There is a reason we always return to the ancient texts. They have stood the test not just of time but of experience.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Scholars tell us that the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each new year. These were resolutions that, for example, they would return borrowed items and pay their debts. The Romans began each new year by coming before their god, Janus, for whom the month January is named, and making resolutions to him. Medieval knights annually took what was called the vow of the peacock, a fresh commitment to demonstrate honor and courage.
This desire to start over, to improve ourselves, seems rooted somewhere deep in the human person, so deep that it transcends place and time, even crossing centuries. It is hope, is it not? Hope that life can be different, better. 45% of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions. Eight percent will be successful in achieving them. Yet, in spite of such abysmal odds, we still hope; we still try; we still resolve that this year will be different.
The resolutions themselves do not seem to change. The top five remain essentially unchanged from year to year: lose weight, be more productive, spend less and save more, enjoy life to the fullest, and stay fit and healthy. These are noble goals, and the person resolved to achieve one or more of them will probably have a better chance at feeling better about him- or herself this time next year.
But what happens when we approach those resolutions through the ancient texts, such as the 13th chapter of I Corinthians we heard moments ago? Are weight-loss and productivity and a robust savings account as important, as vital, to the follower of Jesus as the act and the commitment to love? Then why pursue them as if they are?
Last year at this time, an elderly man was rushed to a local hospital. He had been driving to a Christmas party when another car with another driver, his thumb busy typing a text on his phone, veered into the elderly man’s lane. It all happened so fast. That’s a common refrain, isn’t it, after a tragedy like this? “It all happened so fast.” The damage to the elderly man’s body was substantial: one leg broken, the other numb, face and limbs cut from shattered glass, a broken wrist, a twisted spine, missing teeth.
But, when the ambulance arrived, the paramedics noticed that the man was in an additional kind of distress. The sudden shock of the crash appeared to have induced a heart attack. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, the attending physician and the nurses went to work, but the very first thing they worked on was not that leg, not the wrist or the face or the teeth. They focused on that heart. Later, one of the nurses recalled that during the crisis with all the machines and wires and panicked activity, the physician told everyone this: “Don’t worry about the extremities right now. If we save the heart, we save the man.”
If we save the heart, we save the man. Resolutions can be a fine thing, but at the end of the day, they are extremities, and they are not real meaningful if the heart dies. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I slim down by a couple of pant or dress sizes, but have not love, I am nothing. If I get organized and clean my desk and stay on top of the housework, but have not love, what does it profit me? If I get that job or that promotion or that raise, but have not love, what am I?
On the most fundamental level of our lives as followers of Jesus, can we really have any other true resolution but one—“I resolve to love”? I resolve to scale the walls I have erected, and learn how to love. I resolve to stop demanding you fit my image of what I think you should be, and learn how to love. I resolve to stop obsessing about the negative, and learn how to love. I resolve to forgive, or at least to try, and to ask for forgiveness, and learn how to love.
Since this resolution requires a changed heart, and only God can change hearts, this resolution, at its most basic, is the pursuit for more of God. I resolve to grow nearer to thee, my Lord and my God, for God is love. Every word our Lord Jesus spoke, every deed he did, every teaching he gave, every miracle he performed, every life he changed draws our attention to what really matters in this life. Christ reveals the depth of divine love, and the more of Christ we acquire, the more loving we become.
We speak here not of leaving other important goals behind. We speak only of keeping first things first. Did the elderly man think his legs or his hands were unimportant? No, of course not, but he learned that they were not as vital as his heart. It was the heart that gave the rest of his body a chance to heal, and it is love that gives the rest of our activities a chance to become something more than just selfish pursuits.
It is a new year. What else can the follower of Jesus say, but: “I resolve, finally, to try to love”? And that means I resolve to grow nearer to thee, my Lord and my God, for thou art love, and apart from thee I can do nothing. If he has my heart, he’ll have my body and my health. He’ll have my projects and my activities. He’ll have my checkbook and my priorities. If he has my heart, he’ll also have the rest of me.