Isaiah 43: 18-22
Matthew 25: 31-40
Some time ago on South African TV there was a series known as the “A Team”. I think it is probably known throughout the world. This was about a team of good guys who sorted out the bad guys. It was quite hectic with fighting, fire and overturning vehicles but at the end it was all good. No one was injured or died. The bad guys were just caught or dealt with appropriately. One of the main characters, Hannibal, concluded each episode with a cigar to his lips and saying “I love it when a plan comes together.”
God loves it when a plan comes together. In the midst of struggle, suffering, oppression and persecution God always has a plan to rescue, deliver and instil hope and recovery. Our readings from Isaiah and Matthew tell us that God is bringing in God’s new thing. The Isaiah passage reflects on the exile of the Israelites in Babylon where their sufferings and experiences caused them to turn their backs on God.
The prophet chastises them in most of the previous chapters but in chapter 43 he points them to the new thing that God is doing among them, with them and hopefully through them. He calls them to “forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” It is not a call to write off the past but to move on to embrace the new. In fact, what the Prophet Isaiah is saying is this: When you see what God is going to do it will drive the past into oblivion. The new is going to be so much better, so much exciting, so much promising that you would not dwell (sit, labour or rest) in the past. Isaiah was pointing the people of Israel to a “new exodus” a movement and journey that would mirror and reflect God’s mercy, grace, provisions and glory.
The WCC is now in a new place with mostly new leadership, hopefully a new direction and future is before us. Perhaps God is saying to us, “See, I am doing a new thing amongst you. Do you not perceive it?” There are 3 things I would like to say about God’s new thing.
1. GOD IS DOING THE NEW THING
This is a simple but profound statement. God is the initiator and executor of the new thing, not us. Israel is a recipient of God’s grace and love. God takes them through the wilderness, from the hands of oppression and persecution to the Promised Land of prosperity and joy. He reminds them that He created and formed them. And God calls them to: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.” These are strong words of affirmation that they belong to God and they are safe because God is in control.
“God is in control” these are words we need to hear today in the midst of the after effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the midst of continued infections, sicknesses, suffering, death, unemployment, hunger, mental, emotional and spiritual struggles. And especially in the context of an unnecessary war in Ukraine and Russia, the climate emergency, gender-based violence, abuse of women and children and poverty; yet God is in control. God is not only in control, better still, God is doing a new thing.
Friends when God is doing a new thing no one, absolutely no one can stop God. I don’t know about you but I have learnt this in my own personal life experiences that I can’t stop God from doing what God wants to do, and no one can stop God from doing what God wants me to do, if I am willing to follow him in obedience and trust.
When God wanted to take his people out of Egypt no one, not Pharaoh, his army or the sea could prevent their exodus. God did a miracle by dividing the waters to set his people free. You can’t stop God.
When God called Nehemiah to go and build the wall around Jerusalem there was huge opposition but Nehemiah built that wall to protect Israel. Why? Because you can’t stop God!
When God wanted to save Nineveh no one could stop that. Not even a reluctant and sulking prophet Jonah whose heart was not in the message he preached. All of Nineveh was saved. Why? Because you can’t stop God!
When the Wisemen did not return to tell King Herod about the baby Jesus, Herod out of fear and jealously ordered the execution of all male children under the age of two but did not succeed in killing Jesus. Why? Because you can’t stop God!
When God is doing God’s new thing it cannot be business as usual.
2. WE MUST PERCEIVE (SEE) WHAT GOD IS DOING
God is doing a new thing. God makes all things new because of His love, not because we are righteous, good, worthy or understand God. It’s purely because of his grace and love which we receive by faith. The tragedy is that God has done all of this for us but sometimes we just cannot see it. The people of Israel could not see it.
Therefore, it is very interesting that verse 18 in Isaiah 43 ends with a question: “See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? God calls them to “see” and that is followed by the question, do you not perceive it?
The word ‘perceive’ means to become aware or conscious of something; come to realise or understand; to interpret or regard in a particular way. Another word is to discern. That is Israel’s problem and ours; we cannot perceive what God is doing amongst us. Why is this so? We may be too preoccupied with our own agendas, wants and desires. We allow our personalities and problems to get in the way. We are too busy with life and living, work and pleasure that we have no time to stop and SEE what God is doing. The coronavirus pandemic has stopped us from doing a lot of things but the question is: “What are we seeing?”
For me the word ‘perceive’ means something more. It means to gaze and not glance, to look deeply and intently, to see beyond the current circumstances. Let me illustrate this with some biblical examples.
Abraham saw God, he perceived, understood, interpreted, looked intently at God but more significantly he saw beyond his situation and comfort when God called him to venture into the unknown.
Noah saw beyond the dry wilderness when God called him to build an ark.
Mary saw beyond her situation when God called her to be the mother of the holy child.
Paul saw beyond his own life when God called him to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Are you seeing, perceiving beyond your situation, beyond the pandemic, beyond your personal challenges, beyond the wicked problems in the world?
The WCC faced some serious financial challenges at the end of last year and it still does, and it is really unfortunate that we had to take some very necessary actions to address the financial situation. Yet, we cannot get stuck on our limitations and challenges. Through the eyes of faith, we must see beyond that, we must see the new things that God is calling us into as an organisation. What is God calling us into, this leads me to my next point.
3. GOD IS CALLING US TO WORK WITH HIM IN PROCLAIMING GOD’S NEW THING
God not only initiates God’s new thing, he does not only call us to see his new thing but he also invites us to join/ participate with him in doing His new thing. We must join with God in reaching out to the world with the good news of salvation, the gospel of peace and love. We must tirelessly work against injustice, sin, oppression, evil systems and wickedness in the world. We must work for the good of the world and the glory of God so that God’s reign and presence would fill the whole world.
God calls us to express our visible unity in Christ as we reach out to heal, restore and reconcile the world in God’s name. In this week of Christian unity we are reminded that we are called to work together in unity and love to build and not destroy the new thing God is doing. We are called to be the theatre of God’s glory as we reflect God’s love and presence to the world around us.
When times get tough we need to stop, see and perceive, understand, interpret and see beyond the present the new thing God is doing among us. It’s not about you, me, us and them. We make it work because it is all about God. It is God’s new thing!
In Matthew 25 God calls us to do what God wants us to do, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the sick and visit those in prison.
It is not only a new way of doing but a new way of being, of being the people of God on earth. A new way, an alternative society, the people of God.
Let me conclude with a story. Two ministers were chatting one day and the one said to the other, “In my congregation I have 100 active people.” To which the other responded, “Well, that’s incredible! In my congregation I don’t even have 40 active members.” The first minister replied, “Yes, I have 100 active members but 50 are actively working with me and the other 50 are actively working against me.”
Where are you? Are you actively working with God in God’s new thing or working against God? God is doing a new thing in the WCC. My prayer is that we would all work with God in doing God’s good, perfect and pleasing will of justice, peace, reconciliation and unity.
Rev. Prof Jerry Pillay
World Council of Churches general secretary