It’s coming up on that time again, and I was wondering—How many of you are planning to make New Year’s resolutions this year?
How many of you are NOT planning to make New Year’s resolutions, because you’ve never made New Year’s resolutions?
And how many of you are planning to not make New Year’s resolutions, because in the past you’ve found yourself making the same resolutions over and over and over and over again, and failing every year to follow through?
If you’re in that last group, you’re not alone, I’m afraid. And the story I’m about to tell is just for you, though I’m sure the rest of you will enjoy it too.
Picture, if you will, a road. It runs through forests and fields and cities, up hill and down. Sometimes, the road is smooth and wide and paved, and other times, it’s narrow and full of potholes. We’ll call this road “life,” because that’s it’s name.
Picture a traveller, walking along this road. Her back is bent under a heavy pack. She walks slowly, for she is weary and has been on the road a long time. She uses a walking stick to help her on her way.
Our traveller reaches a crossroads. She knows that one of the paths ahead leads to a place called “A Better Life,” and the other path leads to a place called “The Same Old Same Old.”
Beside the crossroads, there is a hut, and in front of the hut an old woodcutter sits, rocking away in his rocking chair on the front porch. She asks him, “Which path leads to A Better Life?”
Without hesitation, he points down the narrower and rockier of the two paths. The traveller thanks him and heads off down the road. A short while later, the woodcutter in his chair hears a “splat,” and soon after that, our traveller comes back to him, soaked to her knees in mud.
“I thought you said this path was the right one,” she said. “Now please tell me, which path leads to a better life?”
The woodcutter is adamant. He points her down the same path again, and reassured by his firm belief, she sets off again. A short while later, the woodcutter hears an even bigger “splat!” Soon after that, the traveller returns, and this time, she’s angry—covered to her waist in ooey, gooey mud.
“Tell me the truth, Old Man!” she shouts at him. “Which way is the road to A Better Life?”
“That way,” the woodcutter says, and something in his eyes, something in his calm insistence, something makes her believe him, and off she goes.
Of course, not very long after, the woodcutter in his rocking chair hears a very loud splat. This time, when the woman returns, she’s covered in mud from head to toe, and she’s about to use that walking stick of hers for less than peaceful purposes.
“Tell me, you varmint, you! Tell me which is the road to A Better Life!” (Actually, those weren't her exact words, but I'm not allowed to say those kind of things in church.)
The woodcutter looks her in the eyes, points down the path, and says, “It’s that way, just past ‘splat.’”
Another little story, this one more literal and more personal. I’m one of those folks who makes the same New Year’s resolutions every year, and goes “splat,” usually by the end of January. If you want to know what my usual resolutions are, I always resolve to finish my novel, to lose weight, and to get my finances in order. And without fail, I go splat.
Except this year, whilst swimming around in the mud, I got a vision of what it’s going to be like when I reach that destination called “A Better Life.” Because this year, I set a huge goal, one I’ve set for myself before. But this year I reached it!
Every year for the past five, I’ve participated in a particularly mad escapade called NaNoWriMo. The goal of NaNoers, as we call ourselves, is to complete fifty thousand new words of a novel.
Before this year, I tried four times, and failed four times. It was particularly discouraging those years my kids did it with me, because they invariably beat my word count, such as it was.
But this year, I did a few things differently. I put aside the novel I’ve been working on for twenty years, and started a new one. I hooked up with friends on the internet and in real life coffee shops who egged me on. And I wrote just over fifty thousand words last month. And I finally figured out that if I can manage to get past “splat” the path continues, and it’s a fun place to travel.
It happens to us all. We set goals that we want very much to achieve, but life gets in the way. We don’t know how to do what it is we want to do. We run out of money, time, or energy. We get sick. Others who want us to stay as we are keep pulling us back into our own ways.
And we give up. Stop what we consider to be vain striving, and head down the broad, easy path to The Same Old Same Old. If God had wanted us to go down that hard path, we say to ourselves, why then, the mud and the rocks wouldn’t be there!
But would it?
We read today a prophet’s words of hope to a nation in exile. They’ve gone “splat” in the most humiliating way imaginable, with the common people treated as slaves in their own homeland, and the leaders exiled to a foreign place. They feel forsaken and alone. By the rivers of Babylon, they sit down and weep.
Simeon and Anna… I’m sure that at times during their long wait to see the saviour, they sat down and wept, too. “I’m an old, old man,” Simeon must have said. “I’m weary of living, God. I want to come home to you. When will that happen?” Anna, too. “I’ve been a widow for years and years and years, God. I’m lonely. Why am I still here, and not with you?”
Splat. Sometimes, even continuing to exist can be difficult.
But God came to them and comforted them. God called Israel home, to become a great nation, and to testify to the world about the beauty of the Lord. They were no more called, “Forsaken.” They no longer lived in exile, but at home in that place called A Better Life.
And God came to Simeon and Anna as a tiny baby, and their hopes and dreams were fulfilled. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon says. “A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the Glory of your people Israel.”
He and Anna made it through “splat,” and came to a better place.
It’s appropriate that our New Year falls during the Christmas season. For this is the time when many of us hear God calling most clearly, calling us to A Better Life. And so we make our New Year’s resolutions in that spirit.
It’s because the nation Israel kept going past “splat” that they came to be a light to the nations. It’s because Simeon and Anna kept going past “splat” that the Christ child was welcomed fittingly into the world. It’s because the disciples kept going past the biggest splat of all that we are here this morning, worshipping Jesus as the Christ.
So God calls us this New Year’s and always to keep going. To set our sights on A Better Life, and make our goals, and to keep moving towards them, even if we sometimes end up in the mud.
Back to NaNo for just a moment: On the NaNoWriMo forums on the internet, after November is over and we’ve all succeeded or failed at our goal to write fifty thousand words, we were challenged to set goals for the coming year. And we were challenged to have goals in three categories: Big, Scary, and Fun.
Do something big: Something that is difficult and maybe a bit tedious to achieve. Hear God’s call to save yourself and the world, if you will.
Do something scary: Something you really want to do, but which makes you quake in your boots every time you think of actually doing it. Hear God’s assurance that God will be with you.
Do something fun: Something you want to do just because you’ll enjoy doing it. Hear God’s promise that life will be abundant and full of blessing.
It seems to me that these are wise criteria for goal setting. If you manage to set one goal in each category, I can all but guarantee you that you won’t end up heading down the road to The Same Old Same Old, but rather down the road to A Better Life.
And I’ll give you one last piece of wisdom I picked up, through experience, this past November: Tell someone about your goals, and if possible, gather companions about you who are going the same way.
So right now, I’m going to put the “tell someone” part into practice, and tell you that for the coming year, my “big” goal will be to lose one pound per week on average, or fifty-two pounds.
My “scary” goal for the coming year is to not only finish another novel, but to prepare it for submission to agents and publishers, and, once prepared, to submit it. (The submitting, and possible rejection, is the scary part, in case you were wondering…)
And my “fun” goal for the coming year is to go to New York next November to see Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire.
I hope that this coming week, you’ll think about big, scary and fun goals. I hope you’ll listen for God calling you to take your place at the banquet, both as server and feaster. I hope that you’ll find the energy to listen to that calling.
And this time next year, I hope we’ll be able to compare notes and say, “What do you know? I did it!”
Preached at Alma United Church, December 28, 2008
Scriptures: Luke 2:22-40; Isaiah 61:10-62:3