We're now just hours away from a new year. It's hard to believe that a year ago, the world was caught up in Y2K hype. I think some people were almost disappointed when 12:00 rolled around and not much happened. They're still living off the tinned food that they stored in their basement.
As I thought about today, I thought of all the things that I could speak on. I thought of challenging you - get into shape, start a Bible reading regimen, and so on. This is the time of the year that the most people join gyms and join weight-loss programs. Just try going into Weight Watchers in the next few days - you'll be waiting in line. The problem is that many of our resolutions get dropped. I could challenge you today to start a new regimen today, but most of us have given up on New Year's resolutions. We need more than a New Year's challenge to make things right in our lives.
What I want to do instead is to relieve you of a burden. Tomorrow you officially enter a new millennium. Last year was just a dress rehearsal. One of the greatest problems that many of us have is that we're carrying too much junk around. We need to let some of it go. Listen to Hebrews 12:1: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us."
As we enter into a new year, we can't afford to be carrying along extra weight - especially the weight of sin. You've got to leave some of that junk behind. You've got to make a fresh start. I've never watched a race where a contestant carried a garbage bag down the track. But I've seen a lot of people carry along guilt, sin, and other junk throughout life. They've never let it go. I'd like nothing better than to see you prepare for the New Year by making a clean start.
Who do I want to talk to today? I want to talk to people who have messed up this year. You've failed, and you've come today expecting a beating. I talk to people all the time who come to church looking for a good beating so they can feel better about themselves. "Okay, I got what I deserved." I want to talk to people who are feeling lousy about themselves. Maybe they've really messed things up this year. Maybe they're feeling low about where they are in life. And my message for them is from Psalm 103:
The LORD is merciful and gracious;
he is slow to get angry and full of unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
He has not punished us for all our sins,
nor does he deal with us as we deserve.
For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
He has removed our rebellious acts
as far away from us as the east is from the west.
The LORD is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:8-13)
How can I prepare for a new year? Four actions:
1. RECOGNIZE THAT FAILURE IS UNIVERSAL
The first action I would like you to take today is to recognize that failure is universal. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once decided to play a practical joke on twelve of his friends. He sent each of them a telegram that said, "Flee at once...all is discovered." Within twenty-four hours, all twelve had left the country. Why? All of us have failed. Broken lives are universal. The first action that you need to take is to recognize that failure is universal.
This past week I went to Martha Stewart's web site. I saw that you could learn how to make a dip with Rosie O'Donnell, how to plan the perfect New Year's Eve party, how to surprise guests with unique party favors, and how to plan a party that is so good, your guests will be talking about it until the next one. I feel guilty when I compare myself to Martha Stewart. I don't excel at Martha Stewart sorts of things. I don't live in a Martha Stewart sort of home. I am not Martha Stewart.
The problem is that a lot of us come to church on a Sunday morning expecting to find Martha Stewart Christians everywhere. They read their Bible seven days in a row last week. They prayed an hour each day. They didn't blow up at their kids once last week. Their priorities are in order.
But the reality is that none of us are Martha Stewart Christians. All of us mess up. Paul writes:
It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God's law with all my heart. But there is another law at work within me that is at war with my mind. This law wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin? (Romans 7:21-24)
There's a lot of debate about whether Paul is writing that as a believer or an unbeliever. We don't really know. But we do know this: failure is universal. All of us fail. And nobody here today is free from struggle or sin.
Is that supposed to be encouraging? In a weird way, yes! It means that all of us need Jesus. All of us are on equal footing before Jesus. All of us need help.
The Bible is chock-full of people whose lives were devastated and broken from sin. We think it's unusual when a life implodes from sin. But in the Bible, it's the rule, not the exception. I'm not talking about little sins - I'm talking about the big ones. Moses with an anger problem, who killed a man in a fit of anger. David who blew it by committing both adultery and murder. Jonah who cared so little about lost people that he ran from God. Peter who denied Jesus three times. I could add my own name to this list. All of us are broken people.
Some of you are carrying around guilt because you think that you're worse than everyone else. The Bible says, "For all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard" (Romans 3:23). Let's stop pretending. Do you remember the book, You're Okay, I'm Okay? I have a friend who's thinking of rewriting it to say You're Not Okay, I'm Not Okay. Everyone has failed.
Action two you need to take:
2. REALIZE THAT GOD DOESN'T WRITE YOU OFF
God never writes you off. I don't know if you've been following the story of the man who stole a diamond ring and swallowed it. They arrested the man, did an x-ray, and sure enough, the ring was in his digestive tract. They kept on waiting for it to come out so that they could retrieve it, but it's still stuck in there. Legal experts say that there's nothing they can do but wait. If the ring comes out after he's released, he's free to keep it.
The funniest part of the story is the jeweler from whom the ring was stolen. He's not so sure he wants it back. Given the ring's history, he thinks it's lost some of its value. Who wants to buy a ring that's been where that ring has been?
A lot of you have been in pretty dirty places. You may think that God looks at your life and has to do a calculation to see how much you're worth. But you've never lost your value to God. You're incredibly valuable to him. God will never write you off.
There's a verse in the Bible that I love. Romans 5:20 says, "But as people sinned more and more, God's wonderful kindness became more abundant." You can never out-sin God's grace. God's grace is always more than your sin. In fact, Jesus taught that the more sins you've committed, the more God's grace is lavished on you, because more grace is required. God matches your sins with grace, and the grace he gives is always greater than your sin.
I have in my hand a $5 bill. How many people want it? I want a volunteer to come up and get it. But before I give it away, I want to do something to it. I want to scrunch it up and trample on it and get it a little dirty. How many people still want it? No matter how dirty that bill gets, it still retains its val ue.
There are a lot of religions that teach you that if you're going to be valued by God, you've got to clean up all the dirt and junk in your life and get your life in order, and then God will take you. But the Bible teaches something completely the opposite. The Bible says to come as you are. Realize that God never stopped loving you. Don't get your life all cleaned up and in order. Just come as you are. God will put things right.
When Jesus was here, he spent a lot of time with sinners. The group that he had no time for were the self-righteous Pharisees who saw thought they behaved themselves into a relationship with Jesus. One day Jesus went to a Pharisee's house. At the house, an immoral woman came up, brought a beautiful jar of expensive perfume, knelt behind him, crying, and wiped Jesus' feet with her hair. She kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.
The Pharisee said to himself, "If God had really sent him, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She's a sinner!" (Luke 7:36) But Jesus said:
"I tell you, her sinsand they are manyhave been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love." Then Jesus said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven." (Luke 7:47-48)
It wasn't the stingy religious leader who was forgiven by Jesus - it was the grateful immoral woman. You're not forgiven because of how good you are. You're forgiven because you come to Jesus just as you are.
God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
You're God's masterpiece. You haven't lost your value. Jesus offers you full and complete forgiveness - just as you are.
So recognize that failure is universal. Realize that God doesn't write you off. The third action that you need to take:
3. REFUSE TO PRETEND ABOUT YOUR CONDITION
Never pretend just who you are. Don't pass yourself off as better than you really are. Acknowledge your real condition.
I think that if we're to do this, we need to be honest about three things. We need to be honest about our PAST. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Don't fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, who are idol worshipers, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusers, and swindlersnone of these will have a share in the Kingdom of God. There was a time when some of you were just like that... (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Some of us need to be more honest about our past. We don't need to tell everyone all the gory details. But it's amazing how quickly we forget what we really were. We tend to airbrush our past. Don't pretend you were better than you were. Be honest about who you are.
You've also got to be honest about your PRESENT. Paul continues, "There was a time when some of you were just like that, but now your sins have been washed away, and you have been set apart for God. You have been made right with God because of what the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God have done for you" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Some of you are struggling with false guilt. You're feeling guilty about things that you've done, but you've got no reason to. You're forgiven. Your sins have been washed away; you've been made right because of what God has done. You've got no business feeling guilty about your sins.
How long should a follower of Jesus Christ feel guilty about a sin they've committed? About ten seconds. That's how long it takes to confess that sin to God and receive the gift of forgiveness. Satan's called the accuser. It's a trick that he uses to make people feel guilty for sins that Jesus has already forgiven. Don't let him do that. "Your sins have been washed away, and you have been set apart for God. You have been made right with God because of what the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God have done for you."
But don't act like you have your act all together! C.S. Lewis said, "Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice." We're all sinners. The only difference between us is that some of us have been forgiven. And those who have been forgiven can't take the credit for it. It's all Jesus. He's the one who has put us right.
Be honest about your past and your present. You've also got to be honest about your FUTURE. My motto used to be, "It couldn't happen to me!" But the Bible says, "If you think you are standing strong, be careful, for you, too, may fall into the same sin" (1 Corinthians 10:12). Never say the words, "It could never happen to me." Be honest about your future. You don't have the power to live life on your own. You need God's help if you're going to stay strong.
Authenticity means that I am who I appear to be. There's no pretending. I never want to pretend about who I am. Am I struggling? Sure. Do I fail? Absolutely. Am I vulnerable? Do I have weaknesses that could be exploited in the future? Yes. Am I forgiven? Yes, because of what Jesus did. I refuse to pretend about my condition. It's a great step to take.
One more action you need to take to prepare for the New Year:
4. RECEIVE THE GIFT OF GOD'S GRACE
The reason that many of you are carrying burdens is because you haven't taken this step. You haven't received the gift of God's grace. Everything in our society says that we have to do it ourselves. But that's not the way it works with God. Do you want a clean slate? Then receive the gift of God's grace.
Romans 6:23 says, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." This is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. With God, the best is yet to come. The gift of God is eternal life that begins now and continues throughout eternity.
There's only one catch to this gift. You have to accept it. Although Jesus makes this gift available to everyone, it's effective only to those who receive this gift.
If you're a follower of Jesus Christ this morning, you can't take any credit for it. Your salvation is not a result of anything you've done. It's simply by God's grace. You won't get to heaven and hear people outdo each other with stories of how they got to heaven. It's all of grace. All we can do is be thankful for it.
Isaiah 30:18 says, "The LORD longs to be gracious to you." That's his desire. It is his nature to bless undeserving people. He's waiting for you to accept his grace. He enjoys being gracious. He's not mad at you. His heart's broken for you but he wants you to come home.
God's amazing grace is available right here and right now. Today. That's why He brought you here. You're not here by accident. He brought you here. If you have never received that saving grace gift, what are you waiting for?
A newspaper once ran this personal ad: "Son, I know you are in the city. Please call your father collect. I love you son." God is calling out to you this morning, saying the very same thing. Call me collect. I'll pay the cost. But come home. I've been waiting for you. Come home.
This past summer, I heard a song for the first time. It's called "Change Your Mind." Listen to the words:
Did you ever think
There might be another way
To just feel better,
Just feel better about today
If you've had enough
Of all your tryin'
Just give up
The state of mind you're in...
If you want to be somebody else,
If you're tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind...
Do you want to be somebody else? Are you tired of fighting battles with yourself? Then change your mind. Receive God's gift of grace. Let's pray.
You don't need to pretend this morning. You don't have to make a bunch of New Year's resolutions. You don't have to try to be someone else. You just need to take these steps: recognize that failure is universal. Realize that God doesn't write you off. You're valuable to him. Refuse to pretend about your condition. Come today just as you are. Receive the gift of God's grace.
You can pray this prayer:
"Dear God, I realize that I can never be perfect enough to earn a place in your perfect heaven. I realize that the only way I'll get in is by your grace. Forgive me for thinking that I could be good enough. Forgive me for my pride that thinks I can earn my way into heaven. Thank you for your forgiveness and I ask for it today.
"Jesus Christ, thank you for paying for my salvation on the cross. By faith, I accept your grace today. I want you to guide my life from this day forward. In your name I pray. Amen."