Many of us look ahead to the new year and think, “I hope this year is better than last year!” While I understand the impulse to do so, we need to remember this: everything that happened last year happened according to God’s plan for us, even if his plan didn’t correspond to our own. Therefore we can be grateful even for the hard times, because God used them for our good.
John the Baptist provides a great example to help us have a better year in 2016. He reminds us to stay focused not on what we want—on our plans and desires—but on what God wants. We should be so focused on his agenda that we don’t have much time to worry our own!
Sermon Text: John 1:19-34
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
I can tell from Facebook that many of us have made New Year’s Resolutions. Indeed, early January is the time when gyms across the nation pay the bills for the other eleven months of the year. Because in January we resolve to do what most of us resolved to do last year but failed. And what we resolved to do the year before that, but failed. And what we resolved to do the year before that, but failed: which is, to finally get in shape! So we join the gym in January. And we go many times in January. And we go a little less in February. And March… even less.
One of my Christmas gifts that I asked for this year, and received, was running clothes for cold weather—and finally, on Friday for the first time this winter, it was cold enough to wear them. The outfit is made of this stretchy material that is form-fitting. Unforgivably so! When I put the shirt on, and looked in the mirror, I said, “Oh, my goodness, when did I become the Michelin man? I have to wear a baggy T-shirt on top of this.” So I’ve resolved to get in better shape in this new year.
But looking around the internet, and listening to people talk, I noticed that some people were not merely looking ahead to a better and brighter 2016, they were also looking back on 2015 and saying, in so many words, “Thank heavens that’s over! Here’s hoping 2016 is better than 2015.” One Christian blogger I respect wrote a headline a few days ago that caught my attention: “Here’s why I’m mostly grateful for 2015.”
I appreciate her honesty. But that word “mostly” kind of sticks in my craw. From a biblical point of view, I don’t think we get to be “mostly” grateful for what has happened over the past year—not as followers of Jesus. After all, did anything happen to us last year that wasn’t part of God’s plan for us? And you may say, “Yes, Pastor Brent, but you see I messed up. I’m not blaming God for my terrible year. I’m responsible. I sinned really badly. Therefore I got my life off course. So God might have had a plan for me, but I messed it up.”
Well, I agree that you and I and everyone else in the world have sinned—badly—over the past year. We often failed to do what God wanted us to do. God certainly didn’t want us to sin; that was our choice; and we’re responsible for that. But, see, God already knew—before he even created you and me he knew, before he even created the world he knew—he knew that you and I and everyone else in the world would make the ignorant, foolish, and sinful decisions that we made in 2015. So what we chose to do didn’t catch God by surprise. And because of that, he was able to account for those choices—to work around them, to work through them, indeed, even to transform them—to transform all the bad stuff and use it in a way that helps us. And even if we’ve been disciplined by God for our sin, how can we not be grateful even for that?
And this is true not only for our sinful choices and their consequences, but also for the bad stuff that happens to us over which we have no control. Can I be grateful even in the midst of this illness? Can I be grateful even though I got laid off? Can I be grateful even though this relationship is falling apart? Can I be grateful, even though my loved one died? And the answer is, yes—if you’re a child of God, yes. As theologian Andrew Wilson said, paraphrasing several passages of scripture: “Suffering produces perseverance, and character, and hope, which does not disappoint because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit. It is “in all these things”—persecution, danger, nakedness, sword—that we know nothing can separate us from the love of God. It is through sufferings that our comfort abounds in Christ, and through [God’s] discipline that we know we are legitimate children of God.” He is able to transform adversity into something good because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.
If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, hasn’t this been true in your experience?
I can think of things that happened to me over the past several years that have flattened me—utterly crushed my ego, wounded my sinful pride. Painful stuff that drove me to my knees and made me cry out to God in utter helplessness, “I can’t do this, God. I can’t handle this.” And God’s like, “You’re right! You can’t do it! You can’t handle it! But let me show you that I can do it; I can handle it. Let me give you my all-sufficient grace, which you need to make it through this difficult trial. And once you get through it—on the other side of this painful experience—you’ll be able to trust me even more the next time a trial comes along—and you’ll be much happier because of it.”
So I fear that when we say things like, “I’m mostly grateful for 2015,” what we’re really saying is, “I’m grateful that most of the time, at least, God’s plans for me happened to correspond to the plans I had for myself.” And when we say, “I’m glad 2015 is over,” what we’re really saying is, “2015 didn’t go the way I wanted. God’s plans for my life were not my plans for my life. What I wanted for myself in 2015 wasn’t what God wanted for me—and that made me really unhappy last year.”
Maybe this describes you. And for all I know, 2016 will go just the way you want it to. Everything will go your way, and you’ll be happy. I mean, I doubt it, but it’s possible. But wouldn’t it better if you had a kind of happiness, a kind of deep and lasting happiness, a kind of abiding joy, that was bullet-proof, that didn’t vacillate depending on external circumstances, that wasn’t affected by whether or not things were going your way? Don’t you want the kind of happiness that lets you “rejoice in the Lord always” and be “thankful in all things”?
I certainly do! And I believe that John the Baptist gives us an example of how to have that kind of resilient happiness and joy.
After all, John is not a man who would look back on yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year and complain that things didn’t go his way. Because he doesn’t seem to care at all about things going his way—even when things are going his way. I mean, at this point in John chapter 1 he’s attracting large crowds of people. He has disciples who are following him. He’s famous. He’s respected. He’s adored. Powerful and important people—society’s movers and shakers—are coming out to him in order to be baptized.
But does he let this unprecedented success go to his head? Not at all! Look at how he answers this delegation sent from Jerusalem. When they ask, Who are you? he answers, in so many words, “I’m nobody.” Even when they ask him, echoing the messianic prophecy of Malachi, “Are you Elijah?” John says, “No, I’m not him.”
But here’s the thing: that’s exactly who John the Baptist is—he’s the Elijah-like prophet that was supposed to come before Christ and call people to repentance. Jesus said so himself in Matthew 11:14: “If you are willing to accept it, [John] is Elijah who is to come.” Jesus also said of him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” So up until Jesus, John was the greatest person who ever lived—according to Jesus. Yet John could say of Jesus, “I’m not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” Untying the strap of a sandal, by the way, was something that only a slave would do. John is saying that in comparison to Jesus he’s lower than even a slave.
When I consider this kind of humility, I think to myself, “I am so unlike John the Baptist.” See, in comparison to John, I’m even less worthy to untie the strap of Jesus’ sandals, but is that how I usually act?
No! When I serve Jesus, I can hardly do so without wanting to hold on to just a little bit of glory for myself!
This is what my sinful heart always tries to do… In fact, when I think about it, so much of my unhappiness in life is related to not getting the glory I think I deserve—as if I “deserve” anything from the One whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie! But I do think that when I’m unhappiest, it’s because I’m not getting the glory. For example, why do I spend too much time worrying about what other people think of me? Is it because I’m afraid if they don’t like me, and they gossip about me, they’ll rob me of some of my glory? And why do I struggle to be happy for colleagues of mine who are more successful than I am? Is it because I’m jealous of the glory that they’re receiving—which I’m not receiving. And why do I get my feelings hurt so easily? Is it because someone has said or done something to me that diminishes my glory?
At my sinful worst, I want glory so badly—and it just kills my spirit! Surely I’m not the only one, am I?
So, no, I’m not like John. Because he couldn’t care less about his own glory. Why is that? And how can I be more like him?
I saw a movie last week that helped me figure it out. It was a DVD that was on my Christmas list, and Lisa got it for me. It’s called The Gallant Hours, a film from 1960 starring James Cagney. Cagney plays U.S. Admiral William Halsey, and the movie tells the story of the Allied victory over Japan in the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. At the beginning of the movie, Halsey is promoted to commander of the Allied forces in the South Pacific. Things have not been going well for the Allies: Japan defeated the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and then Bataan, and the U.S. is now in danger of losing Guadalcanal, too. So Halsey implements a go-for-broke plan to defend the island until they can get reinforcements—in a battle that proves very costly. Dozens of U.S. planes are shot down; dozens of ships are sunk—including an aircraft carrier; hundreds of ground troops are killed.
After the battle, Halsey meets with his top advisors. He asks them for their assessment of the battle. And they’re all grim-faced as they recount all the losses they suffered. They think they’ve failed. One of them even suggests an evacuation plan for the island. But Halsey asks them, “What was our mission here? To hold on to Guadalcanal. And that’s exactly what we accomplished… No, the way I see it, we fought them to a standoff, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.” And he smiled as he said it.
A standoff. That doesn’t sound very glorious, does it? A standoff won’t win Halsey another star on his uniform. But he didn’t care about stars on his uniform. He cared about one thing: accomplishing his mission. He was too focused on his mission to worry about personal glory.
And that’s the way John the Baptist is. “Who am I? I’m nobody. But let me tell you about the Son of God. He’s somebody. He’s the one who deserves all the glory. Not me.” If John the Baptist were alive in the twenty-first century, we would diagnose this kind of humility as a problem; we would say he suffers from “low self-esteem.” But that’s not it at all. It’s not that he has low self-esteem; it’s that he has high self-forgetfulness. What did C.S. Lewis say? Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.
In another scene in that movie, Halsey talks to a pilot who tries to resign as squadron commander because he lost half his men in the battle—nine out of eighteen pilots. This pilot feels like a failure—like he’s not cutting it as a leader. Halsey reminds him, “You lost nine pilots—well, I lost those same nine pilots!” And he proceeds to list all the other people and ships and planes that he also lost in the battle.
I think many of us can identify with this pilot. He’s beating himself up; he’s angry and disappointed with himself; he won’t forgive himself for his mistakes; he won’t cut himself any slack. Unlike John the Baptist, you see, this man really is suffering from low self-esteem. Which just goes to show that having low self-esteem is every bit as prideful as having an inflated view of yourself. Why do I say that? Because think about it: when you beat yourself up, when you’re angry at yourself and disappointed in yourself, when you won’t forgive yourself for some mistake you made, you’re only able to do that because your ego is still at the center of your life! You’re still putting yourself first! In order for your pride to be so badly wounded that it’s causing you to beat yourself up it means that you have to have pride in the first place. Your problem is you’re still imagining that it’s all about you. And remember what John the Baptist teaches us: It’s not about you… or me. It’s about him. It’s about Jesus Christ… It’s about his glory. Not your own.
So what does Halsey tell the pilot to convince him to keep on going. He said, “You think it takes a great man to be a leader, and you don’t feel like you’re good enough? Well, there are no great men, there are only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.”
That’s almost right, except I would put it like this: There are no great men or women. There are only great challenges, sent to us by God, which God uses to force ordinary men and women like you and me to meet—by trusting in his grace alone.
In 2016, will you meet that challenge and be that man or woman? If you’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, you’re no less on a mission fro God than John was. And just as John was sent by God to do his work, you’re also sent by God wherever you go. And just as John was called to testify about Christ, you’re also called to testify—through your words and actions.
I want all of us to have a better year in 2016 than we had in 2015. And here’s how we can do that. Every time a trial or a challenge or some adversity comes our way—no matter what it is… something at school, something at work, something related to our health, something related to our family, something related to our marriage or other important relationships, something related to our finances… whatever it is… I want you to tell yourself: “God has sent this challenge to me. Which means it’s a part of his plan. Which means he’s given me a mission. Which means my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to glorify him even in the midst of this adversity. Which means I don’t fall apart when things go wrong. Which means I don’t give in to fear. Which means I don’t give in to worry or anxiety. Which means I trust God that he’s got everything under control. Which means he’s “turning to good” whatever adversity he sends my way.”