Will you take any baggage from last year into the New Year? Making resolutions without reconciliation is a load too heavy to bear. You don’t have to.
Our reading for this New Year is taken from Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, chapter three, verses one through seventeen:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
The grass withers and the flowers fade but the word of the Lord will endure forever.
This morning I want to bring you a new year’s sermon from this passage that I am calling onward and upward: a vision that is out of this world for the new year.
I heard someone say that “New Year’s Day is just another day to me. Why if we didn’t have it marked out on a calendar and make such a big deal, it would be one more sunrise and sunset. No big deal.” Well, it is obvious to me that they never ate my Aunt Eva’s black-eyed peas and cabbage (ham hocks and good old, slimy okra in those black-eyed peas)! And they sure haven’t been to my house to taste my wife’s New Year’s Day gumbo and her black-iron-skillet cornbread (buttery, golden brown and piping hot with just a touch of sweetness). Just another day? I don’t think so!
Now, I will grant that a New Year’s Day might merely be an arbitrary day on the Gregorian calendar. But it is also undeniably true that we do infuse it with a certain distinction and illustriousness. We expected it to be a day of resolve, of new beginnings. But the truth is: it is hard to get on with living life until we have learned how to make peace with the life that we have left behind on the dark side of the New Year. The way to do that is to have peace with God; to follow his instruction for living; and receive his Son our Savior Jesus Christ. So, this morning I want to talk to you not merely about your New Year. I want to talk to you about a vision for the new year that is literally out of this world that transforms this world. I very much believe in the opinion of CS Lewis who said those who think most about heaven have been those who have helped earth the most. So, we want to think about some very glorious things this morning in both the past and the future. We have a wonderful place to do that and that is in Philippians chapter 3, verses 1 through 17. There the Apostle Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice. And he follows that command in this “book of joy,” with reflection — the most personal reflection — on his own past and his own future.
Paul’s vision for his life in Christ set against the trials and difficulties of this world provides us with the ability to rejoice in a vision that is out of this world and to enter a new year with hope and confidence. So how do we do that?
I want to point to this passage and divided into two to show us the few steps necessary towards embracing the New Year with rejoicing and with a vision that is out of this world and one that, yet, changes this world we are in. I point to two steps in the magnificent passage before us. The first step is this:
1. Lookout for the dogs!
The Apostle Paul begins, literally, with the words “look out for the dogs.” His not-so-flattering-words refer, of course, to the Judaizers who maintained that for one to have a right relationship with God one must follow certain religious rites or ceremonials. Now it is true that God had instituted rites and rituals to convey truth about Himself, about Mankind, and about a Savior to come. But the sign was never intended to be the salvation. Yet, as Mankind is prone to religious error, this group believed that the religious rituals of the Old Testament contained power in and of themselves — a sort of magic if you will — that if followed mechanically brought one into a right relationship with God. Not only would this initiate the right relationship with God — that is justification — but if you continue to do it and improve in it, you will grow in this relationship — that is sanctification through religious ritual. The apostle Paul is being hunted by these dogs. He refers to them in a pejorative way, using one of the rituals with sarcastic hyperbole as an example of their ludicrous position: they are “those who mutilate the flesh” (verse 2). Paul advances his argument by way of including himself in the very group that is on the attack. Paul is of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day. Without going into all his educational and clerical credentials, this man is the “Hebrew of Hebrews” (verse 5). He goes on to speak about his own past and how he had sought to follow the religion that was being advanced by this singular group — a group that was upsetting the early Church. What is remarkable about Paul’s teaching is that he can pivot off the negative onto the positive. He demonstrates that the mechanical religious response to God can never bring about salvation. Salvation comes through God’s plan in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. It comes through a righteousness that is not our own, a righteousness that Martin Luther called “an alien righteousness.” The apostle Paul renounces all his past attempts at holiness and clings to the Lord Jesus Christ and his righteousness. He proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ by saying that he wants to be found not having a righteousness of his own but having a righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ by faith. Moreover, he connects that righteousness to the act of suffering and death and sacrifice on the cross and says that he identifies his life in that so that he might by any means attain to the resurrection from the dead. Now what does all of this means you and me today? What is all this have to say about having the vision for our lives for the new year?
Paul’s extraordinary theological statement about his past speaks to our past. Yes, our past. I mean this: It tells us that we must look out for the dogs in our lives. Yes, some of those dogs are the religious requirements apart from the grace of God in Christ that bark at us saying that we must do this or that to be right with God. But I dare say that there are other beasts barking in the darkest night of our souls to frighten us with guilt. There are dreaded dogs that are barking; hideous creatures that if unleashed from their diabolical posts would dig up our past failures, exhume our long-ago-buried sins, snarl out our inability to please God because of our many failures. These dogs are servants of Perdition or manifestations of the haunted human soul, but they are condemned enemies of God. Almighty God is saying to us in Philippians 3:1-17 that we must not allow these dogs to frighten us. Rather, let these barking dogs howl until they can howl no more. We have run from them in the past. We have worried ourselves sick over our guilt. We have done everything we could to get rid of our guilt. We have cried. We have formulated our own penance plans and done everything possible to relieve our souls of the stinging guilt that damns us daily. Ah, but the charges brought against Paul caused Paul to turn the accusations towards the doctrine of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. You have guilt? You have regret? You have remorse? Let the negative energy of those hounds from hell be used for the glory of God as you turn toward the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has taken your guilt unto himself at the cross. Your remorse and your regret are nailed to Jesus on Calvary. They are not for the present and they are not for the future. There are no more. Christ Jesus himself bore your sins on the cross and he issues you the happy command to “rejoice!” “Rejoice” because your sins are forgiven. Your past, however dreadful, has been dipped into the holy water of God’s saving grace. He is able to take the very things that seek to destroy us and cause it to become the very things that save us. The stormy winds that sought to drive St. Paul’s prison ship into the islands became the God-ordered fair trade winds that led him to the center of God’s will, that allowed him to bring the gospel to the very pinnacle of the greatest empire in the world. The ruling motif of the cross is ever present: the instrument of death has become the sign of salvation and the sealed tomb of defeat has become the radiant open-grave of victory and ascension glory.
But you say to me,
“Pastor, I believe what you are saying. I have trusted in Christ. I have given my doubts my griefs and my remorse is in my sins to him. But I go into the new year feeling some remorse. I go into the new year feeling some unforgiveness that I know should be gone. What do I do with this lingering echoes of yesterday’s barking hounds? “
I think one of the most powerful illustrations of the truth of this very phenomenon came from the life of that wonderful saint of God, Corrie ten Boom. Corrie ten Boom was part of a Dutch Reformed family during World War II who harbored the persecuted Jewish people in their homes. Her father was a very devout believer and trusted God to do the right thing by hiding the Jewish people. Corrie ten Boom’s brother was a Dutch Reformed pastor. Her sister was her heroine in the faith. But their devout faith cost them dearly, or better put, severely. The family was shipped to a Nazi concentration camp when they were eventually found out for the crime of hiding the Jews. Moreover the Dutch Reformed Church was under suspicion of resisting their occupiers, the German Nazis. During that time one of the Nazi guards worked her sister to death. After the war, Corrie ten Boom gave a series of lectures across Europe and America on her experiences. She talked about forgiveness. During one of her lectures in Europe, as she talked about how she had learned to forgive, she was approached by a German man that she recognized: he was the guard who had killed her sister. He told her that he had received Jesus Christ and that he had been forgiven. The former guard asked Corrie ten Boom for her forgiveness. Suddenly, the biblical truth that she had been preaching came to her in the most extraordinary way. She would later say that she knew she had no option. Because Christ had forgiven her of her sins she had to forgive others, including the Nazi guard who’d murdered her sister. She told him, “yes, my brother, I do forgive you.” That was a declaration of forgiveness. But emotional forgiveness came much harder. She had many nightmares about the incident. She dealt with feelings of resentment and bitterness. Yet she knew in her heart that what she had done was the right thing and she didn’t regret for giving. She brought her troubles to an old Lutheran pastor. This is her testimony from a 1972 issue of Guidepost magazine:
You would have thought that, having forgiven the Nazi guard, this would have been child’s play. It wasn’t. For weeks I seethed inside. But at last I asked God again to work His miracle in me. And again it happened: first the cold-blooded decision, then the flood of joy and peace.
I had forgiven my friends; I was restored to my Father.
Then, why was I suddenly awake in the middle of the night, hashing over the whole affair again? My friends! I thought. People I loved! If it had been strangers, I wouldn’t have minded so.
I sat up and switched on the light. “Father, I thought it was all forgiven! Please help me do it!”
But the next night I woke up again. They’d talked so sweetly too! Never a hint of what they were planning. “Father!” I cried in alarm. “Help me!”
His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.
“Up in that church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.
“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”
And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversation. But the force–which was my willingness in the matter–had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.
And so I discovered another secret of forgiveness: that we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.
As your pastor, today, I must ask you: Are there any old dogs of the devil barking at you from yesterday’s regrets? Yesterday’s sins? The incessant howling of these hounds from hell must cease today as Christ Jesus himself bids them to be quiet. For others of you, you know that your sins have been forgiven, you know that you have forgiven others who have wronged you, but the wounds were so severe in your life that you’re still hearing “the ding and the dong.” But be of good cheer, these are only the echoes of failures, the reverberation of sins, the distant sounds of unforgiveness. They are scar tissues of the soul. Soon, through Word, Sacrament, and Prayer, the scars will remain, but no longer be tender to the touch. The dings, dings—the scar tissue—have no power and they are bound to dissipate beneath the the increasing days of God’s Grace in the new life in Jesus Christ.
So look out for the devil’s dog-days-gone-by. Let Christ Jesus repudiate them from the cross, “Father, forgive…”
But the second step to a joyous new year vision that is out of this world except forth for every believer who reads this word in verses 12 through 17. And this is the second step.
2. Look forward to the Day!
When I say “Day,” I mean the full eschatological prize awaiting the faithful. I mean the Day of a new heaven and a new earth that transforms our presents days and dog-days of the past.
St. Paul makes an important pivot forward in his epistle. He leaves the past behind and he begins to focus his life on the future and in doing so intends to bring the Philippians with him. You will notice that the Apostle Paul says he is not arrived but he is straining forward to what lies ahead. He is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We have here superlative upon superlative, typical of the glorious visionary wording of St. Paul in his epistles and nevermore joyous that in the “letter of joy.”
One of my favorite passages in all the Bible is in the prophet Joel 2:25, which says,
I will restored to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.
What a vision! In the passage, the prophet uses a literary technique to reverse the order of the devastation with an order of restoration. The creatures that had wrought destruction were here given in reverse. It is as if there were a movie run in reverse. How does God do it? Through redemption in Jesus Christ God uses a multiplicity of ways to reverse the curse and to apply the blessing of the Covenant of grace. Sometimes it involves people. Sometimes it involves providential events. But, it always involves a clear redeeming time in the lives of those who trust in Him.
I am inviting you to a New Year transformation: not just a resolution, but a vision that is out of this world but that has come into this world. It is a vision that transforms men and women and boys and girls; that takes away guilt and sin and replaces it with hope and righteousness. It is a vision of renewal. It is a vision that is already underway through the risen Christ. Will you seize this day as your own? This is a vision to drive the mad dogs away; a vision that moves you onward to a new and better Day.
One of the greatest men I’ve known in all my life was Colonel Roger Ingvalson (1928-2011), United States Air Force-Retired. His story has been part of documentaries on national television and in numerous books. The word “hero” is thrown around way too much these days. But Roger Ingvalson was undoubtedly a certified American hero. A fighter pilot during Vietnam he was shot down during his 87th mission over North Vietnam. He was held in captivity in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for over five years. During his first year of captivity he was incomplete isolation. He was held in total darkness in a very small enclosure with only a small sliver of light coming through. He testifies that he had not been living the Christian life, but this man from Minnesota who had grown up in the Lutheran Church and remembered the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer, articles of faith which were recited frequently in the life of his church as a boy. His memory gifted him with those articles of faith in that inhumanly small cell and he recited them verbally in his dark isolation. During that incredibly painful time, he trusted in the word of God that he knew and he received Jesus Christ as Lord. To say that he was mistreated, psychologically, emotionally, and physically, is a criminal understatement. Yet, it would be too upsetting to many if I were to describe his torture. What I will say about this man is that I knew him as one of my elders in our church and as a friend. My family and I knew him as one of the happiest men we have ever known in our lives. I would sometimes talk to Roger about those days of persecution for being an American and for being a Christian. You would think he would bear deep emotional scars that would limit his usefulness. I have no doubt that he did. But in Christ the scars became laurels of honor to Roger’s Lord. His scars became his testimony. The brutality inflicted upon him became the power of the gospel proclaimed to others. He forgave his captors and committed his life to telling the story of God’s love through Jesus Christ to many others. He told his story to groups around the nation, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, before settling in Chattanooga Tennessee, and founding a prison ministry. Col. Roger Ingvalson lived a life of onward and upward.
The onward and upward life of this New Year is made possible for you not by resolution but by a Redeemer, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I present him to you this morning as the Lord of lords and King of Kings who forgives your sins, heals your diseases, renews your strength, and gives you eternal life. If you will but repent and receive him by faith today, on this New Year’s Day, or renew that commitment, you, also, can begin the upward and onward life of joy. But it always begins from the inside out, when Jesus our Lord begins to live inside of you and possess every area of your life.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Corrie ten Boom, On Forgiveness (Guideposts, 1972). See https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/positive-living/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1.
 See Mark Alexander, “Roger Ingvalson, American Patriot, Hero,” The Patriot Post2011, accessed December 31, 2016, https://patriotpost.us/articles/12134.