A New Thing
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We seem to be hard-wired to like newness. Things that are novel. A new year can feel like a fresh start. 2021. Imagine! At the same time, we seem to also be hardwired to know that we need a fresh start. That we need to be made new, to be transformed. Witness all the new year’s resolutions. Witness all the makeover shows.
The New You. Extreme Makeover. Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Trading Spaces. They’ve fallen out of favour a bit recently. Maybe because we’ve realized that the transformation we crave goes beyond the surface.
We often live within the tension of cognitive dissonance, where things that we believe or attitudes that we have (or would like to have) do not necessarily inform our actions or our behaviour. We reach for that second or third piece of cake even though we know it’s not good for us. We have that tipping point number of drinks, beyond which it’s difficult to stop. We speak and sing of love of God and neighbour and lash out at those closest to us, or treat others with what is at best indifference.
Hence New Year’s resolutions to help us in the face of this cognitive dissonance. Where do we turn though, if we need something or someone beyond our own resolve?
What does God have to say to us about all this as we start a new year? What kind of word from God might we need to hear as we seek a fresh start and maybe even transformation this January 3rd, 2021? Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word this morning.
We’re in the second part of Isaiah here in chapter 43. These words are being addressed to a people in exile. Many are suffering and facing a lot of uncertainty. This section starts with the word “But” – (“But now, thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob). Whenever we see a word like “But” we need to look before it to see what’s going on. We have these verses in chapter 42:18-19 – “Listen, you that are deaf; and you that are blind, look up and see! Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one or blind like the servant of the Lord? He sees many things but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.”
I’m often saying that we live with many tensions in the Christian life. Paradoxes. Seeming incompatibilities if you like. The Kingdom of God is here. The Kingdom of God is coming. God is with us. God is coming. Here we have quite a jarring one - the servants of God, God’s messengers, the dedicated ones are at the same time blind and deaf.
Let us sit with that for a few moments. In a few weeks, we’re going to be looking at the practice of spiritual self-examination. If we examine ourselves honestly, we know the truth of this tension between divine love and the divine call on our lives and our own stubbornness. We know the meagreness of our prayer life. We know the meagreness of our involvement in a community of faith. We know about our inattentiveness to God, our… Fill in the blank. It’s a paradox because normally when we think of servants of God or devotees of God or witnesses of God, spiritual blindness and spiritual deafness are not the first things that spring to mind. This people of God were in exile with no way out, no way to restore themselves. A way out would not be found through their own ingenuity or resourcefulness or piety or resolve. This is the bad news.
Here is the good news though. A way out has been provided! We just celebrated his coming. How is it that we hold the tensions that I’m talking about in tension as we follow Christ? How is it that we’re able to hold together these seeming paradoxes of the already-not yetness of the Kingdom of God, of joy and sorrow, of being servants of God and our blindness and deafness? We hold them together when we see them in the light of Christ. Remember when we talked about seeing everything in the light of the cross? Remember when we talked about seeing everything through the frame of Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection? We hold these tensions together in the light of God’s love for us, in the light of God’s mercy toward us. We hold the tensions together in the light of Christ’s birth and life and death and resurrection and promised return. For which we still wait.
How do we sit between these tensions well? One way is to be attentive to the word of God. To hear the word of God addressed to us in the middle of our tension and the middle of our waiting. We might expect to hear words of judgment in the light of blindness and deafness. Instead, we hear words of light and life. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.” We crave the new and no wonder as we have been made in the image of the creative God. The God who not only creates but forms and isn’t that good news, we who seek to be formed? “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” This brings to mind the words of God’s servant Paul, who was going through waters in the middle of a storm and urged those around him to keep up their courage said these words – “For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong (I have called you by name, you are mine) and whom I worship and he said ‘Do not be afraid Paul; you must stand before the emperor, and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage…” (Acts 27:23-24). Listen to these promises of God. I will be with you. The rivers will not overwhelm you. The fire will not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. I give Egypt as your ransom. In Christ God gives himself as our ransom. We give thanks for this when we gather around the table as we’ll do later this morning. In Christ God gives himself as our ransom. Why? How could such a thing be?
“Because you are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.” (v 4)
God created us and forms us to be loved and to love. What better way to start the new year than to hear those words? God goes on to speak through the prophet about bringing God’s people home, my sons from far away, my daughters from the ends of the earth, then in verse 7 “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
This is where our role comes in quite pointedly. I’ve created you for My glory, God says. In other ways, I have created you to make my ways known. God’s ways? Peace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Justice. Compassion. Love. God has created us and forms us to make God’s ways known. We say “Yes yes we know this” but do we know?
Those lines we heard from ch 42 are echoed in a courtroom scene here in v 8 - “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!” Then in v 10 – “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servants whom I have chosen.” “Us?” we say? “Yes, you!” God says. We can’t help but think of the words of Jesus here. “You will be my witnesses from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth.” Those who are blind. Those who are deaf - yet look at this hopeful note – yet have eyes, yet have ears! We look at ourselves and say how ill-equipped we are for such a task, and yet, and yet, and yet. We have eyes, we have ears. And we pray God help us to see. God help us to hear.
That we may be a people who make your ways known. May that be our prayer friends. The promise here is that walls would be destroyed. Quite literally here in Babylon’s case. V14 - “For your sake, I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.” This is what God does. God knocks down gates that entrap. God breaks chains that ensnare. God destroys walls that confine and makes free. Walls of addiction, compulsion, greed, fear, resentment, ruined relationships, hostility. Their shouts of triumph will turn to lament as God sets free; as God brings life.
This is what God does. Remember that time God made a way through the water? V16 - “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior, they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” We’re talking about deliverance from Egypt here. Remember. How has God delivered you? When we stand here today and say with the prophet of old “Thus far the Lord has helped us,” what are the things that the Lord has brought us through? What are the things that the Lord has brought you through? We remember. A little later we’ll hear this in Is 46:9 - “remember the former things of old.” A dear friend was talking before Christmas about remembering Christmases of his childhood and how much that meant to him in these days. Good memories. Remember the former things of old.
- Also don’t remember. Another paradox! V18 - “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Is the Bible contradicting itself? Not at all! We are to remember the past but we are not to be tied to it. The past can and does teach us. Someone put it like this – “the past can teach and illustrate but it must not bind. The Lord always has greater things in store, he is revealed in the past, but he is always more than the past revealed.” Let us not be content to rest in old glories. Let us not be tied to ways of doing and being because that is what we’ve always done or that is who we have always been. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? We may be blind and we may be deaf but we have eyes and we have ears and what a hopeful thing that is – to consider that God can cause us to see and cause us to hear! Haven’t we seen so much of God doing a new thing among us over the last 9 months? New ways of being together. New ways of turning toward God. Remember the former things of old. Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. Someone has described the point at which we need to not remember former things - “At the point where a nostalgic relation to tradition threatens to tie the people to their past and to (stifle) alertness to present realities, responsiveness to new opportunities, and the potential for growth into as yet-unrealized possibilities.”
How exciting! Alertness to present realities – standing with our head raised, alert, and praying. Responsive to new opportunities, potentially growing into as yet-unrealized possibilities. All in the impossible possibility of God. Who is with us? Who created and forms us. Who calls us by name. In whose sight we are precious. Who loves us. We may go into 2021 with a lot of question marks in our personal lives, in our professional lives, in our church lives. What have we to fear when we go with such a God as this?
Who brings new life. This is what we were made for. Love and praise of our God. Our God who brings life. We have in this passage a lot of images of things that evoke the opposite of life. Horse and chariot, wilderness, mighty waters. What are the same kind of images which assail us today? Lines of people waiting for food. Riot police. Natural disaster. Explosions. Shootings
In the midst of this God is transforming God’s world and we hear this promise – “I work and who can hinder it?” God calls us to take part. Someone has written, “The ultimate meaning of life has its source in the one God, the Creator, and Redeemer of all that is, who draws creation to wholeness through the lure of unbounded love…”
God calls us to take part in this restoring/transforming work. Let our gathering around the table this morning be the signal of our “Yes” to this call. Deaf though we may be. Blind though we may be; in God’s mercy we are transformed. May God help our eyes to see and our ears to hear. May God help us to make the ways of God known, to make the love of God known as we go about our days. We look forward to the day when that voice from the throne will say “Look I am making all things new.” There’s this great line here too about the wild animals honouring God too, the jackals and the ostriches because all were made for God’s glory and this transforming/restoring work of God is for all of creation.
We love him because he first loved us. Let us carry these words with us as go into 2021 friends – “Because you are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.” May we be resolute in desiring to know this love in a new and transforming way, that we might make it known in all we do and say. May these things be true for all of us. Amen.