Carlos Wilton, January 1, 2012; New Year’s Day; Non-Lectionary sermon; John 11:38-44 “Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
– John 11:44b
New Year’s Day on a Sunday. Only happens every seven years or so. So, how can I not touch upon the one subject commonly associated with New Year’s: the infamous New Year’s resolution?
How many of you have made, or plan to make a New Year’s resolution? Lots of people do. With some, it’s a very public matter, something they share freely. With others, it’s intensely personal.
Why New Year’s? Why not Easter, that celebration of new life? Or Christmas, the festival of God entering the world in human form? Or Halloween – now, there’s a concept! Because so many resolutions are elaborate games of pretend – promises the resolution-maker has little confidence in fulfilling – why not do it when you’ve already got a mask on?
The reason for bringing New Year’s Day and resolutions together is, of course, the calendar – or, at least the sort of calendar most people used to hang on their walls. In this brave new world of PDAs and smartphones, the classic wall calendars are becoming less common.
What a contrast between those old wall calendars and the new! Picture the page for December, round about the 30th or the 31st. You’ll see many, many little boxes, filled with scrawlings, scribblings, and erasures; words underlined and circled; all the detritus of our overscheduled, overprogrammed lives. Then, take down the old and put up the new. Open to the month of January: “the moon on the crest of the new-fallen snow, gave a luster of midday to objects below.” That line from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas may as well describe the snowy-white expanse of the January calendar page: so fresh, so unspoiled, so unsullied by the pitfalls, passions and frustrations of an endless succession of everydays.
On January 1, we allow ourselves the illusion, however brief, of a new beginning, a fresh start. We fall into a kind of magical thinking, imagining this day is a door that opens ever so briefly – and, if its threshold isn’t crossed, won’t open again for another 365 days (or, in 2012 – a Leap Year – 366).
The truth is, when it comes to choosing an auspicious occasion for reforming ourselves, one day’s as good as the next – though most of us are loath to believe it. When the thought arises that something in our life needs changing, most days of the year we say to ourselves, “That would make an awfully good New Year’s resolution.” Then, come January 1st, those resolutions-to-be come crashing down upon us, as though we’d opened the door to an overstuffed closet.
If this theory of mine about New Year’s resolutions is correct, it means the driving force behind most resolutions is not faith, hope or love, but guilt – seasoned by a few drops of despair. “Oh, it’s New Year’s. Time to try doing that thing I promised myself – and maybe even foolishly promised my loved ones – that I was going to do.”
If it’s indeed true that guilt is at the foundation of so many attempts to make and keep resolutions, is it any wonder that a whole lot of them are destined to fail? For many New Year’s resolutions, the enterprise is doomed from the start. It comes round, at the end, to: “Well, at least I tried.” Each time we do that, we add a little more to our account at the First National Bank of Guilt, and make next year’s round of resolutions all the more challenging.
What I’m trying to say, today, is not: “Forget New Year’s resolutions!” The image of the clean, white calendar is still a potent incentive. It’s worth taking advantage of. What I am suggesting is that you and I do a whole lot better if we adopt resolutions we have a fighting chance of keeping.
The seed of this practical advice is actually found in the word “resolution” itself. It comes, as so many English words do, from the Latin. Solvere means “to loosen, to untie, to unbind.” Add an “r-e” on the front as a prefix and, in this case, it intensifies the original. Re + solvere means to really loosen, untie or unbind – to cast those bonds away, so they can trouble you no more.
Take the intensifier “re” off “resolution,” and what you’re left with is “solution.” Now, if you’ve ever taken a chemistry class, you know a solution is something you make by dumping a substance into a liquid and stirring it up. Ideally, it’s something easily dissolved, like another liquid, or a fine powder. Stir a teaspoon of sugar into a cup of coffee, or squirt some chocolate syrup into a glass of milk, and you’re making a solution.
The key is to choose a substance that is, indeed, easily dissolved. You can make a great milkshake, for example, by mixing chocolate, vanilla or strawberry syrup into a mixture of ice cream and milk. A prime-rib milkshake, on the other hand – not such a good idea, unless you’ve got a food processor handy (and even then, still not a good idea). Successful solution-making requires ingredients that are soluble, that are loose and free-flowing enough to mix easily in water, or milk, or whatever your basic fluid may happen to be.
That also suggests, by the way, that the best way to take on a big resolution to change is to break it down into smaller pieces. Think of that powder being dissolved in a solution of water. It can only be dissolved because it’s a multitude of individual grains. Our friends in the AA groups have a motto: “One Day at a Time.” They’ve learned that the decision to get sober, if you’re addicted to alcohol, is not something you just wake up one day and decide to do. It’s a whole string of little decisions you make, again and again – for each minute, each hour, each day. One step at a time. One day at a time.
Isn’t it strange, then, that – over the centuries – the word “resolution” has taken on quite the opposite meaning! If you say of a person, “He shows great resolution,” what you typically mean is: “He’s strong, immovable, invincible. He shall not be moved! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ is his personal motto.” That means that, when we undertake a New Year’s resolution, we’re often going to approach it like Superman throwing himself against a brick wall. The only way to succeed, we convince ourselves, is with a head-on, full-frontal assault, with all the inner strength we can muster.
Let’s say our New Year’s resolution is about eating better, so we lose weight. (That, by the way, is one of the two biggest New Year’s resolutions for Americans; the other is getting out of debt.) Trying – and failing – to lose weight is something I do know something about, so I can speak with some authority. In the days leasing up to January 1st, we try to coach ourselves, promising: “This is the year I’m really going to do it.” Then, New Year’s Day dawns – for many of us, after an evening of gorging and excess (yes, I know what you did last night, but let’s say no more about it) – and it’s time to throw ourselves, body and soul, into our new, self-disciplined way of living.
Well, if our mental model of resolution-keeping is something like Superman throwing himself at a brick wall, you can pretty well imagine what the result’s going to be. It may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but sooner or later the repeated blows to the head and body are going to get to us. We’ll wake up at the base of that brick wall in a morass of guilt and self-loathing. All because we’re not Superman. Pull-eaze!
Which is all completely unnecessary, if we’d only understand what that word “resolution” really means. It doesn’t mean being strong and invulnerable like Superman, tackling the problem head-on. It means being soft, pliant, flexible, capable of change. It means allowing that selfish ego of ours to dissolve, in service to a higher cause. And that can only happen if somebody else has softened us up first, that person being – of course – Jesus Christ, who promises, “Behold, I make all things new!” It was about this same Jesus that the Apostle Paul wrote, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old is finished and done. Everything has become fresh and new.” Fresh and new like that January calendar – the only difference being that the calendar is not ours, but God’s!
Friends, this faith of ours, this Christianity, is not a faith for Supermen and Superwomen. It’s a faith for ordinary folks like you and me, people who struggle with our weight, or our spending habits, or intoxicating substances, or our tempers, or our bodily lusts, or our love of gossip, or our laziness, or our workaholism, or whatever other vice you may care to name. None of us solve really major problems overnight, even if the night happens to be December 31st.
Change is hard. It’s always hard. It demands unceasing work, and prayer, and support networks of other people. It goes without saying that, in pursuing major change, there will be setbacks, failures, backsliding, one step back after two forward. Or sometimes even two steps back after one forward.
In the face of persistent setbacks like that, the key is resolution – re-solution – allowing our stubborn egos to be dissolved again and again, like stirring that cup of coffee or glass of iced tea until all the sweetener finally disappears.
There’s a model for this sort of change in the beautiful story of the raising of Lazarus we read today. It’s a very long story, with a great many details that are well worth looking at, but the snippet I shared with you this morning is all about what happens to Lazarus after Jesus has raised him, as he’s stumbling out of the tomb.
Lazarus is wrapped up, you will recall, in strips of cloth, as was the custom in that day. He looks sort of like the Mummy in the old horror movie. There he comes, from darkness into light, in the odd, shuffling gait of someone who’s got his ankles tied together (as indeed he does). And what are Jesus’ words to the awestruck crowd, as they first witness this wonder? Jesus doesn’t say, like a circus impresario, “Behold, the miracle of life made new!” He doesn’t say, “Look what I’ve just done!” He doesn’t say, “Ta-daaah!”
No, Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” Unbind him. Release him. He’s already brought Lazarus from death to life, what more could the man need, right? Well, he needs to have his ankles untied. If Lazarus is going to be fit for the world of sunshine and water and food, for working and lovemaking and praying, and not the tomb, he needs to be equipped for living in this world, and not in the realm of death.
Just so, as you and I attack our most important resolutions, at New Year’s or any other time, it’s not the big concept that trips us up. We can get the big concept. It’s the little things that get us.
It’s not the inner desire to eat more healthily. No argument there! It’s the aroma wafting over from the donut shop. It’s not the concept of abstaining from alcohol, if experience has shown we can’t handle it. It’s the beer commercial, showing all those happy, convivial people. Such are the bandages around our ankles. Such are the things from which we need to be freed.
You see, the only successful resolutions are those that have freedom as their very basis, their raison d’etre, as the French say, their reason for being. Alcoholics never beat their drinking habit until they come to love freedom more than bondage. The same can be said for any other nasty habit or addiction. It’s freedom that’s got to be at the heart of it. And the only reliable source of freedom in this life is the one who raised Lazarus from the grave, and who can raise us as well, from all the bondages and bad habits and addictions we allow to trap us.
“Unbind him, and let him go,” says Jesus. The words are not addressed to Lazarus. They’re addressed to the community. Lazarus can’t free himself. He needs the help of others. Which is why the church is so important. Peruse the aisles of the self-help section over in Barnes and Noble, and you’d think that any matter of change and recovery is all about us, about “taking care of number one” – in fact, the absurdity is right there for all the world to see, in the very name “self-help.” It’s impossible! How could the likes of us help ourselves?
Resolutions are neither made, nor kept, in a vacuum. It’s all about us being church for one another: accepting each other as we are, but not flinching from believing we can become, by the grace of God, all we were meant to be. It’s all about unbinding one another, and letting one another go.
So, that’s my advice to you, if you’re going to make an attempt at a New Year’s resolution. You’ve got to loosen up! Be gentle with yourself. Expect a failure, or two, or three. But each time you fail, get up, find what support you need from the good people around you, and get back on the road again. Real, substantive change, in life, is the journey of a lifetime. It’s not limited to the first week or two of January. Yet, none of us make that journey alone. We make it, always, in the company of others – and, most of all, in the presence of a loving Lord!
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.