God's New Thing

Reading: Isaiah 43.16-21
Do you have any heirlooms at your place? Probably most of us have some old things that are worn and tatty, due for replacement. But heirlooms are irreplaceable. Some may be quite valuable, but their value to us is far more than their valuation. They are treasured and given an honourable place.

I don't think we have that sort of heirloom. However, we do have some old school exercise books, handwritten by my great-grandfather - fragile, irreplaceable.

So much modern furniture will never become an heirloom. It serves its purpose. When worn out, it needs to be thrown out.

A few years ago in Brisbane, one of our members had 32 centimetres of water through her house in a minor flood (that was, by the way a couple of centimetres more than she had in the big 1974 flood). She had had some very nice-looking furniture - chipboard with a timber-grain finish. Alas! It didn't take much water to ruin it!

I remember visiting a couple in Brisbane who were renovating their third house. When complete, they were planning to sell it and buy another run-down house to renovate.

Some second-hand shops use the slogan "new to you". True, there's always a good deal of wear left. There can be delight in your bargain and in some item you didn't have before. But it isn't really "as good as new", no matter what they say.

Remembering

There was discouragement for the Lord's faithful people. Bleak years of exile clearly lay ahead. The tide of the Lord's judgment was turning on the land - the failure of the majority to follow the Lord would have dire consequences.

Times were better once - the "good old days"! Their feast days were a graphic reminder of the Lord's deliverance and blessing in the past - especially the Passover and their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Yes, that was the beginning of the process by which the tribes became a nation.

And now the same God addresses them, "This is what the Lord says - he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick…" (Is. 43.16-17). Back then God had acted on their behalf in a new way, a unique way. O for the good old days! If God was with us today as he was with us then, all this disaster wouldn't come upon us!

Truth is, of course, that, if things were different now and the prospects bleak, it wasn't that God had changed or moved away. There needed to be a restoration in their relationship with the Lord. In Isaiah 1.18, we hear the Lord's call, "Come now, let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool".

And in our churches today we hear the yearning for the good old days. We know we can't go back, yet… Things were much better once. The church was full every week. We had a big Sunday School and an active youth group… We had a sense that "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world".

And the same God addresses us, "I am here - the God of the good old days, the God of the now, the God of the future".

The question is whether we yearn for the good old days and fail to put our trust in the God whose blessing we sensed then and who is still with us. That is why the Lord said to them - and says to us - "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past" (v. 16).

That doesn't mean it is bad to remember the past. After all, the Lord had directed them to keep the Passover (Ex. 12.14ff). The problem was that they remembered the events of the Passover and forgot the God of the Passover.

A New Thing

The Lord says to forget the former things because, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise" (Is. 43.19-21).

A new thing? The old renovated? Just "new to you"? Not at all! A new thing! To escape from Egypt, their forebears had needed "a way through the sea". To return from exile required "a way in the desert". Yet in another sense, God's "new thing" would be renovation - a restoration of their faith, a renewal of things as they were meant to be.

It was just fine to be the Lord's "chosen people" and to live in a "promised land". They clung onto that, even in gloomy days. The Jews still hang onto it tenaceously today - strong in their conviction that God has chosen them, adamant about their right to the land. All of that is background to the present conflict between Palestinian and Jew.

The problem arises when there is a recognition of God's choice but a failure to heed his call. In Genesis 12 we hear the call toAbraham, "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing" (Gen. 12.2). It is the theme of the Bethel Bible Series - "blessed to be a blessing". Too often they wanted to be blessed but were unwilling to be a blessing. The Lord had formed his chosen people "that they may proclaim my praise" (Is. 43.21).

So - hold onto your hats - the Lord is doing a new thing. The restoration is going to happen. There will be a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The Lord will give drink to his people - chosen and called.

From time to time I have heard someone say, "I really love the Uniting Church!" I confess to a sense of disquiet whenever I have heard that said of any denomination. The question is, Do we love the Lord of the church? The issue should never be, How are we responding to the programmes and ideas that are emanating from "head office"? but, How are we responding to the Lord's call in our lives -and in our life together as a community of faith - day by day?

Don't get me wrong! I'm not putting down denominations as such or the creative ideas that believing people in head offices may generate. It's just that we have this very real danger of thinking that, because we are "Uniting" (or whatever) we are uniquely special to God - the danger of settling down as the chosen people yet failing to hear and heed the call of our Lord.

The Uniting Church is in its twenty-seventh year - no claims to be an heirloom! Perhaps twenty-seven years ago we hoped and believed we might be God's "new thing". Rather arrogant if we thought so, and yet… I sensed at that time a desire and willingness to be open to the biblical basics of our faith in a fresh new way. We didn't want to be tied to the old just because it was long-standing tradition. We wanted to be open afresh and directly to God's way. But then - chipboard and melamine looks good at first, but doesn't stand the distance in the long-term.

We aren't meant to be a bit of furniture - old or new. The Lord means his people to be open to him continually - whatever their ecclesiastical "brand-name". He is already at work doing his new thing. He wants us to understand that we are not only chosen, but called - and sent!

When Jesus called us "the light of the world", he said, "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Mt. 5.16).After the resurrection, he told his disciples, "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1.8).

Jesus made it quite clear that we aren't chosen so we can feel warm and privileged. We are chosen to fulfil a calling - to shine his light in the world, to be his witnesses. It calls to mind those words in Isaiah - "the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise" (Is. 43.21). I believe we will see the Lord's "new thing" when we are open to fulfil our calling in Christ.


© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 28 March 2004
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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