Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-25; Ephesians 3: 14-21
During my Easter break I watched a film, which was recommended to me by someone here, called Goodbye Lenin. It’s a German film, set in Berlin around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It centres on the relationship between a son and his mother. The mother, who has been a committed Communist activist, has a massive heart attack and goes into a coma which lasts for 8 months. So she misses the decline of Communism, the fall of the wall, the opening of the border between East and West Berlin and the rapid advance of capitalism.
When the mother emerges from the coma, the doctor tells her son that any shocks could cause another heart attack and this time it’s likely to be fatal. So the son decides to stop her finding out what has happened whilst she was in the coma. To try to make her think life continues as always.
Much of the rest of the film is about his increasingly desperate, and tragically funny, attempts to hide what is going on in the city outside. There’s one particularly funny scene, on the mother’s birthday, when the son is telling her how she is loved and respected for her commitment to Communism, and over his shoulder, we see through a window to a building on the far side of the street, where a massive Coca Cola banner is unravelling.
Change is happening all around her and, in fairness, with the best on intentions, the son his trying to stop his mother seeing it. He thinks he’s protecting her. But he’s keeping her stuck in the past, in a rapidly changing world. A new thing is springing up. New life, lots of new possibilities (not all necessarily good), and new hopes are emerging. But the mother cannot see it.
It’s that idea of seeing signs of new hope, new life that is behind the word we’re turn to this morning, and will consider over the next few weeks. Over the last few months we’ve been looking at different phases or seasons on the spiritual life. Each season, or phase, has been assigned one of the words on the screen. The word we are starting to consider today is Behold!
I’ve grouped these 12 words into 4 bigger seasons, like our natural seasons. The first three words were like the summertime of our faith. It’s a time of enjoying the warmth of our faith. With Here we sense God’s presence, with O we are praising him, with Thanks we are recognise blessings that God has given us.
With the next three words we considered an autumnal season. There is still warmth, but there are also colder winds. We recognise our own frailty, our own capacity to get stuff wrong and mess up. Confession or Sorry is a healthy part of the spiritual life. We have our struggles and turn to God for Help! We are moved with compassion when we see the struggles of others. That’s what we thought about with Please!
But over the last few months we’ve considered some darker, tougher words. These were the Winter season of faith. In the time of When?, struggles aren’t resolved quickly. We’re crying out how long, O Lord? We might find ourselves in that time of No! where we refuse just to quietly accept things as they are. Then we looked at the question of Why? Why is it like that? Why must it be this way?
The thing about seasons is that we can’t control them. Like much of life, they happen to us, whether we want them or not.
But another thing about seasons is that they change. Admittedly this year winter proved rather reluctant to go away. But as you grow, you soon realise that if you just wait seasons do turn around. It’s not like Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… always winter but never Christmas. Winter does give way to spring.
Those keen on gardening may be the first to spot it. Those first shoots start to peek up through the hard, winter soil. The garden has looked dead, like absolutely nothing is happening for months. Then you see… through it all, life has kept going. New life has been emerging. If you’re not quick enough to spot it, that first cut of the lawn soon becomes a real struggle. Not saying that’s happened to anyone!
Well, with these last few words, we’ve been through winter. We’re emerging into Spring. The potential for new hope and new life is emerging.
Thing is, unless we’re looking, in those early stages we might not immediately see or recognise it. We might not notice.
That’s what this word Behold! is all about. It’s an invitation to see it.
It’s not taking a quick glance. It’s about really noticing it, understanding what’s going on.
It’s like those disciples on the Emmaus road who suddenly had their eyes open, and saw things differently.
In one sense it might feel we’ve been here before. In those early, summertime words, where I was encouraging you to notice the presence of God, to be moved with awe and wonder, or to stop, in the busyness of life and notice the good thing that comes into our lives. Things for which we should be thankful.
But this is quite different. There’s a kind of blissful naivety in those summer phases. But with Behold! you’ve been through the winter. You’ve experienced times when everything’s falling apart, when it’s stopped making sense, when you’ve thought I’m not getting through this.
Yet you’re still here…
…and despite it all, perhaps completely unexpectedly, new life, new possibilities start emerging.
Don’t get me wrong. Behold! is not about blind optimism. It’s not about denial. It’s not about glossing over the struggles and the horror of what you’ve faced.
Pain, suffering, loss, struggle, trial, whatever form it takes, affects people in all sorts of different ways.
But one thing is always true.
It never leaves us unchanged.
Last week, in his encounters with the disciples and Thomas, we see Jesus, in his risen life, still bearing the scars of his crucifixion. In fact the scars help them recognise him. In Genesis there’s a story of a man called Jacob who encounters and wrestles with a mysterious figure… a man, an angel, God, it’s never really fully explained. It changes him, in some good ways. But in the struggle he is injured and from then on walks with a limp.
The struggle left it’s mark.
So, whatever has caused you to say When? How Long?…
Whatever has caused you to say No! I refuse to accept this is how it should be and always will be…
Whatever has caused you to cry out Why?…
…Behold! is not about saying it didn’t matter.
…Behold! is not about simply returning to how it was.
…Behold! is not about blurring distinctions between good and bad, like it’s just a matter of perspective.
…Behold! is not even about saying there is something good about the bad we encountered.
Some stuff you just don’t get over.
Some stuff you live with.
But there’s a short, but very important word in that sentence.
Some stuff you live with.
There is life… afterwards.
It might be hard to see it. It may look different.
But there is life.
Christians have a word for this.
Behold! is about saying new life is possible.
There is potential for good to emerge, whatever we face.
There is nothing from which God cannot bring good.
God is able, as Ephesians says, to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine…
Or that phrase, from writer Francis Spufford which was on the board in my office for so long, which I keep coming back to…
More can be mended than you know.
But the fact that we have to summoned to Behold!, to notice, to see it, suggests it’s not always obvious. It can go unnoticed. It can be missed. We need to look out for it.
That’s what was going on in the Isaiah reading. This was a promise made people in exile in Babylon.
A generation before, their nation had been all but destroyed. They’d lived in Judah, the last remnant of the old Kingdom of Israel. Then Babylon, the military superpower of their day, attacked and conquered Jerusalem. Their monarchy fell, their temple was destroyed and the people, or at least those whom the Babylonians thought useful, were taken to a foreign, pagan land in exile.
Everything that gave this people their identity as a nation was stripped away.
Land. Temple. Kingdom. They lost the lot.
In the early days of exile many had said don’t worry, God won’t let this situation last long. You can read about them in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. One of the things that made Jeremiah extremely unpopular in his day was that he was the one saying this won’t end quickly.
And Jeremiah was right. 60 years later they were still there. Then Babylon itself was conquered by a Persian leader called Cyrus. It’s to that time and to that people that the words in Isaiah were addressed. It was a word or a promise suggesting new possibilities, new life, new beginnings…
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?
That word see? It’s a call to Behold!
Look intently. Watch. Notice. Understand what’s happening.
But, if the people listening were completely honest, quite possibly their answer would have been ‘no, we don’t see it.’
There are all sorts of reasons why it might have been difficult. It had been 60+ years. At a time when life expectancy was much lower than in 21st Century Britain. For most of these people exile was all they had ever known.
And at the bottom of the pile, does it really matter who’s in charge of the empire? They had no great affection for Babylon. They might even have enjoyed someone doing to Babylon what Babylon had done to them. But who was to say the new bad guy at the top was any different to the previous bad guy at the top? One tyrant can be as bad as another.
Cyrus was a very different kind of leader. He was quite enlightened for his era, respected people’s cultures and religions and saw no advantage in keeping people in exile. Cyrus allowed Israel to return home. But it would take time to see God at work in that.
But few, if any, had any real knowledge of Jerusalem. It may have been part of their heritage, but it was still just a city that lay in ruins hundreds of miles away. It would involve months of travel across dangerous terrain.
Babylon was what they knew. Life would not be easy to rebuild. Not everyone chose to make the journey.
But there was another, more religious or spiritual reason, for their thinking. They had been through the winter of exile. They had been through the When?, No! and Why? They had questioned their whole relationship with God.
Was God was all they had thought he was?
Had God been defeated with them?
Had God just abandoned them and forgotten them?
Others understood it as punishment from God. They’d had a covenant with God. They knew what God had wanted of them. For 200 years different prophets had warned them what would happen if they hadn’t changed their ways. But they didn’t listen.
They also had an understanding of what they needed to do to set things right. But they couldn’t do anything about it. It required sacrifices in a temple which no longer existed, and which was hundreds of miles away anyway.
This was a people needing a Behold! moment.
Like the disciples on the Emmaus road they needed to see things differently. To look and to notice what was going on. To see God at work in it.
Change was happening, but like the sick mother in Goodbye Lenin, they were couldn’t see it, and it was stopping them from moving on.
Within the reading there is a tension between remembering and forgetting. The passage starts with God reminding them of who he was, how he had helped them in the past. He reminds them of the story of the Exodus. How, as they tried to escape from the Egyptians, God had parted the waters, they had crossed on dry land, then as the Egyptians tried to chase them down, the waters closed over on them.
Then having just reminded them of something he did back then, he says something odd…
Do not cling to events of the past
or dwell on what happened long ago.
Watch for the new thing I am going to do.
It is happening already—you can see it now!
There is a tension in the passage. There seems to be some things it is good to remember but as the great Irish playwright Brian Friel said, to remember everything is a form of a madness. There are somethings it is better to forget, to leave behind.
In the life of faith there is always a tension between what needs to be remembered and what needs to be forgotten. In the Old Testament God constantly reminds the Israelites what he has done for them, how he has shown he is with them, he shown his love for them. In the New Testament Jesus does the same thing. He tells the disciples to remember him in bread and wine.
But it’s the right stuff that needs to be remembered. The past has a role. When we look back we may see what God has done, it tells us what God is capable of. We may hope he shows his love for us again.
But we can get stuck in the past when what is required is to look to the future. The past can teach us, but it must not be allowed to bind us. The past can become an idealised place when the present or the future is too frightening to think about. Or it can be a foundation on which we build. The past can give us hope about what the future might hold, but it can also become a curb on our imagination.
There is stuff to remember. If they think the journey to a new life is difficult, he wants them to remember that he’s done it before. He took them through the waters, he took them through the desert, he provided for them throughout the journey, even when though the constantly complained about him. He can do that again.
But there is also stuff to forget
What events of the past does God not want them to cling to?
What things that happened long ago does God not want them to dwell on?
I think there are two things. They’re closely linked.
One is to forget about the way they messed up on the past. Not in the sense that he doesn’t want them to learn from their mistakes. But we can carry stuff that’s already been dealt with. We can refuse to accept we can be forgiven, struggle to forgive ourselves and it stops us rebuilding. That is unhealthy.
A major part of the prophet’s message, in the second part of Isaiah, starting from chapter 40, is that however badly they messed up and however much they think God is finished with them, a new beginning is possible.
The first words of chapter 40 are
Comfort my people. Comfort them. Encourage them.
Tell them they have suffered enough
Their sins are now forgiven
Basically, yes, you messed up, but it’s sorted, it’s been dealt with. Why keep carrying the weight of it around with you when it’s been dealt with? This use of forget. It’s more like my great talent for leaving stuff behind. Glasses, hats, whatever… That’s what God is saying. Leave it behind. You don’t need it. It’s not helpful. It’s stopping you from seeing the new possibilities opening up in front of you.
But they need a different view of God and what he can do in them and for them.
They’ve been through the winter, but they’re entering the spring.
A new thing is happening.
New life, new possibilities are springing up.
They might struggle to see it, cos it’s happening in an unusual way. Cyrus was an unlikely person through whom God worked.
They had been through the winter of exile. It looked like everything was lost. But there were no dead ends with their God. It might have been hard to see right now, but their God could do immeasurably more than they could ask or imagine. New life was possible. God could bring good out of it. Even out of exile. More could be mended than they know.
They may not have realised it, but new life had already developing in the winter of exile. Much of our Old Testament, much of the way they came to understand God, much of how we in turn have come to see God it emerged not in the glory days of King David and Solomon. It was in the days of exile.
It wasn’t to say exile was good. It was an horrendous, traumatic experience. They never forgot how terrible it was. They preserved the memory of it in, amongst other places, the book of Lamentations, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Yes, they could own their past. They needed to own it. They needed to learn from it.
But it wasn’t to define them.
There was new life ahead.
New beginnings were possible.
But this different view of God wasn’t just about his power. It was also about his love.
But.. but… but they say, thinking of the temple, the sacrifices, the things they cannot offer.
But God tells them that whole sacrifice thing? It was never about that anyway. It never really worked anyway.
This new starts was possible, just because that’s what God is like.
Just because he loved them.
God hadn’t given up on them.
God couldn’t give up on them.
God hadn’t forgotten them.
His love and care was way beyond their imagining. They could never fully grasp just how wide, high, deep and long God’s love is. I mean we can’t. So what chance had they who loved before the cross.
But God loved them with a love which was making the new life possible. God wanted them to forget about the past and step into the future he was making for them, because forgetting that past was precisely what God wanted to do.
New life, new beginnings…
It’s not just something that God did once for Jesus in a garden 2000 years ago. It’s what God is always in the business of doing, whether we notice it or not.
Perhaps you are in, or have passed through a winter period, a season of When?, No!, or Why?
Well this morning you need to hear the seasons do turn. It won’t be always winter. Winter will give way to spring.
You might feel that God’s forgotten you.
You might wonder if God has given up on you.
Maybe at times they feel like giving up on themselves.
New beginnings are possible.
Not because of what we do, or think we can do, but because simply because of who God is.
This is not a message about getting over it.
Some stuff you will continue to live with.
But don’t forget that important word.
Live. There is life. New life, new beginnings are possible.
So Behold! Look out for it. Watch! Notice!
You’ve been through the winter and you don’t have to pretend it didn’t matter; that things will go back to how they were; or that’s it really wasn’t as bad as you thought. You are free to name it for what it is.
But behold! Look out for winter giving way to spring. You can’t make it happen. But it does happen. Seasons do turn around.
It might not always be easy to see.
But new life is possible.
The God who asks you trust him, to behold is able, to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine…
He loves you with a love which, from whatever angle you look at it, is far greater than you can get your head around. Higher, wider, longer, deeper….
And because of that power and love, there is potential for good to emerge, whatever we face.
There is nothing from which God cannot bring good.
More can be mended than you know