New Year, NewYear

Scripture:  Mark 1:4-11

Several years ago now we belonged to the Hendricks County YMCA.   I was not the most faithful of exercisers, but we utilized the facility just barely enough to justify a membership.   One of the services they offered was free child care, and I did use that.   It was January 2nd, 2013.   Connor’s day care was still closed, Abigail had meetings, and I had work to get done.  So I took my computer to the Y, and worked in the lobby while he was in the child care area.    The place was extremely busy, and at first I did not realize why.  I eventually put two and two together, and realized it was January 2nd, and a lot of people were trying to make good on their resolutions.  At one point, I guess the child watch area had reached capacity, and a little girl did not understand why she could not play.  I overheard the mother tell her daughter, “A lot of people want to be healthy right now which is why it is so busy, but in couple of weeks they will not want to be healthy anymore and it will be back to normal.”   That mom was not wrong.   Every year thousands of people make New Year’s resolutions and the most common ones involve exercise in some form.    However, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February.  While some people are able to make it past the second month of the year, when it is all said in done the estimate is that only 8% of New Year resolutions are kept and succeed.   That sounds really low, but consider what it is stating.   Often the greatest reason New Year’s resolutions fail is because they are too big and sweeping.  People resolve to completely change how they live their life.   When we consider that then for 8 out of every 100 people to make the conscious choice to completely change their life and then actually do it is kind of amazing.   So many people start off a new year with the manta “new year, new you.”  However, the gap between saying that and doing it is large.    In an article about making resolutions stick nutrition professor Dr. Roberta Anding was quoted, “January 1st, is a new beginning.  However, each day allows for a new beginning, and hence is a reset.”    Her idea is that instead of declarative life changes that we will fail out, we make change by making each day its own goal to achieve.  If one day is a fail, then there is always tomorrow to reset and succeed again.   This sort of approach is helpful for lifestyle change but it is also a smart approach to faith.  There is a lot of emphasis at this time on a “ new year, a new you”, but for those baptized and following Jesus Christ we have already been made new, and we have the daily choice to follow it or not.  

            From the very beginning baptism has been a part of the Christian faith.  All four gospels have, in their way, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.   Baptism is embedded deep in the Christian tradition, but it has Jewish roots.   In the ancient Jewish tradition immersion in water was common place. Immersion was a physical act to symbolically show cleanliness.   In ancient Judaism this was done through a ritual bath called a mikveh.  In Jerusalem, outside of the ancient temple steps, there are the remains of several of these mikvehs.  When the Israelites would go to the temple, they would first bathe in one of these as an act of worship to present themselves clean and unblemished before God.  A mikveh has steps that lead down into the bath, and there is a clear division on the steps indicating two sides.   A person would walk down on one side, unclean, immerse themselves in the waters and come up the other side clean.   The water was a symbol that was meant to mark a spiritual change within a person.    It is out of this tradition, that John the Baptist did his ministry.   John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.   The people that John baptized were essentially making a new year’s resolution.   They were starting over, they were essentially saying “new year, new you.”   John’s baptism was a physical act that represented a spiritual reset button, the start of something new.     

            This is why Jesus sought out being baptized by John.   It was not that Jesus needed to repent or be forgiven of sins.  Jesus was not baptized because he needed to repent and turn back towards God, but Jesus was baptized as a way to symbolically show that he was beginning something new.  Baptism symbolically shows a change in a person.  Up until this point of his life, Jesus had lived as the son of a carpenter in the small and obscure village of Nazareth.  Yet, when Jesus emerged from the water he embraced his identity as the Messiah, the son of God.  This is fully confirmed as the Holy Spirit descends and God the father declares “this is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”   Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, it marks the beginning of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness by starting the path that enables us all to live righteously in right relationship with God.  

            In the Christian tradition, the sacrament of baptism is a complex one.    It is immersed in deep symbolism and shrouded by denominational differences.   It does not matter though if one was baptized as an infant and then confirmed later in life or if one was dedicated as infant and baptized as a believer, in either event one the great emphasis found in baptism is living a new life.  To be baptized is a declaration of God’s love, acceptance, and provision over the person.  It is the acknowledgement of living a different life, a new life clothed in Christ.   This is true for infant baptism as well.  When a child is baptized the parents and the whole church community make a sacred promise and take a holy oath to provide an environment where so that the child will be raised in a place where they know and experience God’s love for them, an environment where grace is more than just a word, and an environment where they can know Jesus as savior and friend.    When we baptize an infant we are promising that we will provide a place and a community that shows them through our lives what it means to live differently from the ways of the world.  We will provide a place and a community that is a living example of what it means to follow Christ and love God with all of our mind, heart, and soul.   That way when the child reaches an age to confirm the faith as their own they have a good idea of what that means.   Even though they may not literally remember their baptism, they can remember they are baptized and be thankful because the community of believers has proven just what it means to be baptized. 

            As the baptized we are supposed to live differently.   We are to live as the ones who know that Jesus is the beloved son of God.  Baptism is an outward symbol that marks an inward change.  We are to live as people who have been changed; people who have been changed by the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  This is not a theoretical.   As the baptized we are supposed to more willing to love, quicker to forgive, kinder, gentler, and more patient than those who have not been baptized.   We are meant to be this way because through baptism we are new creations in Christ Jesus.   We put off the old robes of sin and death and we are now clothed in Christ.   It does not matter how long ago you were baptized, we all can joyfully claim life as a new creation, remember our baptism and be thankful.  

            That is the ideal, that as the baptized we are set apart, we are different, we are new creations.   We do not always reach that ideal.    We often have to confess that our actions are often not much different than the non-believers around us.   We often are not more loving, not more kind, not more giving, not more forgiving, and not more patient than those who have never been baptized.  Much like the people who do not hold to New Year’s resolutions, we struggle with true life change.   We struggle with truly being more Christ like in our everyday interactions.   This is why I think the advice about keeping resolutions by making every day a new beginning is so helpful.   Because there will be days where we lose our temper, where we say unkind words, where we think hateful thoughts, where we fail to be an obedient church and we do not hear the cries of the needy.   Those days do not define us.    What defines us are we are the baptized, we are the ones redeemed by God, clothed in Christ, and full of the Holy Spirit.   When we have a day, a week, a month or even a year where we fall short of that, we remember that today is a new day.  It is a reset, that today is as a good of day as any to resolve to be more kind, more patient, more loving and more Christ like. 

            Sometimes though it is important to re-state our intentions.   Sometimes it is not enough to just reset for a new day.    Sometimes it is important to remind ourselves that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.   There is an old Methodist tradition that affirms this.   It came to be known as a watch night service, but it was a tradition instituted by John Wesley himself in 1755 in Spitalfields, England.   Wesley, relying on an older written work he cherished, shared with the Methodist society there a covenant renewal prayer.   According to Wesley’s account, upon reading the line “I will be no longer mine own but give up myself to thy will in all things” 1,800 gathered Methodists, moved by the Holy Spirit stood up in a “testimony of assent.”   Wesley soon formalized the covenant renewal service in a pamphlet and he considered it best practice for the people called Methodists to renew their covenant with God once a year.  After Wesley’s time it became tradition to do this covenant renewal on New Year ’s Day right at midnight and that became watch night.  

            There is wisdom to doing this annually.   Renewing our covenant with God is an active to remind ourselves that we are the baptized and that we are to live differently as we seek to follow the example of Jesus.   A version of the covenant renewal prayer is still in our hymnals.   It is page 607 and I invite you to turn and look at it now.  

            It is a powerful prayer that reminds us that we are God’s people and God is our God.  It is a powerful prayer that reminds us that as the baptized, as the people redeemed by God’s love through Christ Jesus, we are called to live differently.   This prayer is a promise that each and every day we will humbly submit each day before God as a new opportunity.   Whether we are to be full or empty, have all things or have nothing, this prayer is a pledge that we have been changed and because of God’s unending grace we are being made new.  

            If you are willing to make that promise, then I invite you to pray the prayer found on 607 in the hymnal with me:

I am no longer my own but thine.  Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.  And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.