New Year’s Day leaves me with conflicting feelings. It doesn’t top my favorite holidays list (it’s probably near the bottom). We think of it as a time of fresh starts and recommitment. “New year, new me.” But I think most of us find the new year brings the same old stuff. Global conflicts don’t suddenly stop because a new year has begun. Systemic issues like poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmental pollution continue to thrive despite the new calendar on the wall. And most of us who make New Years resolutions even with the best of intentions will find ourselves making those same resolutions again this time next year. New year, new me? More like new year, same me. Why do we even bother with it all? It seems no matter how hard we try, no matter how motivated we are, we can’t ever seem to turn things around.
Martin Luther understood this. He believed in human free will, but he believed that Adam and Eve’s fall shackled human will in bondage. “We have free will,” Luther would say, “but because of sin we are bound to choose evil again and again.” The New Years resolution is a great example. I commit myself to no longer stress eat, to not shame myself, to treat others with kindness, to read my Bible every day. And some days I’m successful. But on the whole I’m not. Never once have I kept a New Years resolution. Most are forgotten by February. “Well, of course they are!” Luther would say. “You can’t save yourself. You can hardly even change one thing about yourself! You are habitually unreliable. So why would you rely on yourself to change yourself?”
And there, I think, lies my trouble with New Years. It’s all about self-reliance. Some would argue that the Fourth of July is the most American day of the year, but I might argue that the most American day of the year is New Year’s Day—because this is the day we celebrate self-reliance, hoisting one’s self up by one’s boot straps, self-made men and women. New Years resolutions are a celebration of sheer willpower. What’s more American than that?
But God, the Scriptures, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther and countless other faithful people will tell you that self-reliance gets you nowhere but to hell in a hand-basket (and not even a nice one because you couldn’t even keep your resolution to practice your basketweaving).
Left to ourselves we are powerless. And that’s why we need Jesus. We need Christmas. We need God coming to us as one of us to save us from ourselves. We need God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit to unbind our will, to lead us to goodness, to redeem our souls. We can’t do that for ourselves.
So maybe New Years Day should not be about resolutions but rather remembering our baptism. Maybe we should start our new year not by committing ourselves to so many things we’ll never do. Maybe we should begin our year by reminding ourselves that in our baptisms God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit comes to us, daily drowns the old sinner within us, and raises up a new person, a new creation, a new instrument of God’s gracious, merciful, and loving will.
So maybe don’t worry about the resolution this year. It can’t save you anyway. Instead, remind yourself that in your baptism God has come to you to do what you could never do for yourself—by grace you have been saved!
Happy New Year!