A quick introduction before I begin. My name is Leigh and I have just joined Revive as the new minister in training. This has meant moving to a new house in a new city to start a new course with a new college as well as a new job with a new church, so I’ve been thinking about new starts rather a lot lately. As the new academic year gets going I’m probably not alone, so the whole idea of new things seems a good topic for my first proper blog post.
The Christian faith is built on the promise that we can become a new creation in Christ, that because of the example of his life and the power of his death, it’s never too late to start over and do better. That promise might depend on Jesus, but it is the coming together of promises God has been making from the very beginning, and the scriptures are full of the God of new things.
In Isaiah 43:19, God says “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” I love the sense of excitement in these words. God sounds like an excitable child, dragging us by the hand, saying “Look at this! Look what I’m doing! Can’t you see it? Isn’t it amazing?”
But he isn’t just excited, he wants us to be excited too. He wants us to see the world as he sees it, full of potential waiting to burst out.
I think we get something of the same giddy pleasure at the endless possibilities in the gospels, as Jesus talks about the kingdom, which is the language he uses for God’s new work, as a seed hidden in the earth until it is ready to spring into marvellous new life.
And not just marvellous new life but miraculous new life. God promises water in the wilderness, so there is something surprising about what he is doing. He will do the impossible, the unthinkable, the never-imaginable. We won’t be able to predict what God will do next and that is why we need to keep our eyes and our hearts open all the time.
You see, God is working on new things all around us. Some of them are still silently and secretly planting the deep roots that will sustain them. Some are just beginning to break through the soil and put out tender shoots. Some are growing strong branches which bear much fruit and are a nesting place for many birds. Others are already withering but dropping the seeds which will give rise to more new life as they do.
These past few weeks have seen mass movements of people seeking to welcome and support refugees. That’s a new thing springing up.
The Labour leadership election saw thousands of young people who had previously been disaffected starting to believe they had a voice that counted in their society. That’s a new thing springing up.
Mozambique has just been declared the first country to be completely cleared of landmines. That’s a new thing springing up.
The news can make things seem pretty hopeless at times, and I would never want to undermine the horror of what is happening in so many places and to so many people, but there is good news too. Everywhere there are new things springing up and God is calling us to see them and rejoice in them..
But God doesn’t just want us to see and rejoice, he wants us to join in. If we carry on reading a little, we see that in Isaiah 43:22 God says “yet you have not called on me, Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, Israel”, and I think there is a deep sadness here that we haven’t accepted God’s invitation to join him in creating new things.
If we want to see new things happening, we need to get involved in making them happen. We need to pray for them, we need to encourage them, we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with them. God is doing this new thing but he cannot do it without us. Not because he’s not powerful enough but because that’s not how he works.
God made the animals but he let Adam name them. Jesus prayed over the loaves and fishes but he left the disciples to distribute them. God wants us to partner with him and so he will only do so much before it is our turn to take over. That’s why Pope Francis has said “You pray for the hungry then you share your bread with the poor. This is how prayer works.” In the same way, we pray “your kingdom come” then we go out and bring the kingdom in.
Now this does all come with something of a health warning. In Isaiah 43:2 God says “when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned”, and I think that when we read those verses in the light of what follows, there is a sense that God is telling us new things may mean trials, but he will protect us through them.
If we want to see new things happening, we need to be prepared for all that comes with them. We follow a divine troublemaker and that might mean making some trouble for ourselves, but when we see the waters in the wilderness we will know it was worth it.
New things are clearly on God’s heart because it’s a theme he quickly returns to. In Isaiah 65:17-18, he talks of a new heaven and a new earth, and when he does he speaks of delight and joy. I think we can start to see here why he is so excited. The new thing he is speaking of is a great work of creation. Or perhaps rather recreation.
He is working to rediscover the pleasure he took in his perfect creation, but the great news is that he isn’t doing that by screwing everything up and starting again with something completely different. Instead he is making a new heaven and a new earth. He is making heaven and earth new again. He is improving and restoring what he has already made.
God loves us so deeply and has so much faith in our capacity for redemption, that there will be a continuity in this renewal. That applies on a global scale, as God talks of a new earth, but it also applies on a personal scale, as he talks of his people.
I think it also applies on a corporate level, as we are not only God’s people as individuals, but we are also God’s people as a community. If God wants to improve and restore both our world and our selves, he also wants to improve and restore our systems and our societies, using the best of the old to create the best of the new. He wants to transform the way we do politics, the way we do social justice, the way we do church. That might mean making radical decisions, always remembering that we worship a God of radical love.
A few verses on, in Isaiah 65:20-23, God starts to describe a vision of his new creation. There will be no infant mortality, no early death, no theft, no corruption, no misfortune…
It’s easy to assume that God is talking about the new heaven here, but this heaven sounds a lot like earth. This is a vision of a place where people are born and people die, where people plant trees and people build houses. So then God must be talking about the new earth, but this earth also sounds a lot like heaven. This is a vision of a society that gives opportunity and justice to everyone, in a world which is physically and spiritually healthy.
When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven in the gospels, there is a sense in which that kingdom is both now and not yet. It has already arrived here but it has yet to be fulfilled elsewhere. I think there is a similar sense of overlapping realities in this passage, as earth becomes like heaven or heaven becomes like or earth or the two melt into one.
I don’t know if the vision we are given in this passage is God’s promise of eternity or his hope for the future, or if that future will shade into eternity so that we won’t know where one ends and the other begins. There are too many questions there that I don’t feel I need the answer to just yet. But I do believe that the vision we are given here should be our manifesto and a rallying cry for all those who want to get in on the new thing God is doing.
Because this is the kind of world God is seeking to build with our help. A world where, as the prophet Amos put it, people “act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God”.
And if God can only build that kind of world with our help, then he is more than willing to do his bit to aid communication and cooperation, as he promises in Isaiah 65:24 that he will hear his people before they call and answer while they are still speaking. The level of intimacy here is incredible. He will know us so well that he will know what we need before we even tell him, and he will be so keen to respond to us that he will jump in before we’ve even finished.
Do you get the sense that God is excited about working with us? That he wants to get going on this great project and he doesn’t want to waste any time about it? We too need to get that excited. We too need to get going and stop wasting time. After all, heaven and earth depend on it.
I think this post is plenty long enough by now, so I will finish with a few verses from the Message interpretation of Isaiah.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands…All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain are things of the past, to be forgotten. Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I’m creating.