What does it take to follow God well? Dallas Willard tells us that it requires Vision, Intention, and Means. This sermon explores how we can cultivate a deeper relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world in the New Year.
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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Today is the 10th day of Christmas. Wednesday is Epiphany. This is the day when we traditionally remember the story of the magi from the east who followed the star and found the young child Jesus in a house in Bethlehem.
So, I found some fun pictures to help us remember this special occasion.
This one is great, in light of the big movie release over the holiday season. A long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away. Nice. That kinda frames our story.
Then there’s this one. “Right, we’ve picked up the gold and the myrrh, but what on earth is that?” Frankincense. Get it?
I love this one. “A virgin birth I can believe, but finding three wise men?” Forget about it.
Finally, I think this one speaks volumes about our culture. Why the three wise men from the WEST weren’t so wise and never made it to Bethlehem. “Look, over there is that star we have to follow.” “No way. We’re supposed to follow that fat guy on a flying sled. I’m sure!”
That raises a big question for us today. What are we following? Are we following anything at all?
It is the New Year and this is also the time when people like to make New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all eaten to much. Drank too much. Slacked off on our physical exercise. Watched too much Netflix.
My guess is that we would all like to start fresh in the New Year. We’d like to get healthier, do more of the things that are good for us, and less of the things that are bad for us. Right?
So, I thought that this would be the best time to give a really practical sermon on
How to Follow God Well in the New Year.
My title at Grace is the Pastor of Spiritual Formation. I’ve studied this topic quite a bit, and I’ve learned from as many mistakes as I have successes about what it takes to grow spiritually. We can get some clues from the story of the magi from the east. I’d like to frame this story with something that I learned many years ago from one of my favorite authors who wrote a lot about spiritual formation.
His name is Dallas Willard, and one of my favorite books of his is Renovation of the Heart. Willard says that there are three things that need to be in place if we are going to grow spiritually. They are:
Vision, Intention, and Means. V-I-M.
You have to believe that there is actually something worth pursuing. That’s vision.
You have to put effort into pursuing it. That’s intention.
And, you have to have practical ways in which to pursue it. That’s the means.
Before I unpack these three things for you, I need to make a confession.
I am struggling with this in my own life right now. For the past five years I have embodied what VIM looks like. In the fall of 2010, I had a vision. I felt called to pursue a PhD. I believed it was possible and I believed God asked me to do it. That’s what Vision is. You have a picture of something in your mind that you believe is possible and it inspires you.
Now, if I had just sat around dreaming about getting that degree, then what would have happened? Nothing. I had to fill out the application, take the GRE, pass the entrance exams. Then I had to work my butt off for four and a half years. That’s what Intention means. You have to put effort into it.
But then there was the third component that had to be in place. You have to have the means to do something. Just having the Vision and the willingness to work hard isn’t enough. School is expensive. How would I pay for it? God provided the means for it, miraculously. The tuition itself was free. I had a fellowship at Luther, which meant all the tuition was free and they paid me a small stipend to study. Then, you, the congregation of Grace allowed me to cut back my hours to ¾ time, so that I would have space in my schedule to do the school work. And finally, a group of people came together and financially supported my decrease in income during that time, so that I didn’t have to worry about paying my bills and supporting my family. Wow! What a gift.
I had the Vision, I had the Intention, and I had that means. So I pushed it to full throttle and worked hard for four and a half years.
Now it is over.
And here is my confession. I have been struggling for the past six months. Do you know that feeling that you get when you have been driving on the highway all day and when you finally stop, your body still feels like it’s driving?
That’s kind of how I have felt this fall. I’ve been running so hard and so fast toward the goal of the degree, that now I’m not sure how to function in this new space.
I tell you this story to encourage you. The process of following God and growing spiritually over the course of one’s life is not a continual, even process. OK, maybe it is for some people. There are people who are slow and steady. I however, am more like Israel, where I wrestle with God. I have spurts of great growth and success and then I have bouts of doubt and fear, and then I catch a new vision and move out again.
So, I want you to know that I have been recapturing the vision for what God wants me to do. My role here at Grace is to help us in the VIM of spiritual formation. My calling is to help us see the vision for spiritual formation, to help motivate the intentionality to pursue God with a whole heart, and, most importantly, to provide the means to do it.
So, let’s look at VIM as it relates to spiritual growth and how this story of the Magi can teach us some things.
First, we need Vision.
Do you believe that spiritual growth is possible and important?
The magi had vision. The magi were philosophers of Persia. Remember, this was the place where the Jews had been in exile for 70 years a few centuries before Jesus was born. The Persian culture and the Jewish culture had a lot of cross-pollination during that time, and the Persians knew that the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah to come and deliver them.
The magi studied the movements of the stars and planets, and believed that these movements gave them insight into the activity of the gods. When they saw a particular sign, it told them that a king had been born in Judah. This was the promise that the Jews had been waiting for. The magi believed it was real.
They had vision.
What about you? Do you believe that it is possible to grow spiritually? Do you believe it is important to grow spiritually?
This is a tough question for Lutherans. Many Lutherans have a hard time with the idea of spiritual formation or talking about practicing the spiritual habits of discipleship.
As Lutherans, we believe that our salvation is a gift from God. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves better or to earn our way to God’s love. It is all God’s work. For it is by grace that we are saved, through faith. It is a gift from God not of works, so that no one can boast. That’s what Paul says in Ephesians.
This is most certainly true. The Gospel is that God has promised to save us. This is an unconditional promise of God and there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or to make God love us more than God does. And that is our hope.
[ADVANCE] However, salvation is not merely about our eternal destiny after we die. Salvation is about relationships. It is about our relationship with God, our relationship with our self, with our neighbors, and with all of creation.
Here’s an analogy that helps me understand this. Think about the relationship between a parent and a child. A parent chooses to produce a child, but a child does not choose to be born. It just happens to us. The relationship between the parent and the child is a gift to the child. My children are 100% my children, and there is nothing they can do to make them any less my children. Right?
Now, does the fact that my wife and I brought these children into the world guarantee that we are going to have a good relationship? NO! What does it require? Hard work.
Any relationship worth having is one that requires hard work to cultivate. If you want to have a marriage, a good friendship, a good neighborhood, or peace in the Middle East, it requires the disciplines of communication and sacrifice to make it work.
This is also true of our relationship with God.
If you don’t believe that you can improve your relationship with God, then you probably won’t.
It starts with vision.
Then, there must be Intention.
The magi believed that something big was happening in Judah and they wanted to witness it. There was one small problem. They were 700 miles and a big desert away from Judah, and the fastest way to get there was on the back of a camel.
Think about that. I looked it up, and the average speed of a camel caravan was about 10 miles a day. That is a big trip and a huge commitment to make a journey like that. They had to be very intentional about making the preparations to survive that journey.
Finally, it takes means.
There has to be a way to do the things that you want to do.
The magi were obviously wealthy people. They were able to afford the journey, and they were able to give expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Here’s where I want to get really practical.
How will we grow spiritually this year?
The means by which we cultivate our relationship with God and each other is the 7 Habits of Discipleship. We will continually lift these up.
Part of my vision for this new year is to provide some very concrete means by which you can be intentional with these habits.
First, I intend to build out the resource tab on our website. Please check back regularly to see how this is developing.
Second, I am excited to announce that we now have an online resource called the Grace Learning Center. You will be able to access courses online and take them whenever and wherever you want. I want to highlight one particular course. In the Fall of 2014 we offered a one-day seminar called Bible Mania where we walked through the entire Bible in 4.5 hours. We video recorded that session and have made it into 12 20-minute session. You can now take that course online. This would be a great way to start off the new year.
You can either take this individually, maybe watch the videos on your phone during your lunch get break or sometime during the day. Or, even better, form a small group of people and watch the videos together and talk about them.
There is a study guide available. Let me know if you would like to form a Bible Mania group.
Third, we intend to create a spiritual formation tool that will go along with Lent this year. Pray for us as we pull this together.
Then, finally, we have Sunday Evenings @ Grace and Adult Classes on Wednesday nights that will happen immediately following Easter.
I believe God has given me a vision for this next season. The means are there.
Will you be like the Magi and seek after God in this New Year?