Doing a New Thing

A sermon for April 3, 2022
Isaiah 43:16-21 and John 12:1-8
God speaks to the Israelites, saying, “I will do a new thing.” They need to be ready for God to do what comes next in a new way, one that will be different from any they've seen in the past, surprising and strange. While they cherish the memory of God's previous saving actions,- parting the Red Sea, providing manna when there was nothing to eat - they must be ready to change their thinking and expectations so they can accept God's new thing. They’ve been stuck in remembering the miracles of the exodus. It’s become a part of their identity as a people. “We’re the ones God saved by parting the Red Sea so we could escape and the Egyptians would drown,” they’d brag. But now they’re in the wilderness, where everything is dry. Now God wants to talk about rivers in the desert, rivers that can help them grow food and can carry them in boats. It’s a different aspect of using water to do something good.
God the Creator is in the business of creation, not just creating but re-creating, recombining the old to make new things, the Great Artist with new ideas and plans. The God who made the universe is exponentially better than we are at thinking outside the box. God wants us to say “Yes” to the new things, even when they don’t make sense to us.
As an artist myself, I’ve experienced first-hand the reactions of people who don’t like what I’ve made because it doesn’t fit their personal, preconceived notions of what art “should” look like or be. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” To me that really means, “I like what I know.” I can only keep creating when I ignore the naysayers.
God's creativity is far above and beyond anything we could ever imagine or think of. When God starts doing a new thing, we can’t react with traditional thinking. The seven last words of the church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.”
I love the poster I saw that had a butterfly on it. The caption said, “You can fly, but that cocoon has to go.” If you cut open a cocoon to help the butterfly get out, it won’t survive. A butterfly must experience the struggle of emerging from the cocoon to build the strength it needs to fly.
Change is hard. We’re used to the way things are right now. We don’t want to struggle, adapt and change. We want to stay in our cocoons.
But we don’t have a choice.
We go through many transitions, traumas and changes in our lives. We go from childhood to adulthood, school to work, moves from one place to another, leaving old and joining new churches, making and losing friends or romantic relationships, losing family members to disagreements or to death, marrying and later losing that spouse to divorce or disease. Sometimes other people are cruel, and sometimes we’re the guilty party in a bad situation. COVID wreaked havoc on our daily lives and our relationships. All of these things can affect our faith and cloud our judgement, making us doubt God’s promises in Christ.
Each transition is a form of loss, to a greater or lesser degree. Each requires a time of grief and emotional healing, which can be recognized as having stages. There is no way around the grief process. If you try to ignore it and avoid it, your mental and physical health will suffer. You have to go through it. It’s like that kids’ song about going on a bear hunt. You get to the tall grass or the river or the mud. “Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. Gotta go through it. Swish, swish, splash, splash, squish, squish.”
While you may have heard of the stages of grief, my experience has been that it’s more of a spiral, not a series of discrete steps. You may experience one, some or all of the stages in a single day or even one right after the next. Thank God, the spiral becomes less intense over time.
Hearing bad news initially can send a person into shock and denial. “No, that can’t be!” is a common reaction, even when we’ve been warned and saw it coming. We don’t want to believe what we’re being told. How are we to deal with this change? How could God let this happen?
Then pain sets in, often accompanied by guilt for any part we may have had in the event or anything we think we should have done differently.
If the bad thing hasn’t happened yet, we may feel angry and try to prevent it, consulting experts and bargaining with God about it. After the fact, we can be angry because it happened, and frustrated because we can’t undo it.
Sadness and/or depression are a normal part of grieving, although our culture of not expressing our so-called negative emotions in front of other people makes it difficult to talk about for most of us. During those sad moments, it’s hard to imagine the future as anything but bleak. Trusting God takes courage and practice, especially when God seems silent or absent. But God can be trusted because God is love and has plans to give us hope and a future.
Eventually, we get to the point of acceptance, and even hope that the future will be better. We can stop focusing on how God led us in the past and look for God to do a new thing. I believe this church has some grief work to do. You’ve lost pastors and members. Some of you have lost faith in God’s ability to do a new thing here.
So let’s talk about the Gospel passage for today. Mary, unlike those silly disciples, was listening when Jesus said he was about to die and be raised. She believed him, even though it was hard, even though it was bad news. The other disciples were stuck in denial. Jesus was preparing to do a new thing, but they weren’t ready for it.
Mary had watched Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. She knew the power that was available to him. She also knew that she loved Jesus and didn’t want to watch him die. Pouring costly nard on his feet and wiping it with her hair was her way of showing the depth of her love and her sadness at his coming pain and sacrifice. Instead of waiting to anoint him after his death, she anointed his feet while he was there to accept the gesture.
Judas wasn’t silly. Judas was a sinful naysayer. He was thinking about what he could have done with the money the nard would have brought. Despite watching Jesus perform miracles, he was insecure enough to focus on money instead of trusting God to supply his needs. He was so busy looking at lining his pockets that he wasn’t even thinking about the future.
Mary and Judas are contrasts between a faithful disciple and an unfaithful disciple. Her costly and extravagant gift was a witness to Jesus’ more costly and extravagant gift to come. Judas had to betray Jesus for his arrest, death, and resurrection to occur. Jesus understood Judas and kept him around anyway, because he knew he would need a betrayer so that his destiny could be fulfilled. At the Last Supper, Jesus told Judas, “What you must do, do quickly,”
We don’t choose between the two examples, but are a combination of both. Mary shows us Christian discipleship by her act of adoration and gratitude to the one who alone is holy. She’s not looking for praise or recognition. Judas personifies the part of us that betrays and rejects Jesus at times, failing to trust in his love and provision. God can use both kinds of people. The grace of Christ covers them both, covers us all the time.
What these two passages have in common is that God is getting ready to do a new thing, and some people are ready join God in it while others are not. This sounds a lot like what we’re going through as the Body of Christ. What we’ve been doing for years isn’t working any more. God is doing a new thing. In a way, having a new pastor is a new thing, but I can’t bring change about by myself. I can encourage you, cheer you on, prophesy that God wants to do a new thing at St. Andrew. Are you ready to rethink the mission of this church? Are you ready to stop thinking you’re too old as a group and let God infuse you with holy fire? God led me to go back to school to become a pastor at the age of 61. I was Skyping with my 91-year-old mother last week, and she said she sometimes feels like a leftover. I told her, “You’re not a leftover. You’re a valuable antique!”
I want to challenge everyone who is a part of this church to do something for two minutes every day – pray for this church. Pray for the members, pray for the community, pray for me, and pray for God’s perfect will for us all. Then listen and be open to God’s answers. The God who raised Jesus from the dead can do a new thing here with power and creativity. Be ready! Be open! Be a faithful disciple!
And all God’s people said Amen.

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