By Sam Wells
I once was invited to address an annual meeting of a regional religious society. That meant before I got up to speak there was half an hour of the legal business of the organization to sit through. The chair received the secretary’s report; and once it had been digested, the chair said, “I need to tell you that our secretary has decided that it is time to stand down, and that, after eight years of loyal service, we shall be needing to look for a successor. Are there any nominations?” There were none.
Then it was time for the treasurer’s report. After the treasurer had shared the financial proceedings of the society the chair rose to say, “I need to tell you that our treasurer has decided that it is time to stand down, and that, after 15 years of loyal service, we shall be needing to look for a successor. Are there any nominations?” Again, there were none.
Finally it was time for the chair’s report. Once that was done, the chair said the unforgettable words, “I need to tell you that I too have decided that it is time to stand down. Are there any nominations?” I need hardly tell you that silence reigned in that village hall for the third time.
There’s a widespread feeling that such a story is a parable for the condition of the church in this country today. In the face of a pervading sense that the churches are being overtaken by changes in society, there seem to be three kinds of response.
One is a lament that things aren’t how they used to be. Sometimes it comes with a sense of entitlement that people should go to church, that the nation should take faith more seriously, that this is supposed to be a Christian country. Other times there’s just a longing for a notional bygone time when churches were always full and Sundays were dominated by Sunday schools and Easter was about an empty tomb rather than a chocolate egg.
A second response is one of frantic activity — an impulse to be so busy that the situation can be rectified through sheer determination and commitment. This implicitly assumes that the smaller footprint left by the churches on the nation’s soul is the churches’ fault, and can be alleviated by more concerted efforts and successful packages.
A third response is a kind of taciturn denial, a turning inward to concentrate on maintaining traditions and revering old ways, be it in ethics, dogmatic denial of difference, or curmudgeonly attitudes that assume change and decline are the same word.
I want to suggest to you that what all these three responses have in common is an assumption that there was a time in the near or distant past when the churches got it right, and by reasserting the known ways the church can remind itself of its identity and restore its strength.
I want to turn now to today’s reading from Isaiah chapter 43. Israel is in exile in Babylon. Everything is lost — the promised land, the king, the temple — and the key question is, has Israel lost absolutely everything, or does the covenant with God abide? In losing everything that identified it as Israel, has Israel also lost God?
During this profound period of reassessment of purpose and rediscovery of identity, Israel looked back at its history and came to understand both how, in the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the law at Mt. Sinai, God had created this nation and how the God who had done this was the same God who had created the world. Israel also traced the way that, since the time of Solomon, the nation had grown more and more faithless and had brought upon itself the destruction that finally came in the early sixth century B.C. By pondering its history, Israel found food for repentance but also for hope.
And only in that context can we begin to grasp how extraordinary these words from Isaiah chapter 43 really are. They start in a very familiar way: “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.” Like many Old Testament prophecies, they don’t just call God “God,” they locate God as the one who acted in history to bring Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, to freedom and into covenant relationship forever.
But now we get two lines that are almost unprecedented in the Old Testament. The first goes like this: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Really? This seems to go against the whole of the Old Testament law. Because if you think of Deuteronomy, for example, probably the one word that occurs more than any other is the command to “remember.”
Israel’s relationship with God is founded on gratitude — and gratitude is fundamentally about remembering. But here Isaiah says, “Do not remember.” “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Surely Isaiah can’t be saying Israel should go against everything it’s been taught about how to remain faithful to God?
Well, yes and no. When it says “Do not remember” here, it means, “Do not so fix your thoughts that you can’t see anything else; don’t be so preoccupied with the great things God has done and the terrible things you have done that you leave no room for receiving further information.” It’s not completely demolishing everything Israel has ever been taught.
Imagine it this way. Suppose you had a very precious item of pottery, and you’re looking at it smashed on the floor into several pieces, too many to reassemble. And along comes somebody with another item of pottery for you, more delicate and more beautiful and more wonderful than the one whose demise you are pondering.
No one’s saying don’t be sad about the first item of pottery: they’re just saying, don’t let your grief over that original item prevent you seeing this new and glorious gift coming your way. That’s what God is saying to Israel through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah right here. Look what the next words are: “I am about to do a new thing.”
Feel the force of these words. Take a deep breath and appreciate the wonder of what Isaiah is saying. Here’s the point. I said earlier that every form of reaction to the condition of the church today seems to assume that somehow some generations ago the church got it right, and that we need to try to recover that thing, whatever it was, and restore those great days.
And that’s just one way in which religion in general and Christianity in particular gets into the habit of assuming its job is to hold on to the things of old as long as hard as it can until inevitably we eventually have to let go. Our technology should be like it used to be, our sexual ethics should be like they used to be, our worship should get back to former language and our architecture should return to ancient ways.
It’s like the church is a permanent road sign pointing back in the direction we’ve come from, with no expectation or instruction or enjoyment of anything that lies ahead. We turn God into a big-sounding word that really means no more than “Can we please go back to yesterday?” and heaven into a recreation of circumstances from an earlier chapter in our history.
But God says, “I am about to do a new thing.” It turned out the new thing wasn’t 100 percent different from the old thing. Last time God created a dry path through the sea that divided Egypt and the promised land; this time God is going to make a river through the desert that divided Babylon from the promised land.
Isaiah is challenging Israel and saying, “All that you know about God should be preparing you to recognize this new thing God is going to do. It’s up to you: are you going to keep staring down at the broken pot and lamenting the shattered dream, or are you going to lift up your head and see this new gift and respond to it?”
Isaiah is challenging today’s Church in just the same way. Are we going to be so certain we know what church should be like, so determined to reconstruct something along the models of yesteryear, so adamant in holding on to our notions of a past golden era, that we can’t see the new and precious gift God is offering us?
Is a part of us cross because God was supposed to be our trump card in trying to turn back the clock and now God is proving an unreliable partner in reducing the world to what we can understand and control? “I am about to do a new thing.” Are we secretly thinking we’d rather hang our heads in despair and pen poignant poems about exile than have to adapt to a God who is way out ahead of us and preparing a new future?
In the end we can’t hide behind the Church. The challenge is for each one of us, whatever our age or background, whether we are comfortable or struggling, happy or sad. Listen, listen this morning, deep in your heart, to these unsettling words from God, “I am about to do a new thing.” Whatever the cause of the furrows on your brow, be it health or a relationship, work or finances, a life too full or an existence too empty, hear God saying to you right here, right now, “I am about to do a new thing.” Maybe not for you: maybe in you.
Be renewed in your faith in a God in whom the future is always bigger than the past. Praise the God who as Ephesians tells us “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” This is not the end of the story of what God is doing with you and in you. God has only just begun. God says, “I am about to do a new thing.” A new thing in you.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells is vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.