Read the passage here.
New Year’s – or generally, the beginning of the calendar year – is a strange time. People are full of optimism, making resolutions on how they are going to make this coming year, ‘the best year yet.’ In some way, we all recognize that our lives are not what they are supposed to be. We eat too much, we drink too much, we spend too much money. Maybe we want to organize our time better, or keep our houses cleaner, we want to watch less tv, or read more. Maybe we want to get better at a skill or learn a new language. Whatever it is, we think that we, or our lives, could somehow be better – should somehow be better.
And we begin with vim and vigor, making good progress. But it doesn’t take too long until we fall into our usual patterns, get bored, or get tired. Oftentimes, one slip up is all it takes for us to give up our resolutions altogether.
Our passage today is from Isaiah 63. It’s also taken from the Revised Common Lectionary, indicated as one of the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas.
Our passage today begins with a statement of the goodness and faithfulness of God, Yahweh. It immediately pulls us back into the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph and Moses. God chose His people, Israel, and chose to bless them so that through them, He might bless the whole world. We won’t rehearse again the story of redemption as it’s recounted in the Pentateuch – we should hopefully be familiar with it by now.
In the lectionary, this is technically a Christmas passage, inasmuch as Christmas is a season, and not just a day. And so it points backwards to the fulfillment we see in the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus, also called the Christ.
And as we look forward to the New Year, it’s an appropriate selection. Because as we approach a new year, filled with hopes, challenges, and anxieties, we need to be reminded that, in all things, God is faithful.
But once again, if we read only these verses, we miss what’s going on in the larger picture. The remainder of Isaiah 63 flesh this out.
In short, the prophet recalls (or recollects his hearers to) Israel being called, yet rebelling against God. Therefore, God (apparently) rejected or punished them. And the people called out to God to remember them. And God remembered. God was faithful. But Israel failed again. And again, and again. They found themselves overrun by their enemies and carried away from the promised land. Now, in the midst of their current situation, Israel, lost and forsaken, call out to God again. Now that they have been overcome by their enemies, Israel looks to the same God that delivered them out of Egypt to deliver them once again.
And I think it’s precisely that memory that our passage calls us back to. In the midst of their present suffering and current doubt, it’s precisely the memory that Israel needs to hold on to. Because the memory isn’t just located in the past, but the memory is also a promise.
There’s a lot more to be said about the passage. However, as I said, I’m hoping that we can take the opportunity, at this time of year, to pause and reflect. Over the past while (that is, several years – at least), we’ve been talking a lot about the notion of “what kind of people are we going to be?” I think that, as a church (that is, both as a group of people, and as individual people), this needs to be the primary question.
And I know that there are other perspectives on church that focus on “what are we trying to do?”, “who are we trying to reach?” and a variety of other questions. Today is not the time to delve into the dynamics and implications of all that. I simply want to say once again that, in my opinion, “who are we trying to be?”, “what kind of people are we trying to be?” is the primary question.
Now in one sense, we’ve been talking about this a lot, and I don’t want to spend time covering old ground. In another sense, this is a question that’s simply too large to discuss here. However, there’s a few things that I want to mention, in very brief form.
In my opinion, we want to be a people that take God seriously (as God)
This should seem obvious, but I’m not sure that it always is. What I mean is that we want to take God seriously as God – not as a spiritual security blanket, not as a cosmic butler, and not as divine principle. We desire to take seriously that God is God and we are not.
Therefore, we want to be a people who take the word of God seriously. Because as much as we think we know what god should look like and what god is supposed to do, the word of God reveals to us who God actually is and ewhat God is actually doing.
Also, we want to be a people that take community seriously
We believe that human beings were meant to be in creation with human beings. And we believe that all human beings are made in the image of God. And that community means not just creating fences to include those people who are most like ourselves, but being open to the fullness of humanity that God has given us. It’s only in the context of others that we can most be who God has made us to be.
Therefore, we want to be a people that takes the church seriously. We desire to be a people striving to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. We believe that churches, that this church, can point people to God. We want to be a church that works in this world towards the kingdom. And we want to be a people that demonstrates, imperfectly but even still, what that kingdom might look like in how we live with and love one another.
Now that’s a very brief, incomplete, over-simplified sketch of some of the things we value as a community. We could have spent a lot more time talking about what those things are, and what they look like, and how we will do this. And don’t get me wrong, in order to be a particular kind of people, we also have to do things. We can’t become without some sort of doing. But that’s not the point of this message today.
The point of the message, and what I understand when I reflect on our passage, is simply this: We will not get this right. Or, perhaps more accurately, we cannot get this right by relying on our own efforts.
Our passage today, and the verses that follow in the rest of Isaiah 63, remind us of the story of Israel, the story of God’s people. And the story reminds us that, over and over, in spite of God’s repeated grace, mercy, and faithfulness, Israel repeatedly rejects God, forgets what He did and where they came from, and tries to do it under their own strength and wisdom. For those hearing these words, reflecting on where they are in Babylon, trying to recover a sense of who they are in a foreign nation, in an alien culture, they would unavoidably be reminded of how they wound up where they were in the first place. And it was precisely because of the unfaithfulness of the nation, the apostasy of the people.
But our passage today, closing out our Christmas reflections, and looking forward to the new year, reminds us that it’s God’s faithfulness that matters, not ours. It’s God’s purposes and plans that matter and not ours. It’s Jesus’ work on the cross, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, that brings us into new life.
As we sit at the threshold of the new year, many of us will wonder (either in hope or anxiety) what the new year will bring. Many of us will make resolutions. Some of us may succeed in those resolutions. As a church, we will think about what we want to do, what we want to accomplish, and mostly (I hope) who we will seek to be.
My point is not that these things, these efforts, don’t matter. They do matter. How we seek to live, how we seek to become, matters. Therefore, what we do, the choices we make, and the actions we take, matter.
However, my point is that God’s kingdom – and therefore our redemption – don’t depend on these things. The establishment of God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on us. It’s entirely the work of God.
Therefore, we are free. We are free to try sincerely but not worry about the outcome, because the ultimate outcome is up to God. We are free to succeed and not worry about who gets the credit. We are free to make mistakes. We are free to fail spectacularly and know that we are still loved. We can focus on those things that concern us and not worry about having to save the world.
I think there are lots of ways to be, and therefore to do, church. I do also believe that there are ways that are not bible-based and God honouring. But I believe there are lots of ways to be church that are bible-based and God honouring. So the thing is not to get it right. The thing is to be faithful. The thing is not to be perfect; it’s to always return to God, to be brought back into the story of God’s redemption.
So, as we contemplate the new year, let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all of our strength, and love our neighbours. Let us do so with all of our imperfect, broken, selfish, wavering beings. And let us keep our eyes fixed on what God is doing in our midst.