Putting the Brakes On. Lent 5
Isaiah 43: 16 – 21; Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old, writes Isaiah [Is 43:18]. That’s a strange thing to write for a prophet steeped in the history and traditions of the Faith. Isaiah is quoting God. Even so the question arises as to why God would say this. Surely that is what the people of God do; remember the things God has done in the past. Each Sunday we remember the tradition of the Faith and once a month celebrate Holy Communion, which recalls Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before he was crucified. Jesus told us to remember the meal and repeat it. What might these words mean – Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old ? This statement is immediately followed with these words. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? [Is 43:19]
I think that if we exchanged the word ‘remember’ with ‘rely on’ it might make more sense to us. What I understand God is saying is that we should not think the future will be like the past. The future will be new. Don’t get so locked into the past that all you are prepared to accept is the old way of seeing and doing. God is doing a new thing. That was the message to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. All was not lost. What had happened to those Jerusalem exiles was the loss of their Temple. In those days people thought their ‘god’ resided in the temple. If the temple was destroyed where was their ‘god’? What God gave these Judean exiles was not a new temple but the Synagogue system that allowed them to worship wherever there were ten men gathered. We take that for granted, but for them it was revolutionary. It was a completely new concept of worshipping. We have no other examples of this in other societies of that time.
This notion of not letting the past restrict our vision of the future underpins Paul’s argument in his letter to the Church in Philippi. Philippi was a purpose built city for retiring Roman officials and soldiers. It was very much a Roman city. Paul visits Philippi. He is gaoled there and miraculously is set free from his chains [Acts 16:16ff]. The Philippian gaoler becomes a convert to Christ. The other significant convert is a woman. Paul on arriving in Philippi goes to the Kenides river because he has heard about a prayer meeting held there. There he meets Lydia, a seller of purple. She sounds rather ordinary: a woman merchant with a small material shop. Well, no! Purple was the cloth for the rich. The process of dying the material purple was expensive. Lydia being named as a seller of purple suggests two things to us. She was wealthy and she was significant. Indeed the Philippian church met in her home. Scholars generally take it that she was a leader in the Philippian church.
Having said all that about the Philippian church, let us go back to Paul. Paul’s ministry was attacked and especially in Philippi. It seems most likely that Paul was being accused of misleading people because he was not applying the full Jewish Law to new converts. One of the issues was that male Gentiles should be circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Paul’s response is illuminating. Paul claims to be fully Jewish. Let’s hear him again.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection … [Phil 3: 4b-10a].
Paul’s statement hardly needs commentary. He is saying that the new thing God has done in Christ Jesus surpasses everything else. Now Paul does not reject the Jewish tradition. On the contrary he acknowledges and follows it, but he does not slavishly follow it. He recognises that the way to God is through Christ Jesus and not through the Law. His experience of Christ Jesus determines how he understands the past.
These two passages are relevant to us. They tell us that from time to time we inevitably uncover new ways of worship and new ways of following Christ Jesus. Sometimes the new ways are significant at other times the new way is merely seeing the Faith differently. These passages are very relevant to us because of the different situation the Church is in today. These passages remind us to be open to God’s new way so we might perceive and embrace God’s future. We need to ask what is the new thing God is doing? I’m not sure, but I am prepared to face it.
Firstly let us reflect on how we hang on to the past. Constantly we are longing for God’s future in the ways of the past. Listen to our conversations. We are so pleased that we have children in our worship service. Part of the pleasure is that they represent the future of the church to many. Well I am delighted to minister to these children and their parents, just because they are children. But they are not the future of the church, not in the sense that the Church’s survival depends on them. On the contrary, in the 50s and 60s we had children everywhere in the church, but they were not the future of the church. The future of the church lay in the hands of just a few – those people who placed their lives in the hands of Christ Jesus – YOU! They were both the young and old at the time. To be even more correct, the future of the Church lies in God’s hands, and God looks to work with the faithful. God will work with those who repent – those who turn to God. From a human point of view the Church’s future doesn’t lie with the children in our midst, but with us, our faithfulness and our openness to God’s future.
It follows that if God is doing a new thing tomorrow’s church will not necessarily look like today’s church. Yet the church’s conversation continues to hanker for the re-visitation of the old. I haven’t been as long in the Church as some of you have been, but I have been in full-time ministry for 51 years. What I envisaged my future would be as a minister is only partly like it actually is. The past only partly determines the future of the Church. The Church’s future lies in God’s hands. If you have noticed I have gently pushed us to be a little more flexible with our furniture, our music and more adventurous with our technology. I want to change things around so we can experience some small changes. But responses are slow at times, or show passive resistance. I am not claiming what I am doing is the future. But it is an attempt to help us be more open to change, for change is one thing I do guarantee will happen. And it doesn’t help when we see the future solely through the lens of the past. In fact seeing the future through the lens of the past may be the very reason why the future may pass us by.
It is also important to note what Isaiah and Paul are saying. It is clearer in Paul. Paul had a change of heart. His faith was no longer about a heritage of faith, but based on an experience of Jesus. There is a danger in letting our faith be solely defined by religious practices, traditions, habits and connections. Our conversations focus on family connections to ministers, high profile Christians, and length of service, on choirs or Sunday School. Note that Paul in spite of his knowledge and experience, he only talks about Christ Jesus. N.T. Wright’s translation of the Philippian letters expresses it well. “I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together (e.g. choirs, council membership, service clubs etc.)! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, … . This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. [Phil 4:6-10]
Our faith begins with our relationship with God in Christ Jesus. And because it is a relationship and not a code of behaviour we are following, there will be changes. Relationships are dynamic and they grow. With growth change is inevitable. If we are serious with God then we will change individually and together. To view the future through the lens of the past will only lead to our demise.
I believe God wants us to be open to the new things God is doing. God wants to introduce us to the new! Let go and let God begin God’s future with us now.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 07/04/2019