Isaiah 43:18-21
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 31, 2023

Of what good is New Year’s?

It may bless us by its parties, football games or opportunities to make well-intentioned resolutions; but its chief blessing is, I think, in its prompting us to look at our future over a big chunk of time – typically, a year.

We can easily fall into looking at our future in just short-term increments: a Tuesday work deadline, a Friday school test or an end-of-the-month medical report!

Sure, it’s good to attend to what’s right in front of us; but it’s also good to deal with our immediate concerns in light of our highest-priority concerns and long-range goals. Otherwise, we might just drift through life from one urgency to another and never get around to any matter of deepest importance. We don’t want to end up somewhere we never aimed for, without any idea as to how to get back on track. We don’t want to be like the sheep in Palestine who in that semi-desert terrain keep their heads down and move from one munch-able clump of grass to another only to look up and realize they’ve lost their way and any sense of how to find home again.

Most of us aspire to make our future at least a little better than our present. But we can’t do that without reflection on the steps that are necessary, evaluation of the route we’ve been traveling and recalibration of our itinerary. New Year’s is a choice moment to do all this.

The Israelites of Isaiah’s day didn’t have New Year’s to help them, but they did have Isaiah, God’s prophet. When after a long exile they’d arrived at a crucial point in reclaiming and rebuilding their nation, Isaiah urged them to step back, take in the big picture and prayerfully consider their trajectory.

While their world and they themselves had changed too much for a return to the way things once were, their central and essential mission in life remained unchanged. Their core purpose was still to glorify God and be a light to the nations. That mission would never vary, though the means by which they’d fulfill it often would.

Isaiah encouraged the people of God to feel free to employ new means to fulfill that ancient, unchanging mission because God is unchanging in His perfection of holiness and loving kindness.

God was their constant in an inconstant world. He was the same powerful and good God who long ago had delivered them from oppression in Egypt and who recently had delivered them from oppression in Babylon. And He was still the God who persists in His overtures of love despite human persistence in rebuffing them; the God who prizes everyone so highly He sacrifices His beloved Servant for them; the God whose heart of mercy never misses a beat, the God who always watches over them and the whole world to manage the course of events with infinite wisdom and faithful care. Even if this God doesn’t keep everything the same, He stays the same in His goodness and grace. And because He stays the same, nothing else has to.

Thus, God had Isaiah pass on this warning from Him: “I am about to do a new thing.” This new thing would be a fresh innovation, but one completely consistent with whom God had always been, and always would be, and completely consistent with His eternal principles and purposes. God wanted His people’s past to be, not a burden that’d weigh them down in their progress, but a launching pad for rising up in works of love and justice uniquely appropriate to their unique context.

God also said here, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Whatever that means, it cannot mean God wanted His people to forget what He’d said and done in the past. After all, He’d been inspiring Isaiah to bring up all that again and again, most recently in the verse preceding this verse. God was speaking poetically and telling His people to cling less tightly to what they were used to and to be more open and receptive to the unfamiliar. God would always be up to His old tricks but in new ways, for new generations on new journeys. God would be doing old things by new means. He’d give them “waters in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people”: the people, God said here, “whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise”. Declaring God’s praise is ever the fundamental purpose His faithful people pursue.

They declare His greatness and goodness both by their worship and by their witness. They fulfill this mission both as a community working together and as individual members of it scattered around. They fulfill it with unified effort as they worship in God’s house and witness beyond God’s house by community service, and they fulfill it separately as they worship in their private “prayer closets” and witness in their distinct social circles.

This call to bear witness to God and His goodness is as old as Abraham whose descendants, God promised, He would bless that they might “be a blessing” and by whom, God promised, “all the families of the earth will be blessed”. This call is also as old as Isaiah through whom God told descendants of Abraham that “it is too light a thing” for them just to take care of each another, for God means for them to be “a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”.

While all people face the same basic human issues and needs, each people group and generation is unique. That means that the wonderful truth about who God is and what He can do must be articulated in a unique way to each person in each generation. We who today are His people are assigned the task of conveying the wonderful, unchangeable truth of God to different people at different times in different worlds than our own.

God loves them as much as God loves us. So we are His faithful people when we listen well to others, get to know them and communicate, by modes that make it clear and compelling for them, the wonderful, unchangeable truth of God!

Answering the call will take us into an unknown future, but one under the control of a known God to whom we can entrust any future. Free of fear, then, let us resolve to be faithful to this, the most important New Year’s resolution of all!

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