Perceiving God’s New Thing (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

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In the Old Testament, there are two major traumatic events that deeply affect and condition the ancient people of Israel, and their relationship with God.  The first is the experience of slavery in Egypt.  After initially going down to Egypt during a time of great famine – and thriving for a while even after Joseph dies – the people of Israel are made slaves by the Egyptians.  And this goes on for 400 years, until God sends Moses and brings the people of Israel up out of bondage.

And so the story of the Exodus is the story of how God saves his people from slavery and brings them into their own land. It’s the story of the Passover.  It’s the story of being given the Torah on Mount Sinai.  It’s the story of how God gives new life to his people.

And that’s the story Christians most commonly remember during Lent and Easter.  The story of the Exodus and the Passover is the event that Jesus is celebrating in Jerusalem when he’s arrested and crucified.  And for Christians, the story of the Resurrection, like the story of the Exodus, is literally the story of God giving us new life.

But the other major trauma in the Old Testament is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the subsequent deportation of most of the people living in and around Jerusalem to far flung parts of the Babylonian Empire.  The land of Israel, as I’ve often pointed out in Bible studies, is a strategically positioned strip of land that everybody wanted for trade and security since ancient times.  And so it was constantly being over-run by the all the big empires.

But the Babylonian experience was different.  By this time, there was a long-established and thriving Jewish community, which had at least been a regional power under David and Solomon.  They had wealth, a huge Temple and understood that living there in the land was essential to the covenant they had with God.

And when they got deported, it seemed like it was all over.  The Temple was destroyed.  Their way of life was over.  And they were removed from the land.  Was it all over now?  Was there any hope?  These are the questions – and this is the trauma – that forms the background of most of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, including books like Isaiah.  And it’s really important to be familiar with this background if you’re going to understand what the prophets are talking about.

Isaiah, for example, begins at a time before the Babylonian conquest, and the early parts of Isaiah set the stage for how and why all of this is about to play out.  But by the time you reach chapter 40, the people have now been living in exile for nearly 70 years.  And now Isaiah’s words begin to be words of hope and, incredibly, promises that God is about to restore Israel.

It seemed impossible to most people.  Surely, a bunch of them must have thought that Isaiah was getting the message wrong.  But Isaiah insisted that God was going to return them to Jerusalem.  Even now, the stage was being set.  And so in today’s first reading, Isaiah reports that God’s word to them was, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Do you not perceive the new thing that God is doing?  That was God’s question, and clearly, many didn’t.  Why not?  Well, Isaiah doesn’t tell us, but I suspect that it’s likely that those ancient folks living in exile didn’t perceive God’s new thing for many of the same reasons we don’t see the new things of God either.

In my life, and perhaps in yours, perceiving God’s new thing can be hard because:

  • All new things aren’t from God – sometimes, stuff has just changed, and it’s not a good thing!  This isn’t just about perceiving what’s new. How am I supposed to figure out which “new thing” is God’s new thing?  And it’s particularly hard when it means imaging what that “new thing” will look like in my life, when all I can see is what is and what was … (For the exiles, was the “new thing” just a “spiritual” homecoming, or would this actually mean returning to Jerusalem?  And if so, how was that supposed to happen…?) Sometimes, it’s hard to see God’s new thing, because the trauma of what is keeps you from even imagining how things could be different or even better…
  • Perceiving the “new thing” means accepting that things are NOT going back to the way they used to be.  As the story goes on in books like Nehemiah and Ezra, people do return to Jerusalem (many of them never having been there, but having been told glorious stories by their grandparents).  But things are NOT like they used to be.  The walls are torn down, the temple is in ruins, and there are a lot of people around them who will attack them if given the chance.  For many, it was depressing at first.  But the first part of living into God’s new thing was to understand that this was a new time, and while they were back in the land, they were being led into new ways of living…  Sometimes, the biggest impediment to perceiving God’s new thing is being willing to give up on the notion that God’s restoration means that God will make things go back to the way they were, even when it’s clear that that’s not what God has in mind …. (and this is clear also in Jesus’ Resurrection…!)
  • God’s “new thing” may not seem to us to be particularly “religious” or “spiritual”, and indeed may be seen by most as just another example of “the world changing around us.”  After all, the “salvation” that the people experienced came through God’s use of yet another power conquering the land.  The Persians conquered the Babylonians, and following the maxim of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” decided to let all the peoples conquered by the Babylonians go home… (including the Jews).  This wasn’t because the Persians feared the God of Israel, or had heard the words of Isaiah.  It was just good strategy on their part.  And yet, Isaiah refers to Cyrus the Persian king as a “messiah” of God, because he’s carrying out God’s plan even if he’s clueless to it.  Yet Isaiah can see that God is using this event of realpolitik to accomplish God’s new thing…. Sometimes, perceiving God’s new thing is about looking for God to do that new thing in your life outside of the people, places and events you might have expected…

Over these past couple of years, lots of us have experienced lots of new things and lots of new ways of doing things, even if we didn’t want to!  Now, as we’re coming out of Covid, there are yet more new things, and we’re often asking which things are good, and which things might even be God’s new things in our lives.

But in fact, God is always doing a new thing in the lives of his people.  It wasn’t just when he brought the ancient Israelites back from Babylon.  It didn’t stop when God raised Jesus from the dead.  And God’s new things are still happening through whatever’s going on in our lives now.

Isaiah’s call to those ancient people – and to us – is to always be watching for God’s new thing in our lives.  It’s not always an easy task.  And it’s not always easy to live into.  But God’s new thing is always to be sought, because it leads us to salvation – not just at the end of time, but right here and right now.

And so these words of Isaiah remind us to always be alert for God’s new thing, even and especially when we’ve experienced too many bad new things lately.  Isaiah’s words call us to live boldly into God’s new things, because God’s new thing will NOT simply be a restoration of what was.  And Isaiah’s words call us to look through the eyes of faith at what’s going on in the world around us, because it may be that God is using regular and ordinary people and events to bring about his new thing in our lives.