I would like to speak about change. On the one hand, Christians are very familiar with change. After all, we talk about repentance, conversion, being born again and even resurrection from the dead. We know that the Holy Spirit is capable of profound transformations in all kinds of people. They can be brought to realize their true condition and start a new life in Christ.
The good news has been translated in many languages and has overcome cultural differences. These are no small changes. Through a program called “Fresh expressions” the Anglican church has been able to reach many people who seemed to have lost their interest in church and the Christian religion. They turned out to have lost only one of those two things, namely their interest in church. The Dutch reformed church is now using “Fresh expressions” as an example of outreach. For them too, the new approach seems to work.
Yet we as Christians can also have quite a lot of resistance to change. Sometimes we have good reasons not to want to change, and sometimes we are just afraid. This is nothing to be ashamed of, as all people tend to have a built in mechanism to protect them from too much change, as it could threaten their very existence. Especially in our times when changes succeed each other in rapid succession, we are often tempted to just give up, and stick with that which is familiar and feels like home to us.
Yet the Bible gives us quite some tools that can help us with changes and with changing.
When I read and reread our texts for today, I first thought they were about the value of things. Then I thought they were about suffering. All this is true, but then I saw how they are about change and about seeing things in a new perspective.
The American psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of relational emotive therapy, has shown that we often severely limit our own effectiveness as well as our happiness by thinking certain thoughts. Examples of such unhelpful thoughts are:
– people should always appreciate me, or I am no good
– my life can and should be structured in such a way that I can easily get all I want
– I should have no problems, but I do
– doing nothing will help me to keep out of trouble
– you should only do things if you are good at them
– everything that goes wrong in my life is caused by other people or influences from outside, so I cannot be expected to take responsibility for how I feel
Like many insights, they are not entirely new. We find many, if not all of them in the Bible. For a start, God knows that we don’t like to change. So sometimes we need a Damascus road experience, like Paul did. It turned his world completely upside down, something he could never have done by just studying the scriptures as a Pharisee, or even by being zealous. That’s why Paul sharply realizes the inadequacy of these things. Somewhat exaggerating to make his point, he even calls them rubbish. Isn’t that shocking, to call Bible study and obedience to the law rubbish? Well, sometimes we need to be shocked.
The first change that was necessary in Paul, was that he would know Christ and the power of the resurrection. And to suffer with Christ was and still is part of that knowledge and power. But it did not end there. Paul could easily have said: I have changed such a lot, now this should be enough. This is where I draw the line. But no, he emphatically states that he has not already reached the goal. And he repeats this in other words: Beloved, I do not think that I have made it my own.
He realized there was still plenty of work for him to do, also with regard to his own person, and that his conversion had just been a start. Then he speaks in terms of “straining forward” and “pressing on”. Paul is clearly not content with Christianity being just a temporary improvement. Although our justification and calling may be a one time event, our sanctification clearly is not. Although our justification and calling come from above, sanctification involves us down here.
And probably the biggest change that conversion or confirmation can bring
is the willingness to be changed on a daily basis – to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Being set free by the gospel of our Lord, means having choices, and we can choose to grow into better people, a version 3.0 or 4.0 of ourselves, or a least try to grow.
Whereas the old self, the one that we are supposed to have left behind,
is characterized by the unwillingness to change, to only pursue selfish interests, however cleverly disguised. The ego has no choice to do otherwise.
Well, we know all this, and we do try, but we are still often held back by unhelpful thoughts.
We may tell ourselves that we know what we have, and not what we’re going to get.
We may tell ourselves that it should be enough that we have tried things in the past.
Or that we are not able to change.
But the most dangerous thought is perhaps that we don’t need to change.
Let me explain this a bit further, for this is not the easiest subject to understand.
It is also something that our ego does not really want to understand.
When two partners in a relationship try to change each other, this will usually not work.
Hence the advice that is often given by counselors is, don’t try to change each other!
You should be able to love the other person without them having to change first.
This is also the way God loves us. This love is unconditional.
But that does not mean there is no need to adapt to each other, which is a kind of change.
A change that cannot be forced upon us, but that has to come from within.
I am not always able to change myself, let alone to change you, but the Holy Spirit can awaken this desire in me to change and enable me to do so.
As I said, perhaps the most essential change that takes place during conversion, is that we are allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us, which is a process that never ends.
It is a change that makes all the other changes possible and even likely.
If we are ever not willing to go any further than where we are now, we should seriously question ourselves.
Now another objection we may have to change has to do with inconvenient timing.
Our reasoning is that change would have been possible earlier on, but not anymore.
Or otherwise change will be possible and welcome, but not yet.
We are either too old, too young, too busy, or just simply too good to change.
But on the other hand we yearn, like the Psalm writer, for a new heart.
“Create in me a new heart, O Lord”. Do you think those prayers were answered?
I think they were and still are. It does not matter if you pray before or after conversion.
When the psalms were written, neither Christianity nor conversions to Christianity existed
But God’s power existed and His Spirit remains the same.
In the gospels we have the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.
As you will remember, both Martha and Mary, independently of each other,
told Jesus that their brother Lazarus would not have died if he had come when they called him. Thus they showed enormous confidence in the healing powers of Jesus.
But Martha went one step further, and said:
“Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”.
Then Jesus tells her: I am the resurrection and the Life… Do you believe this?
And then the miracle is unleashed and Lazarus is resurrected.
If you want to read the story at home, you will find many indications that there were reasons for this delayed intervention by Christ. It was for the glory of God and to increase our faith. Now if Jesus could do this, would he not be able to heal our wounds and set us free to love? Even when we think it is too late to do anything about the cause of our illness? The story of Lazarus shows that time hardly plays a part in the plan of God, except perhaps as a test of faith.
Now the women in Bethany are so grateful for the fact that their brother is alive again, that they invite Jesus to a special dinner. And this story, too, deals with time. To the dismay of Judas, Mary anointed Jesus with a pound of pure nard. This was a fragrant ointment imported from the mountains of India and very expensive. According to some sources one pound would have cost a whole year’s salary. Imagine spending a year’s salary on a party to say thank you.
But the important thing here is that the nard had been bought for Jesus’ burial. And now it was used ahead of time. There is a prophetic element here, but also a moral.
Why wait till sorrow almost forces us to be generous, to open our heart and to change?
Many people make drastic changes in their life when they hear they have only a few months to live. Why wait to recognize the value of relatives and other fellow human beings? Why wait to acknowledge the power and love of God?
Sadly, in many regions of the world, human lives are worth less than a day’s wage, or even less than a bullet. Sadly, some steal a years’ salary in a day, rather than spend it on the suffering. Sadly, like Judas, some pretend to spend our money wisely, but don’t. But fortunately, to God time is largely irrelevant. People may return to Him early or late, even when they are already spiritually dead. And people who already believe in Him, may start to believe in Him more.
In Romans 8, Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And I am sure that the “anything else” that Paul refers to, includes our doubts, our unwillingness to change, any suffering, as well as fear to lose our identity. God will conquer all.
“Create in me a clean heart, O Lord”, a heart that will appreciate and understand all your other children. A heart that will not obstruct its own happiness. A heart that will rise to meet You.