Welcome, friends! We are to honor the past, without getting stuck in it. God is presently working now, today, to accomplish good purposes in the church and the world through change. Click the videos below to explore further!…
May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be confident knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us. Amen.
This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: “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. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise. (New International Version)
Judgment and Ruin
The prophecy of Isaiah spans sixty-six chapters; it is a large book portraying a large God who is in control of the nations and holds them accountable for their decisions and actions. Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah contain a lot of scathing judgments. God is pictured as the one true Judge who is not only grieved over the sins of the pagan nations, but especially over the sin of God’s people, Israel.
As a result of Israel’s refusal to recognize their errant ways and turn to the Lord, God sent the Babylonians to Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar tore down the city wall, took all the implements from the temple, and carried off the youngest and brightest people into exile to Babylon.
Grace and Mercy
Israel was ruined. But that is not the end of the story. In chapters 40-66 of Isaiah, rather than judgment dominating the prophecy, grace and mercy are liberally spoken. Although Israel deserved their exile, God would step in and return them back to the land.
The Lord will bring them back to Jerusalem, yet it will not be easy. The long journey home will be full of obstacles to overcome and deserts to cross. They will need to walk in a caravan stretching over five-hundred miles (like walking from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lincoln, Nebraska). That’s about four months of walking over harsh terrain, desert, and dangers from thieves and wild animals.
Yet, God will care for them, making a way through the desert, providing water, commanding animals to keep away, and causing growth to spring up from the desert for their pack animals to eat.
God Was Doing Something New
No longer could Israel only rely on looking back to the exodus out of Egypt. They had been doing that for a thousand years. Now, they have to deal with God in the present moment and take a walk of faith filled with uncertainty and hazards.
The Israelites would be vulnerable in their walk to Jerusalem. It was a scary prospect for them. God was telling his people to forget the “good old days” of the exodus because he is doing a work right now in the present that requires their faith and action.
Isaiah insisted that the people must commit their ways to the God who is calling them to a new journey. They are to be present and mindful to what God is doing now. God is doing a new thing, so forget clinging to the familiar past and strive to live in the here and now.
It’s easy for people to get stuck in the past. One of the reasons we get stuck is that we do not lament our losses. Being present to God does not mean refusing to deal with what happened in the past; it means lamenting our losses in the present so that the past does not control us.
You and I are not the same people we were twenty years ago. The institutions we care about are not the same. Some of the people we have cared the most about in our lives are not here anymore. Only you and I are here, now, in this present moment. There is no alternate reality or some multiverse in which things are different. That means we must deal with today.
The Good Old Days
The Israelites did not grieve well. They kept looking back to a golden age when they came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land. And when things began to break down in Israel and in Judah, they kept looking back instead of dealing with God in the present.
Rather than lamenting their losses, they just wished things were different. Whenever anyone or any group fails to grieve a significant loss or change, then the ghosts of the past roam everywhere. No one can effectively move into the future unless they confront the stark reality that things have changed; we cannot turn the clock back to halcyon days.
Things can be better. But that will not happen apart from doing the hard work of identifying denial of the way things presently are, confronting the anger, stopping the bargaining with God, addressing the depression, and coming out the other side coping in a healthy way with the new reality.
The Israelites were in exile. It was not their new normal. It was their present station of history. God was ready to take them back to Jerusalem. Yet, they were stuck in depression. Jerusalem would never be the same city again. The people had to resolve their inner spiritual tension in order to accept it. Acceptance is not cheap; it takes a difficult journey to get to that point.
A healthy way of viewing the past is to see ancient miracles, like the exodus, re-enacted in fresh ways for the present. I know a guy who asked his newlywed wife a question after they got married, “What are we going to talk about for the rest of our lives?” The thought of living together for decades had him curious and a bit scared.
The man’s wife wisely replied, “I think we will talk about whatever happens each day.” Ah, there is the truth about relationships: They happen in the present. Good relationships are built on daily experiences. The newness of each day keeps the relationship alive and exciting. Couples that don’t continue to experience each other in fresh new ways lose the joy and enthusiasm of their relationship.
When folk no longer experience God in creative, new, and fresh ways in the present, they are limited by their memories of what God once did, back there, in the past.
God Is Alive Today
A God who is hermetically sealed in the past becomes an interesting person to be theologically studied and learned about, like any character from history. However, today, God is alive! Now, in the present, God wants to do a new thing! We need present-tense stories of God so that others know the relevance of the Lord in the here and now.
God is most definitely changeless in character and attributes. Yet, that does not mean God is averse to change and new things. In fact, God’s work is to effect transformation in the lives of people who need redemption and new life. The God I serve is anything but boring, lifeless, careless, or uninteresting.
The proof that something is alive is that it grows, develops, changes, and matures. The new plants in our gardens and fields are undergoing astonishing growth and development. What they are like now is quite different than what they will look like in August and even different than October.
New, different, creative, and exciting things need to happen in the church and in the world today, in the present. Whenever those things do not happen, people will believe that God is dead, does not care, or does not exist. Because God is alive and works in the present, the Church is to be alive with spiritual momentum, biblical drive, and Christian proactive love.
Showing Others What God Is Like
People everywhere need an accurate picture of God portrayed for them. That is why the church exists – to show people what God is really like, what he looks like here in the present. Here is a question I often ask people, both Christian and non-Christian: “What is your picture of God? What is God like?”
I have gotten all kinds of answers to those questions. And I have discovered that many people picture God as a harsh Judge who is stern and always unhappy about something. I have found that many picture God as distant, boring, and unsympathetic with the problems of this world.
Many people generally disdain any organized religion, viewing the church as distorting God, and caring more about buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew, rather than the poor, the disadvantaged, and the pressing issues of our day.
Jesus As the Picture of God
If people are continually underwhelmed by Church, they will not be overwhelmed by God. Looking at Jesus, we get a picture of God. We see a Savior who walks on water, raises the dead, and amazes the crowds. Christ’s unpredictability led many to have a new and more accurate picture of God.
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:8-14, NIV)
Jesus revealed to us a God who is compelling, powerful, relevant, passionate, unpredictable, exciting, personal and present to people right now, this very day. The Church everywhere has been given the assignment to reveal God to the world.
God is the Creator of the universe. God is creative. We are in his image. We are creative. God is fresh, does new things, and wants people to do the same without always getting stuck.
A problem which happens over and over again is called a pattern. Avoidance of conflict, or being impulsive, or allergic to risk, or distracted and bored, or overcommitted, or afraid of authority, or a people-pleaser, or resistant to making hard decisions, or a fear of failure, are not just problems, but patterns that prevent us from allowing God to be present to us today.
And today, we need to embrace the new life God is trying to accomplish in us. God will make a way where there seems to be no way.
Help us, Lord, to have hope for the future. In the face of change, help us to set fear aside and recognize our potential for problem-solving. Help us develop a reasonable optimism when confronted by new things and to guard against our own defensiveness. Be with us as we remember and celebrate former times and keep us from unreasonable yearning for them. Work your will in us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bring out the people who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf. Gather the nations together! Assemble the peoples of the world! Which of their idols has ever foretold such things? Which can predict what will happen tomorrow? Where are the witnesses of such predictions? Who can verify that they spoke the truth?
“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God— there never has been, and there never will be. I, yes I, am the Lord, and there is no other Savior. First I predicted your rescue, then I saved you and proclaimed it to the world. No foreign god has ever done this. You are witnesses that I am the only God,” says the Lord. “From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch anyone out of my hand. No one can undo what I have done.”
This is what the Lord says—your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sakes I will send an army against Babylon, forcing the Babylonians to flee in those ships they are so proud of. I am the Lord, your Holy One, Israel’s Creator and King. (New Living Translation)
I am an ordained Minister in a smallish denomination, the Reformed Church in America. This particular Christian tradition has its roots in the magisterial reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin placed a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God. In other words, all things hinge on God as the supreme Being of the universe. As Creator of all things, God’s actions and inactions are in no way dependent upon us creatures.
I believe in God’s unconditional election of persons to salvation and new life. Maybe that means nothing to you, and to others it means everything. For many folks, it’s just some churchy mumbo-jumbo which is rather irrelevant to the real stuff of the Christian life.
I do not agree. It seems to me to be quite important. The heart of Reformation faith is a focus on God’s sovereignty, majesty, power, and grace. It is God who justifies, and not any human. That means there are no conditions to which God is beholden to act. That is, God works in the world according to divine free will and is not reliant upon anyone or anything to accomplish good purposes and fulfill good promises.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a soaring view of God’s grace and powerful control. Throughout all eternity God is God. There is none who can thwart the Lord’s plans. God acts freely and mercifully and nothing can cancel out those actions. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. We might jump from finger to finger in our puny attempts at autonomy, but we are not getting out of God’s hand!
For me, this is a balm and a comfort to my soul. Not everything is up to me, as if my action or inaction has cosmic repercussions. As a guy who easily tends toward carrying the world on his shoulders, it is good for me to know that the earth spinning on it’s axis isn’t my job.
It seems to me, the assurance of God’s sovereignty in the world really ought to be a comfort to every believer. God’s decrees will be fulfilled, and there is not one thing any wicked person can do to subvert divine initiatives.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no way we can screw-up God’s purposes. We simply do not have such power. Our great task as believers is to rest secure in God’s will and to therefore place our trust in the One who knows exactly what he is doing in the world.
So, take a few minutes, draw in a few deep breaths, and think on the wonderful truth that God is sovereign. To help you, here is the great opening to the Reformed confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, giving us a glimpse into the majesty of God:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes— but it grew rotten grapes. So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Common English Bible)
God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.
The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.
It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.
God builds. God gives. God sustains…. God destructs. God takes away. God ends it.
The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.
The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. Their cries and anguished responses were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.
The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.
Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)
If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.
Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.
Isaiah 1:17, NLT
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.
The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair for their plump juicy grapes.
The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.
The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.
The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.
The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.
If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.
If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.
Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.
Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.
In this Christian season of Lent, believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.
This is the way.
It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)
May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.