Sermon, April 7 2019

“The New Thing Is God’s Thing”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Ecclesiastes 1:1-9
Isaiah 43:16-21
April 7, 2019

Fifth Sunday of Lent

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?    Isaiah 43:19i

Either Ecclesiastes is right and nothing ever changes or these words from Isaiah are to be our guide. I don’t think it is possible to hold both views. Since this is a Congregational Church deeply embedded in the “free church” tradition, I can tell you what I believe, but I can’t tell you what you have to believe. I do have one question, however, for anyone who thinks that there is nothing new under the Sun. If there is nothing new under the Sun, then the linchpin to our Christian faith is null and void. The most monumental event in human history – the incarnation of God – is simply not possible because if the coming of Christ is anything at all, it’s new. I contend, therefore, that people of faith are tasked with perceiving the new thing God is doing.

I do not want to appear overly arrogant by claiming I know the mind of God, that I can discern all the places where God is at work in our world today bringing forth a new thing. What I offer instead is a reframing of our personal and collective history that we might be open to the possibility that what we once thought lay outside of God’s intention may actually be a manifestation of God’s will.

To begin, I want to draw your attention to where you are sitting. This is a cavernous space that I estimate can seat at least 200 people and like every church I have known, the glory days of institutional growth is a memory. I have lamented the small attendance, the small number of young families, the diminishment of what was once a dynamic Christian Education program, and the list goes on. We romanticize about what has been rather than look at where God has brought us.

You know the purposes of God often amaze me and this amazement is never greater than when I think about our central purpose. It is clearly stated in Matthew 28

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We have had difficulty living out this great commission. Talking about things religious often gets you into trouble and sometimes opens you to ridicule. I get it. But we don’t carry out this mission by hiding our faith under a bushel. And maybe, just maybe, God is using our decline to produce a greater faithfulness to our purpose. If we frame our dilemma in this way, if we see it as a challenge brought to us by God, then we must stop lamenting a past that has left us and find hope in the God who alone can restore us. It begins by living out our mission.

But maybe I got it wrong. Maybe God’s purpose is not for us to grow in numbers but bear witness to the love God has for the world. Perhaps what we call “church” will look different in the future – more of a remnant community. Perhaps our calling is not to be part of culture but to raise a voice against its incessant materialism and its use of the poor by the powerful. Maybe our “success” is to be measured by what our faith costs us rather than the size of the church’s budget. Vermont is the least religious state in the union.1 Bringing people to belief in Christ is difficult in this environment. Perhaps God will be measuring our faithfulness by a different standard than numerical growth. I do not know. What I do know is that God is doing a new thing.

Now let me venture onto some very thin theological ice. I think you know me well enough by now that I would never hold God responsible for having brought disease upon a child or death to the infirmed. Such thinking goes counter to the sacrificial love of God made real in the cross of Christ. It makes God into a demonic being who is unmoved by our pain and loss. Yet having said this, I believe because I myself know it to be true, that God provides the strength to see us through.

See if this makes sense. Just as God is doing a new thing within the religious realm, God is doing a new thing in our personal lives. Perhaps instead of cursing our personal times of darkness – those moments when we feel crippled by grief or watch a loved one suffer – we need to reframe the experience and look for those moments when God’s grace is made manifest. This is not an easy thing to do. Without prayer, it is not possible. Yet I know I have grown the most, not in moments of bliss, but in moments of strife and loss.

My friends, God is doing a new thing and Isaiah asks, “do you not perceive it?” Often what God is doing is providing light in the midst of our darkness, hope in times of despair. Look. See. The cross gives way to an empty tomb. Let us pray…

1 New Hampshire also shares this distinction according to a 2011 Gallup poll.

i Ecclesiastes 1:1-9

The words of the Teacher,[a] the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,[b]
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things[c] are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Isaiah 43:16-21

16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 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.
20 The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.