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As we start a new year here in church this morning, I want us to consider what it might mean to us to be called back to our centre. What is the role of memory in being re-centred? What is the role of new things? I remember when I was a kid one of the greatest musical acts I ever saw on TV. It was the Motown 25th Anniversary Special. The Jackson 5 had a spot – Michael Jackson and his brothers performing some of their classics, “ABC”, “Never Can Say Goodbye”, “I’ll Be There”, that kind of thing. They finished and Michael’s brothers left the stage. Michael then said this “Those were the good old days… I love those songs….those were good songs, I like those songs a lot, but especially I like… the new songs.” The bass line to Billie Jean started and the crowd went wild, along with 12 year old me. I was thinking about this and Isaiah 43 and what it means to be called back to our centre. What was the thing that tied together the past and the future for Michael Jackson? Soul? Talent? What was the thing that tied together the past and the future in the midst of a lot of hardship and questions and unknowns for the ancient Israelites. What is the thing at the centre that holds us together when it often seems the centre cannot hold in the face of the crises, the questions, the unknowns that we face? Let us look at our text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
It’s generally thought that Isaiah 40 to 55 was written at the time of the Israelite exile to Babylon. It was directed toward those living in exile along with those who had remained behind in Judah. The Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem, taking Israel’s best and brightest back to the upper Euphrates. These exiles were torn between trust in Yahweh and trust in Babylonian gods who seemed to be in the ascendancy. They were also tempted I’m sure to settle comfortably into their new lives, being able to do business and trade in their new surroundings, forgetting who they were and what their purpose was. Other Israelites were left behind, doing their best to eke out an existence among the ruins as successive waves of marauders swept through the area.
The prophet reminds them and us that there is love among the ruins. The prophet reminds them and us that their centre, our centre, is Yahweh. This message is in direct opposition to those who would proclaim that our best hope is in empire or superpower. Our best hope is in military strength or economic superiority. Our best hope is in winning, which means that other people will lose. Our hope is in Yahweh. Everything else is as dust. Even empires wax and wane after all. Even superpowers wax and wane.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you , O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you…” Despite how things might look, empire will not win the day. The world is not left to chance or blind fate or whomever has the most weapons. This is our message friends. This is what we gather together to proclaim. Isn’t this a message that the world needs to hear as we start 2017? God is in control. God is working out His purposes. Jesus is Lord. This is one of the earliest statements of faith of the church. Jesus is Lord and has brought back and is bringing back and will bring back all things to himself.
That includes you of course. It includes me. We can get lost thinking of God’s creating and redeeming work in grand cosmic ways. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. “I have brought you back to myself,” which is where we were always meant to be. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” The creator of the universe knows our name. The creator of the universe likes us! The creator of the universe wants to be with us. Why did God come to a specific time and place in world history in the person of Christ? Because God comes to us specifically. We need not fear waters or fires. We need not fear the unknown because in any circumstance (and there will be circumstances) God is with us. Isn’t that good news? Why all this coming to us specifically and promising us peace and protection? Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.
And I love you.
This is our centre friends. This is the thing that will last. I said that God comes to us and loves us specifically and God calls and enables us to reflect his love in specific, everyday ways that some might call mundane but I call sacred because God is in them. From offering a plate of food to someone who is hungry to visiting someone in a nursing home who feels forgotten. To making people feel like home. Because this is what God does. He brings us home. “I will bring your offspring from the east and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north ‘Give them up’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth…” God brings us home. “Make yourself at home,” we tell people. What does it mean to feel at home? To feel loved, accepted, at ease, happy, cared for, caring, welcome. May we feel like home for people. Pastor Abby and I were asked about an interview with CBC news about Horizons For Youth and going there on Christmas Day. The interview didn’t happen but it got me thinking about what it means to do that. About doing our best to try and make the place feel like home for those kids. That is what God does for us, you see. He brings us home and invites us to rest safe and secure in knowing this.
The Purpose Driven Witness
We are not just to rest in our safety and security however. We have a job to do. We talk about witnessing to our faith – talking about it, demonstrating it in our actions. We have a courtroom scene here that’s repeated throughout Isaiah. “Come now, let us argue it out,” God says in Isaiah 1:18. Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about deliverance. About where life is to be found. “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble…. Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’” What is truth? This was the famous question asked of Jesus by Pilate. Let’s get together and talk about where deliverance is to be found – in the acquisition of things, in consumerism, in looking out for yourself, in empire, in military strength, economic strength, in our smarts, in our ability to get the job done. Where is it to be found?
And then God says something amazing through the prophet. “You are my witnesses, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me.” Though we were blind, though we were deaf. It’s not that our sight is 20/20 now either or our hearing is perfect, but may God give us eyes to see and ears to hear his deliverance wherever we see and hear it happening. Think of what God has done. “I declared and saved and proclaimed, where there was no strange god among you… Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…” This is referring to God’s saving act in bringing Israel out of Egypt. An act which prefigured Christ’s saving act in his birth, death, resurrection. “O Mary don’t you weep no more,” we sang at Easter, “Pharaoh’s army got drowned.” Reflect on things past. Reflect on what God has done for you. Reflect on what God has delivered you from. I asked this question in the weeks leading up to Christmas. What has God saved you from? “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other:” the prophet will proclaim in Isaiah 46:9. As a new year starts, look back on what God has done and be thankful. Ask God to open our eyes and our ears and be the witnesses he calls us to be in a world in which there are a lot of voices in opposition. Come let us reason it out, because deliverance has never been found in any system or ideology or political movement but it is to be found in Christ who we call our Lord and centre, and who loves us.
May God help us to live and declare this great truth, and remember the former things.
Also “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old…” Is this a contradiction? Not at all. It’s a summons to not dwell solely in the past. Michael Jackson could have become a retro act, touring with his brothers, performing all the old hits. He probably could have had a good career doing that. We see many Motown acts doing that even to this day. He did something new though. He had Quincy Jones produce his album, collaborated with Paul McCartney, enlisted the help of people like Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It.” He did something new.
We’re not called to live in past glory. To sit paralyzed as we long for what we perceive to be a glorious past and look with trepidation at the future. This is not what God does. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Our creator God who knows us and calls us by name and loves us is always creating. Our God is always doing something new. This new thing that God is doing is bringing life. “I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” Rivers in the desert meant water in the desert which meant life. A way in the wilderness means a way for people who are lost to come back to God. This is what God has done in Christ friends. This is why Christmas is such a big deal! He found us when we were in the wilderness. There’s a great verse in Deuteronomy, 32:10 – “He sustained him in a howling wilderness waste…” Do you know what it’s like to be in a howling wilderness waste? It makes me think of Munch’s “The Scream” – desperation, dissolution, despair, distress, dismemberment – the opposite of being re-membered. When we are in the wilderness, God re-members us. God makes a way and God brings us life. He makes us new. Know that there are people all around us who feel like they are in a howling wilderness waste who need to be shown this message and need to hear this message – “You are precious in my sight. And I love you.”
And it’s not only us – “The wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches.” This delivering plan is for all of creation, even jackals and ostriches (And have you ever seen an ostrich up close? They are a little frightening with the neck and everything!)
This is what we who follow Christ are caught up in friends. This is what God made us for. God is in control and God’s redeeming work will not be hindered. You may be saying “It’s hard to see this David.” It’s hard to see it in a world where people are under siege in their own homes, where cease-fires fail to hold, where national interests trump all else, where the politics of fear and greed and division seem to reign supreme.
We proclaim a different reality. Yahweh is supreme. In Christ all things are being reconciled. The Spirit works in our hearts and in the world to bring new life. New life doesn’t come about without birth pangs does it? How well aware are we of that. “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day, you will ask nothing of me.”
We look back and we look forward to that day. In the meantime we look for God and we ask God to do new things in us and through us. Our creator who calls us by name and loves us and says we are precious in his sight. Our God who in Christ brings us home. Our God who says “I am about to do a new thing…” A way in the wilderness. Rivers in the desert. Water in the wilderness. So that we might declare his praise along with the jackals and the ostriches. This is what we were made for friends.
What would 2017 look like for us if we took these words of Isaiah to heart? Would we look forward to this year with fear? With trepidation? Maybe a little – we’re by no means perfect. How excited might we be to look forward to 2017 knowing that we’re being held in the right hand of God who loves us, who calls us to be witnesses to that love, and who we will one day hear saying “Behold I am making all things new.” May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear.
Happy New Year friends!