As we entered December, I heard people talking about their New Year’s resolutions already. Even though I’m a last-minute planner, I admire those who plan early. Some want to eat healthily in the New Year. That’s a great habit because food is medicine, and if you eat right, you will prevent many troubles down the line and save a huge amount of money on medical costs.
Some want to quit a bad habit, and some want to develop a good practice. Gym memberships usually increase at the beginning of the New Year. Whether we can keep our resolution is another matter, but it tells us something about the human desire to change for the better.
It’s a paradox. We all want to change for the better, but at the same time, we also fear change because we don’t want to leave our comfort zone. Some people buy a smartphone because dumbphones are no longer available. As for me, I don’t like to wear new shoes because old shoes are the most comfortable. I liked to wear them until my wife secretly threw them away.
Here’s the paradox: people desire and fear change at the same time. As a result, people don’t change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. We often call it hitting rock bottom. For those who resist change, hitting rock bottom is a good thing.
The question is, do we have to really wait until we hit rock bottom to change? What if it turns out to be too late when we hit rock bottom?
In 1988, when the entire nation of Burma rose up in protest for human rights and democracy, I told people with excitement that we had finally hit rock bottom, and the only way from then on was up. But a friend told me, “No, no, no! We will dig a hole under rock bottom and keep going down the abyss.” He was joking, but sadly it turned out to be true.
The lesson is we can’t rely on hitting rock bottom. For those who resist change, there is no bottom! My counselor gave me a word of wisdom on change, “If not now, when?” The “when” will never come; now is the only time to change. If you have something to change in your life, do it now. Don’t wait until the New Year. Figure out a way to overcome resistance right now.
Do you know the spiritual term for change is “repentance?” We often think repentance means regret, but it’s more than regret. The Hebrew word for repentance, “naham” means “regret and change.” Coincidently, the Chinese word for “repentance” is composed of two words, “悔改” (huigai), meaning “regret and change.”
Furthermore, the Greek word for repentance, “μετάνοια” (metanoia), also means “changing of heart and mind.” So, in conclusion, regret without change is not repentance.
The human desire to make New Year’s resolution reveals a deep spiritual longing for repentance—“regret and change.” In today’s scripture lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist, the greatest man ever born of women according to Jesus, said,
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Mt 3:8).
It means fruitfulness is evidence of repentance. Don’t you want your New Year’s resolution to bear fruit? We all want change to live our divine dreams. Your desire for a New Year’s resolution is God’s whisper to you to live a fruitful life. Let’s nail it once and for all so we don’t have to make the same resolution over and over again year after year. Let’s begin!
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper—you are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
The Scripture lesson today is from the Gospel according to Matthew 3:1-12. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mat 3:1–12).
[Blessed are those who delight in God’s Word. Thanks be to God!]
John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus, and his mission was to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of Christ. Jesus’ presence is the presence of the kingdom of heaven. John said,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mat 3:2).
John specialized in repentance. In other words, his mission was to promote change as a way to prepare for the coming of Christ. Jesus also wants us to live as if the Lord is coming any minute. We discussed that last week. You can’t wait until you hit rock bottom to change. The deadline for change is now. The question is, how?
So, from this passage, we will focus on the change God wants to see in us and learn how to make the change permanent and become fruitful. I have distilled three metaphors from this passage for us to make permanent changes. All these three steps are important. The first one is…
1. Walk on Water
Change is like walking on water because we all fear the uncertain future, especially after this pandemic, the prolonged war, and the looming recession. The fear makes people fulfill only half of the repentance—they regret but don’t change. Only by changing do we have a fruitful future.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus says, “The only constant in life is change.” Resisting change is foolish, but embasing change is nerve-wracking, depending on how big the change is.
We ask, “What would happen if I changed? What would happen if I left my comfort zone?” We must remember it’s okay to fear the unknown future. It’s normal for humans to be afraid to step out into uncharted water. Step out anyway with faith because God will not let you drown.
One of the reasons we fear change is self-doubt. We doubt our ability to make a difference in our lives and the world. So, we ask, “Who am I to make a difference?” I am nobody.
Personally speaking, I am just a hillbilly from the highlands of Southeast Asia. Who am I to proclaim the kingdom to the smart urban Americans? It’s like walking on water for me.
We can overcome this fear by learning from John the Baptist. John was also a hillbilly. He lived in the wilderness and dressed like a yokel. The Bible says,
“Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mat 3:4).
However, people listened to him. Why? It was his calling! When your heart tells you you need a New Year resolution, it could be God whispering to you about your calling. Your New Year’s resolution might require you to step out to deliver your message, and you fear nobody will listen. Look who came to listen to John.
“Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mat 3:5-6).
The people of Jerusalem and all over the country came to listen to this hillbilly. The next verse says even the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by him. They were the religious and political elites and the cream of the crop.
John’s words were bold and politically incorrect, but they still came to him, not because of his eloquence but because he stepped out to walk on water to fulfill his calling. So should we. Search your heart, pray, and make the boldest New Year’s resolution and decide to walk on water. I am doing with you.
Your fear to change might argue, “John was in the prophecy to do what he did, but how do I know my calling?” I can’t tell you your specific calling, but I can tell you that Jesus expects you to do more extraordinary things than he did. He said,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12).
Between now and his return, Jesus expects you to do incredible things. So, don’t think small because it would disappoint Jesus’ expectations. So, this year, don’t make small New Year resolutions. Think big and bold, and step out on the water to fulfill your divine dream.
The moment you step out, the water may freeze, and you might walk on solid ice. If you know how to skate, you will have a lot of fun walking on the water.
The second metaphor is:
2. Burn the Boat
Your boat is your comfort zone. As long as it is there, you might jump back in when fear takes over you. So, burn the boat. In fact, the boat that you have may be made of thin paper. The Jews felt safe in their paper boat as the descendants of Abraham. So, John told them to burn the boat.
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Mat 3:9).
God made a covenant with Abraham to bless his children. So, the Jews believed they were the chosen people and safe forever in Abraham’s boat. John said that they had misinterpreted the covenant and taken refuge in false security, thinking they could goof without consequences.
He said if they didn’t bear the fruit, God would raise up another group of people to fulfill the job. The “stones” John mentioned represent the gentiles. As a result, we became the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Now, John’s message applies to us.
As Reformed Protestants, our paper boat or comfort zone is God’s grace. We believe we are saved by the amazing grace through faith. True, but faith without fruit is futile. Grace is free but not cheap. The Bible has many warnings against complacency in grace.
My Methodist uncle said that the Presbyterians are the Frozen Chosen. John warns us that God has other solutions if we are frozen. So, we must burn the paper boat of misinterpreted grace. John said if we don’t bear fruit, we become dispensable.
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mat 3:10).
Grace is for those who dare to walk on water. In fact, it’s safer to walk on water than sit in a paper boat. It can be fun! That leads to the third metaphor.
3. Surf the Spirit
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Mat 3:11).
God doesn’t send you out on a mission without equipping you with the power to accomplish it. When you step out to walk on water and burn the boat, Providence appears. The Holy Spirit is also known as the “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Jesus also said,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Act 1:8).
Here, Jesus was talking to a group of nobodies—fishermen, tax collectors, and cowards hiding in the upper room. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, they changed the world, and we have benefited from their fruits. It’s now our turn to surf the spirit. It may be nerve-wracking but also thrilling and meaningful.
Professor Leonard Sweet urges us to be Pneumnauts. “Pneuma” is the Greek word for “spirit.” Like an astronaut, a Pneumanaut is someone who explores the sphere of the spirit. If you want to be a Pneumanaut to enjoy playing in the field of the Lord, you must leave your comfort zone and dare to surf the space of the Holy Spirit.
There we have it! Here’s how you can have a bold New Year’s resolution and make your divine dream come true, even if you think it’s beyond your ability.
1. Walk on Water
2. Burn the Boat
3. Surf the Spirit
With these steps, we will bear much fruit. Most importantly, that’s the best way to stay awake during the advent of the Holy One.
That’s it for today. I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I enjoy receiving it from the Head Office. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound freedom and happiness.