Scripture: Isaiah 43:14-21
I have an acquaintance from my childhood whose personal glory years came during high school. Every conversation pretty much includes him talking about high school. That’s when he was the happiest, when life was good for him.
Contrast that with what my mother has said many times about her own life, “Every period of my life is better than the last, and the last one was wonderful.” In other words, life keeps getting better and better.
With which perspective do you most resonate? The best days are in the past? Or the best days are yet to come?
Looking back, I have to say that I’m very grateful that my mom planted that seed in my head, that life is good, and that it gets better with every passing segment. In fact, I recall a specific conversation she and I had that helped me move on and expect great things to come. It was the summer of 1984. I’d graduated from high school and was anticipating beginning college in the fall. We were sitting on the deck of our fire pit in the backyard, and I was lamenting the fact that I was going to really miss my friends as we all go off in our own directions. And she reminded me that I would make lots of friends in college, and that it was more likely that it would be those friends who I would remain in contact with throughout adulthood. She told me that college would be even more exciting than high school, and that after college, having a job, getting married and having children would be even more exciting and adventurous. And you know what? She was right! Now that I have a few more years under my belt, I can say the same thing she’s always said. In the big picture of life, it keeps getting better and better.
Can we say the same thing about the church? Many might point backwards and proclaim that our best years were in the past. Over the course of my three years here, it’s been brought to my attention on many occasions that there was a day when this church had a burgeoning Sunday school. When the place was filled with children and youth. When we had nearly, if not over, 100 in Wednesday Night Live. When finding people to help was fairly easy. When the sanctuary was a lot fuller on a weekly basis. When we had more Adrian College students and professors present in worship. When the Confirmation Class had a dozen or more students. When we had a full-time custodian. When it used to be… I suppose it’s possible to look back and long for the ways it used to be around here. But where does gazing in the rearview mirror get us today?
I, for one, honestly believe the opposite, that our best day are yet to come. And I’m not just playing the cheerleader when I say that. I truly believe it. I think there’s a reason that most mainline churches have experienced a high degree of decline over the past 30 years, and I think it has to do with the fact that most of us lost sight of our purpose. We made busy-ness and programming our purpose. We did our best to keep everyone occupied with doing something, but didn’t give a lot of thought to the Why? behind the What.
I’ve been a pastor for nearly 25 years—half of my life—and until only recently I was utterly unaware of what our purpose is. To be painfully honest, for the first 20+ years of my career I led my congregations as a blind man. In fact, in retrospect it seems to me I was the blind leading the blind, because it would probably be fair to say that the good people of my congregations were just as in dark as I was about our purpose.
But things they are a changing. In the last ten years The United Methodist Church has taken a 180 degree turn. At some point someone with influence and vision helped us see that we were living out the definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Somebody in our denomination looked at the fact that ever since we can into existence in 1968 we’ve been hemorrhaging members every year. Every year. Since 1968 there’s never been a year that The Somebody looked at that statistic and realized that unless we change course, there’s only one ultimate end to that downward trajectory: 0. And thus began a long, often painful look at the soul of our modern-day church.
But here’s the thing—that bit of introspection has resulted in us catching a brand new vision of what can be, of who God would have us be. We’re seeing our purpose with new eyes. We understand, maybe even for the first time in many generations, that our primary purpose is making disciples of Jesus Christ. And that our primary task is to order our church life for those NOT already here, for those yet to respond to the claim of the Gospel. Churches that are living into this purpose and are being outwardly focused are seeing a turnaround. They’re growing. And despite the fact that it may look to the outsider that their best days are in the past, they know that their best days are yet to come. Because now for the first time they’re clear about what God has called them to do and be. I don’t know about you, but I find this exhilarating, and want to be a part of it. How about you?
In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet is writing to his people who were experiencing what’s referred to as the “Exile.” For years and years, the O.T. prophets had been warning the Israelites that unless they stopped rejecting God by thumbing their noses to the Law of Moses, a day would come when a northern nation would invade their country and carry away the people. And while there were periods of repentance and reformation, in the bigger picture they didn’t listen.
Eventually, the prophetic warning became a reality. The king of Babylon invaded and the people were carried most of the Israelites back to Babylon as slaves, leaving beyond a remnant of old and sick people. This Babylonian exile lasted 70 years. Then in 539 BC, Cyrus, the king of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and freed the Jews, allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild.
While in captivity, however, it would be safe to say that they probably pined for the days of yesteryear. “If only things were as they were before, when life was good and we lived every day in the shadow of the holy Temple.” But God had other ideas for them. He wanted to give them a new vision. Not a vision about what used to be, but one about what will be.
So, God uses Isaiah to paint a new picture for them. The Lord your redeemer says, “For your sake I have sent an army to Babylon, turning their singing into lament.” (This is a reference to Cyrus’ eventual invasion.) And then he uses the imagery of the Exodus through the Red Sea as a reminder of what God can and will do for them in the future. “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished like a wick.” In other words, as the Egyptian army went down, so will the Babylonians.
And then God says something quite remarkable. In essence he says to them, As good as it was before, and even as cool as it was when I saved you from the Egyptian army all those generations ago, it’s time to stop talking about what I did for you in the past. What I want to you see and focus on now is what I’m about to do for you. Verse 19 is a key verse: Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? In other words, I’m doing a new thing for you. Can you see it? Can you envision your new life back in Jerusalem? Can you see the rebuilt Temple? In spite of what it has been and is now, can you see your restoration?
Move ahead to today. God’s asking us the same thing today. He’s saying to us, I know your past. I know the way things used to be. I know they were good. But I’m not interested in replicating the good things from your past. I’m interested in doing something new. Can you see it?
In addition to the change we’ve made to our Sunday schedule, I can also announce today that we’ve hired a new Director of Adult Discipleship. Her first day on the job is tomorrow, and she’ll be introduced to you here next week. This is a new full-time position we created, and the major focus will be on helping us grow in our own discipleship and reach out and develop new followers of Jesus Christ. In the months ahead, we’re going to be rolling out a new and heightened emphasis on encouraging all of us, including myself, to align ourselves with our strategy of developing followers through small groups and classes.
Here’s more evidence of God at work here. In keeping with our commitment to starting a 2nd worship service, we are very close to hiring a Music Director-Worship Leader. This is a new, 20-hr/week position. As an administrator, this person will oversee our music ministry. And in addition, they will help us expand our musical repertoire by introducing us to new songs, and eventually will pull together an ensemble to help lead our singing. We’re also going to be doing things to make this worship service more fresh and participatory.
On Saturday, Sept 23 we’re offering something new—a one-morning follow-up to this summer’s Vacation Bible School. It’ll go from 9a-11a. It’s called MakerFest, and you can sign your children/grandchildren up on our website.
From where I sit, it feels like we’ve turned a corner of sorts. For two years we’ve been talking about change. We’ve been looking ahead. But it seems to me like we’ve turned a corner and now we’re going to see God really starting to do things. The truth is, we’ve got some wonderful days behind us. There’s much about our past that we can and should celebrate. But God isn’t leading us into the way into used to be. Rather, he’s leading us forward. He’s doing a new thing among us. May God give us eyes to see it! And may he give us the desire and ability to go with it…wherever he may lead us.