(a sermon for September 18, 2016, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost and “Cornerstone Sunday,” based on Isaiah 42:5-9; 43:14-21 and 2 Kings 13: 14-17)
Let me just start this morning with an affirmation: It’s a brand new day, and thanks be to God!
It was the seminal 20th century theologian Paul Tillich who once wrote that “if you want to summarize the message of the Christian faith, you can summarize it in two words. It is the message of the… new creation.” Or to put it in the words of our scripture reading this morning, our God is the God who says, “See, I am doing a new thing!”
This is our good news, yours and mine! Just imagine it: that the same God who “created the heavens and stretched them out” is still, ever and always about the business of recreating us by doing “a new thing” in our hearts, in our lives and in our world. It’s “divine intervention” in the best possible way, and good news indeed; but once again therein also lies our challenge as people of faith: to embrace what God is doing with joyful and enthusiastic hearts; to, shall we say, “open the east window” on the sunrise of this brand new day that God has made; and then to embrace the myriad of possibilities and opportunities that go along with it!
Now, on the face of it, this certainly seems like an obvious and welcome thing; hardly a challenge! I mean, who doesn’t like a sunrise; who cannot appreciate the promise of a new day? Who would not want to be wholly caught up in this “new thing” that God is doing? It just seems to represent everything we hold dear in our faith, so why not? Well, the fact is there are those who are not at all comfortable about anything in life and living that’s new, even if it is divinely inspired! Indeed, there are even people of faith – maybe even some of us (!) – who for any number of reasons prefer to look anywhere else but to the sunrise!
The question is, how can this be, knowing everything we know about our God who makes all things new and who provides such abundant blessing in the midst of that? Well, some years ago I read a wonderful piece by the Rev. Dr. Harold Brooks, a retired minister of pastoral care out of Atlanta, that suggests that if you want to understand this reluctance to “open the east window,” you need look no further than to the other windows in the house.
Brooks says that, truth be told, some people just prefer to stand at the west window rather than at the east; they are, in essence, sunset people rather than sunrise people! These are the kind of people who are generally looking at the day that’s gone by, rather than the day that’s ahead. They tend to look to the past for hope and security; they take the view that whatever went on before has to be better than what is, or what could ever be; and in fact, in the extreme, some will glory in the past at the expense of the present, succumbing to what another theologian, Halford Luccock, once referred to as “the illusion of the far-away look,” that which causes us to envelop the past with a glory and a halo that it never really had!
Then there are those, according to Brooks, who will inevitably end up standing at either the north or the south windows. Now, biblically speaking, the north is often referred to as a place of darkness and smoke, a place where trouble and hardship dwells; likewise, when you and I think of the north, we often equate it with cold, snow, chilling winds and vast stretches of untamed wilderness; a place of trouble far from civilization (As someone who hails from northern Maine, I’m not sure I care for that analogy, but I get do his meaning here!). The point here, however, is that there are many people who no matter what the view actually happens to be from the north window, they’ll always see the worst of it! These are people who have gone way beyond the realm of healthy skepticism or prudent caution about what’s ahead, who become perennially filled with pessimism, cynicism and doubt about life, living, the world and even themselves.
But contrast this with those who stand at the south window – and, let’s be honest about this, what do we want to see when we look to the south, especially as the weather gets colder – that’s right… warm beaches, beautiful weather, a paradise where there’s never any problems at all! See, just as there are those who only look for trouble, there are also those who really only want to see that which makes them feel comfortable and happy and at ease. We all know people who have made that kind of “happiness” their primary mission in life, often at the risk of everything else!
The problem with all this, however, is that the God of our faith is ultimately not the God of the west window; because whereas, as the hymn declares it, God is “our hope in ages past,” he is also “our hope for years to come,” and as we walk with God, the glories of the past are there as a guidepost, not a hitching post.
Likewise, our God is not the God of the north window, for God does not wish us to dwell forever in the darkness and defeat of life, but to rejoice (and walk) in its victory in the resurrection of Christ Jesus. Nor is our God the God of the South window, for as much as we all would like to have a “summertime religion,” as it were, there are always going to be cold winds to face, and God wants to give us the strength and the peace to face the coldest northern winds that blow in our lives.
No… ours is the God of the East Window; the God of the sunrise and a brand new day! He is the God of a fresh start, of “new things” springing into being; of hearts and spirits restored and made to be brand new! Our God is the God of the joy that comes in the morning!
That’s what is at the heart of those two passages from Isaiah we’ve shared today: at a time when God’s people were living in exile; longing to be back home, to have their lives returned, and to have things the way it used to be. And God indeed promises to “make a way [for them] in the wilderness” and to give them “rivers in the desert;” but did you notice something there? God does not talk to Israel about going back to the old ways, to the “former things.” In fact, God tells them, “forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” [NIV]
It’s not that the old ways should be forgotten, or ignored, or not held in reverence or respect. It’s simply that God is not directing them back to their past, but rather leading them toward the future! It’s a new thing that God is doing in and for his people, and the faithful need to be alert and present to what’s about to burst forth!
Of course, the underlying question is, will they do it? For all their pleas and prayers, you see, the people of Israel were living as though their best days were behind them; they couldn’t begin to imagine what God could do, much less what he was promising to do. But the promise was real: “This is what GOD says,” says Isaiah. This God who makes this promise to you is “the [same] God who builds a road right through the ocean, who carves a path through pounding waves.” [The Message] The question here is not whether God will do it, because God will do it – God has done it (!) – it’s whether Israel will actually believe it and embrace this new thing God is about to do with hearts rejoicing.
Seems to me that’s a pretty good question for you and me as well.
I wonder how many times God has started to do a new thing in our midst, but we didn’t notice because our attention was fixed elsewhere; perhaps lost in reverence of things past, maybe in fear of what might possibly lay ahead. I wonder how often the bursting forth of some divine truth has been lost on us simply because we were reluctant to open ourselves to a new “thing” that the Lord has for us. I wonder just how much you and I let these notions that we’re too old, too tired, too set in our ways, too busy or for that matter, too comfortable get in the way of experiencing the untold wonder of a brand new day!
We cannot ever let ourselves succumb to the notion that God is done with us; because, folks, God is still speaking, God is still doing, God is still working and moving and inspiring and leading you and me along new vistas the sake of his kingdom. And we know this to be true because God has always been working and moving and inspiring! Those early pioneers who stood out on Sugar Ball Bluff back in 1726 to worship God knew that to be true. The men who laid the cornerstone of this church building back in June of 1841 knew that to be true. And those 44 souls who first made up the first membership of this congregation (30 women and 14 men… make no mistake, friends, churches have always been grown by the women of the congregation!); they also knew it to be true. And it is still true: even now, God is at work in our hearts, in our lives, in our world, and yes, here in our church; the question remains, will we embrace the new thing that God will do?
You may have wondered why I chose those verses from 2 Kings this morning; well, it comes from the Old Testament story of Elisha, the prophet of God and Johoash, the King of Israel. The verse comes at the point of the story when Elisha is very old, very sick and near death; Jehoash, on the other hand, is very young, arrogant, careless as a ruler and basically clueless. He’s also pretty desperate; under his rule, everything in Israel is falling apart, they’re about to be invaded by the Aramean army, at he’s a loss as to what to do.
So Jehoash goes to Elisha and begs for his help one last time. What I love about this story is that this moment is the perfect opportunity for Elisha to read this kid king the riot act; to remind him of the error of his ways, his lack of faith, not to mention his complete neglect for the traditions that had brought his forebears this far. But old Elisha doesn’t do that. Instead he says to this whimpering king, “Get up! Put your hand on the bow, open the east window, and take up the fight!” Take up your bow and shoot the Lord’s arrows of victory, and do it again, and again and again!
You know what? After I heard that story, I decided that when I get to be an old man, I want to be Elisha!
I don’t want to live my life sitting back dwelling on what’s in the past, what’s gone wrong in life and the world, and live filled up with regrets with what “could have been.” Rather, I want to be the kind of person, the kind of Christian who gets up and opens wide that eastern window and willingly and joyfully takes up the good fight of faith; and I want to be the kind of person who inspires the same in others. Rather than merely marveling in the beauty and heritage of this wonderful 175 year old edifice in which we gather for worship each Sunday, I want to honor the memory and contribution and faith of all those saints who came before. I want to equip and empower the next generation of believers to have faith in God in Jesus Christ, and to carry on the fight when I’m done; and until that moment comes – which I trust will be a long “ways” in the future (!) – I want to go every step of the way with God who is ever and always doing a new thing in our midst!
But… how about you?
Are you ready to go where God is leading us: forward into a brand new day, full of new possibilities for life and faithful service in the name of Jesus Christ? Will we be bold; bold enough to throw open the east window; going with God into that new future that’s being fashioned for you, and for me, and for all who dwell in this generation and the one to come?
Because won’t it be great to see what God will do next?
I’ll say it again… It’s a brand new day!
And thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2106 Rev. Michael W. Lowry