It’s the start of a new year. Time to take stock of what’s been workin’ and what hasn’t been. Time to decide where to place your best licks for the new year. I’ve been doing this, myself – looking at what I want to accomplish, what I should drop and what I should take on, in this new year. And as I look over the church, I’ve been trying to figure out what we need to tackle, together – where our priorities should be – and I hope we can spend some time in our various meetings wrestling with all that. Too often, we get all caught up in the next thing that’s got to be done and fail to look down the road and ask where we’re trying to get to. And with all this on my mind the last couple of weeks, I found myself a few days ago having lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Terre Haute. Hunan chicken on a cold day: it’s a good match.
Well, lunch concluded – of course – with a fortune cookie. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the “fortunes” in the cookies, but I cracked open this one and found something actually pretty profound in it. It said, “Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing right things.”
Management is doing things right;
Leadership is doing right things.
It brought me up short, for it seemed to be aimed directly at us, at our situation. For our church, like so many groups, works very hard to maximize our gain from every resource we have.
We make every dime do the work of three nickels. We search – hard – for volunteers and leaders for our various ministries, but at the same time, we don’t want to burn people out by asking them to take on too much. We take care of our physical plant, of which we are justly proud, because if you don’t keep up with maintenance, then you get even bigger problems down the line. We are acutely aware that times are tough, and the church isn’t as high on people’s list as it used to be, and we try to be effective while being efficient in our use of all the gifts, facilities, and people that our congregation can draw upon.
And this is entirely admirable, but it’s all management -- it’s all “doing things right.” Good management can conserve what you’ve got, but it can’t give you more, and if more is what you want – what you need – then conservation can’t help you. You need growth. And growth comes from leadership - from “doing right things”
So, I think we need to have a conversation about what are the right things we should be doing in this coming year. What should we, as a whole congregation, set as our priorities – not merely holding on to what we have and are, but reaching out to grasp what we should have and should be.
There come times in our lives – our personal lives, but also our life together – where you find yourself feeling old and tired. You’ve tried to light the fire and keep it burning for so long, and you just want a respite from the sting of the smoke in your eyes. You just want to pull your chair a little closer to the fire and get whatever heat you can get out of it. You can get to where you settle for less -- and hang on to the past, because you can’t trust the future. And that’s kind of sad – and certainly no way for the people of God to be.
God calls us to a fresh start, and a new day.
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." for this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight."
John called the people to a fresh start in his ministry by the Jordan. He offered the people hope. "Messiah is coming! Time to get cleaned up for the kingdom that is even now drawing near!" Thousands came to hear – and many were baptized by John, though this caused a great deal of confusion among the people of Israel.
You see, they knew what baptism was. It was, among other things, the final act of conversion. When a Gentile became a Jew, the last ceremony that completed his or her adoption into the people of Israel and the Covenant with God was a ritual bath – a baptism. But John is saying that the good Jews of his day needed to be baptized, too. And some of them (like the Pharisees and Sadducees) thought, “hey, we don’t have to do that – we’re already in. We belong – we’re the children of Abraham, remember?”
But John said,
Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our fataher"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
All that long history of which you are so proud – all those prophets and kings, the great Temple in Jerusalem, the Covenant established at Mt. Sinai, the choice by God of these people, affirmed over and over – is all wonderful. But trusting in what you used to have, used to be, used to do, is not what the New Day is about. A new kingdom is coming – and you’re invited – but “doing things right” won't get you there. "Doing things right" is just managing goodness.
It’s like the OT Law, with all its 613 commandments and all the canons of the scribes found in the Talmud, and all that everlasting wrangle about what you’re allowed to do on the Sabbath. The Jews were past masters at “doing things right” – it’s all their religion had become. But if you want a fresh experience of God’s goodness, you have to start “doing right things” . . . and that’s something else again.
As I look out over the church – not just our church, but The Church – I think the single greatest need we have is for a fresh experience of God. In congregations where new people are encountering God, they don’t have to struggle so hard to hold onto things – for God supplies new resources – new gifts, new energies, new people, who are not afraid to begin new things and build new things. In congregations where new people are encountering God, it’s easier for the old people – that is, the people who were already there – to also have a fresh encounter with God, and see their lives renewed. In congregations where the people, new and old, are encountering God, those who have drifted away - some of them without a very clear understanding of when or why they quit participating – find themselves drawn back to a place and a body where they, too, can have a fresh experience of God.
And, of course, the problem with this is that we can’t just manufacture such experiences. We can’t just redouble our efforts and close our eyes and strain real hard and make that renewal come that we so desire – not for ourselves, and not for our church, no matter how hard we beat on it. There’s still a role for the Holy Spirit to play in reviving the Church – though our faithfulness does play a part in his ministry among us.
Years ago, we were having a winter event down at Camp Louis Ernst, and the station I was working was in a picnic shelter which had a huge fireplace with a steel hood jutting out from the masonry and a steel flue running up the chimney. It was January, so we kept trying to build a fire in the fireplace – several fires at once, as a matter of fact – but they gave off no heat, and the smoke hung under the rafters, and we were choked as well as cold. And then, suddenly, the fire blazed up, the smoke cleared, and the fireplace began to put out heat. So hot and so fast did it burn, that it was all we could do to keep it stoked – and we were amazed. What had happened?
Well, what a lot of people don’t realize is that a wood-burning stove or a fireplace is not only a place to burn wood and a pipe to draw off smoke, but also a large, and sometimes very cold, object in itself. And when you first start the fire, it doesn’t burn very well, because all the heat is being absorbed by the cold firebox, and until all that cold steel gets warm, the air won’t rise up the flue. But once the box and pipe are all warmed up, then the warm air rises up the flue, and draws more air after it, and that air being sucked into the fireplace causes the fire to blaze up, and then the more you feed the fire, the more warmth you will get.
Now, think of the church as a large fireplace – sometimes, a very old and very cold fireplace. Then think compare the Holy Spirit to the air rushing through the fireplace: the Holy Spirit provides a supernatural kind of convection. He draws us to Christ, by whom our hearts are warmed and our darkened souls lighted, and he sends us out into the world to bring our warmth and light to others. Then he draws us in again, when we are in danger of growing cold.
And two things need to be pointed out in that process. One, that it is the faithful, patient burning of the little fire – which often seems to produce more smoke than anything else – which eventually warms everything else up and gets things going. So it is, ultimately, those who persevere – who do not give up on the dream of what God can do in them and through them – who make it possible for the Holy Spirit to draw others in. As St. Paul said, don’t get discouraged; in due time, we shall reap the harvest we have sown, so long as we do not lose heart.
But the other thing to note is that it is not our puny flame that warms others’ souls or draws them in. It is only when they come into contact with the living Christ that they are set ablaze, and see what God can do for them. And the same is true for us.
The whole purpose of John’s baptism was to get the people ready for the kingdom of God – and then to reveal God’s Christ when he came.
And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and [John] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on [Jesus]; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Faithfulness and perseverance and longsuffering and loyalty and love are not enough. We must have Jesus, or we will not find the encounter with God that we have sought, the experience that brings new joy and new power to our lives.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our Father.’
As we set out to make a fresh start in this new year, let me ask you to imagine that none of the things we spend so much time managing are available to us. Let’s say we didn’t have this big ol’ church with its comfort and its beauty and its memories. What if we had to start over and build it anew?
What if we had no resources at all – if we were just starting out as a new congregation, and everything depended on each one of us doing his very best every week to be here, and to give everything we could, and to pray like you’ve never prayed before, so that we would prosper in the new start we had made?
What if we didn’t think of our congregation as made up of families, many of which have been here a long time – even over several generations – and we set ourselves to make sure that every new person who showed an interest was asked to join us, and every person who showed a sign of losing interest was lovingly reminded how much they mean to us, because we can’t spare anybody if we’re going to make a go of this new endeavor?
And what if we talked more about Jesus and less about values or ethics or the hymns we sing or the church calendar or the budget?
What if we said to ourselves, each one of us – that it all depended on me? And that it’s all about Jesus? And we set out on down the path of this new year resolving to stay as close to him and each other as we could, because only in so doing could we reach our goal of another year with him?
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight!
How different would that be? And, more important, how different would we be?