Happy New Year, friends! I know we’re eight days in to 2017 at this point but this is the first I’m seeing many of you. We were out of state on New Year’s Day visiting our families when you gathered for worship. I understand we had a good crowd, a lively morning, and two families joined the church so you’ve clearly got a jump on me this year but I’m glad to be with you today. We had a terrific visit to Missouri. It was the year of the baby in the Briley and Anderson families so we had lots of baby time. First, it was this smiley guy – Oliver – he’s found his legs and loves to entertain.
And then there’s this gal… My sister calls her Squish. Gotta love those cheeks. Ren is my birthday twin so I feel like we’ve really got something going. Lots of babies! New HACC members Justin and Lauren Zell expect their first child to be born any day now! We’ll dedicate two babies at HACC in the next four weeks. I’m just loving all of this new life around us which always brings me hope for the possibilities of the future. With the many struggles that seemed to accompany 2016, I’m grateful for these gifts that give us deep reason to create the world in the heavenly image Jesus came to introduce.
With such optimism we tackle a new year. The resolution conversation always comes up. “You make any resolutions?” we ask one another. People start thinking about personal change. A lot of people want change in their lives. It’s how we are designed. We determine we are not yet who we want to be so we latch onto a new year as the instigator for whatever desired change is on our hearts. Most polls suggest about 60% of Americans make New Year Resolutions. It is also suggested that about 8% of us who make resolutions will fulfill those resolutions successfully. 92% of us won’t last through the month. It’s why one friend joked, “I’m going to open a gym in January and convert it into a taco shop in February.” There are many reasons why we can’t keep up the effort for long. Some say the main problem with resolutions are that we make too many of them. I’m going to lose forty pounds and become a culinary artist and an astronaut and stop chewing gum and spend more time with the kids and, and, and… Who can possibly do all of that? Another problem? Our resolutions are often too vague – “I want to be a better person.” Better than who? Better how? One person argued that most resolutions are too shallow like “I’m not going to cuss this year.” That wouldn’t be a bad thing of course but the argument was that such doesn’t breed transformative change and only tends to frustrate us and our quarter-a-cuss jars. There are other reasons people suggest resolutions don’t tend to stick but I’m guessing we’ve all had some personal experience with this so let’s shift the focus shall we?
What if we moved from a list of resolutions to the focus on one simple word? The goal is to do something about one thing instead of nothing about everything. A single sentence might address a particular behavior but a single word focuses on our character. “I’m not going to cuss this year” focuses on a behavior or an act. The word “language” might focus us more centrally on how what we say shapes our lives and those around us. Do you see the difference? It’s less about something we do and more about molding someone we are; someone we become. This will be our fourth year in a row of drawing one unique word that each of us might focus on for the coming year. It’s not fortune cookie magic or anything but I have been amazed at the ways these words have helped shape your spirit life in the three previous years. I’ve run into a few of you in the past week who have said, “I can’t wait to get my word this Sunday… last year’s word really challenged me.” Another said, “When I drew my word last year I had no clue that it would come to mean to me what it did based on all the things I went through in 2016.” This practice is growing around the country. I’m not sure where it started but pastor Mike Ashcraft has written an entire work book around the concept. He calls it, “My One Word.” This development came out of his own experience with people’s desire for change and the struggle with keeping resolutions. He said, “Our desire for change is just a part of who we are. That aching never seems to go away.” We try to fulfill that ache in so many ways but ultimately, we were made for God and until we find a sweet spot in who God calls us to be, we keep wrestling. As a side note, I will add this note: this transformative process of growing in the groove of God involves some wrestling too because God may desire for us to shift over time. As creatures of habit, we tend to say, “Hey – this is what works for me. This is what brought success so I’m going to keep doing that.” That probably will work for a while but often our greatest deterrent from ongoing growth is our previous success. Be open – no matter your age or stage in life or level of success you have attained in the world – be teachable, moldable – that is the primary key to being a disciple of Christ. Disciple means “learner” – never stop being a learner of Christ.
The heartbeat of all of this is to consider spiritual formation in a very normal and natural way. Spiritual formation sounds so heavenly, daunting even, which leaves us asking, “So, is there an app for that?” We talk about spiritual disciplines – scripture reading, quiet time, journaling, prayer, service to others, advocacy for the oppressed – all of that is important but we can become overwhelmed in trying to tackle all of those things. In reality, any change is hard. Transformation by its very definition is a major task – lots of friction and discomfort. Ashcraft says, “The normal and natural direction of your life will not likely lead you to spiritual transformation.” The late Dallas Willard said this about the matter: “Spiritual formation is an inescapable human problem with no human solution.” The formation comes from God. Again, this is why it’s not all about the things we are going to do to change as much as it is to remain in a place where God can change us. De-clutter. Listen. Be open. People will sometimes say things to me like, “It is so hard for me to believe this or that but it must be easy for you.” No. There are plenty of things that are difficult for me to fully grasp when it comes to the mysterious nature of God, the context of scripture, the power of the Spirit. Instead of writing off all of the hard stuff, however, I choose to say, “God, I can’t really see this from where I’m at right now but I trust you. I trust your nature that I see in Jesus. Work on me.” Spiritual formation takes patience, prayer and practice.
In John’s gospel reading we consider this morning, we mingle with Jesus and the crowd during what was a high festival season, in particular the festival of Booths. During this time, seven days which later grew into an eight day festival in the time of Jesus, people were to build and dwell in little booths (huts if you will) made out of thrash and sticks and that sort of thing. Temporary housing was the key – a little shield from the weather but nothing more than that. These booths sprang up everywhere – on the flat roofs of houses, in the streets, in the city squares, in gardens, even in the Temple court. The historical significance of all of this was to remind the people in an unforgettable fashion that once they had been a homeless, wandering people in the desert without much of a roof over their heads. It was to honor the way God brought them through that tough time in the wilderness. Historian Josephus called it “the holiest and the greatest festival among the Jews.” It was a big deal. It wasn’t only a time for the rich but it was laid down that the servant, the stranger, the widow and the poor were all to share in the universal joy of this festival. Isn’t that a great image of the kindom of God? Throw in the Dave Matthews Band and you’ve got yourself a real party festival. Why does this matter? On the last day, a very dramatic ceremony took place. A priest would take a golden pitcher down to the Pool of Siloam, fill it up, carry it back through the Water Gate while the people recited the prophet Isaiah. The Psalms would be sung. There were flutes and choirs and shouting and praising for the good gift of the sustaining water that sprang forth from the rock when their ancestors traveled through the wilderness. They would march around the altar seven times in honor of the walls of Jericho coming down. It was quite the spectacle. And it’s against this backdrop that Jesus shouts out – on the last day of this festival – “Hey! If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” Holy smokes, Jesus. It’s almost as if he’s mocking the whole ritual – “You all are caught up in a little water, I’ll give you the living water that will quench the thirst of your soul.” And some were offended of course as the text says, “There was division in the crowd because of him.”
In some ways, it’s way easier for us to get on board with this because we’re well on the other side of the resurrection and we more easily get on board with Jesus than his contemporaries did. That being said, the church, the Body of Christ, often causes division in the crowds – but perhaps that’s a topic for another sermon series. A couple of things catch me here in this passage in connection to our theme today. Jesus reinforces this idea of a move from acts, lists, behaviors to the focus on our character. The spiritual formation the crowd needed that day, in Jesus’ estimation, was less with the act of ritual and more with the state of their soul. “Ah – this festival is nice and fun and good to remember but what is happening within? Where are you not simply going through the motions and taking a true and honest look into the character of your very soul?” And then, the punch-you-in-the-gut line, “Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.” And I got stuck on the word, “flow.” Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water. Not drip or trickle; not even gush like a fire hydrant…simply flow. This provision of God – the water from the rock that nourished a people in the wilderness – is now supposed to flow out of the believer’s heart. What does it mean to be aligned with the flow of God?
Do you ever feel totally out of sync? I’m not talking New Year’s Eve Mariah Carey stuff. I’m talking about your life; when it seems to have no rhythm whatsoever. It’s just scattered here and there? You feel like you’re just bouncing from one place to the next without any real direction or intentionality. And what do you do in such a state? You pull your hair out. If you don’t have any hair on your head, you start sprouting some from your ears. Why does this happen? I find it tends to come in those times when we get caught up in the flow of everything but the flow of the way of Christ. We get stuck in the flow of the business – “Well – this is just how business goes” and we entangle ourselves in ethics and tactics that have no true reflection of our faith. We get stuck in the flow of the in-crowd, of keeping up with a lifestyle and find we spend all of our time Facebookin’ and social media-ing to keep up with a look or image or whatever. But then we go to sleep at night not with a prayer of gratitude to God but with the concern of how many likes our post got that day. How are we aligned with the flow of God?
It was the apostle Paul who said to the Roman church, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Don’t be caught up in the flow of this world – seek the transformation of Christ and get in that flow. Spiritual formation is the process by which our lives reflect more and more the image of Christ. And there’s really no short cut for this. It’s the ongoing work of prayer – not a genie in a bottle faith. I’m working on prayer with my boys of late especially. Hayes really wanted a blue sled for Christmas. “I really want a blue sled!” Kid’s never been sledding in his life. Other than our first Christmas here – the great snow dump of 2009 – we’ve had really light winters, especially in Hayes’ five short years of life. But the kid wanted a blue sled and it just so happens Santa found one blue sled and a couple of orange sleds and gave them to our three kids for Christmas. Now – the chances of those sleds ever getting used on snow was pretty low. But that kid has been praying for some snow ever since and come Friday morning, when that little guy came running down the stairs to see the snow on the ground with as genuine a gleam in his eye as humanly possible he shouts, “Thank you God!” and he turned to me with the faith of John in the empty tomb and said, “God answered my prayer.”
And so then we talked more about prayer and the ways God connects with us in that manner. It’s been a great ongoing conversation. Sometimes we want our road to spiritual transformation to come in that same way. “God, transform my spirit,” and we expect to wake up with a whole new heart. Can God do that? Of course. But most of the time God works on us and with us through the hard stuff to mold something new. The psalmist cries out, “Search me and know me, see if there is any wicked way within me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We have to get in the flow of God and that flow will transform us. The Psalmist also came to use this prayer as a mantra. Psalm 119 and 5, “Oh that my ways may be established to keep your ways!” Are you ways established? Are you intentional about preparing yourself as best as possible to respond to all that comes your way in a way that reflects the kindness of Christ? Spiritual formation is a partnership that you and I commit to with the help of God.
We are going to be formed. There’s no question about that. At the end of 2017, we are going to be some kind of person. We will either be formed by the pressures we face, the realities of the world, the circumstances we encounter, the challenges we are bound to experience … or by the flow of God as revealed to us through the Spirit of Christ. We get to think about this now. And oh how I would love us all to look back on this moment at the end of the year and thank God for who we’ve become. We spend so much time trying not to be who we were that we forget who it is we are and who we can be. We are the work of Christ and the one who began a good work in you and me will be faithful to complete it. Today, we draw a word – you’ll do so after you receive communion or after the offering has been shared. Just take one card and don’t try to put it back. Take it with you. Keep it somewhere you can see it every day. Write this word down on a piece of paper every day this week and begin to write around it characteristics it might impact in your journey through this year. Write down prayers it triggers in your heart, and hopes that it surfaces for your soul. It’s just a word. But even a single word can make a world of difference. After all, the Word became flesh and made all things new.
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 The background and exegetical work of John’s passage comes from William Barclay’s commentary on The Gospel of John. The Westminster Press. Philadelphia. 1975.