“Being, Loving, Knowing, Doing”

A Homily for New City Church

January 1, 2012

Introduction: Why a New Year now?

A new year has come. But has anybody else asked the question why our measuring of time seems to begin with a rather arbitrary day a week or two after the shortest day of the year? I mean, why isn’t New Year on the longest day, the shortest day, or on one of the equinox days? Humans have always been rather captivated by the activity of organizing, categorizing, and arranging things. It’s one of the tasks God gave to us after creation. So with this propensity for arranging things into categories as neat and precise as possible, our arbitrary New Year date kind of intrigues me.

From a quite early date, Egyptians and Babylonians (and yes, probably people in China and other places) began to see that certain stars rose above the horizon in a regular pattern – eventually tracking that pattern as happening once each 365 days. Of course we have taken all the fun out of the guess work through inter-stellar telemetry so we now know definitively that the year is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45.19 seconds. . . .more or less – they say it actually varies a bit each year. But at some point, someone decided that today we turn the page, enter a new month and a new year. And of course, “Janus” is the Roman god of beginnings and transitions – two faced: one looking forward, the other back, from which we get our month, January. Still seems a bit arbitrary to me. But then just last night I read George Grant’s blog and he gave some plausible reasoning about our ordering for the new year. He says Rome celebrated the new year in late March (spring  solstice), which makes sense of the names September, October, November, December being related to the Latin words for “seven” through “ten” with January and February being months 11 and 12. But what explains January first? Grant says it goes back to the 1500s as Christians began to use the day, the middle of the Christmas season, moving away from Christmas toward Epiphany, as a day for renewing vows. Eventually at St. George’s Tron Church in Edinburgh believers would gather in the square to watch the church clock strike midnight and make and renew vows. The rest is . . .  history.

So it may seem like an arbitrary time to ask ourselves questions – “What resolution am I going to break in the opening weeks of this year?”  In fact, Mark Twain seemed to have had no love lost for New Years. He said,

He said, “New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions. So now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” Perhaps too true.

So I get to take a few moments to ask a few questions as we launch into this time frame we call the “New Year” of 2012. I will work off a popular taxonomy, a common way of organizing – familiar to many of you:  “Being, Knowing, and Doing” – but I will add one additional aspect – “Loving” – to that heretofore nicely balanced triad.  And a confession up front: This is a shamefully topical sermon – I had an idea of what I wanted to say and then went to Scripture to find the foundation upon which to say it. A much easier task in some ways than preaching through a book, but if anyone is taking notes – not the best example of biblical exegetical style. Forgive me. But there it is, so here we go with 4 questions.

Being

Ontology is the study of “being” – asking the question “what ‘is’?” Applied to people it asks the question, “Who are we, who are you, really?” We seldom ask who we are these days – we prefer to start with “What do you do?” Despite what our culture says, who we are is far more fundamental, and ultimately more important, than what we do. Being precedes doing. Our day places a value – most often monetary – on what we do. Conversely, we place less and less value on who we are as human beings.

Who are you as you enter 2012?  You know you are a human being, but so are a few billion other creatures walking this planet. But perhaps more important than “Who are you?” is: “Whose are you?” On the one hand, historic Christian faith affirms that we are all made in God’s image and we all are fallen, broken images of God. On the other hand, in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, all humans are not all alike, but rather we fall into one of two groups.  Look again at the passage read for us in Ephesians 2.

Ephesians 2 begins identifying the first group of people saying, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature [that is, describing our being] children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul goes on in v. 12 saying, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” That’s a pretty serious list of qualities describing people in the first of my two categories.

But look at the second group of people (backing up to 2:4): “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

And then again further down in vv. 19-22, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, . . . Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone . . . . In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

You have to be before you know or do. Our places and positions in life betray to some degree our being. You are either a daughter, a son, you might be a spouse, a parent, a friend. These categories define who you are to so degree. But no matter who you are, according to Ephesians 2 you are either lost or found. All humans fall into those two profoundly important categories of being.

So the question is: Are you a child of God as you enter this New Year? Are you lost or found? Are you separated, without hope, without God, or are you one who has been made alive, raised up, and seat with Christ? This is the first and most important question to ask in this New Year: Who are you?

Loving

Second, after “being” I want us to consider “Loving.” Many people would not include “loving” as an element in the primary taxonomy of life. But I have been persuaded this year by Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom that “loving” should be in there. Think about it – we love before we speak and even before we realize that that we know anything. And of course, we are loved before we even know we exist or before we do anything. And we see this also in Ephesians 2:4 as well: “But God, . . . because of the great love with which he loved us.” See it? We were loved by God in our broken and lost state – before we even knew we were lost! Romans 5:8 reminds us that God demonstrates His love for us in this: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

So we begin by being loved by God and by parents – as imperfectly and brokenly as that parental love might be – even before we know we exist.

So the question for us as we enter 2012 is: What do you love, and who loves you? We are profoundly shaped by the things we love and by who loves us. And so many things in our world call out to us, woo us, entice us, to give our love away. And while we are called in many cases to love multiple things, the Scriptures give us a clear hierarchy of loves.

Look at Deuteronomy 6:4-5,The Shema, the creed of Israel, arguably the most important Scripture in the OT gives us instruction on being and loving.

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This Scripture says two things: First: “Yahweh is God” – He . . . is . . . ultimate being, indeed the source of all being, sustaining the universe by the power of His being. Second, it says, “Love Yahweh.” Be sure to understand that in the hierarchy of loves, this must be the first love. This begins to define those who are of the “found” – they love God. Only by loving God can we begin to love others rightly.

Our world is rife with disordered loves – perhaps good loves in themselves, but disordered when God is not first. Loving your children is good. But when we love our children out of order, our children will not be the benefactors of the love they need. When we love our children before or more than we love God or our spouse, the love they receive will be a confused and disordered love.

And of course, if we love our iPhone, our Facebook, our job, or our favorite musician out of order, our very lives will be out of order as well. Yes, we are called to love our neighbor, our enemies, our brothers and sisters in Christ. But only in the hierarchy of God’s love for us and our love for Him can any of these come into perspective and proper loving.

What do you love? To what are you holding too tightly as you begin this year? What loves in your life need to recede in prominence in order that more important loves may take their place in your heart and life?

Knowing              “Being,” “Loving,” . . . now “Knowing”

Know shows up over 330 times just in the New Testament alone. From Genesis 15, when God said to Abraham, “Know for certain,” the record of Scripture is that God wants us to be people who know certain things “certainly.” In John’s first letter, in 5 relatively short chapters he uses the word know 28 times, concluding the book with this in 1 John 5:21: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”

Loving begins in the heart and the gut, and knowing begins in the realm of the mind, but is greatly affected by what we love. Look at the concluding phrase in 1 John – “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  Don’t love the wrong things in the wrong order! But move back just a few verses in 1 John 5:11-13 where we are given fundamentally important things to know.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” [Two categories again – “have life/found” and “not have life/lost”] John goes on, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

As you enter 2012, do you know that Yahweh is God? Do you know that He loves you? And do you know – if you are trusting in Him by faith alone, given by grace alone – know that you have eternal life?

Doing

Being, Loving, Knowing – they all precede and give shape to our “doing.” The commands of Scripture – what we are to “do” – are legion and overwhelming. How do we “do” what we are called to do? Paul at one point laments our struggle in Romans 7 giving words to our predicament saying, “the things I want to do, I do not do; and the things I do not want to do, these are the things I do.”

What are we to do? How do we begin to do what the Scriptures call us to do? By the equipping grace of God’s Holy Spirit! Look with me for a moment at the closing chapter of Hebrews – chapter 13.  In this closing exhortation to believers, the writer gives no less than 17 commands – covering the whole spectrum of life, living in a manner that pleases God.

Social (1-3) – stranger             Domestic (4) – marriage

Economics (5-6) – money        Relationships and authority (7, 17) – leaders

Truth (9) – strange teaching   Philanthropy (16) – do good and share

This list and so many other commands in Scripture can become overwhelming. But we “do” based on what we “know” and when we know that we are loved, that we are adopted, and that we are kept secure in the hand of God, our “doing” becomes not an onerous duty out of fear of failure or retribution, but rather our doing becomes an act of joyful gratitude to a loving Father.

The idea of “ought” is certainly related to “do” – for our friends who are naturalists, believing there is no God, there is also, despite their sincere objections, no “ought.” And this explains a lot in our moment in history. Ultimately, for those who are lost, whatever “good” they do is ultimately not even good since the only explanation for it is that it was done for their own good – its root is selfishness.

But it also explains a lot of what passes for “Christian behavior” in America today. Many people sadly operate from a belief that we are under obligation to God to be good in order to merit God’s favor. This works itself out as innocently (but perniciously) as Santa’s naughty or nice categories, and things like the Boy Scout Law. Many people live in a manner that says, “I must live like this or that, doing this or that, in order to win God’s approval.”

Friends, let us begin 2012 absolving ourselves of this crazy sense of ought and obligation. Does God need our “goodness”? Of course not. Does our goodness place Him in obligation to love any one of us more than He already does? Again, certainly not.

Conclusion          Being, Loving, Knowing, and Doing

My friend, Randy Greenwald, recently wrote this: The end of a year is met with regret over resolutions never kept and with hope in anticipation of resolutions yet to be made. But like it or not, this time of year is met with our minds tilting in the direction of those things we might (try again to) change. Most of the time, resolutions commit us to doing more. More exercise, more financial frugality.  I need to find a way to resolve to do less. To do less, that is, of the things which distract and make life hectic so that I might do more of that which really matters. How to dissect my life in such a way that those distinctions become clear is the challenge. J. B. Phillips in his insightful little book Your God Is Too Small challenges my constant anxious activity:

If there is one thing which should be quite plain to those who accept the revelation of God in Nature and the Bible it is that He is never in a hurry. Long preparation, careful planning, and slow growth, would seem to be leading characteristics of spiritual life.

Yet there are many people whose religious tempo is feverish. With a fine disregard for its context they flourish like a banner the text “The King’s business requireth haste,” and proceed to drive themselves and their followers nearly mad with tension and anxiety!  

It is refreshing and salutary, to study the poise and quietness of Christ. His task and responsibility might well have driven a man out of his mind. But He was never in a hurry, never impressed by numbers, never a slave of the clock. He was acting, He said, as He observed God to act—never in a hurry.

BE – a child of God

LOVE – the Lord

KNOW – that you are loved and then love in the light of being loved

DO – all you do this year, by the grace of God, to the glory of God.

Let’s pray!

Heavenly Father, You are good. This is true. As we end one year and begin another, we affirm that you are good when you give and good when you take away. Whether the sun shines over us, or darkness creeps in upon us, you are good. Your goodness has been with us during another year whether in leading us through twisting wilderness or guiding us tenderly through time of gentle providence.

As we hoist sail and draw up anchor to set out on this new year, we trust in you as the Pilot of our future days as you have been for our past. And we thank you that you have veiled our eyes to some degree to the water ahead. If you have appointed storms of tribulation, be with us in them. If we must pass through persecution, temptation, or loss, we will not drown.

Only glorify yourself in us, O God, whether in comfort or trial. Use us as your chosen vessels, for your use. All this we ask in the matchless name of Jesus, our Redeemer, Savior, Sustainer.

Amen

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