“I Am About to Do a New Thing”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
April 7, 2019
The ways we use the words modern and new are interesting to me.
We use the word modern to mean progressive and up to date. We use the word new to mean ideas and practices and products that have arrived on the scene relatively recently.
But the modern era started with the Renaissance and the Reformation in the 1500’s. Modernism came to full bloom in the 1700’s with the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions and ended with World War 2. None of those events feel very modern to us these days.
Michelangelo and Titian are long gone. No one alive today was around for the earliest debates about democracy or the 19th century movements around gender and racial equality. My dad is 93 and he was one of the youngest soldiers to experience active combat in World War 2.
The New Testament was written two thousand years ago.
Modern ideas, new thoughts, and new trends are always relative, aren’t they?
I just got an email from an former parishioner — someone I was thrilled to hear from and whom I hadn’t spoken with in twenty years. He said he wanted to get together for dinner with me and my “new” wife, Tracy. I thought to myself, Why did he say, new? We’ve been married for almost six years! But he used that word, new, because he had known me in a previous life had just recently learned that I was remarried. So I get it.
Newness depends upon one’s perspective.
The elite of Israel — the land owners, the intellectuals, the political leaders, the religious leaders — had been in exile in Babylon for more than two generations, more than seventy years. Far from home. Unable to live out their religious lives. Not allowed to be Jewish in the ways that they felt were important. There was no Temple for sacrifices, no scrolls for reading, no lamps for burning, no songs for singing or texts for reading and interpreting.
Whoever wrote today’s verses was aware that the Jewish people in exile were about to leave Babylon, about to go home to Jerusalem to rebuild their lives and to start over.
I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth!
These powerful words, some of the most inspiring we have in the whole Bible, emerge from a sense of hope, from a confidence that God was going to set a new table for the people of Israel. Whoever he was, whoever wrote this part of the book of Isaiah, could see in the future a wonderful new opportunity for the people of Israel to become the spiritual and national community that God intended them to be.
The scholars I trust the most think that the person who wrote our verses for today was not the original Isaiah, but the second of three prophets who wrote with similar priorities and in a similar style. So, we call him Deutero Isaiah or Second Isaiah.
In any case, the author says something so very important to us, no matter what era or generation we come from.
As I look out at you this morning, I see women whose mothers were the first women in their families to be able to vote. And yet you are still not paid equally and still fighting to raise awareness around sexual harassment.
We think of the Me Too movement and the Black Lives Matter movement as new initiatives, but we also know full well that they have their roots in movements from the past. We know that there were women and men who gave their all —- fifty, one hundred, and one hundred and fifty, two hundred years ago — for these same causes. They are both old and brand new.
What do you think about when you hear these verses from Isaiah?
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?
What is it about us as individuals and as a society that resists the new things that God is doing in our lives, especially when it is so obvious that we need to be different?
Religious people tend to avoid change. We love tradition. We love sameness.
And yet, Jesus’ favorite prophet, the great Isaiah, asks us, in no uncertain terms, to resist that impulse, that inclination to hang on to the past. That religious tendency to do what we’ve always done, to believe what we’ve always believed, to think what we’ve always thought.
Over the last five years or so, younger generations have challenged us to think in new ways about gender. The vast majority of us grew up assuming that people were either male or female and that it was easy to figure out which was which. I don’t think I knew anyone who was openly transgender when I was growing up. Now now most of us know at least one person who is gender non-conforming.
Along with more fluid ideas about gender and sexuality has come a flood of new terms — and it’s hard to keep up. And yet Jesus’ commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves means that we have an obligation to at least try to become conversant in this new language.
The things we do during worship have changed and are changing as well. Remember when all men wore suits and ties to worship and all women wore dresses? Remember the debates about whether or not women could be deacons? Remember when we started passing the peace? I was in another church at that time, but I recall one older gentleman saying to me, You mean you want us to touch each another?!
Tradition makes us feel safe. It gives us a sense that we have at least some control over our lives. It provides us with something to look forward to on Sunday mornings, something that connects us with past and future generations.
But there are times that tradition can block our ears from hearing our still-speaking God. Sameness, at its worst, can be like a heavy drapery that prevents the sunlight of God’s word from reaching us, warming us, guiding us. Remember that there is no resurrection into the new without the death of the old. What new ways of being the church might we see if we allow that sunlight into our community?
We resist change in our personal lives as well. Even when we know that it is time — or way past time — to let God lead us toward something new, we are afraid of the unknown future. We are so stuck in our habits and routines and familiar surroundings that they can become like prison cells.
And that’s where our spiritual community, our church, can become not just a source of lovely traditions, but also a source of encouragement as we try to become new people. As we look around today, let’s see each other as reminders of Isaiah’s challenging and inspiring words, of God’s power to unlock the shackles and move us toward that new thing that is already coming to life within us.
Easter is just around the corner. God is about to do a new thing. Will we perceive it?