January 1, 2017

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC

Colossians 3:12-15

Matthew 4:12-17 

          Whenever Christmas falls on a Sunday, there is one thing we know for sure.  New Year’s Day also will fall on a Sunday.  Another thing Helen knows for sure.  I’m not going to stay up with her to see in the New Year.  Even with worship at 11 am.  I need my sleep.

          It’s actually a rare privilege to begin the New Year with worship.  Some churches hold a worship service at midnight, when the New Year actually begins.  John Wesley did that.  He wrote a Covenant Service specifically for that.  We’ve used that service on the first Sunday of the New Year here in the past.

          But this year, I thought I’d do something I don’t do very often.  I’ve going to repeat a sermon.  I re-read what I preached two years ago and, the honest truth is, I could barely remember preaching it.  It was like I was reading something I had never read before.  So if I couldn’t remember it, I figured you couldn’t either.

          I opened by quoting Leo Durocher, who was manager of the Chicago Cubs for six-and-a-half years.  The Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908.  But every year, Leo Durocher told his ball club that that was about to change.  At Spring Training, it became something of a tradition with him.  He would get his players together and he would say:  “I got a feeling.  This year is the year.”

          Except this year was never the year.  For 44 years after he left the Cubs, each year was never the year.  Until last year.  2016.  It finally happened.  The Cubs won the World Series.  Leo Durocher was right.  He was just 44 years early.

          On this first day of 2017, I have something I want to say to you.  I got a feeling.  This year is the year for us!

          One thing is for sure.  The person you are right now is not the person you will be one year from now.  Just as the person you were one year ago is not the person you are right now.  We are always changing.  And this is the time of the year every year when we tend to think hopefully about the changes we would like to see in our lives.  There will be change.  That is inevitable.  But we want it to be positive change.  Change for the better.  We want to become more the person we know by God’s grace we can become.

          What kind of a person do you want to become?  It’s a good thing to get that down on paper.  Take the paper out several times this year and see if you are making progress.  And if you get writer’s block as you try to get down on paper that description of the person you would like to be, today’s scripture from Colossians might help.  Paul gives us a pretty good picture of what a follower of Jesus ought to look like.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.

          God is calling us to change this year.  Not just any change.  God wants us to be more patient, more compassionate, more forgiving, and all the rest.  God wants this to be the year for us. 

          And God knows we’ve been here before.  We’ve made all these New Years Resolutions.  They last about a week.  And then we get more discouraged than ever.  We despair that this year will ever be the year.

          There’s a lot in the Bible about that, too.  The Bible is as realistic a book as there is about our sin and our resistance to positive change.  Paul who wrote those beautiful words to the Colossians also wrote to the Romans that confession that we could have written:  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15).  The prophet Jeremiah asks a simple question that really says it all:  “Can a leopard change its spots?” (13:23)  And the answer, of course, is “no”.  A leopard cannot change its spots.  We are sinners and we cannot change that.  We have a built-in resistance to the work God wants to do in us to change us.

          So this business of becoming new and better people in the new year isn’t going to be easy.  If it’s going to happen at all, we need a new approach.  A new strategy.  Something that works with sinful, stubborn people like us.

          There’s a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University named Ronald Heifetz.  He’s done a lot of research on change and our resistance to it.  His key point is that there is a difference between technical change and adaptive change.

          Technical change is a quick fix.  In this cold weather, I get a warning on my dashboard that my tires are underinflated.  That’s not a tough problem to solve.  Les Schwab will do it for free. 

          Adaptive change is harder.  The analogy here might be losing weight.  There are quick fix diets, but generally the weight that is lost comes right back on.  Why?  Because this kind of change is not as simple as fixing a tire.  You have to change your whole life.  Diet.  Exercise.  Psychology.  Why do you overeat?  Why do you underexercise?  What is going on in your life that needs to change before you can get healthy?  It’s not a simple thing.

          So here is Heifetz’s conclusion:  We cannot create adaptive change by using technical methods.  Trying to do so won’t lead to change.  It will lead to frustration.  We can’t change our weight like we change the pressure in a tire. The most important changes we need in our lives — becoming more compassionate, more forgiving, more generous, more kind, more patient — are not amenable to quick technical fixes.  A leopard cannot change its spots.

          Most Harvard professors are brilliant.  Ronald Heifetz is no exception.  But his ideas on change are not entirely original.  Jesus thought of them first.  Jesus knew how hard it is to change deep- seated human behavior.  He knew you can’t just change people on the outside.  Change that lasts has to come from the inside.

          For example, when he meets Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax collector, he doesn’t get mad at him and say, “Zacchaeus, what’s wrong with you?  Get your act together!”  Instead he invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house, to get to know him, to get to understand him.  What he was doing in a sneaky way was getting him to repent.  Getting him to repent in a way that would take and would last.

          Jesus was barely out of his 40 days in the wilderness when he spoke some of the most important words he ever spoke:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). 

          I want us to take a moment with this word “repent”.  It means more than just being sorry.  It means being sorry, but it means a lot more.  The Greek is metanoia.  The English “repent” does not capture the meaning.  The word really means to “change one’s mind”.  It means change on such a deep level that our very understanding of what life is all about changes.

          How can there be such a deep and radical change?  Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near”.  So we are talking here about change that involves living into that new kingdom.  Can a leopard change its spots?  Not unless it first changes its kingdom.

          I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of standing in a check-out line and watching a parent try to get a child under control who’s been sitting in that shopping cart for way too long.  I shared a story two years ago about a mom I had observed in that situation who I said I would nominate for parent of the year.  Not that she could get her small boy under control.  In fact, as she was trying, he hit her. 

          What do you do when your little kid hits you?  Many of us would react in a way we would later regret.  But not this mom.  She stayed calm and she said the perfect thing.  Here is what she said:  “You do not hit me, because we are not a family that treats each other that way.  In our family we love each other and you do not hit the people you love.”  Did that make him calm down and behave?  No.  Not at all.  The tantrum continued.

          The point is that this mom didn’t say, “No!” or “Stop it!” or “If you don’t stop crying I’m going to give you something to cry about!”  You’ve probably heard that one.  What she did was talk to him about something he probably couldn’t grasp yet but some day he will.  She talked to him about what it means to be part of their family.  To be part of their kingdom.

          We don’t change by gritting our teeth and trying real hard to change.  We change by first choosing our kingdom.  We don’t become more compassionate, more patient, more forgiving by forcing ourselves because that’s what we wrote down on that piece of paper the preacher mentioned earlier.  No.  First we choose a kingdom where we experience God’s compassion, God’s patience, God’s forgiveness.  We don’t change by willing ourselves to change.  We change by choosing a kingdom.  We are changed by the kingdom we choose.  Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Near enough to choose it.  Near enough to enter it.

          Here’s the thing about kingdoms.  You can only choose one.  To choose one is to deny the others.  Jesus had something to say about this, too.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

          Work can become your kingdom.  Having fun can become your kingdom.  Church can become your kingdom.  Yes, too much church is not necessarily a good thing.  Your kingdom is whatever gets your ultimate loyalty.  Alternate kingdoms don’t distract you.  They consume you.  They suck the life right out of you.  Eventually they change you, and not for the better.

          Our alternate kingdoms may look different but they do the same thing to us.  They make our shoulders sink.  They make us tired.  They make us testy.  They change us into lesser, more exhausted versions of ourselves.

          Why do you suppose God always seems to give important jobs to the wrong people?  He chose Mary who was too young and Elizabeth who was too old and Moses who was too slow and Esther who was the wrong gender and David who was the right gender but pretty much the wrong everything else.  And Jesus chose all the wrong people to be his disciples.  He even chose Judas.  Why?  These were people who had chosen kingdoms that could never satisfy.  These were people who knew the darkness of their own kingdoms.

          Tim Keller is a Presbyterian pastor in New York City.  Here’s what he said about this:

It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord that you are on the verge of understanding the Gospel and becoming a Christian indeed. When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good, you are on the brink. If you follow through, it will change everything: how you relate to God, self, others, the world, your work, your sins, your virtue. It’s called the new birth because it’s so radical.

          Once we understand change requires us to chose a kingdom and change requires us to lose a kingdom then change becomes a matter of practice.  We have to practice over and over and over choosing God’s kingdom over our own.

          That’s one of the beauties of the Lord’s Prayer.  Each time we pray it we are saying to God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”  I think this was Jesus’ way of getting his followers to choose the kingdom of God over and over again.  If you are determined that this year will be the year, one simple thing you can do is get in the habit of praying that prayer at least once every single day.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

          And just as important in practicing the kingdom you will choose is practicing the kingdom you will lose.  What is causing your shoulders to sink?  Work?  Fear?  Selfishness?  Only you can fill in the blank.  Pray this simple prayer every single day:  “God, help me to lose this little kingdom of self and help me to choose your kingdom.”

          Ernest Gordon was a British prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II.  His camp was forced to build the infamous Railroad of Death through Burma.  He and his fellow prisoners suffered horribly.

          There was one moment though that changed things for them.  It didn’t set them free.  They were still prisoners.  They were still at the mercy of their captors who showed them no mercy.  But the day of the missing shovel changed the spirit of that camp.

          Shovels were counted at the end of each work day.  This day one was missing.  The officer in charge was enraged.  He announced that everyone would be punished if the person responsible did not confess.  No one confessed.  There was only silence.  Then one man stepped forward and took responsibility for the missing shovel.  He was immediately knocked to the ground and beaten savagely.  Later the shovels were recounted.  They were all there.  They had miscounted when they thought one was missing.

          That was what changed everything.  It was no longer every man for himself.  They began making sacrifices for each other.  The strong and healthy started sharing their food with those who were weak and had greater need.  Ranks among officers no longer mattered.  What mattered was taking care of each other.

          Here’s what Ernest Gordon said:

Death was still with us — no doubt about that.  But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip.  We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death.  Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-indulgence, laziness, and pride were all anti-life.  Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity, and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense.

This is the change to which we are called.  This is the change from the kingdom of self to the kingdom of God. 

          I pray this year will be the year for us.  For you and for me and for this church.  Not that we try harder to do better, for we know it’s true that a leopard cannot change its spots, but that this year will be the year we leave behind our own kingdoms and be changed by the kingdom of God.

          I invite you to join me now in that prayer that I challenge you to pray at least once every day of 2017.


Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.