|Lent 2007 #2
Expecting a “new thing” Once More
Readings: Philippians 3:4b-14; Isaiah 43:16-21
Introduction: “This is what the LORD says – he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise’” (Isaiah 43:16-21).
Last September, Abilene Christian University hosted its first ever fall Lectureship. As many of you with ACU roots know, their lectures were traditionally held in February, but last year they made the move to September in search of a date less affected by the unpredictable weather patterns of winter in West Texas. As part of this first effort in the Fall, one of the special 3 hour classes was taught by a church consultant named Pat Keifert. Keifert has been working with several people on staff at ACU who are trying to help churches be more effective in reaching people for Christ in the 21st century world that surrounds us. Keifert is also a Lutheran Theologian who serves as a professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary. But his work with ACU over the past 3 years has given him a thorough understanding of life in Churches of Christ among people like us. So they asked him to reflect on what his experiences of studying our churches and our heritage. One of his comments has stayed with me: “You Church of Christ people are great at studying and learning from your past, but you’re not good at all at leaning forward into the Holy Spirit’s future.”
His comment instantly made sense to me. The founding premise of our American church tradition was to go ‘back to the Bible,’ to be like the early church. Our fundamental line of sight for church identity has been backwards, not forward. Looking backward is certainly not a bad impulse. Many of us can argue that history is a very important teacher; that Scripture, after all is our divine authority and so looking at the past is necessary. But it is also true that it is easier to look backwards and study our roots, even critique our heritage, than it is to look forward. It certainly feels safer – and much more comfortable!
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, the Old Testament reading from Isaiah asks us to forget the former things, and not dwell in the past, even though the great works of the Lord have just been remembered. But now, the Lord announces, he is doing a new thing that will change the shape of the future for God’s people. What might it be like for us to contemplate the Lord doing a new thing among us? How might we lean into the Holy Spirit’s future?
Not long after hearing Keifert speak, I read a book by Robert Mulholland entitled “The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self” (InterVarsity Press, 2006). Much of the book is about the false understandings of self that we humans create. Creating a false self is the inevitable result of being disconnected from our real selves made in the image of Creator God and seeking to find identity and security in our own efforts. The temptation is as old as the Biblical stories of Cain (Genesis 4) and the people who built the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). When Cain was confronted by Creator God about the death of his brother Abel, Cain “left the presence of God” and went off in isolation. Only it turns out not to be isolation after all. In verse 17 we are told that Cain “knew his wife” and had a son whom he named Enoch. Then he built a city and named it after his son. Not only is this the beginning of civilization, it is the beginning of legacy building. Following God’s restart of the world in the great flood, humans once more quickly leave relationship with the creator in search of their own way. In building a tower in the heavens they “sought to make a name for themselves” (Gen. 11:4). They were attempting to see God through their own efforts, find identity in their human power and wisdom.
Mulholland claims that the same human search for identity and meaning on our own terms continues to this day. He describes the fear and anxiety and anger, the protective and possessive attitudes that erupt in us to protect our turf, make our own way, create the upper hand in relationship with other humans. But the most insidious version of this false self is that constructed around our own versions of God and faith. Mulholland devotes one chapter to what he calls “the idol in the box” – our human temptation to create gods for ourselves, particularly in the name of our Christian faith here in America. “Any God we have in our life on our own terms is an idol” (p. 49). Our religious false self is characterized by our need to categorize others in ways that always give us the advantage. It is that attitude of “better than,” more right answer than others that I spoke about last week. It is the air of superior religious practice that creates comfort and security and once more puts the human in charge of his or her own world. Succinctly put, Mulholland writes, the religious false self claims to “be in the world for God rather than being in God for the world.”
Do you hear the contrast? To be in the world for God is to believe we are the ones driving the bus. We are busy at work accomplishing great things that God needs of us. This is the life of religious activity that ultimately and always gives attention to humans and our busyness. To be “in God for the sake of the world” is to discover our identity within the community of God. It is to lose ourselves. It is the hard, painful discovery of discipleship that Jesus demands when he says “whoever would save one’s life must lose it;” “whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves and take up a cross and follow me.”
All of the spiritual disciplines that we sometimes talk about – prayer, fasting, contemplation, meditation, Bible study – all just have one purpose in mind. It is to help us sort out the difference between being in God for the world versus being in the world for God. When we do not find our identity and purpose solely in Jesus Christ and the recreated Image of God through the Holy Spirit within, then we create images and understandings for ourselves. In our culture it is easy to search of the church of choice, the worship that fits me, the group that feels compatible with my understandings and emotions. Of course, we can see such false creations in others much more easily than we can see them in ourselves.
It is that self-assured claim of knowing, of being in the world for God that Paul offers as a description of his former life in Philippians 3: “If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6).
Paul can reflect on his past and on the claims of all others who champion that past as the only means to God and claim he was better at it than anyone. He had the right religious and ethnic pedigree. More than that, he knew all the right answers, performed all of the right church practices, and knew a heretic to his faith when he saw one. It is always the way of the religious false self to need to be right, and to categorize anyone who doesn’t agree with us in ways that will give us an advantage. Being right, being blameless, is power!
But now a new thing has happened, something so radical that all of his past has become a religious false self! Paul continues, “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:7-11).
Paul then goes on to echo the words from Isaiah, words that lean into God’s Holy Spirit future rather than continuing to reflect only on the past. “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).
Here is what I fear too easily happens when we become more interested in articulating and studying the past than we are in becoming God’s future. Our present circumstance ends up looking more like Paul’s definition of his past life than his new life. We can talk at length about our right practices, our blamelessness according to doctrine, our multi-generational connections to the Restoration Movement. We settle for “new things” that are little more than tweaks in the week – rearrangements of an hour on Sunday or Wednesday; a version of God and the Christian faith that affirms how we wanted to live otherwise. We find a church full of people with the same set of idols. All goes well at that point as long as everyone maintains the same set of right answers. But when the equilibrium is upset, when our faith is in our version of God who secures our world on our terms, then we start wounding each other in order to regain the advantage of our right answers, our version of God.
Last week, I talked about my own reflections on Lent this year as a time to repent of the need to be right – to realize that the Gospel is not about being right but about being loved. Being right is the religious false self that I given a great deal of my life to! It’s what has made me so good at both celebrating my heritage in churches of Christ and deconstructing that same heritage with great fervor. The truth is, both efforts are equally idolatrous. Being anxious about the future of churches of Christ and wondering whether our brand of American church will survive is idolatrous. Seeking identity in a traditional Church of Christi or a maverick Church of Christ is more of the same! The goal is not to be right but to be the embodied Christ – to want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and conform to his death.
This week I’ve found myself asking what it means expect a new thing for God, to lean forward into God’s Holy Spirit future. What does it mean to say “Whatever were gains to me I now consider as loss for the sake of Christ”? What might it mean for the Otter Creek Church, with all of your wonderful history and tradition, to lean forward into God’s Holy Spirit future? What might it look like to forget what lies behind and press forward – to count all of the previous accomplishments and identity markers as garbage for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord. And don’t forget the radical nature of that claim in Paul’s world where Caesar was Lord in a Roman colony like Philippi; where might makes right and the Pax Romana was established by the same Roman soldiers that were the predominant residents of Philippi. For us to claim Jesus is Lord is to announce the kingdom of God and the peace of God – not Pax Americana, or American civil religion; not right doctrine or local status as progressive church of Christ.
To lean into the Holy Spirit future, to be in God for the sake of the world, is to move beyond real estate and address questions as definitions of this body of believers. It is to live with the conviction that God is working his will, his good pleasure through us. To lean into God’s Holy Spirit future this morning is to expect a new thing, to vulnerably risk leaving behind the comforts and securities prejudices and critiques of others, even our own past, to take up a cross and follow, conforming to his death that we might be raised afresh. It is to believe that God is still at work, bring water to the desert, streams to the wasteland of our lives.
Delivered at Otter Creek, March 25, 2007.
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