Happy New Year! In this New Year’s Eve sermon, we spent the morning talking about the tools we need to find success in our New Year’s resolutions. More than that, with the help of God’s conversation with Joshua as he was taking over the mantle of leadership of the people of Israel, we talked about the tools we need to help move ourselves in the direction of God no matter what our starting point may be. Keep reading to see what these are.
Lean into God
Today is New Year’s Eve. A whole year’s worth of activity and life experiences comes to an end with the stroke of midnight tonight. Now, in a sense, this is a day just like any other. What significance it has is entirely constructed. Tomorrow will be Monday just like it was seven days ago and just like it will be seven more days from now. There is nothing in the Scriptures which proclaims that on December 31st thou shalt get reflective and throw a big, wild party that often ends with total strangers kissing each other amid a thronging crowd of hundreds of thousands. I’ve read the whole thing a few different times and I haven’t found a single statement to that effect.
In another sense, though, today is different. Whether the impetus is constructed or natural, the turning of the calendar from a year past to a year future is a good chance to stop and get at least a bit reflective. What has happened over the past year that was particularly good and that you want to see continued? What has happened that was particularly bad, and you want to make sure doesn’t happen again as far as it depends on you? Have there been experiences that were particularly formative of your character and outlook on life? What about these experiences had such a profound impact on you? Who are some of the new people who have come into your life? What kind of an impact have these people had? Has anyone significant departed from your life in one way or another?
At the same time we are asking and seeking to answer questions like these, what kinds of things do you want to see the year ahead of you bring? Surely none of us has a crystal ball by which we can predict what will happen tomorrow, but what would you like to see happen? What kinds of things would you like to see become a part of your life that aren’t currently? What are you willing to do in order to see those happen? What kinds of things would you like to see removed from your life and what are you willing to do in order to see those happen? Do you have any specific goals for where you’d like to go or what you’d like to accomplish? If so, what are those? If not, why not?
This last set of questions brings us to the topic of resolutions. Now is the time when people all over the world are making resolutions for what they want to see happen in the new year. Gyms will be packed for a couple of weeks as people commit themselves (again) to what is perhaps the number one resolution in our culture, namely, to get healthier. If you are a gym regular, hang in there for a few weeks and things should be back to normal soon enough. Churches will also likely be a bit fuller than normal as people who are at least still somewhat influenced by the Christian worldview make a resolution to get closer to God this next year than they have been this past year. Some resolutions will be more specific. Some will be more mundane. In fact, let’s do a bit of an informal survey: How many of you plan on making or already have made at least one resolution for this new year?
Well, seeing as we are on the cusp of something brand new here, and that many of you are preparing for it, I thought we would spend this morning talking about some of the things we need to know in order to get the most out of it. I thought we would talk about the key ingredients for success not just in this new year, but in whatever venture we happen to have before us. We aren’t going to do this alone, though. We are going to do this by looking directly at the Scriptures and grappling with what we find there. And while there are several places in God’s big story in which we find someone standing on the precipice of something new, perhaps none are quite so dramatic as the story we are going to look at this morning. If you have your Bible with you, turn to the beginning of the telling of Joshua’s story—Joshua 1.
The story of Joshua picks up right where Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel, recorded for us in Deuteronomy, leaves off. Allow me to tell you a bit of the backstory so you understand where we will start. The journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land should have taken about two years. It didn’t. Instead, when the people got to the border of the land the first—yes, the first—time, Moses sent a dozen spies into the land in hopes that they would return with an encouraging, faith-filled report about the bounty of the land God was giving the people to get them excited about what lay ahead of them. Unfortunately, all but two of the spies came back dismayed and doubting. They reported on the size of the people and the immense fortifications of the cities and confidently assured the people that the Lord through Moses had led them straight to their doom. Their best bet was to head straight back to Egypt where, though they may have been slaves, at least they had plenty to eat and no one was trying to kill them (minus, of course, Pharaoh seeking to murder their babies—including Moses—but perhaps they had forgotten about that part…). Two of the spies—Caleb and Joshua—did their best to contradict the faithless ten, but to no avail.
This remarkably faithless ingratitude led to a swift, strong response from the Lord. The people would wander through the desert of Sinai for 40 years until the entire generation of those who had refused to receive what the Lord wanted to give had died. All of them would perish with two exceptions: Caleb and Joshua. From this point forward, Joshua became Moses’ most trusted protégé. Moses groomed him to be his successor for that 40-year period. Over time, it became clear that this was going to be necessary because eventually Moses himself failed and his punishment was that he would not lead the people into the land. He would not see the land himself, but only look over it from the top of a mountain.
So then, put yourself in Joshua’s shoes for just a minute. Moses, the man who had gone toe-to-toe with Pharaoh in Egypt and had led the people for 40 years through a whole variety of trials and tribulations; the man who had seen the backside glory of God with his own eyes; the man who had stood between God and the people on more than one occasion to prevent their utter destruction; the man who gave them the Law on tablets inscribed by the very finger of God; the man who had presided over the parting of an entire sea, who called down plagues on Egypt; who made water come from nowhere to provide for the people more than once; the man who had stood down multiple challenges to his leadership even from among his own family members; the man who the people understood to be the primary voice speaking to God on their behalf and on His behalf to them—this Moses, had died. And Joshua was to take his place.
Now, if the people had been already settled in the land, established in their homes, and ready to enjoy the life God had provided for them, this wouldn’t have been such a scary thing. You could have almost just run the whole show on autopilot at that point. But that wasn’t the situation Joshua was going to inherit. The people once again stood on the cusp of the land God had promised his servant, Abraham, to give to his descendants—them—over 400 years before. And we could say that all they had to do was go in and take possession, but it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t that simple because the land hadn’t been empty for all those 400 years. The land was filled with multiple different tribes and nations that had 400 years’ worth of roots planted and developed and deepened. They had towns and outposts with walls and fortifications. They had armies and warriors who stood larger and taller than anyone Israel could put up on a battle line. And perhaps most of all, they hadn’t gotten the memo that God had declared their land wasn’t their land anymore and they weren’t about to go willingly. In other words, Joshua faced the prospect of leading a military campaign of months, possibly years, against a series of stronger, better equipped opponents, with an army that, while somewhat battled-hardened from recent encounters, was not known for their faithfulness and courage over the long haul. Can you say, “Gulp!”?
This was the situation facing Joshua…and his mentor was gone. Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. It kind of makes the pressure of facing a new year and the challenges you might like to face down in it seem a bit smaller, doesn’t it? Still, if there was anything that helped him in his journey, it stands to reason that it might help us in our own. So, let us look finally at the conversation that happened here between the Lord and Joshua. These words are truly incredible. Let’s take them in bite-sized pieces because this is a pretty big chunk of text. Start reading with me at Joshua 1:1.
From Joshua 1:1: “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.’”
So, what’s going on here? Well, God is giving Joshua a bit of a pep-talk. Again, the task before him was incredible almost beyond words. If anyone was in need of a bit of encouragement, it was Joshua. Yet, look at the shape this thing takes. God starts by essentially slapping him in the face with a bit of reality: Moses is dead. There was no amount of wishing or pining that was going to bring him back. But you have to know Joshua wanted for that to be the case. You’ve been there too, haven’t you? Do you remember a time when you had your personal security blanket yanked out from under you and you were left trying to do something on your own? It’s a scary place to be. I remember my junior year of high school when I took over as drumline captain in marching band. For the previous two years a couple of different upper classmen had run the show and they were good. One was a goofball, heart-and-soul kind of a leader whom everybody loved. The other was more of a straight-man, but who was nonetheless very well liked and enormously competent. Then I walked in as a junior and everybody was looking to me. I had been pretty intentional about staying under their wings when they were there, and I was a pretty good drummer, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I can imagine Joshua felt about the same way times a million. When Moses was alive Joshua was confident and strong. He could afford to be. He wasn’t wearing the mantle of leadership. If he started to veer off course a bit, Moses was always there to redirect him and set him back on the right path. Now that Moses was gone, he had two choices before him: Pine away wishing for what was to be again, or, with all of that fully in mind, move forward down the path God was calling him to follow.
If that sounds like it should be an easy choice, you probably haven’t been in that kind of a position before. It’s not nearly so easy as it sounds. It’s not easy because our hearts don’t always go along so willingly where our minds call them. We may know the way to go—at least in general terms—in our heads, but if our hearts were greatly attached to what was, they will want to hold on to it long after it is gone. Come on: Have you ever gotten stuck trying to live in the past? Individuals do this—hanging onto a mentor who has passed. Families do this—letting the memory of a deceased loved one determine current traditions and habits. Even whole churches do this—living under the shadow of a great leader of the past and giving him a vote whether or not that accords with the things God is currently doing in their midst. Listen: If we are trying to set resolutions to move forward into what God has ahead of us, getting stuck in the past is no way to get there. Even using the past to drive us into the future is foolish because if we are constantly looking backwards, the likelihood that we’re going to get all tripped up over something small tends to increase significantly.
God didn’t simply tell Joshua to get in sync with reality, though. He went on from there to do two more things: He promised something for Him, and He asked for something from him. Check this out: God first promised for Joshua that He would be with him just like He was with Moses. From verse 3: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” In other words: You are going to be able to do this. I’m going to make sure of it. I will stick with you every bit as closely as I stuck with Moses.
Can you imagine what a jolt of confidence this would have been for Joshua? He had been there over and over again to see how God was with Moses. He got to go up on the mountain with him when he received the Law from God. He saw him perform all the miracles he did before the people. He saw him withstand the threats to his leadership and authority. Indeed, when we set out to pursue the path of Christ, to make resolutions to see ourselves grow in His character and better reflect His identity in our own lives, we can move forward with a similar confidence. We can move forward with even greater confidence, in fact, because we serve the God who promised to never leave us nor forsake us. He declared through Paul that when He starts a good work in us, He will absolutely bring it to completion. Through the Holy Spirit we don’t simply have God with us as Joshua did, we have God in us, empowering and enlivening everything we do. Now, if we’re aiming for mere self-improvement so that we can look better in the eyes of the people around us—in other words, if our resolutions are primarily self-focused in their orientation—we can’t count on any of this. We’re on our own. But, if our goal is truly to make ourselves more like Him, He’ll be with us every single step of the way.
There is, though, one thing He’s going to ask from us. It’s the same thing He asked from Joshua. Check this last part out starting in v. 7: “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Are you with me? God says to Joshua, “I’m going to be with you on this journey…but you’ve got to be willing to go with Me.” In other words, “If you’re wanting to go on this journey of becoming more fully who I designed you to be, of taking up this incredible kingdom challenge I’ve set before you, I will not leave you alone at any point. But, you have to make sure you don’t leave Me alone either.” Here’s the thing: If we aren’t willing to follow the path of life God has laid out for His people to follow—or perhaps, to put that more simply, if we aren’t willing to do what God says—trying to go in His direction isn’t going to work. If you want to make yourself more fully reflective of the image of God in Christ, but you aren’t willing to follow the path God has laid out to get there, then while you may be forming yourself in the image of someone or something, it won’t be Him. You won’t find the kind of success you are seeking on any other path but His.
Following His path, though, is not automatic. It takes intention and focus. It takes making sure it does “not depart from your mouth.” It takes “meditating on it day and night.” But, lest you think this is setting up some impossible-to-meet standard of righteousness that only the “super Christians” meet, let me break it down for you. When God tells Joshua not to let His words depart from his mouth, He’s obviously talking about his speech. Well, where do our words come from? Jesus told us that one: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” In other words, if God’s word is going to be in our mouths, it has to be on our hearts first. How do we get God’s word on our hearts? The second practice God mentions to Joshua. We meditate on it.
Specifically, we are to meditate on it day and night. Hold on now. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a life. I’ve got a beautiful wife. I’ve got kids. I’ve got hobbies I enjoy pursuing. I have a job. I don’t have time to simply sit around and meditate on the Scriptures all day and night. And besides, if all we engage with is the Scriptures, there won’t be any time to engage with the world for the sake of the kingdom. Is that really what God expects if we are going to get His help and stay on His path? I don’t think so. But here’s a good question: How often do you engage with the Scriptures? How much time do you spend studying them? How often do you practice the discipline of Scripture memory? How regularly do you read them? How much do you let them be the controlling narrative for the rest of your life? Because the simple truth is that if you let something else occupy that space, you will ultimately find yourself walking a path other than God’s meaning His help isn’t going to be available when you need it. And this not because He will have withdrawn it, but because you will have blocked Him from giving it. In order to stay on His path, you’ve got to lean into Him, not away from Him. Real success is always going to be found when you lean into God and His ways.
So, where does this all leave us? It leaves us here: If you want to have the best chance at success this new year in, not just any resolutions, but resolutions focused on moving yourself forward in the direction of Jesus (which is a pretty broad category and can include many traditional resolutions just so long as their focus is upward and not inward), there are three things you need to do. The first is to acknowledge reality. If we are going to move forward, we must first understand where we are. If we don’t know where we are, we won’t know in which direction we need to move to get to where we want to go. I know precisely where our house is. But, if you blindfold me, drive me out to the middle of the wilderness, and say, “Try and get home now,” it would be awfully slow going.
The second thing we need to do is to lean into the God who is for us. God was for Joshua just like He was for Moses. He’s for us too. If we are going to succeed in whatever venture God has planned for us, we need to lean into this promise. We need to stake our lives on it and let it become the centerpiece of what and why we are doing. Again: God is for you. If you are trying even a little bit to move in His direction, He is going to be all in on helping make sure you get there. Lean into that.
Third, and in order for His help to mean anything in our lives, we must commit ourselves to the ways of God. Leaning into the promises of God will do us no good if we are not also willing to pursue the ways of God. And, committing ourselves to the ways of God means knowing and studying those ways through His word. We need to make studying and learning it our daily goal. This can be done in lots of different ways, but the key is that we’ve got to make the words of God our daily fuel and guide. Anything less and we won’t have the right fuel in the tank to drive us forward to receive what He has for us.
And as I was thinking about how I could help you remember these three steps—acknowledge reality, lean into God, and commit to His ways—I came up with a little rhyme. Before I tell you what it is, just know in advance that it’s really cheesy. It’s almost to the level of cheese-coma cheesy. So, when I tell you what it is, and you feel like rolling your eyes right out of the back of your head, go ahead and do it. But, if it helps you remember it, I’m good with a whole can of Cheez-Wiz. Are you ready? If you want to be successful in your New Year’s resolutions this year, here’s what you need to do: Lean into God and follow His ways, and you’ll have success all of your days. I told you: Cheesy. Hear it again: Lean into God and follow His ways, and you’ll have success all of your days. Say that with me: Lean into God and follow His ways, and you’ll have success all of your days. Say it again: Lean into God and follow His ways, and you’ll have success all of your days. Now, roll your eyes for a minute. Okay, let’s say it one more time: Lean into God and follow His ways, and you’ll have success all of your days. Have a Happy New Year!