03/17/13 Sermon (March 17, 2013)

posted Mar 19, 2013, 2:33 PM by David Hawkins   [ updated Mar 29, 2013, 12:40 PM ]

03/17/13 Sermon (March 17, 2013)

“A New Thing”

Isaiah 43:16-21

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:
‘Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
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.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.’

Sermon: “A New Thing”

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Isaiah is a gigantic book, and it speaks to two different communities of Israelites, over the space of over 150 years. The first part of Isaiah, through chapter 39, is speaking to the Israel nation before they are taken into captivity, before the fall of Jerusalem, before the destruction of the temple. This part of the book of Isaiah is full of warnings, prophecies calling the Israelites to remember their God, dire threats about the dangers of liaisons with other countries, the dangers of worshipping other Gods.

And then, right at Chapter 40, the tone of Isaiah abruptly shifts. Even the writing style changes. What were before oracles of destruction now become love poems. What was before the desperate and sometimes angry call for Israel to remember her God becomes an encouraging word of forgiveness, of acceptance, of peace, and of welcome.

The Book of Isaiah spans the years from before the Exile to after the exile. It speaks to different generations of the Jewish people, first to a people too comfortable with their circumstances, too worldly, too willing to compromise their relationship with God, a people who have forgotten to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.

But later, Isaiah speaks to a people who have been beaten, conquered, forced to leave their homeland, taken captive, a people in exile, without their religion, their homes, their land, or their God. It’s almost schizophrenic, this division in Isaiah between fire and brimstone and pardon and love.

And today, we read from the second part of Isaiah. A word to the exiles. A word to those who have become acclimated to their captivity, to those who have built new lives in Babylon, and are reluctant to leave  their new home. As I said a few weeks ago, Isaiah is calling to those who are living in a prison -- but it’s their prison, and they know this prison, and they trust this prison. We can understand how difficult it is to imagine life outside the walls of their Babylonian existence.

But now they are called home. They are called to return to Israel, return to their land. They are called by their God to return to him. Physically, a journey of over 500 miles, from modern day Baghdad, Iraq, to Jerusalem. 500 miles through the desert wilderness. Spiritually, a journey to trust God again, even when He has seemed to have abanded them to captivity.

It’s a huge, difficult decision. And Isaiah spends the better part of 20 chapters of his book reaching out to the exiles. Twenty chapters of assuring the exiles that God will be there waiting for them at the end of the journey. That God has prepared the way in the desert, has made straight a highway. God assures the Exiles that the hills have been made low, the valleys have been raised. The time is now. The way is clear. Come home.

There’s a reason that these words from the second part of Isaiah resonates so deeply with us. We hear them in the words of John the Baptist in the Gospels, as he prepares the way for Jesus Christ. We  hear them every year at Christmas with the words of Handel’s Messiah,  These are words that stretch across the centuries between a people in exile, to the sinners on the banks of the Jordan river, and into the dry deserts of our own hearts.

These words resonate because God is again making a way out of no way. No matter what we have done, no matter what we have not done, no matter where we are, near or far from God, He has done the work of bringing his people close to him. And he’s done so in ways that we could never imagined.

In Isaiah’s time, God worked through the person of Cyrus, a pagan King, the King of Persia, the nation who conquered Babylon. Cyrus had no reason to help the Jews. There was nothing in it for him. Yet through his edict, God spoke to Israel. “You can come home. I am doing a new thing. Take the first step, and you will see. I am with you. I will never leave you.”

And centuries later, when John was baptizing in the river, God was again speaking through him, “come home. I am doing a new thing. Take the first step, come to the water. I am with you. I will never leave you.”

And now, today, to us, to those who feel like they are in exile, that they are forgotten by God, that their relationship with God is broken beyond repair, God speaks again, “come home. I am doing a new thing. Take the first step. Look for me in unexpected places. I am with you. I will never leave you.”

You know, as I look back over the last few years with you, I see a church that has seen God do a lot of New Things.

It began of course a long time before I got here. This beautiful and adventurous sanctuary is a symbol of this church’s willingness to step out in faith. The design grew out of the importance that we place on communion, the relationships that we have with God, and with each other. I understand that the architectural firm that designed this church won a national award because of the plans for this church.

And, this church belongs to a Presbytery that rejoined the Northern church before the rest of the Southern Presbyteries did. And guess who the Moderator of the Presbytery was at that time? Well, I won’t mention any names, but his initials are Dr. Richard Morgan. A member of this Church.

This church and this Presbytery were instrumental in the New Thing that God was doing in rejoining the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian church, and in doing so, they reached out and built bridges that spanned more than 150 years of conflict.

And there was the reconciliation between Grace Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church, the healing of a rift that had torn apart Presbyterians in Plainview for 40 years. Nobody really knows all the emotions and sacrifices both sides made in finding peace in that situation, but now we are now able to see the fruits of that hard work, both in terms of the scholarships of well over $150,000 over the last few years going to help folks with their education, and in terms of broken relationships and friendships being mended. And it’s not at all difficult to see how God was in all that.

And of course there was the transition between pastors, between Pastor Drew, and Pastor Mark, and then me. And in my conversations with members of the Pastor Nominating Committee, I know that God was in that transition.

And when I arrived, Nellie Dunavant, your long time secretary retired. We quickly went through two secretaries, one of whom left for medical reasons, the other for family reasons. That was a period of transition, I can tell you!

Then you all made an exception to policy and hired my wife Karen, for which I am so very grateful. You have no idea how stressful it was for me that first year with the revolving door of the church office. Yet, even in the midst of all that administrative confusion, God was with us.

And then we started in on the remodelling and reconstruction of the church. Over seven layers of the roof were peeled off, and  replaced with an entirely new one that will last for a long time. We enlarged the choir loft, and that was a good thing, because we immediately grew by several people. It’s almost too small again!

Because of the roof problems, we had water stains in most of our classrooms and ceiling, and so we had to paint walls and replace tiles. While we were at it, we decided to make our church more accessible by installing a large new family restroom and enlarging the women’s restroom. And in the midst of all that chaos, dust, and piles of construction materials in the hallway and fellowship court, God was still with us, doing all kinds of New Things.

And when had finished that project, Our beloved organist, Karen Sandlin decided to take her well-deserved retirement, and we are in the midst of transitioning with Wes Naron as our Choir Director and Jim Tirey as our Organist. In May, we will celebrate Karen’s 25 years of loyal, dedicated service to this church, and God has most certainly been in all that.

There have been other, smaller New Things as well. Small changes in worship, small changes in policies and procedures at the church, small changes in the way we think about ourselves as a church. From offering gluten-free bread at communion, to giving Elders more control over their own committee budgets, and even today, saying goodbye to Sandra Spencer, our long time custodian, we have been experiencing new things on a pretty much regular basis. And God has been with us.

We are, and have been, a church that is willing to take the first step into the unknown future to which God has called us in so many big and small ways, and we have been blessed to discover that God has been with us all the time.  

As most of you (hopefully) read in the most recent Focus Newsletter, we are going to experience something new coming up in April. We are going to celebrate communion on pretty much each Sunday during the Easter Season, between Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost.

And if that weren’t enough of a new thing, the Session and I have decided that at least once during the Easter Season, we will celebrate communion with real wine. Yes, the wine that Jesus offered to the wedding party in Cana. The wine that Jesus was accused of drinking with sinners and tax collectors. The wine that Jesus blessed and poured out at his last supper with his disciples.

Of course, we will also offer grape juice, for those who cannot, or will not, for physical, or medical, or spiritual reasons, drink wine. And, I think that there will some of us who will also choose to drink grape juice if only out of solidarity with those who cannot or will not drink wine. And I want you to know that I understand and  honor that decision. But, above all, whatever decisions each of us make individually, I trust that even in this new thing, God will be with us.

It is my hope that during this Easter Season, through the experience of weekly communion, we can focus our attention not just on the memorial meal of communion, but also on the new thing that God has done in raising Jesus Christ from the dead.

Because the resurrection is the ultimate new thing, the thing that reaches across the centuries and touches all humanity, the singular event of all history, the moment when God revealed himself and his plan for us, for all time, in all places.

And communion is that moment, when we, not by our own power, are caught up by the Holy Spirit, and brought into the presence of a living Jesus Christ, who welcomes us, forgives us, sustains us, and send us back into the world, to be his body, and to preach his Gospel.

Communion is that moment when we become one with the New Christ, not a dead martyr, not a crucified revolutionary, not a wrongly accused teacher, but a life-giving manifestation of God Almighty. You see, communion is not just the last supper, but it is also the first breakfast of a never-ending banquet meal, celebrated with our Lord, and all the saints of all eternity.

Communion is that moment of transition when we walk out from behind the shadow of the cross, and we blink our eyes in the dazzling presence of the risen Son, and we taste and see that God’s promise for us is very, very good.

I confess to you that I don’t know where this experience of weekly communion will lead. Like the exiles thinking about the path that lay ahead of them, I can’t predict what it will be like to break our tradition of monthly communion and grape juice. For some of us, in fact, for most of us, this will be an uncomfortable step. It will take us places that we haven’t been before, maybe even places that we don’t want to go. But especially in these hard, uncomfortable places, our scripture today tells us that God will be there with us.

And just as it was hard, if not impossible for the  exiles to see what new thing that God was doing in their midst; just as it was hard, if not impossible for those gathered on the banks of the Jordan River to see that God had come to us, Emmanual, to give his own life for us, we simply can’t imagine the new things that God has in mind for each of us, in our own lives, and in the life of the church.

But maybe we aren’t supposed to know. Maybe part of our journey with God is to take the steps of our lives knowing that we don’t know what what God has in store for us.  That our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ means stepping out into the unknown in every part of our lives, our work, our play, our schools, and our church, to look for God in unexpected places, to discover that God is with us, even when we don’t know where we are, or where we’re going.

As I said at the beginning of this year, I feel like God is doing something very special with the church, that God is calling each of us to something new. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know where each of us will end up, what new things will happen in our lives. I don’t know where God is taking the church.

But I am sure looking forward to finding out.

Thanks be to God. Amen.