I want to begin this morning by wishing all of you a safe, healthy, prosperous, blessed, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Over the last, oh, I’ll say maybe 35 to 40 years, I’ve been fascinated by our obsession with measuring, well, everything. And it does seem to be an obsession. For 39 years, I made my living off of this obsession, working in a production laboratory that specialized in the area of gas chromatography, one of the disciplines of the separation sciences. A science where compounds could be analyzed and their components measured down to levels of parts per billion, and even parts per trillion with the right equipment.
Mankind has developed methods and instruments that allow us to get down to the most minute scale when measuring things like distance, weight, luminosity, and even time. Did you know that we now have a clock, known as an entanglement atom clock, that can keep time so accurately that it will lose only about a second over a span of a trillion years? I understand that if you’re a physicist trying to measure anything out there in the nearly immeasurable expanse of the universe, this clock is going to be a great help in making your measurements more accurate. But for the rest of us… not really a big deal.
However, if the people who developed this clock tell us that we’ve ended the old year of 2020, and the new year of 2021 has begun, I think we can probably take their word for it.
But do we really need that kind of accuracy to know that the old year has past and a new year is upon us? Does it really matter at what exact point in time that the old year passed and the new year began? Sometimes I think we put ourselves into a place where we can’t see the forest from the trees. We lose sight of what really matters. And in this new beginning of this new year, I think what really matters is: what are we going to do with the new year that’s ahead of us? We are 3 days in to a new beginning of a new calendar year. Has this year felt any different so far than last year to anybody? Did all of our trials or problems fade away with the passing of the old year?
GOD OF NEW BEGINNINGS
Looking at our reading from the book of the Revelation to John this morning, I think we can safely deduce that the God of the Bible is the God of actual, new beginnings. After all, John testifies that in his vision he saw a new heaven and a new earth. He saw New Jerusalem coming down from heaven and heard the One seated on the throne of heaven declare, “Look! I’m making all things
new.” What I gather from these scriptures is: when God decides to hit the reset button and move us from the old into the new, then what we shall see is a real new beginning.
But God hasn’t done that yet. Nothing is really new in the year 2021. Covid is still here; people are still either unemployed or at risk of losing jobs or homes; cancer hasn’t been cured; drug abuse is still a prevailing problem in our society; and so on and so on with all of the problems we faced before the new year. In our move on the timeline from the old year into the new year, what’s really happening is: we’re marking a point on our calendar where we can take the opportunity to make changes in ourselves and in our lives that will make 2021 different than 2020. And that’s true whether or not vaccines work against Covid 19. The point is: It’s up to us to make the new year new. Well, in reality, what we’d be doing is making ourselves new. The year will bring whatever it brings. But how we deal with whatever the new year brings is entirely up to us, and we decide if we’re going to handle things the old way or a new way.
What I’m specifically interested in this morning is in walking us through a short process where we can try to better understand where we are in our Christian
lives, that is to say in our spiritual development. In researching material for this message, I found articles where the authors determined that there were either 3, 4 ,5 or 7 stages of spiritual growth. To simplify for our purposes this morning, I’ve decided to divide spiritual growth into four rather broad stages, but I want to make clear that these are my personal preferences and I’m not going to go to all of the trouble of delineating these stages in great detail. There are aspects of each of these stages that you will see overlap one another. And I think you should note that it is possible to move in or out of these stages in either direction: in other words, we can either progress in our spiritual growth or digress.
THE FOUR STAGES
I believe that, as Christians, we can be seen as believers, followers, disciples, or apostles.
- We become believers when the Holy Spirit first moves us to believe God’s Word that Jesus Christ is His Son, and is our Lord and Savior. There are many kinds of believers in Jesus Christ: some believe Jesus was a great philosopher, some believe He might’ve even been something of a great prophet, but they don’t believe in Jesus as God’s Son and our Messiah.
But according to Paul in his letter to the Romans, there’s more to this concept of believing than just believing Jesus was real or a real great person. Paul wrote, 8 “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ [Deut 30: 14] (that is the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom 10: 8 – 10). So, for Christians, it’s a little more than just simple belief, it’s what you believe and confessing your belief. This is important because our faith is built entirely on what we believe. If we don’t really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, our faith is meaningless. But ultimately, our faith is in Jesus Christ.
- I believe the next stage in our growth as Christians happens when we become followers. In this day and age, I believe this happens when the Spirit moves us to read His Word more and more, and not only that, but also to change our ways of living, according to what we learn in His word, following what we understand to be His will for how we are to live our lives. Part of this could mean becoming involved in the ministries of His church. I think followers usually want to become active members of the church, as opposed to passive members, but it doesn’t always happen for all followers.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we really want to know who Jesus is and what that means to us in how we live and maybe even how we serve. Which means that followers are believers, but believers aren’t always followers. What separates believers from followers is the fact that we put our beliefs into some type of action.
- Which moves us into the stage of discipleship. I want to note here that for all intents and purposes, I see discipleship and apostleship as being at the same level, or stage, but I separate them because an apostle has a specific purpose that a disciple may not have. I want to define what a disciple is according to the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary. They define a disciple as “an apprentice or pupil attached to a teacher or movement…whose allegiance is to the instruction and commitments of the teacher or movement” (198). As Christians, in this stage, the Holy Spirit moves in us to form a deeper desire to know Jesus, even to such an extent that we want to learn everything we can about Him and His teachings. But what’s important to understand is that we don’t remain dormant or passive in this stage, we take what we learn and use it to try to imitate or ‘mirror’ Jesus. In other words, we’re not just pupils, we become practitioners. We practice what Jesus preached. And it’s in this stage that our focus shifts from
ourselves and our relationship with God to others and their relationships with God. We should find ourselves doing more to try to bring others along with us on our spiritual journey. Especially those who are especially close to us.
- Everything I just said about disciples is also true for apostles. But an apostle differs from a disciple in one important way. Harper Collins Bible Dictionary defines apostle as “one who is sent out” (40), as being sent on a mission. Apostles are understood to be commissioned by a commissioning agent in much the same way that Jesus commissioned His 11 remaining disciples in the Great Commission (Matt 28: 18 – 20). The point here is, of course, that Jesus sent them out. Apostles leave the confines and comforts of their homes and home churches, having been so moved by the Holy Spirit and so excited to share the good news. They go out into the world to try to bring others into a state of believing by providing them with the opportunity to hear the gospel.
Again, I want to point out that these are very broad categories or stages that I’ve drawn up here and you could probably come up with some stages yourself, perhaps more narrowly defined, but my purpose for doing this in the first place is this: What I want to do this morning is to challenge you. The first thing I want you to consider is which stage do you fall into as of
this moment. Be honest here. Do you see yourself as a believer, a follower, a disciple, or an apostle?
As we noted at the beginning of this message, we’ve entered a new calendar year. At the same time, our church is entering a new phase in its life where we will be spending the first 6 months of this new calendar year in transition, specifically, transitioning from our former pastor, Reverend Jose, to the arrival of a new pastor in July. And when that new pastor is appointed, then another new phase will begin.
What I would like to see us do is to resolve ourselves together this morning, this first Sunday of the new year, to commit to trying to move ourselves from whichever stage we determine ourselves to be in now, up to the next level. In other words, if you think of yourself as a believer, then I’m asking you to commit to trying to become a follower. If a follower, then commit to trying to become a disciple. The idea is to try to take concrete steps to grow in our faith and in His Spirit. That might mean spending a great deal more time in His word for some of us. Or perhaps going on a Walk to Emmaus retreat. Or maybe volunteering to serve on a church committee or for a special church function. Whatever it takes and wherever you feel God is calling you, that’s what I’m asking you to commit yourself to. But it is going to take a commitment on our part. So pray over this. And keep praying. We’re going to find that God is
much more faithful to us than we are to Him, and if we’re sincere, He will guide us to that next level.
Please don’t think of this as a test. It’s not meant to be a test. Think of this as a kind of movement. Only God can make all things new, but we can ask Him to renew His Spirit within us. We can ask Him to do whatever needs to be done in us that will make us grow in faith and in His Spirit. That’s the kind of prayer that God is anxiously waiting to hear from us. We cannot change what the new year brings with it, but we can ask God to change us. I encourage you to talk it over with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Encourage one another. Pray for one another. Share your progress with one another.
We’ve already been made new creations in Jesus Christ (II Cor 5: 17). Let’s commit ourselves to becoming renewed creations in Christ in this new year: stronger in our faith, deeper in our love, and going farther in our service. By the time our new pastor arrives, we might not even recognize our old selves. We could become newly committed creations in Jesus Christ! Let’s pray over that commitment.