First, I would like to say that I was very pleased at the number of you who turned out Sunday night. It wasn't our regular night for gathering together, but you came to keep one another company on Christmas Night. I am proud to know such people.
Well, the new year will be upon us in a matter of hours. It's a very special time for many of us. It's a time for the forgiving of offenses, for closing old wounds, for reflecting, for attempting to better ourselves. It's also a time of sadness for many of us. The happiness which we experienced during the Christmas season seems to drain away.
It's easy to slip into post-holiday depression. Christmas is a very special time where goodness is so prevelant that it's hard to miss. Celebration goes on all month long. There's the expectation of wonderful material expressions of our love for one another in the form of presents, cards, food, decorations and such.
On a side note, I'd like to point out that Jesus never said it's wrong to enjoy material objects. In fact, it's good to enjoy them. (1 Tim 4:4) But the best way to use material possessions is to give them away to make others happy. (Luke 16:9) So go ahead and enjoy those presents. Just make sure you're making as many people as yu can happy with them.
Happiness is fleeting. As soon as the Christmas tree lights are turned off and the decorations put away and all the Christmas cookies eaten, and that orange you found in the toe of your stocking is sitting on the kitchen counter turning a peculiar shade of brown because you never got around to eating it, the happiness starts to fade away. That's normal.
What we need to remember is that happiness is not joy. As long as we have our joy, we can go back to it and get more happiness. We may not feel like it at the time, of course. The odd thing about happiness is that you feel least like pursuing it when you need it the most. But if you have your joy, you can go get your happiness as soon as you decide to do so.
Now that's not to say that you will BECOME happy right away. Sometimes it takes a while. Especially when you've suffered a great loss, as a few of us have. I'm not saying that God is going to make you happy all the time. Far from it. But by giving you joy, He gives you the tool to extract as much happiness as you need to get by.
Do you remember how we defined joy a few months back? Joy is the knowledge of goodness. A guy who's just lost his job and his wife can keep himself from jumping off the roof because he knows that there is good in the world and if he's patient, good will come to him again. In our case, joy is the knowledge that God is good. Unlike the poor atheist who's lost his job and wife, we don't have to wait for goodness to come to us by coincidence. We know that God is actively there providing goodness for us all the time, even when we feel the worst.
So when you're feeling the blues this January, think about what God has done for you. Think about your health (or what there is of it), your friends, your family (If your family is one you'd rather do without, think about God's family) Think of the fact that you have a roof over your head and food on your plate, and your ISP bill has been paid for one more month. Think about all the wondrous little gifts that God has placed on the earth for you to enjoy. Picnics, kites, snowflakes, carousels, puppies, hot cocoa, sunshine, music, rainbows, kittens, warm fires, a child's laughter... you don't have to wait until Christmas to enjoy these things.
Remember that God loves you, even when you're bad. As I shared with a friend, recently, it stings when God rebukes you. It can hurt for years to come. I know it has me. But if you're hurting because God has rebuked you, you know that He cares about you because He considers you worthy of a proper upbringing. (Hebrews 12:6) He wants you to be the best Christian you can be because He loves you with a love that cannot fail.
Which brings me to my next point. As we await the new year, it is customary to make resolutions for the sake of improving ourselves in the coming year. What should a Christian do to improve himself in this manner? Well, if you've been celebrating Christmas the right way, my suggestion is to keep on doing what you've been doing. It is the tradition of most of us to strive to be the best we can be at Christmas, as the Jews do in the Days of Awe. We try to be more forgiving. We strive for peace. We're more compassionate and more gentle. The best thing we can do is to keep doing exactly that. And when it gets difficult, go to God for more strength. God has promised that when we pray for such things, He will grant our requests.
Be careful, though. Don't pray for strength unless you really mean it, because He will do more than just give you the power to get through the moment. He is going to put you into training. You'll find yourself in situations which try your resolve. That is how we become strong. As a weightlifter must lift weights to become strong enough to lift heavier weights, so we become strong in spirit by enduring hardships. As one fellow put it in the movie "Teahouse of the August Moon", "Pain make man think. Thinking make man wise. Wisdom give man patience to endure pain." So it is with us. Enduring hardship makes us cling to God. Clinging to God makes us more like Him. Adopting the character of God gives us the gracious nature to persevere through hardships.
But of course, a weightlifter does much more than just lift weights. His strength comes from exerting himself, but his energy comes from treating his body well. He must get a good amount of aerobic exercise. He must eat nutritious food in the right amounts and proportions. He must protect his body from the things that defile it like smoking, excessive drinking and casual sex.
In the same way, we can only improve our spirits if we treat them right. Today's reading tells us exactly what to do. Since the spirit consists of the soul and the mind (I know some of you disagree on the terminology, but for the purpose of this sermon, that's the definition.) we condition our spirits with what we think. Philipians 4:8 admonishes us to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Verse 6 tells us to be anxious for nothing. Instead of worrying, we should exercise faith by praying, making petions to God and giving thanks, fully expecting Him to follow through in taking care of us. He promises us that if we do this, He will add to us His peace that passes all understanding, which will guard our hearts and minds.
Naturally, the unspoken instruction command here is not to entertain thoughts that are not godly. Whatsoever things are deceitful, ignoble, wrong, defiled, ugly, despicable, rebellious or disgraceful and not fit for our minds. Yet we are flawed, and sometimes we find ourselves thinking dirty or even sinful thoughts without even realizing we're doing it. I think the tendancy in all of us is to hide our sinful thoughts one we realize they are there and pretend that they never happened. That's rather like hiding your dirty dishes and pretending they don't exist. Pretty soon, your kitchen is going to get very rank. If we hide sinful thoughts from God and pretend they aren't real, we'll quickly lose our fellowship with God.
1 John 1:10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.But there's good news! Look at the preceding verse.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.It can almost be left unsaid that the number one sin which seperates us from God must be avoided at all costs and when we find it in our hearts, we must betray its hiding place to God and ask Him to rid us of it. I am of course speaking of unforgiveness.
Matthew 6:14,15Because of this, I implore each of you to observe what I consider the most important tradition of the New Year's celebration. If anyone has wronged you, take the debt they owe you and leave it securely locked up in 2005, never to be brought out again. Thoughts of vengance or hatred or resentment only serve to poison ourselves and cut us off from our Holy God.
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
So if you are a Christian, my challenge to you is to hold onto your joy, keep training your spirit with healthy thoughts and exercise of faith, and clean out all sinful thoughts and unforgiveness.
If you are not a Christian, I invite you to take that first step in caring for your spirit the right way. Establish a relationship with the one who created it by accepting Christ as your savior.
Pastor Oren Otter
December 31, 2005