Happy New Year! I hope your Christmas and any other holiday celebrations you had went well, but I’m glad to see you this morning and glad that you’ve chosen to kick off 2017 in worship, beginning this new year by focusing first on the things of God. Newness is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. When the wise-men came before Herod they asked to see the new king who had been born. In Mark’s gospel one of the first statements an outsider makes about Jesus is that he has a new teaching, and with authority. Newness comes up over and over in the Bible, right up to the end, where in Revelation we hear these words, “behold, I am making all things new.” What a great reminder, here in the new year, that God’s doesn’t give up, that God is always at the work of creation and recreation, always working towards an end goal of newness. Which is good news for us, because we like new things, right. People always want new, bigger, better, shinier, that’s the stereotype. Sometimes its not the case though, right? Sometimes we can be really resistant to new things, clinging to what’s old, familiar, comfortable, whatever it is. And that’s not a bad thing, universally, not always. Sometimes older things can be good.
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of Christmases where mom and dad slave away for hours making sure the fancy new toy works and then Junior is only interested in playing with box? I got to witness something similar this year, we have babies at Christmas for the first time in years. And after them my sister is the youngest at 22 so its been awhile since we’ve had anyone that young. And it just makes Christmas more exciting to have little kids there with all their new toys and all that. So they are there and the big item this year, was an electric Jeep. Like this thing was nicer than my car, it had lights, horn, the whole deal. But the little girl who got it refused to ride on it, instead she was fascinated by one of those old, molded plastic trucks that you have to scoot yourself along on your knees with that my uncle had found cleaning out his garage. And no matter what they did they couldn’t convince her to get off the old one and try out the new. And that was cute, her refusing the new thing for the old, but sometimes our tendency to cling to the old isn’t as cute. Sometimes it costs us something.
C S Lewis talked about this odd habit of humanity this way, he said ““It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We are like, he says, a kid playing in a mud puddle. And we’re having so much fun in our mud puddle. And someone comes up and says:
Hey, I see you’re really enjoying that mud puddle, have I got an offer for you. What if I told you there’s a place that’s just water and sand. And the water comes up every few seconds and hits the sand, so you’ll never run out of mud. You’ll have so much that you won’t have to just make pies, you can make castles. And when you’re done there’s so much water that you can run into it and get the mud off of you.”
And we’re sitting there like “sign me up this sounds amazing.”
And the guy says “Great, lets go, get up and I’ll take you.” And we say “wait, I have to leave my mud puddle?”
“Well yes, but I just told you, there’s something waiting that’s so much better than a mud puddle.”
“But…my mud puddle is pretty great.”
“Right, but do you remember everything I said about the ocean and the beach and all that?”
“Yeah, and that sounds great but I reeeeaaaaaaaallllllly like my mud puddle, I think I’m gonna hang tight here.”
None of us, if we knew what it meant to go to the beach, would choose to stay and sit in a mud puddle. And yet for Lewis that is the human condition in a nut shell, God offers us this “newness,” this opportunity at a new life, at a life so infinitely better than anything we could put together ourselves, and our response is “yeah, but I really like my mud puddle.”
It’s the same issue Paul dealt with in this section from Romans. Little background, Romans is the only letter Paul wrote to a church he didn’t have a connection to. He had never been to Rome, he wanted to go to Rome and make it his home-base to continue his journeys into Spain and Western Europe, so the book of Romans records a letter written to introduce himself to the people: “this is me, this is what I believe, this is what I’m about.” So the book has more pure theology in it than any other letter because he didn’t write to deal with an issue the church was facing, he was explaining to them what it is he preached.
So up until this point he’s explained that human condition is not good. That humans are sinful by nature, that we are enslaved by sin, and that any effort we make on our own to break from this nature will fail, we cannot overcome it on our own. To make matters worse, this nature separates us from God. But there’s good news. God doesn’t want us to be separate, God desires relationship with creation, that’s what God has always desired. So God sends Jesus, Jesus chooses faithfulness to God over the temptations of the sinful nature and then chooses still to bear the sins of creation and die, but doesn’t stay dead. He’s resurrected, and in that breaks the power that sin has over creation, and now through that faith that Jesus showcased we have the opportunity at a new life, a life free from sin.
Paul’s told this story before, so he’s ready for the people’s response. He knows what’s coming and he pre-empts the question. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace can increase?” “Wouldn’t it make sense for us to keep sinning, keep doing the things we’ve been doing, because then God will look even better for forgiving us. The more sin there is, the more grace there will have to be, and more grace is a good thing right?” And Paul’s response is “no, that’s not…this isn’t a 3rd grade word problem, grace and sin aren’t inversely proportional, it’s a one or the other type deal.” What they’re really saying is “yeah, the ocean sounds great but I reeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllly like my mud puddle.” And Paul’s response is so simple: “we are those who have died to sin, how can we live in it any longer? If you’ve really seen the ocean, how can you be satisfied with that mud puddle?”
If you’ve really seen the ocean how can you be happy with a mud puddle? If you’ve got a toy car that drives itself why would you choose to have to push yourself along with your knees? If you’ve got a chance at being free why would you choose to be a slave? For Paul what this new life that is offered means is freedom. It’s a freedom to choose to not be controlled by sin anymore. Its a freedom not to let anger and greed and lust and ambition and jealousy and competition and all those things that come along with being human be in control of how we live our lives. It’s a freedom not to be let down anymore. Not to buy in to the idea that the next thing: the next relationship, the next job, the next drink, the next house, the next car, whatever it is, that next thing is going to be the one that finally satisfies.
There’s psychological experiment that was originally done years ago and gets redone every decade or so: people are surveyed from all walks of life, all types of jobs, all over the socio-economic scale, and asked how much money it would take to make them happy. The average amount, regardless of what their starting salary is, is double. Whatever they’re making, from people on the minimum wage barely surviving to multi-millionaires, they almost always answer that if they had twice as much they would be happy, content, satisfied. No matter the starting point, twice as much would do it. Twice as much would make everything ok, fix all the problems. Except the person making twice as much is saying the same thing. And the person making twice as much as her is saying the same thing and on and on and on and on. The answer is right there, its never going to be enough. The next whatever is never going to satisfy because that’s not the way the world works. If we could ever be satisfied with the things of this world sin wouldn’t have any power over us.
In John 10 Jesus talks about this new life using the image of keeping sheep. He says “I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers… I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
“All those who came before, all those other voices you’re hearing, they’re lying to you. They’re telling you that more of something can satisfy you, that giving in to the way the world works will make you happy. I’m telling you that I’m the only thing that can do that. I’m telling you that in me you will find life. A new life, a full life. A life of completion, a life of wholeness, a life that is finally what you were made to be.”
This morning we celebrated new life in the waters of baptism. But baptism was never meant to be a one-time thing, a single moment never to be thought of again. Our Baptisms represent a choice. A choice we are called to make daily. A choice to, in Paul’s words, die with Christ to sin and live with him in new life by living life as he did. By refusing to embrace the things of this world that draw us away from God. By reminding ourselves every day that the life we’ve been offered contains so much more than the one we’re leaving behind.
There’s another CS Lewis quote that speaks to this. In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis said ““If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” I’ll paraphrase it this morning, if we realize that nothing about our life seems to be enough, the only solution is we are called to a new one