We are creatures of habit.
In one of the congregations I served as pastor, I received a call to go and visit a member’s adult son who was in the hospital. The middle-aged man was in the hospital because his liver had started failing him . . . he was losing weight, his abdomen was swollen, he was jaundice, tired all of the time, and he was felt terrible. In the hospital he told the doctor that it had to be some sort of virus or flu bug, and that with a couple of days rest in the hospital he would bounce right back. No, said the doctor, you’re killing your liver with your drinking.
Of course, the man denied it. Sure, he liked to drink, but not any more than the rest of his friends. In the community this man and his friends were known as the town drunks . . . and, the doctor just shook his head at the man’s denial. He showed him the pictures . . . pointed out the signs . . . and, then, told him that if he kept it up he would be dead in a year.
Well, that caught the attention of the man. He didn’t want to die. We talked, and he agreed to go to a treatment center and get his act together. And, he did. He did go to a treatment center for 90 days. He came home sober and looking healthy. It seemed like one of those miracle stories that had been bolstered by a lot of prayer from those who loved him. There was hope . . . at least for a little while . . . and, then . . . he got back with his old friends. He started hanging out at the bars in town . . . hanging out with his friends in their homes or his home . . . started drinking. Within a couple of months he was back in the hospital again.
Again, he feared for his life . . . he didn’t want to die. So, he went back for treatment a second time . . . another 90 days. Got sober, got healthy . . . and came back promising he would find new friends. Well, that lasted a couple of weeks before he was back at it again. This time the family stepped in. Their solution was to send him back east to live with his sister and to start a new life in a new place with new people.
It seemed like a good idea . . . and, in the beginning it worked out great. But then something happened. All those old familiar feelings came back into his life . . . and, with those feelings came all the old familiar patterns of responding. He started to drink again. His liver started to fail him again. I heard that he even tried treatment for a third time . . . but, the treatment didn’t do him much good, he was still drinking . . . he was drinking his liver to death.
The man was a creature of habit. Then one day, when he was the sickest he had ever been--knocking on heaven’s door, he had finally had enough. He was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Being sick and tired he sought out a counselor and twelve-step program that would teach him new skills to cope with life. He worked hard at learning these skills . . . worked hard at ignoring his old coping patterns; and, it began to work. Oh, it is not easy . . . it is a daily struggle, but his life is much better than it has ever been. He has supportive family and friends . . . a fulfilling job . . . and, he feels as if he is alive for the first time in his life.
Breaking habits is hard.
In reading the Old Testament we can get a feel of the patterns or habits of God’s people. God blesses them . . . the people revel in God’s blessings . . . then they begin to forget whose they are, that they are the children of God called upon to do God’s will . . . they begin to do all the things they shouldn’t do, forget God’s will . . . God warns them through prophets to shape up or watch out . . . the people ignore the prophets . . . the consequences are dealt, the people are punished . . . they repent. Over and over again this happens. Why? Because humans are creatures of habit.
Which brings us to our reading for this morning. We are at the tail end of this habitual pattern of God’s people. They have returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile . . . a return they have waited 70 years to experience. They are free and they are back. After all the partying was done, the reality set in. Things are not as rosy as they had thought it would be . . . life is still pretty tough . . . not much has changed. The people are disappointed in their situation . . . it sucks! And, so, what do you think that they do? What is their habit when things go bad?
They lament . . . they moan . . . they groan . . . and, they whine to God at how terrible it all is.
You would have thought they had learned. So, once again, God speaks. God speaks some pretty familiar words . . . a new heaven, a new earth . . . a new Jerusalem . . . life will be good . . . life would be a blessing . . . it would all be new, completely different . . . the wolf and lamb will eat together, the lion and the ox . . . it will be a whole new creation. It is a wonderful picture that God paints . . . more beautiful than anything anyone could ever dream of. It brings hope . . . lots of hope. And, God promises them that the day will come.
But . . . it always seems as if God has a “but” to add to the conversation . . . but, says God to the people, you have to do your part in the meantime. God wants the people to break their old habits . . . to change their old patterns of coping . . . to start new. Instead of falling into the depressing situation that they are in and allowing it to drown them, God challenges them to swim . . . or at least dog-paddle. God wants the people to start living their faith . . . to seek peace and justice . . . to take care of one another . . . to love one another . . . to love God . . . to fulfil the covenant between them and God . . . to do God’s will. God wants them to break the chains of habit and to set themselves free to live and to love. In doing this they begin the work of building a new heaven and a new earth . . . of establishing God’s kingdom here on earth.
Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it? To just quit what we have always done and add more positive and life-giving responses and actions to our lives. Sounds easy, but we are all creatures of habit. As creatures of habit we fall back on to that which we are familiar with . . . that which we understand . . . that which makes us comfortable . . . that which is predictable. In the end, we do what we have always done.
Despite this wonderful picture painted by God . . . despite the hope it brought to a distraught people; we know from reading our Bibles, that the people would fall back into those old familiar habits and patterns. It is human nature. It takes lots of interventions to get us to realize how reliant we are on our habits and patterns of coping. And, it usually takes us being sick and tired of being sick and tired before we change.
I think that God understood that. I think that God understood that we would all reach that point in our lives when we finally give up with trying to cope on our own with whatever habits or patterns of coping we have. I think that God understood that we would eventually get tired of being sick and tired . . . that the day would come. And, God understood that when that day came we would need help . . . we would need a new habit . . . new patterns of coping. Because God understood, we have Jesus.
That man who went to numerous treatment centers and kept falling off the wagon realized that when he was sick and tired of being sick and tired, that he needed help. He sought out people who could help him break the old habits with new and positive ones . . . and, then he proceeded to live those new habits and patterns. He knew he needed help . . . needed fellow companions . . . needed a model to follow.
And, so do we.
In Jesus we are given that model and told to follow him. In Jesus we are shown the better way of living our lives in faith. We are shown how to love God with our whole being . . . shown how to love ourselves . . . shown how to love others. In Jesus we are witness to one who follows the will of God in his life . . . who goes out into the world to establish God’s kingdom in his time and place. In Jesus we are shown the way to the Kingdom of God.