First Lesson: Isaiah 42: 1-9
Responsive Reading: Psalm 29
Second Lesson: Acts 10: 34-43
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 3: 13-17
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
On New Year’s Eve, I went to see Grandma. Grandma and I were playing cards. Grandma proceeded to win nearly every game. Grandma would begin by explaining the rules to me. I would try to follow the rules as best I could. Grandma would still win! Then when I asked Grandma to clarify the rules, she replied: “The rules don’t really matter!”
So my continual frustration of losing card games with no rules, led to me wanting to take our time together in a different direction. I sit down with Grandma to discuss “New Year’s Resolutions.” Grandma every year growing up would give me a New Year’s resolution that she was going to follow. Grandma like most people would never follow through on her resolution.
So I asked Grandma if she had any “New Year’s Resolutions for 2017?”
To which she said, “I don’t intend to live here the rest of my life.”
The following proclamation is a bold claim for a 93-year-old living in a nursing home. While I continually admire Grandma’s optimism, the reality is most people’s New Year’s Resolutions don’t work out.
Research shows that 80 percent of New Year’s Resolutions tend to become forgotten visions by Valentine’s Day. The truth is lifestyle changes are hard.
Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said more than 70 percent of coronary bypass patients are back engaging in the same unhealthy behaviors of eating, drinking, and smoking that led them to the operating table within two years.
Additional studies will point out that two-thirds of dieters gain back any weight they’ve lost within one calendar year. Why do so many New Year’s Resolutions fail, we’ll get back to that question in a little bit?
Today’s Gospel lesson begins a new chapter in the life of Jesus as it tells us the tale of his baptism.
Why was Jesus baptized? John the Baptist was initially unclear as to why behind this question. Jesus was baptized though to “Fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized because, within the Old Testament, priests would undergo a ritual of initiation of ceremonial washing. Priests’ whole job was to make amends for people’s sins, now Jesus was going to handle people’s sin, once and for all.
On the day of his baptism, the path ahead for Jesus was not going to be easy. The very next event in Jesus’ ministry was that he was going to struggle in the wilderness without food for forty days while being tempted by Satan every step of the way. Jesus’ Baptism took place so that he may know what we know. Most of our life is spent in the wilderness, trying to find answers that ultimately move us forward.
Why do New Year’s Resolutions always fail? I was reading a book last week by Scott Adams creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Adams’ book tells his life story in how he used all sorts of failures in the business world to develop into one of the most famous cartoonists in all the land. Adams said the greatest revelation that he had in his journey was to view life regarding systems rather than goals.
For example, running a marathon would be a goal, whereas exercising every day would be a system. Losing ten pounds would be a goal and eating better would be a system. Adams points out the following problem with goals such as New Year’s Resolutions is that they leave us in a continual state of failure until we can finally relax upon completion. Only to eventually end up backsliding like two-thirds of dieters before us.
Goals are tough to achieve because of the sheer amount of willpower behind them. Systems though are different than goals. Systems are different in that they position us to embrace continual challenges as people, even if we experience our share of setbacks along the way.
Why do systems matter more than goals?
I was reading a book by the Basketball Coach Phil Jackson this week describing his time coaching the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls had the best player in the world in the Michael Jordan. There was no higher individual goal for Jordan to achieve. Jordan had led the NBA in scoring for three previous seasons, yet in the playoffs kept encountering the same road block in the Detroit Pistons. Season after season ended at the hands of the nemesis Pistons.
Phil Jackson wanted to change the way that the Bulls played the game of Basketball, by installing the triangle offense. Jordan was skeptical. The triangle had two potential downsides: 1. Jordan wouldn’t get as many points. 2. Jordan would have to trust his teammates more. Jackson saw the triangle though as bringing the Bulls to a more cohesive whole by seeking to uplift the gifts of every team member beyond Michael Jordan. The rest of the story is Michael Jordan would change his ways, defeat the Detroit Pistons and win six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. Today, Jordan is considered to be the greatest basketball player ever, all because he was able to put a system above his individual goals.
So on this day, we gather for our first worship service together of 2017? We look ahead to 2017 as a Congregation. 2017 will be like the first days of Jesus’ ministry a wilderness experience for the people of Sychar Lutheran. People will come into our lives and people will ultimately leave our lives. 2017 also promises to bring meaning.
Wanting more kids here on Wednesday night is a goal, seeking to make our ministry reach people from birth to over 100 is a system. Wanting a better church is a goal, seeking to uplift the presence of everyone who walks through its door is a system. Like Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the best of systems are not built alone.
Even Jesus himself did not undergo the call of his baptism alone. Jesus was joined on this day by both the “Father” and the “Holy Spirit.” As he embraced the new chapter of life before him, he heard those words of promise. “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
What will happen to us at Sychar Lutheran Church in the year ahead? We might look around and see all the ways that we don’t seemingly measure up. We don’t have many members compared to churches in Duluth or especially the Twin Cities, we don’t have endless youth coming through the door on Sunday morning, and Sychar has some dark days in its history.
But let me ask you this Today: “What if our weaknesses might actually be our strengths?”
In November when I was down in the cities for a Vikings game, I attended church at First Lutheran in White Bear Lake. First Lutheran has 1800 members, four services on Sunday, and a Christian school within its building. Sychar and First would be very different churches to all those walking in their doors for the first time.
On this day, I met their Visitation Pastor Al Valerius. Pastor Al before coming to First Lutheran was the long-time Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran in Stacy. You talk to the people at Saint John’s where I’ve been to church before Pastor Al can do no wrong. So Pastor Al was talking to me about his first years at Saint John’s when their membership was similar to Sychar’s Today. Pastor Al described how these years of his ministry were a gift in so many ways. How the experience at places like Saint John’s or Sychar is different than being at a place like First Lutheran. He says the gift of being in a church like this was the depth of the relationships; you can form with your fellow members. You will never have the intimacy that we have as a church ten-times the size.
For the reality is a visitor cannot easily attend services here without being noticed. If people’s goal is to blend into the crowd without being noticed, Sychar might not be the choice for them.
What if our strength as a church is that we know where we’ve been and what we want to be, sometimes being a little stubborn in life is a good thing. Stubbornness towards a system as in the case of Scott Adams can be a very good thing.
What if we shouldn’t abide merely by the goal of getting more members, but what if instead, we should be a system with two non-negotiables: 1. The Gospel for the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed every Sunday. 2. Continually seek to reach the people of the Bay Area in whatever ways God calls us in the year ahead.
We will fall short of being the ideal church in 2017. We are an imperfect church, made for imperfect people.” It is amongst these imperfect people that we encounter hope.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”-2 Corinthians 5:17
When I was a student at Chisago Lakes Middle School, every student’s goal was to look cool and talk cool. If rap music were popular, you would start listening to rap music. If all your friends were dressing like skateboarders, then you would dress like a skateboarder. If the cool kids started wearing clown noses to school, then you better go shopping for a clown nose. The term for kids like this would be “poser.” Posers would try to be something they’re not. Posing is the polar opposite of faith.
“We are an imperfect church, made for imperfect people.” God doesn’t love us as we appear, rather he loves as we are.
The reality of 2017 is this: We will fall short within our daily lives. Every day we will die, only to awaken every morning. In the words of Martin Luther, “Life is nothing but a daily baptism, once begun, and ever to be continued.”
New Year’s Resolutions might but probably won’t bring about the dramatic change of flying to California that we often seek. Most goals are unsustainable, but systems are sustainable. It is systems that can keep a person going on the darkest days of their existence. Our system centers on not only Jesus’ baptism but the promises of our own.
Jesus on the day of his Baptism stepped into the wilderness to begin his ministry. While this ministry brought its highs such as miracles and conversion, it also brought it lows of rejection and death. On the day of his baptism, Jesus began to shape God’s people long after he rose to be at the right hand of the father. Jesus’ baptism pointed to a day that is still to come when we encounter God’s promises to one day call us by name and claim us as his own. Amen
 Mockingbird. “Time For A Change? The Ineffectiveness of New Years Resolutions” MBIRD (Mockingbird Ministries). 05. Jan.2009. Web. Jan.3.2017.
 The Mockingbird Article is based on Alex Williams’ piece “New Year, New You? Nice Try”. Which was published in the New York Times on December 31st, 2008.
 Mockingbird. “Time For A Change? The Ineffectiveness of New Years Resolutions.”
 Matthew 3:15.
 Slick, Matt. “Why was Jesus baptized?” CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry). Web. Jan.7.2017
 Matthew 4:1-11
 Lewis, Karoline. “You Are All My Beloved.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 01.Jan.2017. Web. Jan.3.2017.
 Adams, Scott. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. Portfolio/Penguin Publishing. New York. 2013. Print. P.30-34.
 Adams, Scott. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. P.33.
 The book by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty was Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success originally published in 2013.
 I was in the process of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants when putting the sermon together. Gladwell’s book helped my thought process about how the way that we tend to look at both strengths and weaknesses is often wrong.
 2 Corithians 5:17.
 Mockingbird. “Resolved to Fail: Honesty and Personal Transformation.” MBIRD (Mockingbird Ministries). 02.Jan.2014. Web. Jan.3.2017.
 This saying from The Large Catechism.