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January 2017

Resolution and Failure—Or Success

New Year’s Day is mostly a joyous time. I love the treats, the late-night celebration, the promise of a clean slate, the novelty of writing out the new date for the first time (I just saved this file with the date 2017!), and most everything else that goes with it. But believe it or not, I also find New Year’s Day to be rather discouraging, not because of the swift march of time or anything like that, but because of the whole principle of New Year’s Resolutions.

The fact is, I make resolutions all the time. When I’m driving alone on a long trip, I have plenty of time to ruminate on my own habits, both professional and personal, earthly and spiritual, and to come up with great ideas for how I could do things better. I get all fired up, but then as soon as normal life starts up again, all those great ideas go out the window and I settle back into my old routine.

It’s much the same on New Year’s Day. I look into the new year and think about how it could be different from the last. How could I do things better? How could I improve my lifestyle, my routines, and my habits? How can I live more fully the life that God has given me? I come up with all kinds of ideas, but always in the back of my mind is the memory of New Years past, and the plethora of resolutions that I didn’t end up keeping.

I wonder if you share my experience. From my perspective, looking out over my congregation, I see people who have it together. You are all responsible, dedicated people who make the most of the blessings that God has entrusted to you. But do some of you share my anxiety for the New Year? Do some of you share my discouragement at how difficult it can be to make meaningful changes in your lifestyles? If so, you’re not alone.

Actually, this is largely what the Christian life can be for many of us. We watch as faithful Christians, whether the heroes of the faith in times past or our own admirable contemporaries, go from strength to strength, living triumphant on the promises of God. We, meanwhile, continue to languish in the old bondage under sin. We struggle to pray as we ought, to meditate as we ought, and to live as we ought. We, like St. Paul before us, cry out, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18b–19, 24).

To this seemingly hopeless situation, St. Paul speaks a Word of comfort: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:25a; 8:1). This comfort is twofold: first, God does not hold our failures against us; second, God strengthens us to make real change.

Whatever the failures of past New Year’s Resolutions may do, let them have no power over your conscience. Jesus Christ has delivered you from such condemnation! When God looks upon you, He does so not to castigate you for failing to live up to your own ideals, or even His perfect ideals for you, but to give to you as a gift the successes and victories of His own Son. Admit your failures and receive with thanksgiving the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is yours by faith in Him.

Furthermore, no matter how often we have failed in the past, God never wants us to despair of His strength in the future. In our Christian walk, we continue to be beset by the contagion of sin, but God does lead us by His Spirit so that, insofar as we are new creations in His Son, we can obtain the victory over sin. As Luther teaches in the meaning of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “we pray … that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, nor seduce us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome, and obtain the victory.” Never give up striving for righteousness, straining for the victory, even as you rely entirely on God’s mercy to you in Christ.

May this New Year be a time of repentance, renewal, and hope in the Lord Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

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