Sermon -- Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ecclesiastes 3: 1- 8: For everything there is a season
1 Timothy 6: 6- 15: The Good Fight of Faith

By: Amy D. Brown

Timing is everything.  Our Old Testament reading this morning from Ecclesiastes is, I’m sure, familiar to most of you, even if only from The Byrds’ 1965 version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn”.  The list provided by the author of Ecclesiastes, traditionally presumed to be King Solomon, is quite comprehensive in its poetic parallels over just 8 verses. The message is clear; God has a plan, but more specifically, God has a timetable.

Anyone with even a brownish-green thumb knows that December 31st is not the right time to plant an outdoor vegetable garden here in Lincoln.  And yet, when the time is right, a properly tended garden can produce quite a bounty of fresh vegetables. So too, the passage says, is there a time to weep, and a time to laugh.  From these verses, you can see the beginnings of centuries of debate about predestination versus free will. If God has a time for everything, does any choice we make have the ability to change anything in our lives?  And if we do have free will, what does that do to God’s sovereignty? Ah, but I digress…

I started attending church at about 18 months old. My church growing up had Sunday School after the Worship service, and I remember asking my grandmother to pick me up on her way by my house so I could attend worship before my Mom brought my younger sisters to Sunday School later in the morning.  I was somewhere around 8 or 9 years old at the time, a good enough reader to be able to keep up with the call and response and follow along with the scripture readings.

We were a good, old fashioned King James Version congregation, and most of the verses I can still recite I have memorized in the King James translation.  The Lord’s Prayer, even in 1980s America 270 years or so after the translation was written, was without question “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It’s how I still say the prayer.  Even now, there’s an almost ominous power in that prayer from Matthew. God’s kingdom, here? A multitude of angels, Revelations’ fiery abyss? Needless to say, my younger self had a tendency toward vivid imagination, so I was never quite sure what sort of kingdom I was praying would come.  But with that call for God’s kingdom was always paired “thy will be done”, and from there we come right back to Solomon, in my head at least. Every Sunday, we pray that God’s kingdom come, not by our will, but God’s. And by extension, not on our timetable, but His.

It’s kind of funny to think about it now, but I remember being very careful about what I asked God for when I was a kid.  The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!” seemed a reasonable concern. After all, any good tale with a genie almost always involved a poorly worded request and a wish gone awry.  Wishing for school to be cancelled (for the unstated reason of wanting to play video games all day) might lead to a snowstorm that takes out the power, thus ruining my hopes of finishing The Legend of Zelda, for instance.  But then asking God for school to be closed so I can play video games all day sounds a bit self-centered when you ask him out loud. And what about all the other kids in my school district? Surely at least one of them was asking for the opposite, for school to remain open so they had something to do all day, or food to eat, or so they could see their friends, and on and on.  How does God handle all of these prayer requests when they might all contradict each other, I wondered?

And come Easter, I found that even Jesus struggled with asking for what he wanted versus God’s will for him.  In Luke 22: 42, on the Mount of Olives right before he was betrayed, He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  And really, this too brings us right back to God’s time for everything. Sure, we can ask for what we want, and I certainly did ask for some ridiculous things in prayer as a child, but even then, I remember couching it in roughly the same terms Jesus used near the end.  Not my will, but yours, God, since you clearly have a plan, and you clearly know the time for everything.

Which brings us right up to today, New Year’s Eve 2017.  According to history.com, the ancient Babylonians are believed to be the first to make new year’s resolutions, back around 4,000 years ago.  Keeping their promises to their gods to pay their debts and return items they had borrowed was said to earn them favor with the gods, while failing to keep those promises could make them fall out of favor.  Jumping ahead to about 46 BCE, Julius Caesar reworked the calendar, making January 1st the start of the calendar year. The Roman god Janus, for whom the month is named, was depicted as having two faces, one facing forward and one facing behind, so having the start of his namesake month be the time for looking back over the previous year and promising good behavior in the next took no leap of logic.

Early Christians used the start of the new year to ponder their past mistakes, promising to do and be better in the future.  Then in 1740, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, created the Covenant Renewal Service, also called a watch night, for folks to formally gather for Scripture and hymns on New Year’s, providing an alternative to the other sorts of New Year’s hijinks you could get into to celebrate the new year.  Now more popular with evangelical Protestants, watch night services are still being held. In fact, they’re having a watch night service today at Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence to pray and make resolutions for the new year.

I haven’t been a New Year’s resolution kind of person since I can’t remember when.  After all, anything worth doing (or changing) is worth doing right away. Why wait for the start of the new year to try a new exercise program or quit doing that thing you know you should probably quit doing?  And I generally mean it, but I will admit to typically waiting for the start of at least the next week or the next month when I resolve to do anything new or different. You can take the new year out of the resolution, but for tracking purposes (and I’m a checklist and calendar tracking kind of a girl), let’s at least have a non-random starting point.

So what does the Bible say about making New Year’s resolutions?  There’s nothing specific to the new year, but Lamentations 3:40 says, “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.”  In answering this question about resolutions and the Bible on his website, Billy Graham had the following to say after pointing to the passage in Lamentations:

“Did you ever ask yourself why you found it so hard to keep the resolutions you used to make? One reason may have been that they weren’t realistic, or you had no clear plan for reaching them. Many New Year’s resolutions, I’m afraid, are little more than a “wish list”–a series of things we’d like to change about our lives, but little more. They also may be very self-centered, with little thought about whether or not they are God’s will.

“Another reason, however, why we fail to keep our resolutions is because we seek to reach them in our own strength instead of with God’s help. But we are spiritually and morally weak, and we will never be the people God wants us to be unless we turn to Him for the help we need. The psalmist wrote, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).”

Today’s New Testament reading is from Paul’s letter to Timothy, the excerpt containing several warnings and a charge to service.  Paul tells Timothy that godliness and the basic necessities of food and clothing bring the sort of contentment that transcends monetary gain.  Love of money, he continues, is the root of all evil. After all, Paul says in verse 7, “for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”  Many today are struggling to attain that which is fleeting here on Earth. As you consider the past year and look ahead to the coming year, are you ready to fight the good fight?  Will you take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, like Timothy?

My challenge for you all this morning is to think about Paul’s charge to Timothy, to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”  Think about what things you truly need to be content. Consider those things your life would perhaps be better without. If you’re not one for resolutions, at least take a moment or two to examine your ways, as Lamentations suggests, and see if perhaps this is the time for a change, or for a recommitment to your faith.  I charge you as Paul charged Timothy, “In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus,... to keep the commandment... until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time.”

Because God has a plan for you and He has a timetable.  There’s a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to weep and a time to laugh.  There’s a time for everything under heaven, and it just might be time for you to find contentment, or to pursue faith and love, like Timothy.  But no matter what you resolve to do in 2018, know that our help comes from the Lord, and as Jesus taught us, with God all things are possible.  Amen.