I have said it before how one of the sacred trusts a pastor is given is the privilege of being involved in very intimate moments of people’s lives. For instance, I get the front row seat that a wedding photographer wishes she could have as you see the tears well up in a bride’s eye as her groom speaks his vows and so publicly proclaims his love. I have been invited into hospital rooms, to hold newborn babies and share in the joy of a newly expanded family. I have baptized children and grandchildren and sometimes even parents of the family of God. But more importantly, I have been at the many bedsides of the sick and dying saints of God. I have heard their confessions, pronounced absolution, held hands, and tried to comfort grieving spouses in moments of despair. I have seen the tears, the longing, and the heartache. And perhaps what I have witnessed more than anything else is how shockingly common suffering is to the people of God.
We seem to be shocked when we hear about a brother or sister falling ill. We are devastated when part of the body of Christ suffers or even dies. Yet maybe we really should not be so surprised. It happens all the time. It occurs with such frequency that we should almost expect it. Although, I know it is one thing when it happens to that person over there and something entirely different when it happens to us. When it happens to us, when suffering and sorrow invade our personal space, then it is shocking, it feels so new and raw. But in reality, it is part of the rhythm of this world. Part of the way things have always been. Just as there are the joys of weddings, births, and baptisms, so there is sickness, heartache, and death. It is simply the way of the world, as they say. Or as the famous theologian Neuhaus wrote, “We are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway.”
This is the old way of things; the way things have always been. And in a way, it gives us some confidence moving forward. What I mean by this is that it is from the lessons or rhythms of the past that we calculate and predict our future moves. The old ways guide us in our current interactions. It is similar to when you drive a car. Every time you press on the brake pedal the car has slowed down in the past. So, you rely on the same action to slow you down in the future. It is how you calculate how close to get to the car in front of you on the freeway or when to begin to slow at a red light. And perhaps our expectation of suffering guides our relationships, our use of time, our commitments, and more. We take the past and try to plan for the future. Then again, every once in a while, things unexpectedly change. When I was in Georgia, I had a 1977 Cadillac, Coup Deville. That car weighed a little over two tons and was powered by a massive five hundred cubic inch motor. One day on my way home as I slowed to turn into our development, the brake pedal unexpectedly went to the floor. That was something new, something surprising, something which changed my confidence in the braking system of that boat. I managed to avoid a few close calls and limp it home using the emergency brake until I could do the necessary repairs.
A new thing changes what we thought we “knew.” A new thing can be terrifying, like a massive Cadillac unable to stop, but it can also bring hope. A surprising shift from the old can promise something more. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Behold I am doing a new thing, says the Lord. As He speaks, He declares life where there was death. He speaks of hope where there was despair. He talks about rivers of living water flowing through a desert. This new thing will change the old ways. It will overcome the old systems, the old norms, and it has already begun.
Of course, you know all too well about the new things of God. After all, they are not just whispers or hints of something beyond the usual pattern of things. They are not just empty rumors among the masses. No, the new thing is experienced in your life. The new thing has already invaded your existence and causes a break from what has gone before. After all, the old ways, the former things are patterned in the corruption of a creation bound up in sin. It is the sin of humanity. The sin we are born into establishes the rhythms of suffering, deceit, and even death. So, a child is born under this curse, born to die. But right there, in the midst of it all, God does a new thing. In the waters of Holy Baptism, the child is washed in forgiveness. Sin and corruption are clothed in the righteous garments of Christ. Where there was only the promise of death, now the promise of life is spoken. Remember not the former things, for behold God is doing a new thing.
Yet, you know all too well the sin which clings to you. Even as a child of God, even as the baptized, the temptations of this world, the temptations of the Devil, the temptations of your own corrupted flesh cling to you and lead you over and again into disobedience. The issue is not that you do not know the command of God. It is not a problem of not being made aware of what a life of righteousness looks like. No, you know what you ought to do. You know how you ought to live, but you do not do it. The good and righteous acts you know you should fill your days with are put on the backburner. Oh, you will get to them, when you have more time, or more energy, or more resources. On the other hand, the things you know you really should not do, the things which serve only yourself and are toted in your pride and arrogance, those are the things you turn toward repeatedly. So, you confess you are still seduced by the old things. You confess you who have been given the gifts of God have turned again to your own filth and sin. What you deserve is judgment. What you deserve is anger and wrath. But behold, God does a new thing. He gives His Son in your place and places a man to speak His love to you. And though you deserve death and judgment, you are told this day, “You are forgiven! You are cleansed in Christ! Eternal life is yours because of His love!” Remember not the former things, for behold God is doing a new thing.
The new thing God is doing turns the old ways over on their head. The new thing does not come with power and might and splendid glory. It comes in a lowly way. It comes in weakness, pain, and suffering. God shocks the world by doing a new thing and sending His only begotten son to bear your curse and to be your sacrifice, to die in your place. God comes to His own creation, and He does not come to smash and destroy, to tear down and obliterate a world of sin. No, He does a new thing. He comes with love and healing. He comes to forgive and to do what you could never have done on your own. He lives without sin. He lives in perfect obedience and then He trades it all for your sin. He exchanges all that is rightly His for all that is yours. And it is not a partial gift. It is not fractional forgiveness. It is total, complete, perfect, and in the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood, He gives it all to you. Remember not the former things, for behold God is doing a new thing.
All those years ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote about the new thing God was doing. He spoke about living water in the desert of sin and death. With great anticipation he says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And today we can answer, “Yes!” Yes, we see the new thing. Perhaps not in its full revelation yet, but we see it. We see it in the gifts of God, in the water, Word, bread, and wine. We see it in the promise of life where there had only been death. We see the beginnings of the new thing.
In the book of Revelation there is a powerful scene towards the end which depicts the unveiling of the new Heaven and new Earth, the eternal paradise for the people of God. And there from the Throne, the voice of God declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Then He says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning, and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” Without payment. Remember not the former things, for behold God is doing a new thing… right now.