The Proactive Approach (Sermon Notes from January 3, 2016)

Please take a minute and think about the following question: What approach am I taking to make myself a better person?

After all, everyone  of us has faults, weaknesses and we struggle with sin. What are we doing to overcome these obstacles which keep us from reaching our full potential as humans and, at times, keep us beat down in life?

According to proactivechange.com, “40 to 45% of American adult make one or more resolutions each year to try and improve themselves. Among the top New Year’s resolutions are resolutions about weight loss, exercise, and to stop smoking. Also popular are resolutions dealing with better money management and debt reduction.”

This brings us to another question. How successful are we at keeping our resolutions to improve ourselves?The following list shows how resolutions are maintained as time goes on:

– past the first week: 75%

– past 2 weeks: 71%

– after one month: 64%

– after 6 months: 46%

While a lot of people who make New Year’s resolutions do break them, research also shows that making resolutions is useful. People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make them.

If 40 to 45% of people make New Year’s resolutions, it means that 55 to 60% of people don’t bother with them. Perhaps it’s because they’ve failed to keep them in the past so they don’t even try anymore. Yet, many people who don’t make new year’s resolutions typically want to improve themselves

Last year, foxnews.com contained the following article: Beyond New Year’s Resolutions: Fifteen ways to improve your life in 2015 by Dr. Keith Ablow. A few of the examples he listed are:

Try to recall one dream you had as a kid — whether it was being a poet or a rock drummer or a multimillionaire stock trader — and take just a single step in that direction. So often, the ideas we had as children were good ones, and we abandoned them out of fear…

Buy one piece of art. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It just needs to appeal to you…

Tell your romantic partner one thing you would find exciting that you have not yet told that person. In my experience as a therapist, I’ve found that people can remain strangers to one another, in terms of passion, even after 10 or 20 years of marriage…

Try praying, at least once. If you haven’t prayed ever or haven’t prayed lately, you’ll discover that the act of praying for what you care deeply about has the effect of reminding you what that thing or those things really are. It also has the effect of reminding you that there is a great power in the universe that you are a part of. There’s something interesting about praying; even people who say they don’t believe in God are loathe to pray for the opposite of what they really want. How come? Is it because that, underneath all that cynicism, they actually do believe?”

All of the things we have listed up to this point can be very helpful. Making resolutions can make us better people. Taking and making opportunities to do different things does expand our horizons and make us grow as individuals. But there’s one glaring problem with everything we’ve discussed. Participating in these activities means we’re trying to change ourselves using our own power. Even the challenge to pray focused on how praying affected the person doing the praying. It didn’t  mention the fact that prayer is a supernatural connection to God which somehow unleashes God’s power. Making resolutions and working on self-improvement projects only address surface issues; they don’t address the core issues that led to problems in the first place

For example, one of the most heavily advertised product on TV is Proactive. What does Proactive do? We all know from the commercials that it removes pimples and acne. An actual testimony from proactive.com states,  “When you’re an adult and have acne, it’s embarrassing. It kept me home a lot more. I didn’t want to hang out with friends. Since using Proactive+, my skin is soft, smooth and my pores look a lot smaller. It doesn’t dry out my skin but leaves it feeling just right. The best part is feeling confident and being able to go out…even without makeup.” – Kara, 24 years old

According to this testimonial, Proactive does eliminate pimples and acne. But my question is: If someone buys this product and applies it, does it remove all of the pimples as well as prevent them from ever coming back? No. They will come back if someone quits using the product. Proactive only treats the surface. It doesn’t change what’s going on in the core of the body which is what causes the pimples and acne to grow in the first place. New Year’s resolutions and positive improvements are the same way. They might improve the surface but they don’t change the core. Someone can go on a diet and lose 100 pounds but the diet doesn’t address the internal emotional issues which led to overeating in the first place. This is why so many people gain their weight back. This is why so many other resolutions eventually fail.

God understands this. Centuries ago he sent the prophet Jeremiah to challenge the Israelites about their sinful actions. Jeremiah 2:22 says, “’Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me’, declares the Sovereign Lord.” We simply don’t have the ability to change our internal nature.

Instead of focusing on trying to change ourselves, what would happen if we shifted our focus onto the one who has the power to actually change our core?

In 2 Corinthians, Paul puts a lot of effort into explaining humanity’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ.  2 Corinthians 5:11-21 states11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

There is no doubt that Paul’s theology can be a little difficult to comprehend at times and this passage is no exception. To help us understand him a little better, let’s look at the theme of this passage. It is “God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Jesus Christ died for us so that we can be set free from the curse of sin and death. It is through him and not through our resolutions to be better people that our inner core changes.

What does this mean for us? While there are several directions we could go with this passage, there are 3 important points we need to discuss. The first one is:

Devotion (vs. 15) – And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” We live for Jesus. Our focus is supposed to shift from serving ourselves to serving Christ and others. The terminology Paul uses in this passage suggests the slave market and its practices so, for Christians, putting Jesus first isn’t optional.

To help us determine if we are doing this, we can ask one simple question. Does my life show I’m living for Christ? Even though I’m not perfect, am I forgiving of others when they’ve wronged me, more concerned for others than I am for myself, willing to sacrifice my desires if it is best for others, patient with people, growing spiritually and refusing to plateau, giving to the poor and needy as well as associating with those people whom society has rejected? If we aren’t doing these things, then Jesus might not even be in us.

The second important concept is:

Creation (vs. 17) – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Because of what Jesus did for us, we are new creations. When God looks at us, he sees Jesus in us instead of all of our pimples and acne that come to the surface because our core is flawed. God is also doing something else for those who follow Christ. He’s helping us be more like Jesus.

How does this happen? (See pictures below) Imagine that God created us to be a glass that’s perfect in form and then he filled us with all of the good things he wanted us to have. But then sin entered our lives and changes us into something other than what God created us to be (top left). As a result of this, our core became flawed and we now struggle with sin, selfishness and addictions. God understands this and, in his mercy and compassion, pours himself into us through various forms such as Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Bible. This process cleanses our dirty core (top center – middle center). God, however, doesn’t force himself on us. He let’s us resist him if we want to do so (middle right – bottom left.) If we choose to resist or ignore him, our dirty core will remain. But if we open ourselves up to him and allow him to work in us, he makes us into a new creation (lower right).

 

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The third important point we see in this passage is:

Reconciliation (vs. 18, 20) – “18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” When God looks at us, he sees our righteousness instead of our sin. This means we can have a close relationship with him. This happens because of what Jesus did for us when he paid for our sins on the cross. It isn’t because of our resolutions.

It’s OK to try and improve ourselves. The things we do can make us better people as well as expand our horizons. They can’t, however, change our internal cores. Only Jesus can do that. He is the one who makes us new creations and reconciles us to God the Father. When we focus on walking with him, we find that we don’t need as many resolutions because Jesus takes away many of our faults, weaknesses and sins.

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