I think that it was the phrase, “dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of this life,” heard just now in the gospel according to Luke, that made me think of New Year’s resolutions.
New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all made them. We’ve all broken them. Some of us might even have kept one or two. They are plans rather than products, aspirations more than achievements. They are often quite negative in their tone: I have to give up smoking, stop biting my nails, cut down on spending, or cakes, or caffeine. Less often, they are positive and hopeful: I want to do more exercise, learn a new language, improve my health, my finances, my relationships.
Look at the gospel of Luke: they’re all there, the negative resolutions and the positive. For the sake of the weight around your heart, give up dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of the world – classic new year’s resolutions – and keep alert, praying at all times.
Now, you know that Advent begins the new church year. This is a new beginning for us; new candles are lit to bring light into the darkest times of the year, new hymns are sung to herald the awakening of hope in the darkness; it is a year that begins in expectation, the longing for Christ’s birth in our midst. It begins with preparations and parties and the excitement of anticipation. And if it’s a new year, it must also begin with resolutions.
The other readings are full of the promises of the new year, the new reign of God, the new life: God will fulfill promises for justice and righteousness; God will bring all of the saints and believers together with the Lord Jesus and increase their love and make their hearts holy and blameless; because God is gracious and upright, and teaches the humble, the lowly, even sinners, in the ways of righteousness.
God teaches the ways of the Lord to sinners, and guides the humble in doing right.
God’s resolutions never fail, and they are for every day, not only New Year’s day, or the first day of Advent.
We often base our New Year’s resolutions on what we would like to change about ourselves, and Advent is good for spiritual stock-taking; what “weight” around our hearts would we like to shed; which healthy habits would we like to encourage: will we resolve to pray at all times? Our stewardship team thought that Advent is a great time to talk about our plans for giving of ourselves, our money, our time and effort in the new year, because it’s all about preparing for what is coming next. But in Advent, as well as personal goals, in the church we also are preparing the world, helping the world to prepare for the continuing and ever-new inbreaking of God’s kingdom.
So what is it that we would like to change in the world around us? What, when we look around, causes us heaviness of heart, and can we lighten those burdens?
We were all horrified this week by the death of a vulnerable young boy, and by the desperate lives of his mother and her family. We know that the church has a role in promoting healthy relationships and sound and safe families; so what are we to do about it? Some of us are called to help through professional or volunteer work. None of us has the magic resolution, the perfect plan that will stop this kind of tragedy from ever happening again, but we all have a part to play in looking out for our neighbours, in our schools, in our children’s group of friends, in our church. And we can all pray, at all times, for those in danger and in fear.
To take another example, yesterday was World AIDS Day, and we know that the church has a role to play in promoting public and personal health – how many sick people did Jesus touch and make whole? So what are we to do about it? What should we resolve? How can we use our influence, our resources, our friendship to help and encourage someone else’s good health: by supporting healthcare initiatives and preventive services, by giving someone a ride to the doctor, by checking in with someone we know is having a hard time. And we can pray, at all times, for the sick, the sorrowful, the hurting.
Pray at all times, says the gospel, pray night and day, says the epistle, to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, says the psalm, I put my trust in you. Show me your ways, teach me your paths, lead me in your truth, remember your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.
The reason that our own new year’s resolutions so often fail is that we expect so much out of them, because we forget that they are processes, plans, rather than products. Writing on a piece of paper, I will pray night and day, will not make it automatically happen. Rather, we need to practice over and over to replace habits for which we no longer have a use with ones that we would prefer, which will promote our health and wellbeing and the common good of those around us. Often, we need support: groups abound for assisting with weight loss, education, financial management, emotional support, even struggles with addiction. A church community to help us to pray and to serve.
We know that our world is in dire need of some good news, some hope, and between us we have the good news, and we know the source of the world’s hope, and all through Advent we are going to be getting ready to sing it from the rooftops; but here’s the thing: the hope is already here. The new year has already begun. The good news is not a secret, not a surprise to be kept under wraps until Christmas morning. So what are we to do about it? Pray at all times for those you know could use a good word from God, could use some company to get them through the dark days and long nights, for those who need the hope of the world that is offered not only at Christmas but all of the time, day and night, at all times in the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. Then tell them about that hope.
Tell them about the resolutions that God has made, not just this year but from everlasting, not just for this season but forever: that God has promised justice and righteousness; that God has promised to lead us in the paths of peace, in God’s own footsteps, even if we are sinners, even if we are ever so humble. God has promised redemption, compassion, love, hope in the dark times, joy in the depth of winter.
Tell them about your hopes, your joy in the midst of the darkness. Bring them with you to see the light, the candles lit in the midwinter, the hope proclaimed in times of turmoil that the Prince of Peace is coming, is already here, Emmanuel, God with us. Invite them to raise their voices with ours and say, Amen. Come Lord Jesus; and know, he hears us, and he is here.