Could God Be Doing A New Thing?
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126
The setting: Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the mid-1980s. For forty nears, the Czechs have languished under a godless and tyrannical government. Individual achievement is being stifled; wages are meager; hope for renewal among the people and their government is all but gone. The Church has been oppressed into a meaningless vestige of its original stature. The church bells never ring. The Communists have even overcome God, it seems. Has God forgotten his people?
Let's go back to a different setting. It is 570 B.C. in Judah, the surviving kingdom of the Hebrew people. Although no longer a world power, the people had their proud heritage of faith in the one God. Hadn't God brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand? Hadn't God parted the waters of the Red Sea, and led their forbears safely across? Hadn't God led them safely through the long wilderness wanderings to the Promised Land?
In the 6th century B.C. the Hebrews were not large on the world stage. But at least they had their faith in God; they had the rituals of the faith; they had the temple; they had their traditions. Surely God would protect them from harm.
All of that was thirty years before. Now, the whole world had come crashing in on God's chosen people. The greatest power in all the world, Babylon, had invaded their homeland, defeated their army, and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and their great temple.
Now, all was lost. The people of God had been carted off to servitude in Babylon. Since they didn't have the temple, no priest performed the sacrifices anymore. They had no place to gather for worship. They had no stomach for singing the Lord's song in a foreign land. Their hopes for the future as a people, their hope in God, their desire to hold their heads high and walk the byways of their own land—was lost. It was fruitless to think that they could ever go home again. God had punished them for their sins. It seemed that God had banished them forever from the land of promise. Had God forgotten his people?
We change venue once again. It is late in the year 2000 A.D. Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, is conducting a course entitled "Churches in Transition." Attending that course are several pastors and laypeople.
The churches represented mostly do not have an upbeat story to tell. Perhaps that is to be expected; those churches with an "upbeat story" do not feel the need for this kind of learning experience. By and large, the attendees have come to the course hoping for some key that will help them to have a revitalized church. Most of the participants have to admit that they do not have high expectations for their church. They might be hoping for a miracle, but they aren't expecting one. Most likely, they are not expecting God to do a new thing among them! They are wondering—has God forgotten his people?
Sometimes, in today's worship services, we seem to imply that all of God's glory days are in the dim, dark past. God is the "Ancient of Days," the mighty One who has acted in the past…but only in the past.
Let's go back to the earliest of the three venues I spoke of earlier: the Hebrews held captive under the oppressive hand of mighty Babylon. As I have suggested, many of the people had no doubt given up all hope of ever returning to their homeland again. Likely many of the Hebrews had even given up on God, given up on the practice of their faith.
Then along came the Prophet Isaiah. This optimistic prophet has some startling things to say, as he speaks for Almighty God.
Verse 16: Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.
Isaiah reminds the people: When our forbears were coming out of Egyptian captivity, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that our people could cross the mighty waters on dry land. And that's not all!
Verse 17: Who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior: they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
The prophet goes on: After our people had crossed over the mighty waters on dry land, the pursuing Egyptian army followed after them. Then God—who was holding back the waters—allowed the waters to resume their normal level. The pursuing army was drowned, and our people were saved.
But then the prophet says something unexpected.
Verse 18: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
That's surprising, because time and again the prophet has called on the people to remember God's mighty acts in the past. Now Isaiah is telling them to forget all that.
Well…not exactly. The people should not completely forget the great things that God has done. But they do need to realize that the things of old are about to diminish in importance because…
Verse 19: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Don't you imagine that the people could hardly believe what the prophet was saving`?
"Listen, Isaiah, do you mean to tell us that God is going to free us from the hand of the Babylonians, allow us to return to our homeland and, in the parched and barren desert between here and there, provide water along the way? Isaiah, you must be mistaken about what God is saying; it sounds like a pipe dream. We don't see any way that such a thing could happen!
“Why, we don't have enough people, we don't have enough weapons. There's no way we could defeat the mighty army of Babylon. Surely they're not going to release us of their own free will! The Babylonians like having us here to do all their routine chores, to be their servants. They are going to keep us here forever. Whatever plan God had for us in the future is forever thwarted. That's the end of it! I believe that God did mighty things in the old days. But God is not going to do a new thing. Not any more.”
Time after time after time, God's people suffer from lowered expectations.
But not long after Isaiah uttered this prophecy, God began to do a new thing. A mighty nation invaded Babylon and defeated them. The conquering king, Cyrus, gave permission for the Hebrew people to return to their homeland. God had done a mighty work in a way that the Hebrew people could never have imagined. As God's people began to go back home, God gave not only a way in the wilderness; but also water in the wilderness. Not only that, but God also raised up leaders to inspire and direct the people in the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls and temple. What God did was so wonderful that the people didn't have to keep remembering the things of old. They could focus on what God was doing right then and there!
We note in passing that—even though God did a mighty work to free the people—there remained much work for God's faithful people to do.
Let's pick up again the story of Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. For decades they had been in the iron grip of a godless Communist regime. Many of the people thought it would always be this way. The Christians in that land—deprived of true freedom to worship—must have thought that God had forgotten them. They must have thought that all God's great actions were in the past.
But then new political leaders began to emerge in the Soviet Union. There was a surprising openness to truthfulness, an openness to different ways of thinking. The wishes of the people began to be taken into consideration, even respected. In time, tyrannical governments began to disintegrate, and power was returned to the people.
A dramatic sign of this new liberty took place in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on November 27, 1989. Bear in mind that the church bells in that city had not rung—not even once—in 45 years. But on this day, at noon, every- church bell in the whole country began to ring. The pigeons were startled. The people were startled. There were tears of joy on many a face.
A sign was placed in front of one of the churches in Prague. It read simply, “The Lamb Wins.”1
God was doing a new thing. Again.
>From our vantage point of hindsight, we might want to look down our noses at those who have not been able to envision God's doing a new thing in their situation. But are we any better than they? It is so hard to expect a miracle. It's so hard to understand that God has possibilities beyond our feeble imagination and faltering faith. “Pointing to sin or to problems is all too easy, writes Susan Bond. “Sketching the new future is not; certainly [this is] one reason why prophetic speech regularly leans toward the utopian and poetic.”2
People who haven’t spent much time in a desert will often describe the desert as “empty.” But, in reality, deserts are full of life. There are cactus flowers, manzanita, and all kinds of spiders and insects living just under the ground’s surface. And after a sudden thunderstorm, rocks and earth that usually look dead will burst forth with color. As Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has said, “The message of the desert is stark and emphatic: what looks like death and emptiness can bring forth life and fullness.”3
We need to be able to look at the barren deserts of our lives, and—in our eyes of faith—see the life and fullness that God can bring. I am focusing primarily on nations and other groups of people today, as opposed to individuals. We've looked at what God did for the Hebrew people captive in Babylon. We've also thought about the Christian folk in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. In both cases, God did a marvelous “new-thing.” We have one more venue to consider, one more group—this church. Could it be that God will do a new thing with this church?
When you look into the future of this church, what do you see? Look 20 years ahead…30 years ahead. What do you see? Do you see a church vibrant and alive, serving the Lord and others in significant ways, or do you see a church in gradual decline? The passage we study today speaks to that very issue, does it not? You don't suppose God could do a new thing with this church, do you?
The problem with most of us, when we look to the future, is this: we tend to look from the standpoint of human possibilities, human achievement. We look at our resources, we imagine what we can do with who we are and what we have, and we make a projection. Such a projection is not a look of faith. It does not consider the possibility that God could do a new thing among us, here in this church.
A little book, The Prayer of Jabez, has become quite popular in this country. It is one of those rare Christian books that made it to the New York Times bestseller list. We know very little about Jabez. In the book of 1 Chronicles, the fourth chapter—nestled in among the genealogies—are just two verses about him. The verses are so obscure that most Bible students have never even heard the name of Jabez.
But the name of Jabez is becoming known around here. One of the circles has used the book in a study, and our men’s group will discuss it at its next gathering. I’d like to say just a little about Jabez's prayer in connection with our thoughts about this church. Jabez prayed, in part:
Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! (1 Chr 4:l0b) These words have been variously translated as follows:
Oh, that you would wonderfully bless me and help me in my work…or this one:
Bless me and give me much influence in my home, my work, our church…and in other areas of my work and play.
Do you see the idea? If this interpretation is correct, and I think it is, then Jabez was not asking for more of this world's goods so that he could live in the lap of luxury. Jabez wanted God to give him more responsibility so that he could better serve God.
That's what we need to do in this church, except we need to change from the singular to the plural. We need to say to God: “Oh, that you would bless us and enlarge our territory!”
We need to believe that God can do a new thing among us…something we can’t see based on our own strength and resources…something that God will do over and above anything we could do by ourselves. Some of us are already starting to stretch our faith in this way.
People around here say that—when this church building was being built here on Irwinville Highway—this congregation really pulled together in a mighty way. There was great esprit de corps: a sense of mission, a sense of belonging. There was a focus, something significant, something to rally around. We don't need a building program today. But maybe what we need is some new focus of ministry, something to give us identity, something to rally around as a congregation. If that is a key, I don't yet know what that focus of ministry could be. But that doesn't mean that God will not give us one.
I urge you to pray for this church often, as I do. In faith, ask God to enlarge our territory. In faith, ask God to do a new thing among us. Let's look forward in faith to what God will do.
R. Don Cooke
1. Haddon W. Robinson, "The Lamb Wins," Our Daily Bread, 9/1/XX, (Grand Rapids: RBC Ministries).
2. Susan L. Bond, "Preaching the Lesson," Lectionary Homiletics (April 2001), p. 5.
3. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, "Lesson and the Arts," Lectionary Homiletics (April 2001), p. 3.