earnestly desire to change. And there may be nothing wrong with these desires. Part of following Christ is wanting to be a better person.

We don’t generally express these desires – particularly not in public – and only reluctantly to people we trust because they are in part an acknowledgement of what we see as our personal imperfections, what we feel ashamed about in ourselves.

So perhaps we treat New Year’s resolutions too lightly. Perhaps they reflect what the Bible consistently teaches and what we know in our hearts that not all is right in our lives. And perhaps they stem from a deep-seated desire that things might be different.

The other thing that makes New Year resolutions a delicate and difficult subject is that we all know they are extremely difficult to keep. I have tried recently to see if I can find any evidence that people are more likely to give up smoking in January than in any other month of the year: evidence of a sort that at least one common type of New Year’s resolution works – but I cannot find any such evidence At the end of the year Bridget Jones writes in her diary: ‘Number of New Year’s resolutions kept 1. An excellent year’s progress.’

Moving swiftly from the start of the year 1996 for 30s something Bridget Jones’s to Mark’s description of the start of the new ministry for 30s something Jesus. There are quite a lot of contrasts as you might imagine.

A thing to note about Mark’s account: Mark - in his usual rather breathless style - actually describes four beginnings to Jesus’ ministry: First Jesus’ Baptism; secondly an extremely brief description – much shorter than in Matthew and Luke - of Jesus’ temptations by the Devil in the wilderness. This is such a brief a mention you might have missed it. Thirdly a short description of what Jesus first began to preach about at the start of his ministry - again much shorter than Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. And finally Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John

In other words Jesus doesn’t just resolve to change his life at some random point in his early 30s. He first marks the occasion with a baptismal ceremony, secondly he goes off by himself into the wilderness to contemplate his future, thirdly he connects his plans with what has gone before – what the prophets had foretold and what John the Baptist had recently been saying- and finally knowing that he cannot do all that he wants to do himself, co-opts some friends to help him.

So my advice about life changing resolutions based on this.

1. Make them on a special occasion. New Year’s Day may be such a day. It might also be appropriate to announce them – as Jesus did to the world when he allowed himself to be baptised by his cousin John.

2. Think about them before you make them. Go alone into the wilderness – like Jesus did – or at least to a quiet place where you can reflect on what you are going to resolve. But there you will encounter wild animals and angels – as Jesus did according to Mark. Of course wild animals is a metaphor for difficulties and angels a metaphor for assistance from God.

3. Don’t think you can just forget about the past – the past is what makes you what you are now. Jesus ministry only makes sense in the context of what his fore-runners, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist had learnt from God. It was they who prepared the way for him. Similarly our resolutions have to make sense in the context of what has gone before.

4. Co-opt others to help you.

This all sounds like something you could find in many a self-help manual written by one of those TV psychologists but we know that making life-changing resolutions is not as simple as that. In particular we know –from experience that they are almost impossible to keep. The important word here is almost.

They are almost impossible to keep because of something called by psychologists, attitudinal ambivalence. When this is in operation – and it’s something which is much more common than we like to believe - we desire to behave in a different way to the way we usually behave but, for a variety of reasons, we are unable to make this change.

We might wish to be thinner but when confronted with that second mince pie we are unable to resist it. We know we should spend more time with our children but when asked by a work colleague to take on that extra piece of work we find it difficult to say no. Paul talks about this in his letter to the Romans where he explains: ‘I do not understand my own actions for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate‘ [7: 15].

And this is where our Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians comes in and that important idea that it contains which bears upon our theme. This comes in Chapter 4 Verse 6 which says, ‘And because you are sons God sent the spirit of his son into our hearts, the spirit who calls out Abba, Father.’ This seems to me a completely remarkable verse with a completely remarkable idea. It has its parallel in Paul’s letter to the Romans. There he says: ‘When we cry Abba, Father it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’ [8: 15-17]

Here Paul is developing one of his themes that somehow we Christians live in God and he in us. Jesus talks about this himself in his last words to the disciples where he prays: ‘The glory that thou hast given me I have given them, that they may become perfectly one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me.’ [John 17: 21-22] This mutual indwelling of Christ in us and us in Christ has an important ramification when it comes to prayer as Paul points out in Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8: 15. That is that when we say Abba, Father it is not we who are praying but God within us.

I recently gave a sermon here at an 8 o’clock communion service where I tackled the question of whether God could or would grant a prayer for fine weather at a church fete. I then posted this sermon on my blog and a friend of mine commented on it. He pointed out that I’d forgotten that true prayer is where God prays in us. And if this is the case the question of whether God can or cannot answer certain prayers becomes irrelevant.

Bridget Jones’ New Year resolutions read like a prayer. Here they are the first five again with ‘Let me’ before each one

Let me stop smoking

Let me stop drinking

Let me find inner poise

Let me go to the Gym three times a week

Let me not flirt with the boss

Aren’t all our life-changing resolutions really a prayer? Bridget Jones seems to direct this prayer at herself. So isn’t she bound to fail? What if she directed her requests at God rather than herself? Would she then see a transformation in her life? She too – as I did before my friend reminded me - might need reminding that prayers only work if it’s the Spirit of God who is making them.

Sermons are supposed to end with something to take away that we can apply. In this sermon I gave you the application in the middle where – to recap – I suggested we could look at how Jesus started his ministry and do what he did at the start of new phases in our life, such as the start of a new year. In brief I suggested you should (and not necessarily in this order): 1. Celebrate the occasion. 2. Go alone into the wilderness to plan any change. 3 Don’t forget about the past. 4. Co-opt others to help you.

But my more important message is that none of this is going to be any good without the Spirit of God within us.

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