Today's the day that some of us think about New Year's resolutions for the coming year. According to studies, though, not all of us are into resolutions. A study came out a year ago saying that only 45% of people now make New Year's resolutions, which is half of the number who did so in the past.
Why the dramatic drop in the number of people making resolutions? Stephen Shapiro, who wrote a book called Goal-Free Living, says:
New Year's Resolutions just don't work. According to our study, only 8% of Americans say they always achieve their New Year's resolutions. The way it seems to work now, setting a New Year's Resolution is a recipe for defeat. It has come to be one of the nation's most masochistic traditions...At some point, people just decide to stop hurting themselves, and they call the whole thing off.
If you're someone who makes resolutions, you shouldn't let what Shapiro says discourage you. People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions.
Whether you're a resolution maker or not, I'm going to ask you to make a New Year's resolution together as a church. I've never heard of a church making a New Year's resolution before. It's not to lose weight or exercise or to quit smoking or to pay off the credit cards. It's going to be a different kind of resolution altogether, and a little bit of a dangerous one as well.
The resolution is found in 1 Corinthians 2. Let's read it together and then let's see if it's something that we can resolve for the coming year. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and addressing some of the problems that the church in Corinth was facing. Listen to what Paul writes as he talks about the focus of his ministry when Paul was among them. Read with me the first five verses of 1 Corinthians 2:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.
Corinth was a sophisticated city that prided itself on its wisdom and oratory. It was said that on every street in Corinth you would meet a wise man who had his own solution to all the world's problems. The Corinthian church had adopted some of the views of the culture of that time with a love for human wisdom and eloquence. They expected a certain level of excellence in a speaker's presentation, and a certain level of sophistication in the message.
When people addressed a crowd in that day, it was customary to begin to heaping praise on the city and its achievements. You would try to present a very positive message and win people over to yourself so that they would trust you.
The apostle Paul was more than capable of fitting these expectations. He had been trained in rhetoric and was accustomed to winning people over when he spoke publicly. But Paul says two things about his approach in Corinth: one about the subject of his message, and one about his way of speaking. His subject, Paul says, is "Jesus Christ and him crucified." And his way of speaking is not with rhetorical flourish but with a reliance on the Spirit's power rather than on eloquence. Paul says,
I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.
So here's my question: what if we, like Paul, resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified? What if we resolved over the coming year to be all about Jesus? Before I ask you to make this commitment with me, I had better tell you what I think it means. Then I'm going to ask you if you are ready to make this resolution with me.
What It Doesn't Mean
First, here's what Paul doesn't mean. Paul isn't arguing against making a message as compelling as possible. I've heard of some preachers who take pride in not preparing a message very well. I heard of one a few years back who would never prepare before sitting in the service during the morning. Sometimes he would do all his preparation on the stairs on the way up to the platform. I'm guessing that the people in that church may have thought of adding more stairs at some point. Paul is saying something important about an over-reliance on communication skills, but he's not saying it's wrong. Poorly prepared messages are not more spiritual than well-prepared ones.
Paul also isn't saying that Christ's crucifixion is the only thing that he talks about. If you read Paul's books you know that he addresses many other topics and doctrines besides the death of Christ. So Paul isn't saying that it's wrong to talk about the birth of Christ or the resurrection of Christ or many of the other things we read about in Scripture. Some people press Paul's words here a little harder than they should and end up misinterpreting what he's saying.
So if Paul isn't arguing against speaking well or talking about other issues besides Christ and his death, what exactly does he mean when he says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified"?
What Paul Meant
Here's what I believe Paul meant. Paul was saying that the heart of the Christian message, the person who is at the center of life and of all our questions, the beginning, middle, and the end of all of life, is Jesus. We never grow beyond Jesus. And the decisive act of history, the center of all things, is what Jesus accomplished at the cross. We can never outgrow or move beyond the central message of our faith: Jesus and him crucified. That is enough. We don't need anything more. We must make that message central and never lose sight of Jesus and the cross.
This is what Paul meant, but it goes against everything that we want to believe. We're in the same position as the Corinthians. If you go into Chapters you can find books on almost every topic. You can find people on every corner who think that they have the answers to the problems of all of life. I went on Amazon the other day and searched for "self-help" and came up with almost 83,000 books. Self-help books, seminars, video, audio and digital make up a multibillion-dollar industry. Paul says to forget all that and come back to the only person and message that matter: Jesus and him crucified.
Imagine standing up in front of a sophisticated audience who were looking for the secret to life, the universe, God, beauty, love, and death. Imagine standing up in front of this audience with nothing to say except for some stumbling words about a man who was executed outside a rebellious city in the middle east some years ago. This goes against everything that sophisticated people like us expect, but it's exactly what Paul says is needed. The answers to our deepest questions and longings are not found in sophisticated theories or programs. They are found in Jesus Christ and what he accomplished at the cross.
This even goes against what we expect in church. Crucifixion back then was not a palatable message. It was the one message that people didn't want to hear. Paul said that it didn't really matter to him. He wasn't interested in presenting a palatable message. Today, you can go into Christian bookstores and look at all the books that are presented on different topics, and be hard pressed to find a large section on Christ and him crucified. Perhaps we come to church expecting to hear positive messages that will help us live better lives. It isn't our natural inclination to return to this message, but Paul says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Maybe part of the problem is that we like to complicate things. Preachers are sometimes known for making simple things complex. There's enough in the Bible to get lost unless we keep our eye on the big picture. Jesus himself tells us what the central message of Scripture is. Luke 24:27 says of Jesus, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." That is something I would have liked to have heard. Jesus opened up all the Bible and told these two people he met how the Scriptures spoke of himself. Somebody's said, "All the strands of the witness of Scripture to the identity and purpose of God converge in Jesus Christ" (Daniel L. Migliore). Every part of Scripture must be understood in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Here's what I know: if we resolve to make this our focus, then there is one person who won't like it. Satan would be happy if we picked any other topic, any other focus, than the person and work of Jesus. He would like for us to focus our attention anywhere else. He will do everything he can to shift our focus anywhere else. But this is precisely where we need to go: to know nothing except for Jesus Christ and him crucified, in our lives individually, and together as a church.
So we must make Jesus central. We must never lose sight of who he is and what he did for us. We must resolve, as Paul did, to make this our main concern, believing that this simple message is at the heart of everything that we need to know for life. We will never outgrow this message. Christ is alone and enough.
What It Means for Us
I want to take a few minutes this morning and ask what this might mean for us. To do so, I want to give you a quote from Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, and then unpack it a little as he describes what this could mean for us today.
Tim Keller says,
We never "get beyond the gospel" in our Christian life to something more "advanced." The gospel is not the first "step" in a "stairway" of truths, rather, it is more like the "hub" in a "wheel" of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C's of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.
We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17).
The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not "used" the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people's problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel - a failure to grasp and believe it through and through...So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel - seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.
I hope that you have come to Christ and the cross in your lives. I hope you understand that the gospel is key to beginning our lives of faith. The world and our lives has been broken by sin. It's brought pain and death and alienation into the world and into our lives. We are powerless to fix what sin has damaged. God, who made us in his image, sent his Son in human likeness to live a perfect life and to undo what sin had done. He died in our place, and rose again so that we could live. He is making all things new. I hope that if you have never experienced the reality of what I'm talking about that you will come to Jesus and him crucified. He alone can do what we couldn't do for ourselves.
But some of us know that message very well and think that it's time to move on to other things. One board asked its pastor, "When are we going to get past Jesus to the real meat of Scripture?" Paul reminds us that we never get past Jesus or the gospel. We are saved by the gospel and we also live by the gospel. If we have problems, individually or as a church, it is usually because we haven't grasped or believed or applied part of the gospel to our lives. Like Paul we must keep coming back again and again to Jesus Christ and him crucified until it permeates every area of our lives.
This means that we need to keep coming back to the gospel again and again, unfolding the gospel and all its implications for our lives. Ravi Zacharias says, "The depths of mystery and love found in the cross can never fully be plumbed. But it must be the lifelong pursuit of the Christian to marvel at its costliness and celebrate its meaning." We'll never be done understanding what Jesus Christ and him crucified means for every area of our lives. This will be our ongoing pursuit and passion.
It also means something for us as a church. The Corinthian church had all kinds of problems. Paul writes to them and in essence says that all of your problems as a church can be traced back to a failure to keep Jesus Christ and him crucified central. You are relying too much on human values and wisdom instead of the divine message and power. Our church, like every church, faces all kinds of challenges. Perhaps Paul is saying that the answers to our challenges will not be found in reading the latest book or trying the newest program or method. The answers are found in coming to Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in truly believing and living the gospel.
So how about it? I don't know what New Year's resolutions you are planning for yourself: losing weight, exercising more, paying off some debt. Would you commit with me to this resolution: that in 2007, we will concern ourselves primarily with Jesus Christ and him crucified?
Father, we stand at the threshold of a new year. Thank you for 2006 and all of its blessings and challenges. We stand now not knowing what lies ahead, and we pray for your help as we enter this new year.
Today we resolve that in the coming year we will concern ourselves with nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. This doesn't mean, Father, that we won't deal with other things. We have families and jobs and tasks and other issues to which we must attend. But we want to keep Jesus, the cross, and the gospel central in our lives and in the church.
We resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Our message and our preaching are not with wise and persuasive words, but we pray for a demonstration of the Spirit's power. And may our faith not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power. We pray this, heavenly Father, in Jesus' name. Amen.