Round about this time, people make their resolutions for the upcoming year. Most likely by now you've seen people axing about it via facebook status, or you've been dragged into a "what's your resolution?" conversation. It's just the way we are - the promise of a new year holds out hope that things will change for the better. So we resolve to do things better this year than we had in years previous.
Many of us make resolutions about how we'll take care of our bodies. We resolve to eat better, to lose x pounds, to join a gym and work out four times a week. Some of us decide we're going to really focus on improving relationships - we resolve to spend more time with our kids, or pay attention to our spouses, or get to know the neighbors. Sometimes it's a resolve to finish that long-dormant project, to read certain books, to take work more seriously, to stop wasting so much time reading stupid blogs, whatever. This season provides a convenient opportunity to look back over the past year(s), see where we'd like to improve, and feel like we can get a fresh start. We resolve to do all sorts of things that we think will make us better people.
With this thought lurking in the background, something I read in the gospel of Luke grabbed my attention. Consider this rebuke Jesus laid on the Pharisees:
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you." (Luke 11:37-41)
The Pharisees would have been masters of the new years' resolution game. Frankly, we're nothing but rank amateurs compared to them. They followed the minutiae of the law and their traditions to the tiniest detail. As we see in this and numerous other examples, they fully believed that their observance of self-improvement rituals made them righteous, and they despised those who didn't live up to that standard. If there was something that could be done to make them look more holy, they'd do it, and condemn those who didn't.
And yet as Jesus rebukes them, we can see that they were missing the point entirely. They were living out their rules and ceremonies, yet were internally wicked, merciless, greedy, adulterous, idolatrous, wretched sinners. What they needed was not another ritual, another rule to follow, another behavior to improve. They needed to be changed from the inside out. They needed to be born again, to repent, to love God and fall on his mercy and rely on his grace and live in faith. They needed to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus alone as the sovereign creator and lord of all. If that interior change were to occur, if their self-righteous, prideful rebellion was transformed into humble faithful submission to God, their exterior actions would be truly holy.
I wonder how many of us fall into the same trap as the Pharisees. How many of our resolutions are based on the goal of making ourselves better people by improving our behavior - ignoring the fact that our hearts are stubbornly rebelling against our creator? How does it help us to lose twenty pounds, quit smoking, or limit our TV intake if we persist in rebellion against God, refuse to come to Jesus in faith, and fail to be so overwhelmed by his grace that it overflows in joy and love and mercy to our fellow man? Modifying a behavior does me precious little good if I am still dead in sin and condemned to forfeit my soul.
Behold, now is the time of the Lord's favor. Now is the time of salvation. Stop fooling around with things that are temporary, and pursue what is eternal. Lay aside the silly resolutions, and get right with God! Hear and respond to the blessed invitation God spoke through his prophet Isaiah:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the LORD,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
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