I love this time of the year. Christmas is behind us and the new year is about to begin. And as if we hadn’t had enough celebrating, we’ll do some more tomorrow night. Hundreds of thousands of revellers will pour into the city. They’ll cram on and around the harbour to soak up the atmosphere and wow at the fireworks. At the “magic” moment of midnight there’ll be hugs and kisses all round, with cheers and tears for Auld Lang Syne.
Mind you, I sometimes feel a little sceptical about celebrating the New Year. After all, it’s only been twelve months since we welcomed in the year we’re about to throw out. Perhaps there’s wisdom in just getting an early night! But whether midnight tomorrow finds you cheering or snoring, the passing years mark change around us and in us. So this morning, let’s chat about change.
1. To Change Or Not To Change?
Have you made any New Year’s resolutions yet? They’re easy enough to make. But not so easy to keep – probably because a New Year’s resolution is a promise to stop doing everything you enjoy most. Why do people make New Year’s resolutions? I suppose it’s because none of us are entirely happy with our performance over the past year. We know life would run a little more smoothly, if we could make a few personal changes. Perhaps we could be a little slimmer. A little fitter. Life would be sweeter with our temper under control, or if we could get rid of some bothersome habit.
But we find it difficult to stick to our resolutions to change. For, sad to say, we carry into each new year all the problems and hang-ups of the old. We are the same people on January 1 as we were on December 31. January 1 has no magical properties to make change easier. If we can’t change on any other day of the year, what makes us think we’ll do any better next Tuesday?
Too often a New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other. It’s depressing when we can’t seem to follow through on our resolutions to change. But on the other hand there are things we wish wouldn’t change.
We grow older. Age wearies us and the years condemn and we can’t stop the years from rolling on.
Families grow up. How we wish our children didn’t grow so fast. It seems like yesterday that our eldest child started school. I thought that was a milestone. But now two of her three children are at school. Over the years there were many times I wish the kids would hurry up and grow up, get married and move out. Give us some peace and quiet. But that time has come around far too quickly.
Familiar places give way to “progress”. Occasionally I drive pass where I lived as a teenager. Except the house I lived in has gone. There’s a car park there now. I feel a pang for the past – a past I can never revisit. You really wish some things wouldn’t change.
So when it comes to change, we’re in two minds. On the one hand we wish we could change. On the other hand there are many things we wish wouldn’t change. Fortunately, there is a way we can find complete stability and security – both to cope with the change we can’t avoid and bring about the change we desire. Here’s how Moses in the Bible put it:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. … Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. … Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:1-6, 10, 12 (NIV 2011).
2. God Unchanging
A little more than 3000 years ago, the Israelite leader Moses liberated a nation of slaves from Egypt. They left behind everything they knew, to go to a land about which they knew almost nothing. They had a trying time, wandering around the desert. Life had been tough and oppressive in Egypt, but at least it had been predictable.
In the desert you never knew what would happen next. Would there be enough food and water today? What dangers lay over the next horizon? And what about this promised land, what would they find there? It is against this background that Moses wrote Psalm 90.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:1-2)
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place…” Just what the homeless wanderers needed to know. God was their home. What does the idea of “home” conjure up for you? The ideal home is where we are safe and secure. It’s where the people welcome and accept you.
That is what God is like. Those who know him personally are safe and secure with him. He welcomes and accepts them as part of his family. And it’s a big family – stretching across time. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.” God is like a family home. A grand old house that has been in the family for generations.
In the ancestral home the portraits of your ancestors stare down at you from every wall. They paced the same corridors. The same walls that listened to their conversations now listen to yours. God is the “family home” of all his people. In him we live and move where the great ones before us lived and moved. The God we know is the same God Abraham trusted. The same God Moses addressed. The same God David, Daniel and Paul served. In the words of the old hymn: “Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod!”
God is the family home of all his people because he is eternal. He existed before anything else – even the ancient mountains. They are like new born babies compared with him. He has always been there and always will be. And he is always the same. God himself declares, “I the Lord do not change.” Malachi 3:6
“He does not grow older… He does not gain new powers, not lose those he once had. He does not mature or develop. He does not get stronger or weaker or wiser as time goes by. ‘He cannot change for the better… for he is already perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse.’” J. I. Packer “Knowing God”, Chapter 7
In a changing world, the eternity of God reassures us. Those who trust and obey him enjoy a living relationship with him. They are safe and secure, welcomed and accepted – for ever!
3. God Changing
God himself doesn’t change. But he is always changing – changing people, that is!
Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus:
You were spiritually dead because of your disobedience and sins, when you followed the ways of this world. You obeyed the evil ruler of the spiritual realm – the spirit who is now at work in those who disobey God. We were all like them once, and lived according to our natural desires. We did whatever suited the wishes of our own bodies and minds. Like everybody else, we lay under the dreadful judgment of God. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love for us, brought us to life with Christ even when we were spiritually dead in our disobedience. …
For you are saved by God’s generous kindness, through trusting him – it doesn’t come from you, it is the gift of God. It doesn’t depend on anything you have achieved, so no one can boast about it. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do those good deeds which he has planned for us to do. (Ephesians 2:1-5, 8-10)
And God goes on making changes in his people’s lives. My secretary had a sign on her desk, “Be patient – God hasn’t finished with me yet!”
What sort of changes is God making in his people? Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians:
You learned from Jesus to throw off the dirty clothes of the old way of living, which were rotted through and through with its deceitful desires. Then, with a new attitude of mind, to put on the clean fresh clothes of the new life made by God’s design for true righteousness and holiness. Therefore away with lying, and speak the truth to each other, for we are all parts of the same body. If you are angry, do not let anger lead you into sin; don’t let sunset find you still nursing it; don’t give the devil that sort of foothold. The one who used to steal must give up stealing, and do an honest day’s work with his own hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need. Do not use harmful words in talking. Use only helpful words the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. …
Get rid of all bitter resentment or anger. No more shouting and insults. No more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and compassionate to one another, Forgive each other as readily as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:22-29, 31-32)
God, who himself never changes, wants to change people to become like him. Genuine and lasting change is possible for us, but only when we are joined to him by trusting his Son.
At the end of 1939 war clouds gathered over Europe. Men and women looked fearfully into an uncertain future. In his Christmas Broadcast, King George VI quoted these words:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be better than light and safer than a known way.
from Minnie Haskins “The Desert”
However you mark the arrival of 2013, may your troubles in the coming year be as short lived as your resolutions!
Eternal Father, we linger on the threshold of a new year. We know only too well that it will bring many changes. Some changes we’ll be glad to see; others will alarm us. Help us to rely on your changelessness for courage and strength. And send us whatever it takes to change us to become more like you. We ask this in the secure name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.