Monday, January 06, 2014

December 29, 2013 - God Is Doing A New Thing

Isaiah 43:1-3a, 18-19

I have to confess that my brain is a bit slow at coming back online.  The Advent season went by in a blur, but it was certainly a great and meaningful time.

How do we get from the beginning of a year to the ending so quickly?  Didn’t we just begin the year? 

Some of you may be happy to bring 2013 to a conclusion, as you faced great challenges.  Others, perhaps, had a year so full of blessing they are sad to see it end.

In my continuing quest to be more organized (which is largely vain attempt), I am a compulsive list maker.  At the beginning of each week I create a list of everything I need to do by day and by category.  Unfortunately, I often add more things to my list during the week that I delete.  Sometimes, I wait until I’ve completed a task before I add it to my list, just so I can immediately scratch it off.  I do realize that’s a bit questionable.  Because I make so many lists, I enjoy reading the end-of-the-years lists. 

Along with the usual lists of what happened in the past year, I read a list about the technological trends that will most impact our lives in the coming year.  Technological advances certainly bring some benefits to our lives, but technological progress and new technologies are neither a guarantee nor a predictor of spiritual progress.  In fact, it seems that some of our technological progress hinders our spiritual growth and development.  For all of our electronic connectivity, for example, it seems as though we are less connected to one another on a personal and spiritual level.

This morning, we read from the prophet Isaiah, and as we do I would like us to consider that God Is Doing A New Thing.  New things are not only coming from engineering offices or computer companies, but new things are coming from God as well.  I would add that the most significant changes and new dynamics in our world today are of the spirit rather than technology, and it will be the spiritual changes that will hold the promise of bringing love and peace to our world.  A new move of God will change human hearts and allow this to happen, not a new phone or computer technology.

Isaiah 43:1-3a, 18-19 –

But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: 
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
 When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
 I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

Can such ancient words bring a real hope for change in our world?  Can words from such a distant era bring evidence that God is doing a new thing in today’s world?

The passage from Isaiah was written in a time after the people of God were allowed to return home after decades of captivity in the nation of Babylon.  The words are interesting, because it’s almost as though God is re-introducing himself to his people.

But it’s not just a reintroduction; it’s a promise that he is doing something new amongst them, within them, and through them.  There is also implied need of patience, and we’ll see that in each of the points in this morning’s message.

God Is Doing A New Thing in the Church (the church universal, that is).
On Christmas Eve the Indianapolis Star published an article about Englewood Christian Church, which has a very interesting story.

Several decades ago Englewood church enjoyed attendance of over 1,000 people, but today a good Sunday’s attendance will not reach 200.  As the neighborhood changed around the church, the church went into decline.

But the decline was merely numerical, and something happened that proves the measure of a healthy church has little to do with numbers.

Seventeen years ago Englewood church began having Sunday evening conversations, where the church would gather to talk about what kind of church God wanted them to be.  Out of those conversations, and listening to where the Spirit was leading, Englewood church became a very different kind of church.  Over the past fifteen years they have transformed their community.  They operate one of the highest rated preschools in the city of Indianapolis.  They have fully remodeled forty homes and repaired another two hundred.  They converted a building into a thirty-two unit apartment building, one-third of which houses people who were previously homeless.  They fund microbusinesses and are working on the founding of a school and a senior living facility.  All of this, and more, when they could have been content to accept their numerical decline as an ending to ministry.  By the measurement of attendance one could make the claim they are in decline, but the reality is that Englewood is finding God doing a new thing in its ministry and serves as living proof of what Jesus says in John 12:24 – Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  Sometimes, a church has to die in some capacity for it to really live. 

It takes a great deal of patience waiting on the new thing God will birth in a church, but I am absolutely, completely convinced that God is doing a new thing in the life of the church in our age.  What some people define as decline in many places is the kernel of wheat falling to the ground so many other seeds may grow.  Patience is required as God brings this new thing into existence, but make no mistake – God is certainly doing a new thing in the life of the church.

God Is Doing A New Thing In Others.
I think I can say with a great deal of certainty that we need patience as we deal with people.  I think I can also say that what we see of others is not the true reality of their lives.   How many times have you been very surprised at something you learned about the life of another person, to the point that you said I had no idea they were dealing with such a difficult matter?

It’s interesting dealing with people, isn’t it?  And one of the reasons why it’s so interesting is because we don’t know the realities of their lives.  I often hear people talk about their desire to be like someone else.  They believe the other person lives an ideal life.  They have a great job, a great marriage, and a great home.  From the outside, everything appears perfect.  But the reality may be very different.  What appears perfect on the outside may, in reality, be a life that is falling apart.  At other times, we deal with someone who reacts very negatively to us, or yell at us, when the reality is they are not yelling at us, but a situation in their lives.  I listened to someone the other day tell a story about one of their coworkers.  The coworker was difficult to deal with, and very hard on everyone in the office.  Eventually, one of the coworkers approached this person and asked what they had done to deserve such harsh outbursts.  The reaction was quite surprising.  The person who dealt so harshly with everyone in the office quickly became very emotional and poured out a litany of struggles and failures in her life.  Obviously, she was not yelling at her coworkers; she was yelling at the struggles in her life.

It takes patience to deal with others, but patience is required because they are not yet where God wants them to be, but neither are we where God desires us to be.  God is doing a new thing in others, and we need to remember that because God is dealing with them in a redemptive way, so must we.

God Is Doing A New Thing In You.
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over the years is a variation of this one – How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?  Most of the time, when people ask that question it has to do with vocation – does God want me to be a teacher or an engineer or an accountant?  It’s not that I think one’s vocation is unimportant, but I don’t believe that is God’s greatest concern about our lives.

I believe God is most concerned with whether or not we are people of love, grace, and compassion than what job title is attached to our lives.

Whatever we might be experiencing in life, I think it is important to ask, what might God be doing in my life?  Even through our difficulties, which we try so hard to avoid, but they may become tools God uses to be doing something new in our lives.

Some years ago I took a break from school.  I had finished a semester of seminary and felt like I needed a break.  I found a job that paid my bills, but it was not a job that I liked; in fact, I couldn’t stand the job.  For one, it required me to be at work very early in the morning, and I’m not a morning person.  The job required me to carry parts to a group of people working on a packing line, and they were paid according to how many boxes they packed.  It was difficult to keep up with them, but if I fell behind and they had to wait it cost them money, which they did not like.  So much of my day was spent listening to them telling me to keep moving quickly so they would not run out of any parts.  At the time, all I could do was dream of a better job.  I was very impatient to find something “better.”  What I realized, some time later, was that it was one of the most important jobs I ever had.  In my impatience, all I could see was a job that had no relevance to my life beyond paying my bills.  What I finally realized was that God was doing a very important work in my life through that job.  What appeared to be my worst job may in reality, have been my most important.

Never forget that God is doing a new thing.  Though we may not see it – either in the church, in others, or ourselves, know that God is always at work, and always doing something new.

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