Pastor Scott Andrews | December 26, 2021
I trust you had a good day yesterday with family and friends, celebrating the birth of Jesus. It’s hard to believe, but Christmas is past, propelling us to the next holiday – one some suggest is the oldest celebration in history – New Year’s Day. It can be traced back four thousand years to the Babylonians, who celebrated the new year in March on the first new moon after the spring equinox. That celebration lasted eleven days and the big tradition was to return any borrowed farm implements to their owners. We’ve come a long way.
Today, New Year’s celebrations span the globe with most observing the day according to the Gregorian calendar, marking January 1 as the first day of the New Year – this Saturday. If you want, you can celebrate multiple times on New Year’s Eve – watching celebrations make their way from east to west – starting with the big one in Sydney Harbor, Australia. Of course, most of us on the east coast – if you actually stay up till midnight – mark the New Year with the dropping of the ball in New York’s Times Square. Pre-Covid, over a million people would gather to watch it live as the Waterford Crystal Ball drops about seventy-seven feet, beginning its descent at 11:59 and taking one minute to descend, giving people the opportunity to count down the last minute to the new year. It is estimated one billion watch the ball drop from screens around the world.
Lots of traditions associated with the New Year – to include parades and football, food and fireworks, and of course, Auld Lang Syne and New Year’s resolutions. As I did some reading, I found many traditions around the world have to do with finding luck or prosperity in the New Year.
For example, in Scotland, the birthplace of the song, Auld Lang Syne, there is a practice called hogmanay. Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, neighbors visit each other and impart New Year’s wishes. Traditionally, visitors brought along a gift of coal for the fire, shortbread and whiskey. It was considered especially lucky if a tall, dark, and handsome man was the first to enter your house after the new year is rung in.
In Spain, the ritual on New Year’s Eve is to eat twelve grapes at midnight. The tradition is meant to secure twelve happy months in the coming year.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees on the street and launch fireworks. The fires are meant to purge the old and welcome the new.
In Italy, you eat lentils, symbolizing good fortune and sweet breads symbolizing prosperity and hope for the new year.
In Greece, New Year’s Day is also the Festival of St. Basil, one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church. One of the traditional foods is St. Basil’s cake. A silver or gold coin is baked inside the cake, and whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake will be especially lucky in the coming year – after a visit to the dentist.
Of course, here in the U.S., one of the common New Year’s traditions is eating black-eyed peas. There is an old saying which says, “Eat peas on New Year’s Day to have plenty of everything else the rest of the year.” Even when we say, Happy New Year, we are in essence saying, I hope you have a good, happy, blessed year. And given the experiences of the past couple of years, I suppose there will be lots of black-eyed peas consumed this Saturday – knock on wood.
Even new year’s resolutions are made to improve on the previous year and bring a more prosperous new year. Lose weight, quit smoking, drink less, exercise more, and get out of debt are some of the most popular. I did receive an email once about exercise and losing weight that may be of help. It said, “I joined a health club recently to lose weight. It cost me $400. It hasn’t worked yet. I guess you actually have to go there.” Of course, we know most resolutions are usually broken by February. Now, Christians make some of those same resolutions, plus others with a more spiritual focus. They usually go something like this:
- I want to read through my Bible this year.
- I want to pray more.
- I want to be involved (more) in some ministry of the church.
- I want to lead my family in devotions.
- I want to share my faith more.
- I want to give more.
Great resolutions. Catch those first two, though – those are the ones I want to focus on today: I want to read and pray more. (pep talk) Again, good resolutions – I could spend a week on each of them which would make a great multi-week series. Maybe I should – it would push Revelation back a few weeks. But, let’s focus on those first two. Starting with, I will read through my Bible this year. Basically, if you read about three chapters a day, you’ll make it through in a year. There are a number of places you can get reading guides to help you along in the goal – we’ve printed some that are available in the back of the auditorium as you leave today. How great would it be if we were together reading the same passages each week?
Let’s talk about the Bible a bit. I was talking with Pastor Doug recently, and he made some interesting observations. For years, we had a lost and found downstairs in our Welcome Center. It was one of those big plastic bins and it would regularly be filled with jackets or gloves, travel coffee mugs and Bibles. After it was full for a while, no one claiming its contents, we would donate the items to the FF thrift store.
I want you to think about that. Bibles would sit for weeks – months, and never be claimed. Now I suppose it’s because we have more Bibles at home. At least that’s what we hope. But Doug pointed out – we never had a cellphone in the bin for more than a few hours. If someone left their phone, they’d usually come back before they even got home. They’d rummage through the backs of the chairs – even if they’d already been stacked – desperately looking for the phone. That device we use to talk to others – or now, we use to scan social media or websites to know what others are thinking.
The Bible is God’s primary source of communication to us – in it, we learn what He’s thinking – what matters most. How is it we can leave the Bible indefinitely, but cannot live a day without our phones? It got me thinking about my own life. Remember when we had clocks on our nightstands? Maybe you still do – but many of us simply reach over and grab our phones to check the time. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. But along with the time, we can see any missed texts, emails or phone calls. We can scan the web – our favorite social media sites, news sites – and keep up with world events. And before you know it, our minds are consumed with things of this earth, and not much the things of heaven. Here’s a resolution I’m going to make this year. I’m going back to a clock or my watch – with my phone out of reach. And I’m going to commit to hear from the word each day before I hear from the world.
Read through the Bible this year – it’s a great resolution. For years, I taught a Bible study called Beginning with Christianity. The first lesson was titled, What is the Bible, the second, How to Study the Bible. In those lessons, we talked about five ways we can make the Bible ours: hear, read, study, memorize, and meditate. The first four talk about different ways to take the Bible in – read, hear, study and memorize it. Here’s the point: as we seek to be people of the Word of God, it begins with knowing what the Bible says. And so, I ask, have you read through the whole Bible? Are there books in the Bible you’ve never read? Again, I want to encourage you to read through the Bible this year. It’s a good way, an indispensable way, to start for a spiritually blessed New Year.
But notice, I said, start. You see, if you read the Bible, hear the Bible, study the Bible, and even memorize the Bible, that’s only the beginning. You must finish with meditating on the Bible. And by that, I mean this: you must think about ways to apply the Bible. To acquire knowledge of it and not do what it says is worthless. You must do what it says.
You want 2022 to be a good New Year? You want to be blessed? That’s what we’re all looking for – why else would you eat black-eyed peas? Jesus actually told us how in Luke chapter 11. He had just finished a conversation – actually a confrontation with some Pharisees. Remember, no one ever spoke like Jesus. He spoke with such wisdom and authority. His words were life-giving. People were amazed at what He said. Such was the case here. He just finished torching the Pharisees, and a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breast at which you nursed.” Blessed be Mary – and perhaps we should. Each year, we certainly remember the vital part she played in the first Christmas.
But, in response to this woman’s words, Jesus said, “On the contrary [not blessed be Mary], blessed are those who hear the word of God.” Now let’s look at that for a minute. Jesus said, you want to be blessed? You want a happy or blessed new year? Here’s how – hear the Word of God.
By the way, blessed is an important word. It’s the word makarios in the Greek. It’s the same word Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount – blessed are the poor in heart, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And the word is sometimes translated, happy. I don’t really like that – it’s way too shallow. Because makarios is actually an infinitely higher and better possession than mere happiness.
So much more, that when the word was first used among the Greeks in the 8th Century BC, the poet Homer said only the gods could truly be makarios – because they were not mere mortals – they were removed from this earthly existence with its pains and struggles. Meaning, all this happy new year stuff – is only for the gods. So save your breath.
Later, the Greeks decided makarios could be found by humans after all, but only after death. Sophocles, early in the 5th Century BC, wrote:
“From hence the lesson learn you,
To reckon no man happy (makarios) till you witness
The closing day; until he pass the border
Which severs life from death, unscathed by sorrow.”
You could be makarios, but only after you were dead – in other words, to say, happy new year, actually means, I hope you die in 2022.
Fast forward to today. The late Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, as he examined western civilization, said in his book, How Should We Then Live?, that westerners try to achieve true happiness through affluence – material acquisitions, financial success – you know, the man who dies with the most toys wins. Keeping up with the Joneses, which is defined as buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like. And so today, it’s:
- Happy is the go-getter – the ambitious – the one who knows where he’s going and how to get there.
- The guy who pushes everyone out of his way to get to the top.
- Happy is the guy who gets what he wants, when he wants it, where he wants it, and how he wants it.
- Happy are the rich, the noble, the famous, the popular.
- Even churches and pastors have jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting that happiness can be found in wealth and prosperity.
Trouble is, those who make it their life’s ambition to be rich, noble, famous or popular often make it – only to find that something’s terribly wrong. They aren’t happy. People have always sought for contentedness, true happiness, for makarios in ways of their own devising. But Jesus came along and said, you’re all wrong.
Homer, you’re wrong – people can be happy/blessed – not just the gods.
Sophocles, you’re wrong – people can be happy in this life, they don’t have to die to get it.
And He says, 21st Century man, you’re wrong – it’s not found in affluence or personal gain. The man who dies with the most toys might just lose. What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Rather, Jesus says, makarios, blessedness, true happiness is found in hearing the Word of God. You want to be really happy? Have you tasted the things this life has to offer and found leaving a bitter taste in your mouth? You want to be content – to the very depths of your soul? This is the path to makarios. Human happiness comes and goes, because it’s dependent on circumstances – meaning, what you unwrapped yesterday – momentary happiness is found in the chances and changes of life. It’s something which life may give, or life may destroy.
Christian happiness, makarios, blessedness is something completely different. It’s unassailable, untouchable. It’s an eternal, internal joy that no one can take. William Barclay says it like this:
“The world can win its joy, and the world can equally lose its joy. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking forever in the company and presence of Jesus Christ.”
You want to be happy, really happy? You want an inward joy – an inward contentment and deep happiness that is unaffected by outward circumstances? Making new year’s resolutions, eating black-eyed peas or a dozen grapes, biting into a silver coin in your cake, exercising, dieting, losing weight, losing debt – all of those in an attempt to have a happy, prosperous, blessed new year? Good luck with those temporary pursuits. Jesus says, if you want to have a blessed new year – a new year in which you find internal joy unaffected by outward circumstances – then hear the word of God.
So here you go: read through the Bible this year. (App to read the Bible to you) Observe a daily quiet time. Start, and finish the year with family devotions. Make small groups, Bible studies, Sunday morning corporate worship – make them all a priority this year. Those are just some ways to make the Bible yours. Listen, survey after survey demonstrate that gathering with Christians, even on Sunday mornings when we worship and learn together God’s word – has become quite optional. People call a church their church if they show up once or twice a month. Can I encourage you to make our times together irreplaceable, indispensable – a priority.
Oh, but actually, the verse didn’t stop there in Luke 11. I would be remiss to tell you you’re going to have a good year if you just read the Bible. Jesus actually said, “blessed, happy, inward, untouchable joy to those who hear the word of God and…observe it.” That is, they hear it, they read it, they study it, they memorize it, and they meditate on it to do what it says. You want to have a blessed new year? Know what the Bible says, and do what the Bible says.
Most of us can think of some things, maybe lots of things, we did last year we should not have done. The world calls them mistakes or character flaws – we typically call them sins – whether in thought, word or deed. Pride, anger, immorality, lust, gossip, stealing, lying – any number of sinful activities. Most of us can also readily think of things we have not done that we should have. Things left undone. Doing things we shouldn’t do are called sins of commission, not doing things we should are called sins of omission. Responsibilities with family or church or community we neglected. 2021 will soon be in the history books, 2022 is upon us. Take the Bible in, and do what it says.
James says the same thing in chapter 1 of his letter. In fact, it’s actually the main theme of the book. Remember, James was the half brother of Jesus. He had grown up with practical, working, doing-what-it-says Christianity. He had seen it personified in his brother. He knew what it meant to be a real Christian. He grew up with the Christ as his older brother – can you imagine. And he writes to us to say, Do It. It’s one thing to read it, to know it, but it’s another to apply it. So, James 1:22 is the theme of the book, and he spends the rest of the letter telling us what doing the word looks like. James 1:22 says, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
By the way, he goes on to say in verse 25, if you abide by what the Word says, you will be blessed in what you do. There you go again – when we do the word, we will be blessed. It’s the same word Jesus used, makarios. Obedience brings a joy and blessedness that the world does not and cannot know. It is an inward, untouchable, unassailable joy. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it. They do what it says.
I actually happen to think if you commit to read the Bible that it will work its way into your hearts and your actions. It’s a living book – a two-edged sword that penetrates us and accomplishes what God wants it to accomplish. Meaning, you cannot really successfully live the Christian life without the Bible – if you leave it in a bin in lost and found, or on a bookshelf, or lying around on a table.
I’ll just comment on the next good resolution to make. In addition to taking in the Word of God – that is, listening to what He says to you, we should also talk to Him. God communicates to us primarily through His Word, we communicate with Him primarily through our prayers.
I believe we’re living in an evangelical world today where prayer has also become optional. Several years ago, more than 17,000 members of a major evangelical denomination were surveyed about their praying habits. The survey revealed they prayed an average of less than five minutes each day. And you should know there were 2,000 pastors and wives in that group, who, by their own admission, prayed less than seven minutes per day.
How would you answer the survey? How central is prayer to your life? God delights in hearing from His children. We show our true dependence on Him when we pray. He is the source and sustenance of life itself. Of course, we also understand we are commanded to pray:
Colossians 4:2 says, “Devote yourselves to prayer…” That’s not only a command, it’s a good resolution – devote yourselves, I will pray more.
I Thessalonians 5:17 says to “Pray without ceasing.” What does it mean to pray without ceasing? Obviously it doesn’t mean that we are to do nothing except pray. But it does mean in all else that we do, we are always mindful of the presence and provision of God. He is never far from our thoughts. One author said it this way: “Think of praying without ceasing as communicating with God on one line while also taking calls on another. Even while you’re talking on the other line, you never lose the awareness of the need to return your attention to the Lord. So praying without ceasing means you never really stop conversing with God; you simply have frequent interruptions.”
Martin Luther said, “As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.” Further, Samuel Chadwick wrote, “The one concern of the devil is to keep saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”
Pretty basic truths this morning? Really, did you learn anything you didn’t know before? I doubt it. But how are you doing? Do you have a passion to listen to God’s Word? And knowing what it says, are you applying it? Do you spend time with the Lord in prayer? I believe relationship requires communication – for us to be in vital, life-giving communication with God, we must listen to Him in His word, and we must talk to Him through prayer.