Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A New Thing

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?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. 
(Isaiah 43:18-19)
Isaiah’s words gave much-needed hope to people living in exile and captivity.  Today they still speak to us.  Newness is exciting.  We like new things.  Isn’t this why we like shopping?  New cars, new clothes, new toys.  It’s therapeutic to clean out the old things to make room for new ones.   So what is this new thing that God is doing?  Isaiah says it is happening NOW, but seems to realize that we aren’t always so great at perceiving God’s work.  “Do you not perceive it?”  No, sadly, not as well as I’d like to.  I know that his work is subtle and his timing is not always in line with my expectations.  I need patience and trust. 

I used to be an avid instigator of new things.  An unmerciful renovator.  But I’ve had time to look back and see that there were gaping wounds left behind from some of this.  I still look forward to new things, but it’s hard to forget the “former things” entirely.  Now I am careful, even suspicious sometimes of new things.  Is this from God or someone else?  Is this just me or is this part of God’s plan?

Then logic takes me through the equation—if God is sovereign, then he’s in charge of even my missteps.  He says he makes “all things new” (Rev. 21:5) and that even the things meant for bad can be made good (Gen. 50:20).  All.  Everything.

Still, I don’t want to charge ahead blindly.  I want to perceive what God’s doing and follow that, not make my own way.  So what does that mean?

Maybe I like this Isaiah passage because sometimes I have felt like I’m living in exile and captivity, just like the Israelites.   I thought I was exiled to a place full of people who didn’t like Christianity.  I thought I was captive to the shackles of the “daily grind” of full-time work in a job that wasn’t ideal.  Then I thought I was exiled to a place where everyone seemed to like Christianity but it wasn’t real, and so many people that I loved were far away back in that place I’d lived in before.  But how much of my exile and captivity was really just my attitude?  And how much of what frustrates me today is just because my perception isn’t in line with God’s?

Some questions are just impossible to fully answer. 

What is the new thing that's happening today?  A renewed openness to the work of God, whatever that may be.  God, renew a right spirit within me, whatever that means.  Sometimes I know and understand, or at least I think I do.  Today I’m not so sure I understand, but I know that God does.  I know that he’s working on me and my situation even when I can’t tell (Phil. 1:6).  Today I am not clear on the details, but I pray that at least I’m not getting in the way of the work God is doing.  Maybe I’m even helping somehow.  I hope so.

VanGemeren[1] says that unlike the NT and modern understanding of the semantic field of meaning in “new,” the word in Hebrew in the OT is more restricted to a sense of renewal and restoration.  So God’s “new thing” is tied up in our relationship with him.  He’s restoring us to our former state, before all the stuff that got in the way happened.  That could mean a lot of different things, or it could be as simple as going back to our newly created state—Genesis Garden of Eden or the clean slate-ness of newborn babies.  Maybe we try too hard to make newness something big and complicated, when it’s simply about seeking God? 

I think the reality is that life looks a lot like this:
Jesus is waiting with open arms and we have all the best intentions in the world, but there are just so many really awesome distractions and complications.  And there are so many different roads to travel, and so many different ideas to consider.  Maybe that’s why the best answer to everything is so often this:  “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

The irony of that verse is that this post started with a verse about something new, and “be still” isn’t new at all.  I’ve written about it before.  It’s in blog posts, essays, research papers, my final evaluation paper from CPE, sermons and countless journal entries.  And, yes, both the Psalms and Isaiah were written thousands of years ago, so none of it is really new, but the work of the Holy Spirit in me is always new.  That’s why God’s mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:23).

It just seems so un-American to “be still.”  We’re supposed to work hard, never give up, earn our way.  Yes, in business, but not with God.  But then what are we supposed to do?  This is exactly what the people asked Peter the day they first heard the gospel (Acts 2:37).  His answer is simple:  “Repent.”  Turn to God.  So we’re still back to the same old thing—“Be still and know that I am God.”

But… but… but….  It’s so easy to think of so many questions and objections.  I’d feel so much better with a new haircut, a new job, some new shoes.  I’d get there so much better with a new car, some new friends, a new church.  But that’s all new on the outside.  What we really need is to be new on the inside.   And that’s what God does as only he can do.  And that’s why we aren’t very good at perceiving it.  We look at the outer things, but God looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).  And so he patiently waits while we make all our little end runs and sidetracks.  And like Sisyphus we end up right back where we started.  He’s still God.  He’s still in charge.  He still loves us, and he always will.  And our hearts belong to him.  Thank God for that.

Hearts are tricky things.  But the Holy Spirit is even trickier.  So be still.  And have a great day!

[1] Vol 2, page 31, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)

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