Have you noticed that there is apparently something universally thrilling about the beginning of a brand new year? On December 31st when I watched the morning news, I noticed they were already talking about the new year being celebrated in far off places like Sidney or Tokyo or some other place in the world. Our culture, then, is certainly not alone in its excitement at the beginning of a year.
Why would people stay up in a huge crowd of people until midnight just to see the crystal ball fall and the new year be rung in? Well, it is because there is something about the idea of starting over, having a clean page to write on, beginning again - something that says to us, "Here is another opportunity. Here is the chance that you need in your life to kind of renew things and improve some things. Here's the chance to develop the spirit of optimism and a spirit of hope and a spirit of following through on some good intentions." One of my favorite illustrations of this is a little poem that you have heard. It says, "He came to my desk with quivering lip - The lesson was done. 'Dear teacher, I want a new leaf,' he said. 'I have spoiled this one.' I took the old leaf, stained and blotted, and gave him a new one, all unspotted, and into his sad eyes smiled, 'Do better now, my child!' I went to the Throne with quivering soul. The old year was done. 'Dear Father, has Thou a new year for me? I have spoiled this one.' He took the old year, stained and blotted, and into my sad heart smiled, 'Do better now, my child!'" That's what it is about a new year that gets all of our imagination - the opportunity to do a little better now, and the intention to do so.
There is so much of the Christian life that is gathered up in that thought. The idea of a clean start is deeply ingrained in our thinking as Christians because of what we understand the gospel to be offering us and because of what the New Testament tells us about our walk with the Lord. We are people, for example, who have begun with a new birth. All of us in Christ are new creatures, according to II Corinthians 5:17. And we are new creatures because we have been born anew, John 3, verse 3 says - born from above, born again. In our obedience to the gospel of Jesus we have purified our souls in obedience to the truth according to I Peter 2, verse 22. That newness of our life is something that deeply impresses us, and it needs to be a part of how we see our journey through this world.
Not only is there that new birth that is in our common background if we are Christians, but we through Christ have entered into a new covenant. Jesus said in Luke 22:20 that his blood brought the new covenant. You and I have entered into an agreement with God which he has extended to us. One in which he offers us forgiveness, which he offers us a new mind, which he offers us the privilege of having his will written on our hearts.
As people who have been born anew, walking in a new covenant relationship with God, all of our hopes are bound up in the promises that we have just sung about. We are waiting for that time, when just as the Lord promises, he gives to us a new heaven and a new earth wherein is righteousness, according to II Peter 3:13. That thrilling promise always keeps us, despite whatever sorrows we may have to go through, looking forward and hoping with souls that are anchored and will keep on. There is always a certain newness or a certain freshness about real Christian living because of our concentration on the work of the Lord to make things new.
Now the Bible has one theme with regard to this newness in it which seems especially appropriate right now. That is the Bible's focus on a new spirit for the Lord's people being given through the work of Christ. To begin a new year, fresh opportunity, with a new spirit - that is a new optimism, a new enthusiasm, a new devotion to the Lord, a new sense of our responsibility in his service - that would be a tremendous blessing.
In the 8th century BC, in the days of the great prophet Isaiah, the Lord's people were already being troubled by the pressures of enemies who would destroy them if they could and by the nagging unfaithfulness from within on the part of their own citizens. Isaiah had the responsibility to tell the people to wash and to be clean, but in the process of rebuking their sins, he held out a bright hope for them. A part of that is what Tom just read from Isaiah 61 as he talked about the year of the Lord's favor, the opportunity for them. Notice that he especially focused on this newness of spirit that we are describing here. In verse 3 of Isaiah 61 he used three wonderful pictures. He said, "I want to give a garland for ashes"-- that is, a beautiful headdress, a crown of victory and hope, instead of the ashes that were a sign of grief and brokenheartedness and sometimes even of repentance. What a change to go from ashes to a crown of flowers and a crown of beauty. Then he wants to give, he says, "the oil of gladness instead of mourning." The person who was in deep grief and mourning would be someone who would indicate so by the way he dressed and possibly by going in an unkept way. He is saying, "I want to change that to anointing you with the oil of celebration and of gladness." And then he says, "I want to give you a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit." Think of the faint spirit that he is talking about. The faint spirit is the one that is about to give up - the one which is weak and downcast. The Lord is saying I want to give instead a garment of praise - the kind of attire that would be worn by someone who was wanting to display the beauty of holiness.
Later on, in the 6th century BC, the people of Israel had been carried away captive. They had faced the reaping of what they had sown in terms of their unfaithfulness, and Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the people were languishing as captives way off in Babylon. There by the River Chebar God sent a prophet to work among them - a man named Ezekiel. And do you know what Ezekiel said to those weary and hopeless captives? In Ezekiel 36:26 it says of God's promise, "I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. Aand I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh." What he is saying is "I am going to remove that old hard heart, that old stubbornness, that old selfishness. I am going to get your minds off of yourselves and your own ways, and I am going to give you a new spirit and I am going to put a new heart in you." The New Testament, of course, takes that wonderful promise and says that's what God has done for us in Jesus.
I like the passage the way it comes up in Romans 7:6. In that passage the apostle Paul is talking about the difference from having lived under the condemnation of a rule of law which said if you sin, now you will bear the responsibility and there is no way out of that. Instead of being obligated to that law which had been given through Moses, the picture is used of our now being married or obligated in relation to Jesus. And it says that we now, instead of serving in that old letter, serve in newness of spirit. Newness of spirit. Think of that. Someone has made the point that what lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. That is what these passages are saying. A newness of spirit is the most wonderful kind of newness there could be.
That newness of spirit may well be what we need most as individuals and as a congregation as we begin this new year. There are a number of things that break hearts over time. Some of our families have just been through the loss of loved ones, and a lot of your hearts have been touched by things like that. They go on over time, and they can leave in the wake as certain kind of weariness and a certain kind of just being almost numb to what goes on in the world around us. I want to call our attention this morning to some of the ways in which this newness of spirit can and should be displayed in our lives as we start the journey of this year.
This newness of spirit should show in what I am going to call a spirit of conversion. Now all of us understand that conversion is something that takes place in our initial response to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We recognize our own flaws and our own weakness and our own lostness, and we hear of what God has done to take care of that through the offering up of his only begotten Son, and we hear the good news that God is inviting us to come to him through his Son and to let him clean us up and to make us new. In response to that gospel, something changes within us. Our hearts change in repentance. Our relationship to God changes as we are baptized into his Son. Our way of life changes as we begin to walk in newness of life.
I want to say to us that that spirit of conversion in the beginning of the Christian life may show itself in different ways as we make the journey through life, but it has to stay with us. Having been converted, we should understand that we have begun the process of going on changing. It is called "growing in Christ." II Peter 3, verse 18 admonishes us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The idea that is planted there is that we begin with the determination to improve, to develop, to mature, to grow and that that is an ongoing thing in our lives. We can't be content with merely repeating or duplicating the same steps that we have taken always in the past. I appeal to all of us to wake ourselves up out of self-satisfaction and weariness and to apply the same spirit that was there when we obeyed the gospel of Jesus, and to let that call on us to move forward in our Lord's service.
We can learn a lesson from our society here. Some of you have already gotten in your mailboxes this year advertisements from fitness centers. They are trying to be timely. They are trying to say, "This is the time when folks are thinking about doing better." I have gotten several advertisements from the home improvement stores, and I notice that they are all selling closet organizers. Have you noticed that? Right now we are intending to do well and they know it. Let's apply that same intention to our life as individuals with the Lord. The apostle Paul said in Philippians 3, "Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but one thing I do. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." That forgetting and stretching and pressing on is what we are talking about. Let's not be at the same level of maturity this time next year that we are right now.
Not only do we need the spirit of conversion, we need what I am going to call a spirit of consecration. Now don't be scared by that word. It is the same word that sometimes will be translated "sanctify." It simply means to understand yourself as being holy. And you think, "Well, I'm not a holy person." Listen: we have been bought with a price. If we belong to God, that just means that we are holy to him.
Several years ago (in fact this very time, 19 years ago) I was struggling with deciding what I needed to do in my ministry. It had to do with you people. There was an older Christian who at the time lived at Kimberling City. He was a friend. I was talking to him. He said, "Bill, you have got to remember that you are the Lord's man." Now I am not the only person. If you are a Christian, you are, too. And the spirit of consecration that we are talking about here means to understand that we belong to the Lord, and that in our lives we ought to follow after holiness, without which none of us will see him. Now holiness shows up in a number of ways. It shows up in our dedication in the Lord's service. It shows up in our desire to have a pure heart. It shows up in noble conduct in our everyday life. But holiness is something that needs to be found in our lives each day.
The new spirit that we should possess is a spirit of caring about people. I want to just say a word to illustrate what I am saying here. I am so grateful to see how many of my brothers and sisters in Christ came to be with two families this past week. During a holiday time and all that, you were there. You provided food. That is one illustration of the kind of caring which has got to be here and which has got to improve. A lot of you who were helping with things like that are up in years yourself. Some of these days other families are going to have to help yours that way. Some of you dear people who are younger who are members of this congregation now have got to step up, fill your role and meet your responsibility at caring even if they are people that you don't know. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Someone wrote, "Lord, I cannot ask from Thee a store of things, just let me be a channel clean through which may flow thy love to 'others' here below. How can I ask Thee, Lord, for ease, for friends and home, myself to please? Just let me break the bread of life to those who die amid the strife. I do not ask for happiness, nor dare to think of mere success; Just make me brave where I must fight the wrong and stand with Thee for right. But I would ask Thee for this year; Courage to banish others' fears; give me thine own great store of cheer, that I may dry another's tears. O Christ, who died on Calvary, help me to bring some soul to Thee. One, surely one, at least one, Lord; One soul this year by grace restored."
Our spirit of caring needs to show in our concern for people and how they stand with the Lord. We have got to have hearts that reach out. If you have a group of folks you get together with from week to week, add one more person to that group this year. Invite one more family to participate with you. If you don't have a group like that that you are involved with, start one. You realize, don't you, that growing churches have to have more and more groups of people who get together and enjoy each other's company. That is more effective than any personal work program we can start. I encourage you to help us in that way with a spirit of caring.
And then, fourth, there has to be a spirit of courage, a spirit of confidence that dwells among us. In II Cor. 3:4, 5, the apostle Paul uses a beautiful picture to make this point: "Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God."
I love the story of Joshua and Caleb in the Old Testament. When they first went up and spied out the land, ten of the spies came back saying, "Oh, let's go back to Egypt. Those people are bigger than we are." Joshua and Caleb said, "Let's go up at once and possess it because we are well able." When things started changing years later and Moses was finishing his journey, and they were about to cross the river. Joshua was going to have to accept the responsibility. God told him, "You only be strong and of good courage. Don't be dismayed at the job or at the enemies. You be strong and of good courage and do what I send you to do." Later on when they have conquered most of the land and it is time for an old Caleb now to be given his inheritance, Caleb says, "Give me this hill country because there are giants up there." Look at what kind of spirit this older man had by that point, the courage that is there. We need a spirit of conversion, a spirit of consecration, a spirit of caring, and a spirit of courage for this new year.
Someone wrote, "The old year ends, a new begins and what is written on each page will now depend on you. You can't relive the year that's past, erasing every wrong; for once a year - or day - is spent, it is forever gone. But don't give up in dark despair if you have failed some test; seek God's forgiveness and resolve henceforth to do your best. Resolve each precious day to do things good and kind and pure; though days and years may pass away, these things shall still endure. You know not where your path may lead nor what's beyond the hill; but know your God walks at your side, if you but do his will. All things are possible with God, though days be bright or dim; so do your best and know that you can leave the rest to Him." Make a beginning at that today. You won't be sorry when this time next year comes.
If you are needing this morning in obedience to the gospel to become a Christian, or if you are some brother or sister who has a need that you need to lay before your family, we encourage you to act on that intention this morning while we stand and sing.