Happy New Year! Only 4 hours and __minutes to go. I’m sure that most of us will be happy to see 2001 go and hope that 2002 will be a better year.
There has been some talk about New Year resolutions around the office these last days before the new year. I guess the talk of these new resolutions has been on my mind lately. Perhaps there is a stronger urge to make commitments to improve our personal lives and situations at times like these. I do believe many of us are looking forward to, may I even say yearn for, a new beginning this new year - 2002.
Maybe you haven’t been thinking of New Year resolutions at all. I hope when our time together comes to a close, I have gotten you to reconsider the idea. If you are thinking of making some New Year resolutions, I have found some information interesting for us to consider. Barna Research Corporation has summarized some of the year’s most intriguing findings. I believe these findings have some bearing on the changes (commitments) we intent to make for our life in the upcoming year. George Barna has identified them as the most Revealing, Controversial, Surprising, Challenging statistical results for 2001:
* Although Americans do not believe it is OK to engage in illegal activities of immoral and controversial content, Americans are comfortable legalizing activities of immoral and controversial content.
* Religious teaching or values minimally affect people’s moral choices. The major influences on decisions are expected outcomes of personal choices, minimizing conflict over the choices made, and parental values we have been taught.
* Among adults who have been married, Christians and non-Christians have essentially the same probability of divorce.
* At least three out of ten adults who identify themselves as Christians say that cohabitation, breaking the speed-limit or engaging in sexually-explicit material or actions are morally acceptable behaviors.
*Adults under the age of 35 were the least likely to have a biblical perspective or understanding of basic faith practices and biblical beliefs.
* 41% of adults who attend church services have not embraced Christ as their savior.
* Church membership is on the decline.
* Very few Christians are likely to read the Bible during the week.
* By the end of the decade, 50 million Americans will seek to have their spiritual experiences solely through the Internet rather than at a church. Upwards of 100 million Americans will rely upon the Internet to deliver some aspects of their religious experience.
* Although 0ne-third of all Church members claim to tithe their income, only 12% actually do so.
* Financial support of churches dropped substantially between 1998 and 2000- and will likely decline again this year, as a result of changed giving patterns related to the
*Just half of all home schooling parents identify themselves as Christians.
* Less than 5% of the nation’s churches have youth groups that attract 100 or more teenagers.
* Although attending church as a child increases the likelihood of a person attending as an adult, that affect is declining substantially.
* After the 9-11 attacks, religious activity surged, but within two months, virtually every spiritual indicator available suggested that things were back to pre-attack levels.
Barna comments on these findings:
“One of the greatest values of research is that it can identify myths we hold on to that often prevent us from seizing opportunities, or prevent us from responding appropriately to the world around us. The difficulty we sometimes have is coming to grips with a world that is rapidly changing and does not conform to the rules we believed were firmly entrenched.
“American culture as well as people’s faith is constantly changing. Assumptions need to be continually re-examined to asses their validity.
“Our society offers people a plethora of choices. Faith is just one component in people’s lives that helps them to interpret and cope with reality.”
I find these results and comments by Barna both sobering and alarming. It alarms me to believe people actually perceive faith as only ONE component in making serious life decisions. Yet I know that it is true. There is evidence of it surrounding me every day.
Craig Miller and Lia Icaza-Willett have this to say about the world we live in:
“As we enter the twenty-first century, we see a number of changes in our culture. Whether it has to do with family or the way we work, each culture shift affects our perspective and understanding of life.
“Change is a fact of live. Life itself is change. But what happens when a whole society undergoes a series of massive shifts?”
Its a question we could ask in examining our Bible lesson this evening. Paul certainly came from a world of massive shifts, personally, within his society and within his world.
Paul grew up in a time of Roman occupation of his country. The ways of the Roman Empire threatened the very existence of his Jewish heritage. Paul had witnessed many changes in his country during their occupation and oppression.
On the road to Damascus, he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Paul had been a persecutor of Christians whom he saw as yet another threat to his culture. But Paul went through a shift when he met Christ, there on the road to Damascus and later became one of the Christians he had persecuted.
Paul wrote this letter to the Phillipians we read from this evening. Paul had traveled across the Roman Empire that had invaded his country, and was imprisoned in Rome at the time of its writing.
The church in Phillipi that Paul wrote to is the Grace Church of those ancient days. Paul held them very dear to his heart. Often the letter’s of Paul are written to the various churches across the Empire because of the problems arising within them. But this is a congregation that is not like those other congregations. The Spirit of the Lord is definitely active in the church in Phillipi. They were a growing, thriving, dedicated group who were very active in ministry and actively supported Paul’s ministry.
But even in the best of situations, there were some concerns. Just as George Barna shared his concerns, it seems there were those in Paul’s day who were suggesting viable choices in making decisions and determining true faith. Paul wrote an appeal to the church in Phillipi to maintain unity in the faith.
Paul provides us with a model for our New Year resolutions in his letter to the Phillipians. He has a goal. Its going to cause us to do a double take and make us wonder about Paul’s humility. Paul is striving for perfection.
That’s right - perfection. Doesn’t sound very humble, does it? But what Paul is striving to be is the perfect follower of Christ.
He hasn’t reached it, he writes, but he is pressing on (to use his words) towards that goal.
And here is the reason why. Listen carefully to this. Paul is desperately grasping a hold of Christ because Christ grasped a hold of him. William Barclay explains this for us:
“Jesus Christ had a dream and vision and a purpose for which he grasped Paul(chose Paul that day on the Damascus road); and Paul felt that all his life he was bound to press on, lest he disappoint Jesus and fail Jesus and frustrate the dream and purpose for which Jesus had grasped him.”
Jesus chose Paul for a reason. He had a dream, a vision of what Paul could be. Paul wanted to achieve that vision and dream Christ had for him.
He wanted to achieve it because of the love Christ had for him.
He wanted to achieve it because Christ had died and was resurrected for Paul’s salvation.
He wanted to achieve it because he wanted to be that person Christ saw in him and saw Paul capable of being.
Perfection in Christ - its an interesting New Year resolution. In light of the massive culture shifts in Paul’s day, its certainly an appropriate one.
You know, Christ chose each of us, too. Christ has a vision and purpose for each of us, as well. Christ is reaching out to grasp a hold of each of us. In light of our culture and society, perhaps striving for perfection in Christ is a worthy New Year Resolution for us, too.
But maybe your like me. If I’m going to commit myself to a promise, particularly one such as this, I want to know what’s involved. I want to make sure there is a course of action I can follow. Does Paul have a method for striving for perfection in Christ?
Yes, he does.
Its a twofold plan.
First, he forgets the things that are behind him. Now what does this mean? I see two possible meanings, and I believe both of them are simultaneously correct and appropriate.
On one hand, Paul forgets the person he was before Christ. Remember who he was before Christ? He was the persecutor of Christians. He was legalistic and lacking compassion. Paul has found a better way of living. He has forgotten the old person he use to be. In fact, he has even changed his name - he use to be known as Saul. Even his name changed - that’s how marked the difference is in the person Paul use to be, and has now become.
On the other hand, I believe Paul wipes the slate clean everyday. This also can carry two meanings. He receives forgiveness for where he has failed Christ everyday. But the slate is also cleared of anything good he did the day before in the name of Christ. Its a new day. What he did in the name of Jesus yesterday doesn’t count anymore. Its gone. The question is: What will he do in the name of Jesus today.
Because, of course, if he counted on what he did yesterday to carry him through, well he’s stopped striving for perfection in Christ, hasn’t he? And he has stopped striving for that dream of what Christ has in him.
So, to this end, Paul is always reaching out for the things ahead - straining toward what is ahead, like a runner, straining, hand outstretched, reaching for the finish line.
That’s the image Paul uses:
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me...”
That’s Paul’s plan. Strive for perfection in Christ by forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead.
Can this be our plan - our resolution, as well?
In light of 2001 and the uncertainty of what 2002 holds, it just seems more fitting than the usual diet or resolution to stop smoking.
I just can’t help wondering what would 2002 be like, if a great number of Christians were to make Paul’s goal their New Year resolution this year?
Of course, its not that easy, is it? Its a crazy, mixed up world we live in. Though Paul’s day was turbulent, he didn’t face any of the problems or issues we face today.
Again, Craig Miller & Lia Icaza -Willett speak to this:
“During the last forty years, our culture has moved to what some refer to as the “postmodern age.” Those who experienced their childhood before 1965 are a part of what some scholars refer to as the “modern age.” Those born after 1965 have adopted the philosophy and belief system of the “postmodern age.”
“Just what are differences between these two ages? This change has affected our views. To the modern age, science brought unmitigated progress and the belief that the world was going to get better. Electricity, telephones, cars, and airplanes brought amazing improvements in the way people lived.
“However, people of the postmodern age take a different view of the concept of a better life through technology. What appears to be progress for some, has in fact been detrimental to others. While nuclear power can provide energy, those living near nuclear power plants may be in danger. We live under the threat of nuclear war in our world. Science has not been able to answer all of life’s questions and quest.
“ Related to that, while modern society believed that education and reason could achieve and determine objective “truth,” critics of this postmodern era claim each person’s unique perspective influences and determines “truth” for the individual. Postmodern culture finds a sea of “truths,” each with its own claim to legitimacy.
“The modern age made clear distinctions between religious and secular worlds. As we enter the twenty-first century, our thinking has changed. Organized religion is only one avenue holding answers for us as we try to live out our life. We want holistic answers. We want our spiritual world and our material world intertwined.
“Traditional ethnic understandings of our society have changed.
“Traditional family make up has changed.
“Traditional understanding of spirituality and religion has changed.”
It’s a different world than the one Paul lived in. Is his goal of Christian perfection still a relevant and real goal for us?
Miller and Icaza-Willett continue:
“While the modern era was successful in producing a wide variety of new technology, it has been unsuccessful in producing a better human being. No matter how technologically advanced we have become, we still have to deal with age-old human problems of hate, anger, jealousy, greed, and the quest for power. People still need something to believe in, something that has lasting meaning.”
Does Paul’s goal of Christian perfection sound like a resolution for you this New Year? If you are not able to say yes to this question today, are you interested in exploring this idea further, to see if this might be a commitment you are ready to make some day?
I invite you to begin this journey with me.
In the weeks ahead, we will be exploring this postmodern age we are living in. We will be exploring the culture shifts that are effecting our lives right now, influencing the decisions we make, influencing the goal of striving for Christian perfection.
I encourage you not to miss a single week as we search for answers to these questions and others:
Do my actions and decisions glorify God?
Do my actions and decisions enhance God’s world?
Improve my relationship with my family, neighbors, and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?
Do my actions and decisions help me to fulfill the dream Jesus has in me?