This is the time! The new year is a great time to hit "restart". Watch Pastor Terry start it off by examining what it takes to make our lives more holy.
I mentioned that this last year has been a little bit of a journey for me, even with my voice. It’s one of the reasons why I have to go slowly here. I only have one message to share. This is the arrow that is being shot and wherever it goes, God chooses to take it. May it bring life. Speaking of restart, I think I love the new year because to me it speaks of a new opportunity. It seems like a fresh start kind of a restart. This last week, just to be candid, not to be a bummer, but I got so sick. I caught a cold from one of our pastors. I won’t name their name but he’s sharing after me. But I won’t mention who he was. I don’t know how I caught it, but I know all of our pastoral staff was sick. I was miserable. As I sat there as the year was ending, coming off the Christmas Eve services and that gap week, I thought, it just tied a ribbon on what had been for me and many of us, a very difficult year at a number of levels. In all truthfulness, it has been the most difficult. I’m not a person who exaggerates, that’s not my normal tendency. But it’s been, without a doubt, the most difficult and challenging year of my life. Certainly in my ministry life, but I think in my life period. What I’m saying is, I am so glad for a restart. For me, this is part message and part pep talk.
It’s about getting our mindset right. It’s about shifting our perspectives. Inevitably the Christian life is going to have seasons. It’s going to have struggles. It’s going to have times of breakthrough. It’s going to have ups and downs. It’s going to have seasons of regress, seasons of progress, seasons of stress, and seasons to address things that God is calling us to take a look at with fresh eyes. That’s part of what we want to do. Let’s start this year’s journey into the Word together, as a people, by looking at a passage of scripture, from one of the great books of the New Testament, Paul’s magnificent epistle. That’s a letter that Paul wrote to Ephesus, it’s called Ephesians. This letter is magnificent, especially in the way that it opens up.
Paul says these words, “Grace be to you from God, our father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places. Even as He chose us and Him before the foundation of the world.” There’s a lot going on here. We could spend a lot of time just sitting with all these superlative expansive statements, but look at the final phrase because this is the one we really want to emphasize. We’re calling this opening message a holy life. Paul says that we should be holy and blameless before Him. It’s that holy piece that we want to focus upon and its most technical term, this passage, just look at it, try to look at it one more time.
Here, Paul is reminding us of how Jesus, through His death and resurrection makes it possible for you and me to be accepted and set apart to God in spite of our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our lack of purity, which is essentially what holiness is, purity. For when we say God is holy, we’re saying He is pure. Elementally, at least essentially at some level, He is utterly pure, utterly good. He is light, as Jesus described Him in whom there is no darkness at all. There is no inner conflict in God, there is no turmoil, there is no evil, no contradiction. He is love, He is light, He is life. Now we, on the other hand, though made in His image and at some level as human beings bearing His markings, have the capacity to love. We have the capacity to worship and we have the capacity to be kind.
There are certain things that are unique to human beings than the rest of the animal kingdom do not possess. It’s because we were made uniquely in the image of God, even in our brokenness. There’s a part of us that reflects that. Oftentimes, when we are at our best, we may see it. But I will say, at our core, we’re not whole. I’m going to say something that some of us might initially recoil from. I believe, when we are presented with God, there is a part of us that is drawn to Him and a part of us because of our nature, that is repelled by Him. I’m going to suggest that even though we’re made in His image, we’re marred by sin and willfulness. So we’re capable of great love as human beings. We’re also capable of great evil. We’re capable of amazing kindness, we’re also capable of extraordinary selfishness. The bottom line is we’re not born holy, we need a savior. He says one of the reasons why we do. Another way of thinking about being holy since that’s a term we’re trying to focus on is not just about what God does for us in Christ positionally so that we can be accepted by Him. It’s also something He desires for us to pursue. I have to lay this groundwork, if I don’t do it the other piece won’t work.
It’s something he does for us in Christ and something he calls us to pursue in our own lives. As a result, it’s the perfect groundwork as we talk about living and growing a life of faith into this new year. Holiness is something that God does for us. He makes us holy in Christ and it’s something He calls us to pursue. He does for us and calls us to pursue but here’s the key, He calls us to pursue it from a particular perspective. That perspective is the perspective of the love of Christ. So it’s both something God does for us and something He calls us to pursue. But it’s something He calls us to pursue from a particular perspective, which we know and consider to be and can identify as the love of Christ.
Let me pull back one more layer. The word holy, which the apostle is using right here in this passage, is usually a word we tend to associate with the older Testament. At least I do, and I think most people do. In the Old Testament where it speaks of moral and ceremonial purity. In fact, it’s one of the key themes for the third book of the Bible, Leviticus. Things don’t get much older than that. Leviticus is the book where good intentions to read through the Bible in a year, go to die. It’s the graveyard of a good start. It is like somewhere along the way, I’m going to read through the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Egypt, Moses, and Leviticus, you’re talking about intricates, details, and everything bogs down. A lot of people quit in Leviticus. One of the key themes in Leviticus is holiness. On top of that, in terms of our own contemporary vernacular, holiness is not a word that we use a lot. When it is used, it’s usually used in a pejorative manner. As a concept, it feels a little bit clunky in terms of where our culture is at. It seems outdated like a jacket or a piece of clothing from another era. Not retro, not cool, not like, “Oh, wow. That’s so old, it’s cool.” No, more like antiquated, something we pull out of grandparents’ closet that smells like mothballs. That’s what I’m talking about. In a high secularist culture like ours where many want religion and Christianity in particular, pushed into the closet and into the hinterlands of cultural expression. This word, holy, carries a particularly unique kind of baggage.
I would guess more than a few of us when we walked in thinking, “Oh, I wonder what the new year’s message is going to be about” and saw a holy life went, “Oh, a holy life… Well, hope it’s interesting.” In my mind, holiness is something that many times speaks to people’s minds of joylessness and self-righteousness. At times, we think of the word holy as holiness extreme religiosity, old-fashioned, or backward puritanical expression. It isn’t cool to talk about being holy let alone about committing ourselves to pursue it. Yet the Bible is clear about its values. So I’m going to process, what is the holy life? What are we talking about? What do we mean when we say we should pursue this as a priority? Why are we starting the year out, laying this as a groundwork piece? Why are we beginning the year with this? A holy life, as it’s being described here, is essentially a devoted life. When we think of devotion, a devoted life is always anchored in the love of Christ. The apostle Paul who wrote these words in Ephesians was a man who was raised. He was not always a follower of Jesus. In fact, there was a period in his life when he hated Jesus. I mean, he hated Jesus and he hated anybody who followed Him.
The apostle Paul was a man who was raised in the older Testament, that was his scripture. That was his worldview, that’s how he framed his understanding of God. He was dedicated and devoted, but he always felt guilty. He struggled with it, he had a law-based holiness morality. Law-based holiness morality tends to focus on suppression. Paul literally was apprehended by Him, as he called it, captured in His love. When he came to know Jesus as a savior, he saw for the first time that there was a higher law that he saw. He said it was the love of Christ, the love in Christ. It moved him from a law-based holiness morality to a love-based holiness morality, that was less about suppression. I know this is not making sense to everybody, but for those who can hear it, it was less about suppression and more about alignment and cultivation.
One approach to holiness and morality is like pushing down a cork. The more we push, the harder it gets to hold it down. The other is like growing a beautiful garden. It still involves taking out the weeds. Anybody who tries to sell us a bill of goods, that you can have a beautiful garden, but you have no responsibility to take out the weeds, is selling us a different version of what Jesus taught. The fact of the matter is, there is some truth to this. The focus is not on the weeds. It’s on trying to grow and protect. Do you understand what I’m saying? Because I’m going to be very candid here. For the vast majority of my Christian life, certainly in the early part of my Christian life, I did not understand this because I was raised by amazingly devoted people who love Jesus. But they tended to focus more on the weeds than on the cultivation of the garden.
If we’re going to really understand what holiness is, it has to be viewed less about the weeds and more about the goal of cultivating the beautiful garden. The focus needs to go on cultivating the garden. At its core, holiness is about what God both does for us and desires to do in us. It’s something that flows best out of the comprehension of His extravagant and relentless love for us. What we read next is Paul’s continuation of this thought. He expresses this exactly with great clarity. I’m reading from the third chapter verse, 14. I’m going to read through it fairly quickly. He says, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named. That according to the riches of His glory, He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His spirit, in your inner being.” Stop right there for a moment, what happens on the inside is the key, always. That’s where the real battle is. The external, Jesus said, always is a result of what’s internal. If we nurture the garden inside, then we’re going to bear the right fruit, out of the abundance of the heart, Jesus said, make no doubt about it. The mouth speaks, it speaks what is there. The mind, the heart, this is what we’re talking about. The inner being is what God really wants to get at things. This is where battles in terms of our own personal growth in Christ and our ability to break through areas are pinning us down.
The real growth occurs from the inside. That’s where the spirit wants to go to help us. He says, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith that you being rooted, and grounded.” Now the flow. Watch the expansiveness of the description that, “you being rooted and grounded in love may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints, with all those who are called, what is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth. To know the love of Christ, that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To Him who is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or think according to the power at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and Christ Jesus throughout all generations,” forever and ever. Amen. Which means, let it be, let it be so, so there it is.
What does Paul say? It’s our comprehension of the love of Christ. Understanding just how much He loves us is meant to compel us to pursue the growing life. The abundant holy and pure life. Love-based holiness, not law-based, not about suppression, but cultivation, not about weeding as much as growing the guard of our soul.
Practically speaking, now we shift. This has to do with cultivating a life that is nourished in a love of God. So as to begin to think about our year resolutions goals and the initiating of healthy habits, which we inevitably do at the beginning of the year, I’m going to submit that the most important thing we probably can do at the outset of this year is to reinforce that we are at our best, our most holy when we are most immersed in the love of God. It’s what Paul was pointing at when he prayed that the Ephesians would learn how to be rooted in the love of Christ. We may not know or be able to control, I know for sure this is true, what our year is going to bring. If some of us knew what last year was going to bring to us, we might have said, “I’ll pass.” That’s me.
I pass, a lot of us might have started jumping for joy. Oh my goodness, what a year. Here’s the thing. Not every year starts out great or ends great. Not every year starts out poorly or ends poorly. There are a lot of twists, turns, ups, downs, valleys, mountains, who can tell what is going to happen? We have to walk humbly, we are not God. We don’t see around the bend. That’s one of the reasons we’re to live day by day. We can make our plans, we can lament the past, but we need to live day by day. Give us this day, our daily bread. When we start dwindling back and start pushing too far ahead, we lose our focus. This is the day the Lord has made. I will be glad in it. I will rejoice in it, by your grace, Lord, help me to do that.
What Paul is doing here is pointing toward a transcendent principle. That transcendent principle is a life rooted in the love of God is a life that will flourish. It’s going to flourish even in the pain, even in the questions, even in the struggle, even in the prosperity, if it’s rooted in the love of Christ. Deeply rooted. It can go through anything. Paul said, “I’ve learned to be content. Really content. I know how to prosper and not forget God, not loosen my commitments.” Many times people get blessed, they get it through promotion. They get some type of breakthrough and all of a sudden, the walk with Christ is diminished. Other times, some of us find that we get these enormous troubles and it concentrates on what’s really important in a way that never happened before. So not all gain is gain and not all loss is loss.
How do we root ourselves in the love of Christ, quickly? These are practical, but it’s where I was at. I’m going to share them. One by staying in His word. I’m talking about relational investment here because you can’t know somebody, you can’t grow intimate with somebody, see anyone if we never talk, share, and listen deeply, honestly, and authentically. We’re talking about reading His world. We’re talking about meditating, reflecting, and spending time. That requires time choices, Psalm one, the great opening Psalm. “Blessed is the man, the woman who walks, not in the counsel of the ungodly or stands in the way the sin nor sits in the seat of those who scoring the ways of God. But his delight is in the law of the Lord. In that law, they meditate day and night.” They’re going to be like a tree landed by the rivers of water, brings forth its fruit in its season, if leaf fall so doesn’t wither. Whatever it does, it’s going to have success in it. There’s a truth to that. You’re going to prosper. The idea is to build a habit of cultivating a love for the Word. Cultivating a love for His Word allows His word of love to work in us. Cultivating a love for His Word that allows the word of His love to work in us so that we can become anchored and rooted. For me, in this last season of suffering, and maybe it’s somewhere down the line. I’ll share a little more in-depth around that experience, I don’t think I have enough of a vantage point yet to do it.
I can share you with this, during that period, was a very dark and difficult period for me. I only share this to help any of us who might feel that sometimes they need help. During that time of suffering, I lived in the first 50 Psalms. It was an altar of tears. I wrote His promises down. I struggled to claim them as my own journaling. I journaled a lot. Journaling is something that some of us may want to do seasonally. Some people do it throughout the year. When you’re walking through something and to being able to journal helped. I journaled a lot. Write out your prayers, write out your laments, write them out. Write out hopes for deliverance. During that time, I declared my desire to learn the lessons He was trying to teach me. I clarified my heart, asked Him to help me submit my attitude, tried to be as raw and real as possible. That’s what pain will do to you. Pain pulls away pretense because you can’t pretend when you’re hurting. The thing is when we do that, what we find is God will meet us. God does, He will meet us there. A lot of times just writing His word out is a great thing to do. You find something you’re reading, just write it out. One other thing is to pick a seasonal verse and commit it into your heart and let it penetrate.
Secondly, retraining our self-talk. The reality is we’re often our biggest enemy, too often we speak motivation to ourselves. We speak to ourselves in ways that greatly discount how God sees us or what He can do. If you’re a negative self-motivator, that doesn’t do work great. It doesn’t. Sometimes we speak negatively, critically. We self-deprecate. We allow our attitudes to be conveyed to others. Sometimes because of things we’ve done. Sometimes it’s because of things that have been done to us. Scripts we’ve had spoken to us, scripts we’ve come to believe about ourselves. This is where we need to challenge ourselves to confront these verbal habits and tendencies. This is where the love of Christ comes in because He wants to get it and we say, “Well, that’s just how I am or that’s just how my family is, or that’s just how I am when I’m under pressure.” That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want to help us grow through that and shift it around because sometimes what we’re doing is hurting us.
Thirdly, cultivate a life of prayer. For me, that speaks of honest communication. Write out the prayers, speak out the prayers. Sharing my own life, for me, I asked Him to reassure me of His love. I believed He loved me. Even if I felt, perhaps I was being chased, or at least I was not being delivered the way I wanted to be delivered when I wanted to be delivered. You understand what I’m saying. I love you, Lord. I was getting my hair cut and was sharing a little bit with the person who was cutting my hair. In front of everybody on the floor, he said, I have a real honest question to ask you. He said it out loud, which was good. He said, “Did you ever feel like God let you down?” I looked around and said, “Man, that’s a good question.” I said, “I did not. I feel He owes me nothing beyond what He has already given me. Way beyond what I deserve, the last person I want to make my enemy is the Lord. He is my best friend, I may not understand what He’s doing or why He’s not doing something, but His love, I do not question. I will more rather question myself and perhaps see it as something that God is trying to teach me.” No question, there are things to learn. There are a lot of thick ways we can go with a conversation like that but I want to suggest that the Lord invites us to places where He may not answer the question in the way we want. He may not deliver us, but He will give us His reassuring touch. There were times when I felt Him say, “I am with you, in your pain. Learn of me.”
Prayer helps us gain peace and perspective. The last two things I’ll say about the holy life and I have to say them fairly quickly. The holy life is also building on the foundation of His love. This one has to do with nourishment rooted in His love. The second one has to do it and being built in His love, a building that is built, it’s New year’s. Think of our life as a building, there are additions God wants to make in our house. There may be certain rooms He wants deconstructed. There may be some new construction He wants to begin. There may be some cleaning that needs to be done. There may be a room that he wants redecorated. In proverbs, there is a great verse that says, “Through wisdom, a house is built and its rooms are filled with rare and precious treasure.” Sometimes just pondering, Lord, what is it that you want to do in a particular room of my life? Are there things that you want to create in there that become the goal, one room to be decorated and filled, what would that look like? How do I begin that process? I will tell you one thing, it’s usually going to involve other people. That’s why we talk about small groups. That’s why we talk about serving on a ministry team because this is out of those places where friendships that have a Christ-centered focus occur. Where we begin to gain the potential to have a deeper level of friendship, which is an accountable person or two that has the freedom, trust, and love. We have to trust challenge one another, grow, and take a look at what we’re building.
Lastly, let’s be open to the new things that God wants to do this year. He can do, what does Paul say? Rooted, nourished, loved, grounded, and built are keys to the holy life and He can do exceedingly abundantly more than we can even think or imagine. I was listening to someone share with me how they felt like the year had gotten off to such a bad start. They were saying why God was letting them down. This is never going to change, and this is my situation. I had no stone to throw, I just loved them. The fact of the matter is we are underestimating God. We don’t need to articulate what God can do. We need to articulate what God can do and God can do amazing things. God can turn things around, God can take a defeat and bring our greatest victory in life. God can take the greatest crushing in our life and make it the most beautiful aroma that allows other things to grow. He can take things that are bad and they become building blocks of an entirely new breakthrough place in our lives. We are not to underestimate God. We are to welcome Him into our places. Let’s start by saying, Lord, I’m open to the new year and what you want to do in it. I really am. I can’t wait, bring it on, Lord. Make it a good thing, please. If not, make it a good thing in the bad thing. Either way, it is going to be okay because I have you and you have me. Let’s pray.
Lord, we’ve tried to lay the groundwork for you. We tried to give our honest words for you to help us and we thank you. You call us to a place of devotion, a place of holiness, but always guarded with the idea of love, the love of Christ. If we’re safe there, then we have no fear. All the fears, perfect love casts out fear. You tell us, in first John four, where our fears bring your love in those places. Settle us there, Lord. I will not be afraid for the Lord is with me, what can man do to me? Jesus be with us, be our front and rear guard. Bless us, take us into deeper places. Root us more in your love, build us on the foundation of that love. Extend us out to have more faith, to be open to real possibilities that the gift that this new year brings us either way, good or bad, you’ve got good to give us. I thank you for it. I bless you for it in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.