New Year’s resolutions: one of those things that always looks better in prospect than in hindsight, like over-indulgent desserts, or mothers-in-law.
How many of you made resolutions this New Year’s Eve? Last year? Did you keep them? I am reminded of a woman concerned about her weight:
- Five years ago: I will get my weight down below 80 kg.
- Four years ago: I’ll follow my new diet religiously until I’m under 90 kg.
- Three years ago: I’ll develop a realistic attitude about my weight.
- Two years ago: I’ll work out three days a week.
- Last year: I’ll drive past a gym at least once a week.
Resolutions to be better, or do better, are an important part of the good life, but they require wisdom, courage and tenacity to be realised.
Ephesians 5:1 offers the greatest possible New Year’s resolution, appealing to the highest possible standard, and yet it is achievable. In Ephesians 4:1, Paul launches into the second half of this magnificent letter, moving from doctrinal to ethical teaching. In verse 1, he urges readers “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” In verse 17, he insists that they “no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” And in chapter 5:1-2, he says, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Throughout Ephesians 4-6, Paul gives detailed instruction in how he expects Christians to live; what they should do and not do; how they should relate to one another, and toward others in the community; and above all how to cultivate Christian virtues, empowered by the Spirit of Christ who indwells each of them – virtues that will prove reliable when they face temptations and challenges, or simply when they find themselves in close proximity to people who are not very nice or not very good.
In verse 31, Paul encourages readers to expunge anger from their lives; and in verse 32, he indicates what should replace anger: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other.” Then, in 5:2, Paul gives the third of three comprehensive exhortations (cf 4:1; 4:17): “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
He reiterates these exhortations in 5:15-16.
But I have skipped over the most awesome exhortation of all (5:1). This is the only occurrence of such a command in the New Testament. Elsewhere, Christians are urged to imitate other churches (1 Th 2:24); and to imitate Paul (1 Cor 4:16); and to imitate Christ (1 Th 1:6).
How do we imitate God? In some ways this is impossible. Some of God’s attributes are God’s alone, and cannot be imitated – such as self-existence, self-sufficiency, eternality, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and majesty. It is logically impossible for humans to imitate God in these ways, try as we might in our own small ways.
But God possesses other essential attributes in which he calls us to share, such as wisdom, wrath, justice, faithfulness, goodness, love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.
In Ephesians 5:1, Paul says we are to imitate God as we would imitate a good father: “as dearly loved children.” God has adopted us into his family (see 1:5); and he has poured his love into our hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit, whom he has freely given to us (Rom 5:5).
But specifically here in Ephesians 5:1, the idea of the imitation of God is defined by God’s activity in forgiving us (4:32), and by the practice of “walking in the way of love” (5:2), which is to follow the example of Jesus as it relates to our situation.
So the imitation of God turns out to be the imitation of Christ, a life saturated by sacrificial love for others, a life of balanced self-giving, attending to what threatens to render our relationships unhealthy, lacking goodness, lacking shalom.
To imitate God is to encourage the fruit of the Spirit to flourish in my life (Gal 5:22). But we cannot cultivate and express the fruit of the Spirit, at least not consistently, unless the Spirit of Christ lives within us, and that is only possible after we surrender our lives to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
There are various spiritual practices that make the imitation of God easier and more rewarding for Christians. Here are five such practices, which make good New Year’s resolutions for those of us who are still getting over the rush of the silly season and yet to make serious New Year’s resolutions:
- Regular contemplation of the nature, character and actions of God;
- Regular conversation with God (that is, prayer);
- Regular meditation and study of God’s written word (the Bible);
- Regular engagement in the lives of others who share a similar desire for the imitation of God;
- Regular experience in the art of forgiveness and love.
Some time ago [8 March 2003, to be precise], as I was walking to my car in the car park at Morling College, a middle-aged woman approached me. She had just got out of her car, and she was distressed. In halting English, she confessed she was unfamiliar with Sydney roads, she was lost, and she wanted to travel north to the F3 freeway and proceed to Newcastle.
She did not know the way, and she had no map. How to get help? Who to ask? What to say?
Fortunately she had had the good sense to make for the nearest theological college, and ask the first Baptist pastor she found how to get to the F3. So I explained as best I could how she could reach her destination.
As I drove home, I reflected on that brief and simple encounter. It struck me that many of us find ourselves lost – not only on Sydney roads, but in our relationships, in our careers, on our spiritual journeys too. We find ourselves lost, powerless, perhaps confused, and uncertain of where to find truth and wisdom.
The good news is that many of us have found our way, or found light for the journey, through the story of Jesus. We find profound meaning in the life and teachings of Jesus. We find deep wisdom in the Bible. And we find ourselves following Jesus, emulating Jesus, imitating Jesus: the imitation of Christ, as Thomas à Kempis put it in his famous book.
And in doing so, astonishing and presumptuous though it may seem, we cannot fail to imitate God.
Sermon 598 copyright © 2011 Rod Benson. All rights reserved. Preached at Pendle Hill Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 9 January 2011. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).