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Sermon: New Year, Christian Life: Holy Habits

[1 Timothy 4:7-8] For better or for worse, we are creatures of habit. I learned this early when I was a newspaper delivery boy. A customer would tell me he was going to be on vacation for a week and not need a paper. Nevertheless, out of sheer habit, I would fling a paper up on his porch each day and have to pay for that paper myself.

Habits can be frustrating. Have you ever done this? You need to stop by the grocery store on the way home, but as you drive homeward your mind is on other things, and you drive right past the grocery store out of sheer habit.

Or you come home in the evening, change into something casual, then decide to stroll out into the backyard. As you exit the house, habit kicks in and you lock the door. You have no key with you and no one else is at home. So you then try to remember where that hidden house key is that you placed outside for just such an occasion as this. Lo and behold, you hid it so well that you can't remember where it is. Oh, the power of habits.

A habit is just a grooved pattern of behavior. Some are very good such as walking on your treadmill each evening as you watch the news. Some habits are hurtful such as obscene language, smoking cigarettes or eating a fatty bedtime snack.

One reason professional golfers practice so much is because they are trying to groove their swing. There is such a thing as muscle memory. If you repeat an action often enough, your muscles can do it almost automatically. That principle works for professionals; it is not guaranteed for amateurs.

It is even more important to groove one's character. We can harness the power of habit in our spiritual development. Paul wrote, "Train yourself to be godly" (1 Timothy 4:7). He was urging us to develop holy habits and then reinforce them by repetition.

Paul often used athletic metaphors and figures of speech. He especially loved track and field. I suspect if someone had approached Paul and said, "I'll race you to that sycamore tree down there," he would have hiked up his robe to take the challenge.

In 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul acknowledged that physical exercise is a good thing, but he said spiritual training in godliness is much better. Why? Because physical training can help only during our brief lifespan on earth, whereas the value of spiritual training will carry throughout eternity. Each of our godly grooves will have eternal importance.

I want to challenge us today to prepare a list of realistic New Year's resolutions. Why? Because God wants to help us carve some godly grooves into our character. To get your juices flowing, let me suggest some possibilities.

Suggestion Number 1: I will take better care of my body.
If you owned a million dollar racehorse, such as one of those that competes at Churchill Downs, how would you treat that horse? Certainly you would not blow smoke into its lungs, feed it junk food or refuse to exercise it. Well, our bodies are worth much more than $1 million. Shouldn't we treat them better than we do?

Obesity in America is a national disgrace. We Christians should lead the way to a healthier lifestyle. The Bible teaches that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). If we want the Holy Spirit to be comfortable residing inside us, we must be faithful stewards of our magnificent minds and bodies. Just consider this question: What specific lifestyle change could I make to enhance my health in 2011?

Suggestion Number 2: I will start each day with God.
If your day begins by slapping the snooze button twice and then growling at it as you trudge toward the shower, your day is off to a rough start. Contrast that kind of beginning with this one: Begin by reciting Psalms 118:24, "This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it." That's the way to jump-start a new day!

Maybe your new holy habit should be to spend the first 15 minutes each morning with God, reading something from Scripture and talking with God in prayer. You could make this habit more enjoyable by getting to bed at a decent hour the night before and setting your coffee machine to have a hot cup ready for you to enjoy as you commune with God. As you read the gospel accounts, notice how often Jesus got up early in the morning and slipped away to pray. He must have known something we need to learn. Start off by reading at least five or six verses each morning from the Gospel of John and talking with God.

Starting the day correctly is like programming a computer properly or making your first shot in a basketball game. You are launched into the day in a positive frame of mind, and usually things go better all day long.

As you seek to develop holy habits in 2011…

Suggestion Number 3: I will take on a specific ministry for God.
Paul urged all Christians to "excel in gifts that build up the church" (1 Corinthians 14:12).

If someone were to ask you today, "What is your ministry as a member of your church?" what would you say? Some might say, "Well, when I was younger I did lots of things, but now I'm retired." I don't know any place in the Bible where a believer is allowed to retire from Christian service. Even some of our homebound members are active volunteers in our prayer ministry. They pray daily for a list of people assigned to them.

Everybody can do something. No Christian can grow as a disciple unless he or she has found a service slot.
 
Suggestion Number 4: I will control my tongue.
Of course we mean with God's help. One of my New Year's resolutions is that I will not make any comment about a bad golf shot that I would not want the Lord to overhear.

Several weeks ago, we conducted the funeral for one of the great saints of our church. As I listened to people talk about this man, I heard this comment countless times: "He never would say a negative word about anybody." Wouldn't you like for people to say that about you?

Paul gave us the ideal standard in Ephesians 4:15: "Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ." In the Book of James we read, "Let your ‘yes' be yes and your ‘no' be no" (James 5:12). Anything else gives an opportunity to the devil.

Here are three great resolutions for controlling the tongue in 2011:
• First, I will not utter a profane or obscene word.
• Secondly, I will not gossip.
• Thirdly, I will offer an encouraging word to somebody every day.
 
Here is one final idea for developing a holy habit in 2011:

Suggestion Number 5: I will become a more joyful Christian.
If you want to feel better about yourself, consider the kind of person your dog thinks you are. If you have a cat, I'm not sure that applies. Cats don't seem to adore their owners the way dogs do. A good prayer might be, "Lord, help me become what my dog thinks I am."

If you don't own a pet, the following seven truths should bring you joy:
1. You are a free American.
2. You were tailor-made by God Himself, and He made only one like you.
3. Jesus knows everything bad about you, yet He loves you anyway unreservedly.
4. Though you are a sinner, you are a forgiven sinner.
5. You are royalty because you have been adopted into the family of the King of kings.
6. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
7. You are heaven-bound.

I have suggested five possible resolutions for 2011. You may think of others. The purpose of these resolutions is not to earn passage to heaven. Our salvation and eternal life are gifts offered by a gracious God and received by faith. We make resolutions because we want to fulfill St. Paul's admonition: "Train yourself to be godly."

Pastor James Moore tells a story about a woman who went to see her doctor with a whole list of complaints. The doctor could find no physical ailment. He suspected the woman's negative outlook on life was the real problem. He got up from his desk and pointed to a shelf filled with bottles.
He said to her, "Look at these bottles. All of them are empty. I can take one of them and fill it with poison, enough poison to kill a human being. Or I can take that same bottle and fill it with medicine, enough medicine to cure a headache or bring down a fever or kill bacteria. The important thing is that I make the choice. I can fill each bottle with something hurtful or with something helpful."

Then the doctor looked her straight in the eye and said, "Each day that God gives us is like one of those empty bottles. We can choose to fill it with positive thoughts that lift us and other people; or we can fill it with negative thoughts that depress us and everyone else. The choice is ours."
That truth expressed by the doctor applies to an entire year and indeed to an entire lifetime. We have a magnificent opportunity at the beginning of this new year, an opportunity to grab our future and with God's help change it for the better.

According to St. Paul, God "has saved us and called us to a holy life" (2 Timothy 1:9). Let's answer that call in 2007 by creating some holy habits and godly grooves; to God be the glory.

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