I’ve been swamped this week with a Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song meeting, a Presbytery Meeting, and preparing two sermons. Sorry the blog has been a tad quiet. Here’s the sermon for presbytery, though. Check back soon for posts of another kind.
Meeting of the Presbytery of the Northern Plains
June 11, 2010
God’s New Thing
Isaiah 42:5-9 & Acts 2:1-21
Every era is met with its share of new things. Henry Ford’s affordable automobile revolutionized America’s culture, even if you could only “get it in any color you wanted as long as it was black.” Later, the invention of the television changed the media landscape — and life as we knew it — forever. And, now be honest: can you even imagine cooking a meal these days without a microwave oven? New things.
Every era is met with its share of new things, but newness and the constant flow of new things almost defines our era. As Robert’s Rules of Order would put it, “New things are the order of our day.”
I’ll always remember the first time I ever saw a cell phone. Well, they were really “bag phones” in those days, bulky heavy things about the size of a Bible in a case. I was hip; I knew cool: I figured no folks in their right mind would ever want to carry a cell phone around everywhere they went. Well, just a few years later now, chances are, you are doing just that. A recent study showed that 93% of US adults own a cell phone. Of course, they’ve changed a lot from those days as bulky bag phones. In fact, Ray Kurzwell says, “The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper, a thousand times more powerful, and a hundred thousand times smaller than one computer at MIT in 1965.” New things.
Newspaper profits are down, magazines are going bankrupt at record rates, print publishing is on the way out and eBooks are flying through the airwaves. A few months ago, Americans donated $22 million to Haiti earthquake relief through their cell phones. More video was uploaded to YouTube in the last two months than has ever aired on NBC, ABC, and CBS. New things.
The average teen sends 2,272 text messages a month and spends hours each week on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, none of which existed only six years ago. You know, back in those old days the invention of an iPod, back before 24/7 news networks, satellite TV, and internet live TV; back before individual DVD players, hybrid cars, wifi networks, iPads, and T9 texting; back before iTunes and Netflix, virtual communities and GPS in your tractor. The world is changing fast. New things overwhelm us and the change will only get faster and faster. New things.
Isaiah 42:8: I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have to come to pass, and new things I now declare. …new things I now declare.
I once heard the Scottish musician and pastor, John Bell, being interviewed on BBC radio. John Bell has composed hundreds of hymns, and was the chair of the committee that recently published the new Church of Scotland hymnal. John’s a hymn guy, so I was fascinated to hear his response to the interviewer’s question, “What is your least favorite popular hymn?” (Talk about a testy question for a hymn writer — it’s like choosing your favorite child!)
Without any hesitation John said, “‘Abide With Me” because of the verse that goes, ‘Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.’” John reads the Bible — very carefully, mind you — and sees not a rigid inflexible unchanging God, but a God who listens in love and responds in new (and changing) ways to a disobedient people.
We can get into theological tussles about how God changes [an argue of the book of Jonah that says, “God changed God’s mind”], but that would really miss John’s point. I suspect John’s negative reaction to Henry Frances Lyte’s line “God changes not” is really more about about humanity, than about God. John Bell’s issue is with our human tendency to think we have God all figured out; we think God is either done working or working only to accomplish our personal hopes and dreams.
The message of scripture, if we open ourselves to the Bible, is not of God who stays still or gets stuck in the mud. Rather, in the Bible God seems always to be doing a new (an surprising) thing. God is turning us in a new direction. God is making a new creation. New things I now declare, we read in Isaiah.
New things, even (and especially?) God’s new things, are not easy for us. Richard Hooker once said, “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.” New things can be inconvenient indeed.
I imagine you all had other places than presbytery to be tonight. You might have enjoyed the World Cup, or seeing your family after a long week, or watched the Twins play the Braves. But here we are, stubbornly attending presbytery. Here we are, gathering in the presence of God who declares new things, and tells us of new ways to work and live.
We’ve been talking about new things a lot today in our work as a presbytery. Tomorrow, we’ll attend workshops on new ways to minister in our areas, new ways to join God in doing a new thing in our presbytery. As we heard this afternoon, the old saying, “you can’t teach a dog new tricks” isn’t true at all.
But. But, God’s new thing, like many new things these days, is more of a new discovery we make each day, a new revealing of God to us, a new understanding of God’s love and the way we enact it than a complete reworking. It’s one of those tricky paradoxes we love so much in the church: God’s new thing is as old as the hills, and we are always discovering it anew.
We see this in the flow of God’s words in this Isaiah passage. God was there from the beginning. Verse 5: God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it. But God goes on to say what’s going to happen, what God’s people are to be doing because God’s new creating doesn’t stop: I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
This tension between God’s ancient truths and God’s new work is apparent in the breadth of submissions of hymns to appear in next Presbyterian hymnal. I was in Louisville this week with the members of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, as we worked through the staggering stack of thousands of submissions. As we do, we find many new hymns and songs that use old words and phrases like “Thee” and “Thou” “hath” “est” and “Doth.” Such words not in common usage today appear much more often than you might expect, even in contemporary hymns. I think it’s because writers today are claiming that first part of the paradox: God is as old as the hills.
And, of course, the opposite is true in other songs submitted to the committee. Authors use words almost too new, phrases that come off as trite or sing oddly as writers attempt to claim that other part of the paradox: we are always discovering God’s new things.
Peter and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Acts passage plays with this tension in a lovely way. Picture the strange scene. The apostles are all hanging out in Jerusalem, flummoxed, trying to develop some sort of marketing strategy for God who allows God’s own son to be crucified, and suddenly, from heaven comes a sound like the rush of wind and they are filled with Holy Spirit and start speaking in tongues.
Now if I were Peter at this point, I think I’d be pretty angry at God, no matter how ancient God is. As if worshiping a newly crucified savior weren’t enough, now they’re supposed to go around speaking foreign languages sounding like they’re crazy!
But God knew what God was doing, because the Jews from all over Jerusalem begin to take notice. Now Jerusalem is a center of commerce, so folks from all over the world are in town, and when they hear the apostles speaking in tongues, they all understand one another.
The crowd tries to explain away this strange work of Holy Spirit, figuring all the apostles must be drunk. Which, if we’re being honest, sounds like a pretty logical conclusion.
But Peter stands up and sets the record straight. As he speaks to the crowds, he doesn’t try to explain away the oddities, he doesn’t apologize, he stands up and yells from the old word of God: “This was spoken to the prophet Joel.” And Peter goes on to quote the scriptures off the top of his head.
Peter says this new miracle of interpretation is all about God. He ends his preaching with the climax, Therefore, let the the whole world know that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.
If I witnessed a ragtag cultish group of strangers start spouting-off in foreign languages, I’m pretty sure my first response would be to hightail it out of there — not to quote the Bible. But when the apostles were speaking in strange tongues, Peter immediately looks back to scripture and explains how God was working among them in a new way that very day.
God’s new thing is no secret, God’s new call for us isn’t hiding away. To the contrary, usually our problem is that we know what God may be up to, but it’s too much for us to handle. And so we make excuses.
Be a light to the nations, God says. And we think: but surely not all the nations. Surely it’s not we who are to be the light, but somebody else more qualified.
Open the eyes that are blind, God says. And we think, surely God doesn’t mean I am to open people’s eyes by my actions, by my words, by my service, by my stewardship. Surely that call must be for someone else.
Bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, God says. And we think, surely I am just as much imprisoned to sin, so surely it isn’t I who am called to break the chains of injustice and sow the seeds of peace. Surely that call must be for someone else….
Surely God’s new thing must be for another presbytery. Surely God’s new ideas must be for another congregation. Surely God’s new call must be for someone else for I am not qualified. I am not worthy. I am from North Dakota, Minnesota — and I’m just not comfortable with God’s new things.
But you know what? That may just be a good thing. God’s new things aren’t really about our personal comfort. As the old saying goes, “Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The apostles in Acts don’t look too comfortable to me. They were laughingstocks of the town: people thought they were drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. They were spouting off in languages they didn’t know, making fools of themselves in public. And what does blessed Peter do? He preaches the old old story in a new new way.
The new things in society are, indeed, overwhelming. New technologies come at us, new ways of being church face us, and it’s a lot to take in. But, even and especially where we are discomforted, God may just be doing a new thing. The Spirit that was active at the beginning of creation and continued in new ways at Pentecost, is doing a new thing with you — with us — today.
New things I now declare, says God. So read the scriptures and stay open to the Spirit. And when you see God’s new things, preach the new and ancient good news. Post it on a blog. Tweet it to the heavens. Text it till your thumbs go numb. God isn’t done with us yet. Amen.