Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“A New Thing”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 7, 2019
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: 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? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
I consider myself fortunate in my relationships of life. I had the best parents in the world; wonderful siblings who share in the task of assisting my father; a beautiful, wise, and compassionate spouse; two great daughters who have grown up to be beautiful, wise, and compassionate women; and four churches that produced wonderful friendships in our service of Christ together.
I also was extremely lucky in finding excellent relationships in my college years. There were at least ten of us who found ourselves randomly assigned to live with and together in third floor Bruske Hall at Alma College. While we had different backgrounds and interests we discovered that we shared similar values and during those four years we became an unofficial fraternity known as the “Commandos.” We were as brothers who played practical jokes on one another, things of which I cannot share in public. Yet we stood up for one another when it mattered most. Following our graduation from Alma, my friends dispersed to faraway places like California and North Carolina and South Dakota, Iran, and Utah. Yet we have made an effort to gather together each summer for a Commando Reunion. The past six years we have reunited at Higgins Lake for three days of cards, cornhole, croquet, and junk food.
In the years immediately following our graduation, every time we gathered together we would delight in telling stories about the past. It was the revisiting of legends and pranks that were the focus of our identity. It was our association of the past that defined us. Then there were a number of years when attending the reunion wasn’t so important. Life was more complicated for each of us with work and family and added responsibility. We still met every summer but it wasn’t always a must attend event.
Things have changed in the past seven to ten years. Yes, we eat less junk food and more fruits and vegetables. But I’ve noticed something else. My Commando brothers have made more of an effort to attend the reunion. While we still fondly recall the past, most of our conversation today is about what is happening in our present lives. We talk about more serious things like health issues, the death of parents, concerns with aging parents and adult children, and worries about jobs that were ending before we were ready for retirement. Between reunions we have had to reach out and provide wisdom and comfort and encouragement. One of my friends had a fall and broke his neck, needing months of rehabilitation. Another suffered a stroke that left him without use of his dominant arm and hand for nearly a year. With the use of texting and social media, I have found my college friends to be a source of support all through the year. It seems as if our identity is now more of a present encouragement rather than fond but entertaining memories of the past. Our relationship is working in places where it previously wasn’t needed to work.
Calvin Seminary’s Doug Bratt writes, “If we’re so busy remembering what God has done in the past, it may be difficult to muster any energy to imagine what God might do in the future. Think of friends you had in childhood but haven’t contacted since then. If you actually finally got together, what would it be easiest to talk about? The past. Yet for any kind of relationship to continue to flourish, it requires both a past and ongoing interaction…. God wants not just a history with God’s people, but also a future with us.”
We are creatures of habit. We like it when things remain as we know them to be, predictable, and under control. But we also know that life is not like that. Things change, even quicker than they ever have before. And we have less control over those things! One of the ways in which we try to deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life looking backwards. We glance over our shoulders to a time in which things were more like we wanted them to be. We hold onto ideal images as a source of comfort. When life gets overwhelming or when problems that seemingly have no solution arise, we look at the past with rose-colored glasses and believe that the only answer is to somehow get back there. Some of our leaders, past and present, have successfully appealed to voters with a plea to return to the ways things used to be and to find our greatness in revisiting actions and attitudes of the past. Callie Plunket-Brewton writes that perhaps we like to cling to that old adage of “the evil we know is better than the evil we don’t know.”
The prophet Isaiah preached to people who were much like us. They found their identity in what has already happened. They saw the power of God in times well past. Perhaps they had an even more difficult experience. The Babylonians had conquered the people of Judah sending them into exile. Now the Lord had raised Cyrus of Persia to defeat Babylon and return the exiles back to their native Jerusalem. Yet the return back from exile and the rebuilding of the city wasn’t as easy and painless as the people hoped. They felt devoid of God’s blessing. God did not appear to be working among them. Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be God’s covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Temple. They remembered and loved to retell the stories of what God had done in the past, making a way through the waters of the Red Sea and delivering the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. But they could not see any evidence of God doing anything in their present or certainly in their future.
Isaiah didn’t pull any punches. He preached that God says, “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? I will make a way in the wilderness.”
“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.” This seems rather harsh. Are we not to have any fondness for what has happened in the past? Are we not to consider and give thanks for the blessings of our heritage and history? I don’t believe that the prophet Isaiah was saying that. Rather I think that he was warning all of us who yearn for the “good old days” not to be defined or trapped in our memories. To dwell only on what God has already done is to possibly obscure what God can and will do. When we consider what we were in the past and yearn to return to that same place, we will miss the journey that God has placed before us in the present hour. Our God is the God of the new thing. If we expect God to act only in ways and in words that we heard before, based on our fond memories and comfortable answers, we run the risk of ignoring what God is all about right now. If we expect God to be only a God of settled assumptions, then we will fail to grow in the challenges that God places before us this very day.
It is interesting to note that Isaiah describes the place where God’s past and future actions intersect as the wilderness. It is a place of jackals and ostriches and wild animals. This is the place where God’s people wandered after leaving Egypt and before the Promised Land. This is the place where Jesus was tempted to be something other than God wanted him to be. The wilderness is a strange a threatening place, a place that we would just as soon avoid. Yet to find God’s presence perhaps we should consider our wildernesses where God’s past with us is coming together with God’s promise for us. Transitions. Illness. Fear. Doubt. Loss. Grief. These are deserts where God loves to work. How is God making living streams which link the faithfulness of the past to the possibilities of the future?
A young minister had recently arrived at her new church. She found no shortage of people who were willing to talk with her and give her advice about how the church should be run. They told her about the great heritage of the congregation’s past, about the traditions of worship and programming, about who the key leaders were and what she needed to do to maintain all that was good about their church. She was frequently assured that if she followed the advice that she was given, everything would go smoothly and she would do very well. But the young pastor was smart. After thanking each parishioner for the history lesson and the well intentioned advice, she asked them a question. “Tell me what new and exciting things you are expecting in the future for us at this church.” Usually, she was met with silence. Usually, as she expected, her parishioners could not imagine a future any different that their past. Their identity was totally immersed in what had happened and who they were.
“Look! I am about to do a new thing!” Don’t be stuck with the former things only. Don’t stand fast in believing only what is comfortable and certain. What new thing might God be about this very day? We must be getting ready because what God is doing may be something we don’t expect or had never thought of. The past is a good thing, but we cannot let our gaze to the past block our vision of tomorrow. The next time we find ourselves in a wilderness, or in a desert of life, we may well be in just the place where God is about to do a new thing.