06/25/23 “A New Thing”

Isaiah 43:18-21

I chose our passage for today because it’s very special to me. I encountered it as I began to discern and wrestle with my call into ministry. It spoke to me at a time when I couldn’t imagine what accepting my call would like—how it would change my life and the lives of those closest to me. It spoke to me in such a powerful way that I chose it for my ordination banner, which has hung in this church for the past six years.

This passage speaks a message of challenge and assurance, of encouragement and hope and the certainty that God is already shaping what seems like an unimaginable future. That was the message God spoke to the exiles in Babylon some 2600 years ago. That was the message God spoke to me some fifteen years ago. And that is the message that God speaks to us today.

These words of God which became so meaningful to me personally were first spoken to God’s people while they were living in exile in Babylon. Decades before Isaiah spoke God’s words, Babylon’s armies had overtaken Jerusalem—the result of the people’s unfaithfulness and reliance on military alliances rather than on God. You know the story, which we can read in 2 Chronicles: “The invaders burned the Temple, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.” Those who escaped the sword were taken into exile in Babylon as prisoners and slaves, where they had been living for fifty years.

For the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, the people are reminded of what got them into trouble in the first place. There are notes of encouragement but, for the most part, it’s an announcement of judgment against a faithless people. Then, in Chapter 40, Isaiah takes a dramatic turn. Now the focus is on restoration: restoration that will lead to the end of the Babylonian Empire, an end to the exile, a return to Jerusalem, and a return to a faithful relationship with God.

It must have seemed unimaginable. Isaiah’s prophecy had come in the midst of the exile. Many of the original exiles were dead by then, and their descendants would never have personally known a life in Jerusalem or worship in the temple. They would have known these things only through the stories that were told and the memories that were shared. They also would have absorbed the fears of their elders—that God had abandoned them and the covenant they had thought would last forever. But now God is speaking a new vision through Isaiah. And, this vision is not one only for the future. It is a vision for the present.

Our passage begins with an admonition, and we’ll get to that verse in a minute. But, let’s look first at the way God begins to lay out this vision for God’s people. “Behold!” God says. Did you ever have a teacher who would slap a ruler on the desk to get your attention? That’s what God’s “behold” is. It’s God saying, “Look at this! Pay attention! Listen up! I’m going to say something that will change your life, and you need to hear—really hear—every word I’m going to say!”

When we behold something, we grasp it, we embrace it, we cradle it and cherish it with our eyes as we would hold on to a precious object with our hands. To behold something is to see it clearly and to enter into the creator’s own joy and satisfaction. Sadly, many modern translations of the Bible leave out the word “behold.” That’s too bad, because the word “behold” is like a big red arrow, pointing to something God doesn’t want us to miss.

This thing that God didn’t want the exiles to miss, and doesn’t want us to miss either, is this: God is doing a new thing. God is doing something not done before, not heard of before, not experienced before. God is doing something that may seem impossible to us, if we can even imagine it. And, God is doing it now.

When our present is not what we want it to be, we tend to look to the future. We trust in God’s love and wisdom and grace, and we pray that things will be different—that God will do something in the future. But notice that the passage is in the present tense. This is not a promise for the future. It is a promise for the present. God is not sitting by, waiting for the perfect moment to act. God is acting now! God is doing a new thing now! When the status quo seems like a permanent fixture, God is already working to upset it.

The question is whether or not we can—or will—perceive what God is doing. God doesn’t ask if we can clearly see all the details or all the steps in a strategic plan or the final outcome of what God is doing. God only asks if perceive it. Do we hear that still, small voice inside us, whispering that something is different? Do we look through eyes that see the world as the medium for God’s creativity, as God shapes and molds something new, even if we can’t yet tell what it will look like in the end? Do our hearts feel lighter and more hopeful because we know that beneath what we hear on the news and see on social media, God is doing a new thing?

If we do have an inkling that God is doing a new thing, how do we respond to it? Do we welcome it, or do we close our ears to its whisper? Do we close our eyes to its vision, close our hearts to its hope? Or, do we perceive and then acknowledge that God is doing a new thing and allow its promise to flower within us? God sounds almost astonished that we might not: “Do you not perceive that the new thing I am doing is even now springing forth, even now emerging into life, even now erupting into existence? Do you not perceive it?”

The thing about new things is that they often seem impossible or, at best, improbable. We look at ourselves and see people who lack the skill or the energy or the resources to do something new. We look at our church building and see what we can’t afford to repair, let alone update. We look at our world and see divisions that seem unbridgeable, problems that seem unsolvable, obstacles that seem unsurmountable, and people who seem unapproachably different from us. New things can place new demands on us when we’re already feeling like we’re stretched to our limits.

But, God has an answer to those feelings of fears and inadequacy: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Where all we see is lack, God will provide plenty. Where we see only scarcity, God sees abundance. When we feel dried out, God will refresh us. Where all we see ahead of us is featureless wilderness, God will make a way forward.

During the time when I was wrestling with my call, I had lots of reasons for why accepting it would be a bad idea. There was wilderness and desert everywhere I looked. I was in my mid-50s, a strange time to be taking on an entirely new career. I’d have to spend three years going to school out of town, and I would be using my retirement savings to do it. I hadn’t been in school in decades, and I knew the academic environment had changed dramatically. I knew the rules about itinerant ministry in the United Methodist Church, and I wasn’t in a position to fully commit to that. And to be honest, I wasn’t convinced that I could live up to what I believed God’s expectations of me would be.

Then, in the midst of all this doubt, God spoke to me through this passage. I heard God speaking of what God had apparently already been doing in my life and which I was just beginning to perceive. Through Isaiah, I heard God’s promise that the wilderness would become navigable and that I would have what I needed to cross the desert. Sure enough, one by one, the barriers that had appeared so insurmountable began to melt away.

I saw that everything in my life—my education, the jobs I’d had, the church and community service work I had done, the roles I played in my family—all of it was coming together as this new thing began to spring forth. Marc jumped on board with his support, even in the midst of his own serious illness. A scholarship was provided, and a job as a Student Pastor was offered. Affirmations came from unexpected places and unexpected people. Pathways and rivers began springing up in all the places where I had seen nothing but wilderness and desert. God was indeed doing a new thing in my life.

God is doing new things in us now—in each of us as individuals, in Zion as a congregation, and in all of us together as the Body of Christ. We can’t see exactly what those new things will look like or where they will take us. But if we trust that God is already working in us and in the world, and if we will open ourselves to the new thing that God is doing, God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

God has always been in the “new thing” business. God created a new thing when the world was called into being and filled with people created in God’s own image. God did a new thing when God called a people to worship God as their one God and one Lord. God did a new thing when God freed those people from slavery in Egypt, led them through their wilderness, and provided water in their desert.

We know, as they did not, the ultimate new thing God did, centuries after the exiles were long gone. We know that God did a new thing by coming into the world in the human body of Jesus—offering us a human face to connect with, learn from, and love. God did a new thing by offering us a new covenant, written on our hearts. God in Jesus did a new thing by going to the cross and dying on behalf of the people he came to save—including the people who could not or would not accept the new thing we call the incarnation. God in Jesus did a new thing by breathing into us his very Spirit to be with us, to strengthen us, to guide us, and to comfort us. By the power of that Spirit, God continues to do a new thing in us every day, individually and collectively, if we will only perceive it, embrace it, and act on it. God did a new thing by offering us eternal life—abundant life now and never-ending life in the presence of God after our bodies die.

Why would God do these new things? And, why should we accept and even welcome them? God has an answer for those questions, too: “Because,” God says, “you are the people whom I formed for myself that you might declare my praise.”

God does new things in us because we are God’s messengers to the world. What we do shows the world what God’s kingdom looks like. What we say infuses God’s love and grace into the world. How we live is our psalm of praise that everyone around us can hear. God does new things in us because the world needs new ways to see and hear and experience the God we were formed to praise and proclaim. God does new things in us in order to do new things in other people—unlikely people, people we might never have imagined we could reach and be in relationship with.

Those jackals and ostriches in our passage aren’t accidental or merely poetic. Jackals were associated with death; they sustained themselves by scavenging for food among dead things. Ostriches are listed in Leviticus as unclean. But, God’s new thing is intended even for those who futilely look for life among the soul-killing ways of the world. God’s new thing is intended even for those whom the world and, sadly, many Christians, have deemed unacceptable. We, who were formed to declare God’s praise, can be the means by which they learn that God’s new thing is meant for them, too.

There is a major obstacle that keeps us from perceiving and embracing the new thing that God is doing. That brings us back to the very beginning of our passage: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.”

This seems like curious advice. Scripture is full of retellings of the marvelous works God did in the past. Surely God didn’t want the exiles then (or us, now) to forget the drama of the Exodus, of manna falling from the sky or water springing from a rock. the victories in battle and the abundance of the promised land. Surely God doesn’t expect us to forget how God has worked in the distant past or in our past.

This congregation has a long history to remember and celebrate, and surely God wouldn’t want us to forget what we’ve done in the past six years together. Would God want us to forget about the fun we had creating and distributing Zion Rocks? Would God want us to forget the TAP dinners, the Hospice Care information night, or our fellowship hall filled with Christmas gifts for children?

Would God want us to forget how we came together to recycle electronics during a terrible snowstorm, or how we reached out with Food Pantry information to restaurants and gas stations, doctors’ offices and the fire department? How could God expect us to forget passing the headlights in the parking lot on Christmas Eve during COVID, or the balloon arch in the narthex on our first Easter together, or our worship service during a solar eclipse, and all the different ways we’ve worshipped and studied together? Would God really want us to forget God’s works of the ancient past, and would God want us to forget how God has worked through us and among us in the more recent past?

There’s also the question of whether God would want the exiles—or us—to forget the sins of the past. We all know the old saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Hebrew people repeatedly ignored God’s desire for justice and compassion and faithful worship. We aren’t much better. Wouldn’t God want us to remember what has gotten us into trouble in the past, so that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future?

When God says through Isaiah, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old,” God is not recommending a case of historical or spiritual amnesia. It’s not remembering the former things that’s the problem; it’s the holding on to them. It’s not considering the past with pride and fondness that’s the problem; it’s the longing to return to it. The problem is seeing the past as a golden age whose gleam is so bright that it blinds us to the new things God is doing now. The problem can also be that we cling so tightly to the guilt and shame and fear arising from our past mistakes and sins that we aren’t free to take up the new thing God is doing.

God doesn’t require that we forget the goodness of the past —merely that we not allow nostalgia over it to paralyze us. We shouldn’t forget the ways in which we have sinned in the past, but we should grasp the forgiveness God gives us through our faith in Jesus so that we can move forward with freedom into the new life we are given. The past makes us who we are, but it does not limit what God is doing now or define who we can be in the future.

In one of his messages at Annual Conference, Bishop Palmer said, “We acknowledge that this is a day we have never seen before.” Tomorrow will be a day we’ve never seen before, and the day after that, and all the days after that. They will be different from this day and all the days of the past. We do not know what they will hold. But, as we move into the future, we can trust our God who is making all things new. We can trust that God will make a way in our wilderness and rivers in our deserts, supplying what we need to faithfully declare God’s praise. In trust and in hope, we can move with confidence into the new thing that God is doing. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young