I shared the following message at Gateway South Campus:
A new year gives us a chance to make a new start. A new year allows us the opportunity to pause and re-calibrate where we are and where we are going.
Consider for a moment: what is the trajectory of your life? Are you headed in the best direction? Are you in a better place now than you were a year ago at this time? If not, what are you going to do differently in the new year to make sure you make progress?
“We overestimate what we can accomplish in one year, but we underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years.” – Bill Gates
We need to be willing to make the right choices no matter how small they are
and no matter how long it takes.
Some of you have way more cynicism and skepticism about the new year. You’ve seen it over and over. You never seem to get traction. The people around you never seem to make progress. Once again, you expect you will be disappointed and become even more disillusioned. The new year doesn’t seem to have any hope of being a better year.
Here’s one thing for sure: when we just make superficial changes, we won’t see anything new.
What we need this new year is a complete overhaul. We need a new mind, and we need a new heart. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength. These four categories cover all of who we are. Some of us are holding back one or two or three or all four of these from God. Over our entire life, we will continue to fail to become all that God has created us to be until we completely give Him all of who we are.
Too often we attempt to change our behavior or change our circumstances. We just think if I have a new job, a new car, a new life group, a new relationship, a new… then I will finally find happiness.
Rather than only trying to change our circumstances,
we need to first allow God to help us better handle our circumstances.
There’s a fascinating figure in the Scriptures named Hezekiah who gives us insight into a new life.
Here’s the context: The kingdom of Israel had been divided into two nations and then the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria. Judah in the South was barely hanging on. God continued to call the people back to Himself. They would make progress and then fall back. This happened over and over.
It was during this time when Hezekiah became king of Judah at the age of 25. He ruled for 29 years. Hezekiah’s father was wicked and followed the ways of the wicked people around them – worshiping their gods which included a brutal practice of sacrificing their children.
Yet Hezekiah was different. He began removing all of the items used to worship the false gods and child sacrifice was abolished.
2 Chronicles 29:3-10 says the following:
In the first month of the first year of his reign, he opened the doors of the temple of the Lord and repaired them. 4 He brought in the priests and the Levites, assembled them in the square on the east side 5 and said: “Listen to me, Levites! Consecrate yourselves now and consecrate the temple of the Lord, the God of your ancestors. Remove all defilement from the sanctuary. 6 Our parents were unfaithful; they did evil in the eyes of the Lord our God and forsook him…. 10 Now I intend to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger will turn away from us. 11 My sons, do not be negligent now, for the Lord has chosen you to stand before him and serve him, to minister before him….”
As soon as he had the opportunity (in the first month of his first year), he changed the trajectory of his life and his nation from where his father had been going.
So how do we change the trajectory of our life and make the new year better than last year?
1. Forget resolutions! Instead make a covenant with God.
A covenant means fully trusting God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. A covenant is more than believing in God or believing things about God. A covenant means an intimate relationship with God where He is allowed to inform all of our decisions.
The best example of a covenant with God is marriage. Just like the healthiest marriages, a healthy relationship with God includes the following elements:
- Spending time together.
- Talking. (Praying).
- Listening. (Reading the Scriptures and learning to keep in step with His Spirit).
- Changing your behavior. (Adjusting what we like to what God likes).
- Talking with others about your relationship. (Wearing a wedding ring shows the world I am taken. Similarly, we need to learn how to share about our relationship with God in natural ways with others).
Following his leadership, the people began to return to God and trust God in every aspect of life. Even with their finances and what they produced from their farms or when hunting, they began to give offerings to God which was then distributed to those in need, so the community had plenty and abundance because of their willingness to personally sacrifice. What soon followed was spiritual awakening! Amazing things were happening because Hezekiah made a choice to change the trajectory of his life.
In the midst of this is a really remarkable phrase describing Hezekiah which gives us our second way to make next year better than last year:
5 Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. 6 He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. 7 And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook. – 2 Kings 18:5-7
Now that sounds like the kind of person we want to be! How amazing would it be if when describing your life in a book they wrote about you:
“he was successful in whatever he tried”
“she was successful in whatever she tried”
If we stopped there, we would end up disappointed quite quickly in God if we think: “if I just promise God I will do better, then he will give me success.” We should aspire towards a life described as successful in all that we do, but we have to remember what success in the Scriptures really means.
We think of success as the opposite of failure or the absence of hardship. We define success in our dictionary as “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.”
The Hebrew word used to describe Hezekiah means “to be prudent, be circumspect, wisely understand, prosper.”
Success in the Scriptures means making wise choices regardless of circumstances.
Hezekiah made wise choices no matter what he undertook. Wisdom is not some magical way of knowing the future. Wisdom is the ability to connect cause and effect. Hezekiah understood that when he made his relationship with God his priority, everything else came together.
3. Seek God through the Scriptures.
When we begin to see the Scriptures as a portal into God’s presence, as a way to understand who God is and what He has for us – our lives will never be the same. The Bible is filled with examples to follow and examples to avoid. When we read the Bible, seek to understand what was happening, and then apply what we are reading to our lives, we will be amazed at the change we experience.
The Bible so often intimidates us. It is such a big book, and it was written so long ago! We don’t even know how to get started!
To help you, check out Applying the Bible for A Better New Year for ideas on understanding God’s heart and God’s ways. The Bible is far more accessible than you might think:
- Did you know there are more words in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times than there are in the New Testament?
- To read an entire letter Paul wrote to the Galatians or Ephesians or Philippians would only take 5 to 6 minutes per letter?
- If you just read 3 to 4 chapters a day, you could read through the entire Bible in one year. I once read through the entire New Testament in just one month.
Coming every Sunday morning and applying the Scriptures to our lives by taking Next Steps is a critical way God helps us grow. There are things we can only discover in the context of community. Don’t come late and miss the worship. God uses worship to open our heart and mind for the message He has for us. If you have to miss, then be sure to listen to the podcast or watch online.
Even if you were able to come every single Sunday, one morning a week is not enough time to invest in your spiritual growth. Spending time daily with God, connecting with community, and serving throughout the week are essential elements to growing in our faith.
Hezekiah experienced the kind of life we do not have to just imagine or hope for, but the kind of life we can experience starting in this new year.
4. Remove the distractions necessary to focus on God.
To focus on God means to keep God at the forefront of our mind through prayer and allowing Him to guide us throughout our day through prayer.
Hezekiah removed the things from his life and from his nation that were pointing towards false gods. He removed the things that distracted from the One True God. The result was spiritual awakening!
So if Hezekiah was successful in all that he did, then everything went well for him, right?
Not at all.
Hezekiah faced some tremendous challenges in his life. Two of those moments were shared multiple times in the Bible (2 Kings 18, 2 Chronicles 29, and Isaiah 36). I encourage you to read the story of Hezekiah’s life. It is remarkable!
In fact, Hezekiah had two moments in his life when his prayers created a new future!
Like the new Star Trek movies or the TV show LOST, Hezekiah was able to create a better alternative reality because of his relationship with God.
Let me explain:
The Assyrians came back to do damage to Judah just as they had done to Israel and to the neighboring Samaritans. Hezekiah had been able to buy time in the past from the Assyrians the last time they attacked. Literally, he gave them gold and silver to maintain some semblance of freedom.
Too often we do the same. We keep what is threatening us close rather than having the courage to overcome.
The Assyrians had never been defeated, and the field commander reminded the people of Judah of this. He shouted out threats. He promised destruction and tried to entice Hezekiah’s top men to betray him. He shouted so that all the people of Judah could hear:
“Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me…. Choose life and not death! “Do not listen to Hezekiah, for he is misleading you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ – 2 Kings 18:31-32
The field commander for the Assyrians shouted out in the language of the people: don’t trust other nations to help you, don’t trust your king, and don’t trust your God. Even more confusing, the field commander even went on to claim:
“The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.” – 2 Kings 18:25
You can imagine how tempting that would be. Who should you believe? Your King and the Assyrians both claimed God told them to do two things that contradicted each other. Plus, the Assyrians had never lost!
Just like the people of Israel, we have voices trying to lead us in very different directions.
The people remained quiet, and Hezekiah turned to the Lord for help. He had made a covenant with God. He had surrendered himself and his decisions to God. Now, Hezekiah tore his robes and put on sackcloth (a sign of desperation to God and to those who saw Him). He went to the Temple, and he prayed. The end of his prayer included this line:
“Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God.” – Isaiah 37:20
Hezekiah had come to the place where he asked God to answer his prayer not just to help him and not even just to help his people but to help others he didn’t know.
Sometimes our prayers aren’t answered because we aren’t desperate enough.
Other times, our prayers aren’t answered because they are too self-centered.
Instead, seek God with desperation and in a selfless way.
After this desperate and selfless prayer, God responded in a most amazing way:
“Because you have prayed to me…. Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass.” – Isaiah 37:26
Now this is a bit mind bending, but this is a moment in the Bible when God’s sovereignty (His plan) interacts in a dynamic way with man’s free will (our plan). The passage seems to be saying: “God had planned to stop the violence of the Assyrians in the future. It has already been planned. It is going to happen, but because of Hezekiah’s prayer God fast forwarded into the future. Their violence against Judah would end now because of Hezekiah’s prayer.”
It is possible God’s plan can be altered by our prayers and our behavior.
God’s overriding plan will happen, yet there is freedom and flexibility over His specific plan.
Another moment in the Bible, God makes this statement:
“And if I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” – Jeremiah 18:9-10
It is possible to miss the good things God has intended for us when we choose to go our own way.
So Hezekiah, the man who was successful in everything that he did still faced oppression from the Assyrians, threats from the Assyrians and others and many other hardships. After he avoided certain destruction through his prayers, it wasn’t too long later that he found himself in another precarious situation. Hezekiah suffered from an illness threatening to kill him.
His response: Once again he turned to God with a desperate prayer.
God’s response: “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city.” – Isaiah 38:5-6
Remarkable! Hezekiah’s choice to reach out to God once again altered God’s plan for his life. He received 15 years! God’s overriding plan remained in place, but there was room for Hezekiah to have 15 more years on earth!
5. Don’t allow your past to haunt your present or ruin your future.
Even making wise choices, Hezekiah still faced tragedy and hardships. For example, during the time of his illness, Hezekiah failed to seek God’s counsel on a decision that ended up putting his kingdom at risk from a new threat – the Babylonians. He was not perfect, and he failed to walk in wisdom 100% of the time.
Even still, the man who was “successful at whatever he did” changed everything by making a covenant with God. His life was completely different than his father’s life and even his son’s life.
Each one of us has to choose for ourselves the kind of life we want to live. Whether our parents were evil or whether they were living the right way, we still have to make our own choice. We may face consequences for the choices our parents make, but we are not condemned by their bad choices nor are we guaranteed good things by their good choices. We must choose our own adventure. We must choose if we will follow God and His ways or if we will reject Him and His ways.
- What good from God are you missing because of your choices?
- What do you need to sacrifice and leave in 2014 so you don’t take it with you into 2015?
- What good from God are you missing because you haven’t been desperate enough?
- What good from God are you missing because your view of life has remained too self-centered?
- What good from God are you missing because you haven’t even asked?
Hezekiah was not held hostage to his father’s decisions. Neither are we.
Today is the opportunity to start afresh. It is not too late to change the trajectory of your life with God at the center of your life.
We can choose a new path!
I very much enjoyed the emphasis on Covenant here and how you likened it to marriage. I’ve been married for over 2 years now, so I’m starting to get everything down pretty easy and things are very simple now. Wait…no.
Marriage as Covenant allows the relationship to survive and even flourish when it doesn’t make sense that it would. Of course, when we begin to date someone and every experience is new, we almost don’t need covenant at all! We can get by simply on the infatuation fumes that surround a new relationships. We don’t need a Pastor to remind us to love our spouse sacrificially, and so on, because we’re so excited just to have someone.
But, as time goes on the sin which runs rampant through our relationships takes its toll. The other person doesn’t appear as magical anymore, serving them seems more of a checklist than a privilege, and damnit can she just pick up her clothes off the floor?! Covenant, at this juncture, reminds us of what we’ve so quickly forgotten- we are lucky, we are so lucky, to have someone that loves us. We don’t deserve it, and yet God found it in His will to make it happen anyway. Because of Covenant, we are reminded of our place, and at the same time reminded that it isn’t all about us.
Covenant with God and His church are no different. When serving seems to drag, when “church friends” start to become annoying, or when you’re tired of reading scripture when you wake up, Covenant reminds you of your role. Covenant reminds you of the Spirit within you, the same one that prompted you to make that Covenant in the first place- that Spirit is still there, and we can access it through a realization of our role in the Covenant we’ve made.
In 2009 if a book had been written about my life it still seemed possible that it would be about a success. When having a leader that gave me a chance to use my gifts and talents build me up in them I was successful. When things changed and that leader was not there, there was always an enemy ready to destroy and most people who just stood there and watched while I broke. That I am sure successful life and the book of greatness are lolly books. The book about my life is broken and longing for an eternity where Jesus will wipe away every tear from eye and every child I look at will not be hungary and I wont feel powerless. For moments though hopefully I will have those feelings I had on International Friends Day, John Monger’s Church, and even the Syrian Women’s party that I could feel a piece of what Heaven will be and His love and longing for relationship with His human creation. In heaven there will be people from every tongue and tribe and nation. I imagine the dancing, the worship and every memory at different churches like Amazing Grace in Austin that has been predominately Nigerian immigrants. I wish we could have a dancing dancing and eating and worshiping with each other at church.
Thank you for putting forward this idea of Biblical success and not being bound by our inevitable bad decisions or the decisions of our parents.