And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord, for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good.
And the people said unto Joshua, Nay; but we will serve the Lord. - Joshua 24:19-21
It seems appropriate for the first sermon of the new year to look at two stories of resolutions that were not kept. After all, one of the stock situations in our lives involves the New Year¡¯s resolution that does not last into the second of January. Come to think of it, I am not aware of anyone telling me about a New Year¡¯s resolution that marked a significant change for the better. There must have been some, but they seem to be few and far between.
The Bible suggests that this is nothing new. In our Old Testament lesson, we found Joshua challenging the people to faithfulness. We found the people, grateful for the success of the conquest, confident that they would be able to maintain their faith in the coming years. As the story proceeds, though, we find that their confidence was misplaced.
Our New Testament reading tells the more familiar story of Peter¡¯s confidence that he would never betray the Lord. We are equally familiar with the sequel, which tells how Peter tried to follow the Lord after the arrest, and denied being one of his followers.
In each case, we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the promises. The Biblical story presents the Israelites as having met with astonishing military success, often with undeniable divine help. After generations of homelessness, culminating in slavery, and after a generation of precarious existence in the wilderness, they were on the brink of a settled and prosperous life. It was time to write, ¡°and they lived happily ever after,¡± and fade out for the closing credits. The Biblical story also portrays Peter as transparently honest. In that moment of closeness to the Lord, he simply could not believe that there was within him any will to deny.
The reasons for failure were apparently different, and that is what I want to spend most of our time on this morning. Let us start with the story of Peter. What went wrong?
In this instance, there does not seem to have been any change of heart. Inwardly, Peter was not denying the Lord at all. He was trying to follow the Lord, and the denials were simply tactics for that purpose. He found himself in circumstances he had not envisioned. I¡¯m reminded of a childhood ¡°bet¡±--I bet I can make you move before I walk around you three times. If the bet is accepted, then you walk around the victim twice and go home. Anyone who suspects what is going to happen will of course refuse the bet. Anyone who accepts it will not have foreseen what might happen.
This can happen to our New Year¡¯s resolutions. When we take the time to review our lives to see what needs to be changed, we move into a kind of detached perspective. We stand aside and above. It is a little like looking at a map before we take a trip. We can see quite clearly what intersections we need to look out for, where we need to turn, and which way. One the drive, though things can be much less clear. There may be a monstrous truck in frong of us just when we need to see a sign. We may find ourselves in the wrong lane, or simply deep in thought or conversation, just when our full attention is needed. We may have visualized what an intersection is going to look like, and have visualized it quite wrong.
If a New Year¡¯s resolution is going to have a chance of success, it needs to be strictly realistic in this respect. In all probability, it is not like looking a map of unfamiliar territory. The resolution will have to do with a failing we know quite well. We need to recognize, though, what it is about this failing that appeals to us. Granted, when we step aside and look at it from a distance, we can see that it is doing us harm. That is not the point. Decision time is not when we have stepped aside, but when we are in the middle of things. Decison time is when we have lost our perspective, and any resolution which does not take account of this fact is going to fail.
Clearly, the point of the story of Peter¡¯s denial is not that we should envision everything that might happen. It is rather that we should face our ignorance, and not make rash promises. It is one thing to say, ¡°I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would do that.¡± It is another matter entirely to say, ¡°I will never do that.¡±
In this respect, a realistic New Year¡¯s resolution would be a strategy for dealing with a failing. ¡°I will put a big note on the refrigerator . . . .¡± ¡°I will keep an account of everything I spend for one week . . . .¡± ¡°I will buy an appointment calendar and hang it where I see it every morning . . . .¡± That is, a realistic New Year¡¯s resolution will be something we know we can do, something that is designed to help us keep in focus when we are in the middle of things.
The problem in our Old Testament reading seems to have been a different one, but no less common. The Israelites simply overestimated their own moral or spiritual strength. They mistook their temporary feelings of gratitude for a permanent condition. Their words are almost a parody of overconfidence--¡±no, we can do it all by ourselves.¡±
This is particularly relevant to New Year¡¯s resolutions, because these resolutions are likely to involve failings that have defeated us consistently. We have tried to change, and it has not worked, so we decide to use the New Year as a kind of extra boost to our determination. This makes it likely that what we are dealing with is a problem we need extra help with, a problem we simply do not have the strength or the wisdom to handle on our own.
The devout Muslim--and, I gather, many who are not particularly devout--will not make a statement about the future without including the proviso, inshallah, ¡°If God wills.¡± Even something as simple as ¡°See you tomorrow¡± is a theologically unsound statement if it reflects an assumption that the future is under our control.
Out theology certainly credits us with the freedom to choose between heaven and hell. It makes it clear, however, that this freedom is not so moch our possessions as a gift from the Lord. There may be more times than we realize when the essence of our freedom is not whether we behave in one outward fashion or another, but simply whether we ask for the Lord¡¯s help or not. Time after time, we are reminded that we are to avoid evils as if we had the strength to do so. Time after time, we are reminded that the heart of the matter is not simply how we behave, but whether we credit the Lord our ourselves with whatever is good.
Our freedom comes to front and center in the practice of repentance, which is certainly directly pertinent to the subject of New Year¡¯s resolutions. OUr theology offers us the following description of repentance.
You may ask how we are to perform repentance. The answer is that we should do it genuinely, which means exploring ourselves, recognizing and acknowledging our sins, asking the Lord¡¯s help, and beginning a new life. We have shown in the preceding section that there can be no repentance without exploration. But what is the point of exploring except to recognize our sins? And what is the point of recognizing them unless we admit that they are within us? And what is the point of these three steps unless we confess our sins before the Lord, ask for help, and with that help begin a new life, since a new life is the whole point? This is genuine repentance (T.C.R. 530).
If we leave out the steps of confession before the Lord and asking for help, then we have simply embarked on a self-improvement project. We have decided that it is all up to us, and that we can manage things without any help. There is no surer way to set ourselves up for failure.
In a way, if we look at the spiritual side of the Joshua story, if we look at this incident in its context, it makes a great deal of sense. Israel had just finished one of its more successful phases, the conquest of the Holy Land. They knew that the Lord had been with them, and they knew that by and large, they had done what they were supposed to do. They did not know a number of important things, though. For instance, they did not know how important Joshua¡¯s leadership had been, or what things would be like once he died. They did not realize that fighting against an external enemy is often simpler than fighting against one¡¯s own weaknesses--a persecuted church is likely to be much stronger and more united than a popular one.
We too have our successful passages. There are a great many worthwhile things that we have learned to do--learning not only the skills but also gaining the willingness to do them faithfully and well. There are times in our lives when the primary need is for self-discipline, and when we have made it through one of those times, it is easy to believe that we have found the answer to all our problems.
But if the roots of a particular failing go deeper, this approach will not work. Some demons even the disciples could not cast out, for all their faith--they yield only to prayer and fasting, not to frontal assault. And this is the core of the twelve-step programs--the recognition that there is a particular kind of power that can come only when we admit defeat. There is help from the Lord that is available to us only when we fully realize that we need it.
When Swedenborg says we should ¡°confess our sins before the Lord, ask for help, and with that help begin a new life,¡± this is not a perfunctory nod to religious concerns. This is the heart of the matter. This is, if you will, the essential New Year¡¯s resolution. ¡°I will try to face the fact that I need help.¡± ¡°I will keep reminding myself to ask the Lord for help.¡± Whether it is overcoming anger or envy or crossing the street, we need help. It will not come if, to use Swedenborg¡¯s graphic description, we stand with our hands at our sides gazing up with open mouths waiting for influx. It will come if we do our part with the free acknowledgment that it is not enough. The greatest thing we can hope for in the new year is a deeper realization that the Lord is with us always.