more than we knew: variations on the theme of new in the key of now, part i.

For the next three weeks, we’re going to take
a more topical approach than is our custom—
reflecting on, contemplating and considering an idea.
I don’t know … it seemed like a good idea at the time!
You see, originally, for these first three Sundays of November,
I had thought to explore “the new city,” “the new temple” and “the new creation.”
Then I got to worrying about how much
of the same thing I might end up saying each week.
With all that new I might not have anything new to say!

But then I got to thinking how much familiar biblical imagery
revolves around what’s “new”—
whether that’s the new city, the new heaven, the new earth,
the new self, the new spirit, the new heart, the new creation—
whether it’s the new thing God is doing,
the new song, the new commandment, the new name,
the new teaching, the new covenant, the new life.

Surely I can’t exhaust the theme of new in one Sunday—
or even three!
So I started with my concordance—
looking up occurrences of the word “new.”
Actually not as many as I would have thought,
but a good number and, as we noted,
applied to a number of different things.

Our focal text this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah,
the 43rd chapter: “See I am about to do a new thing.
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

And mulling that question over: “Do you not perceive it?”,
I got to thinking, we don’t do new. Not really.
We don’t think in terms of new.
We think in terms of known.
And what’s known is not new.
It’s old.
We think in terms of old.
See I am about to do a new thing.
And so the question really isn’t so much
do we perceive it, as can we perceive it?
Can we see the new wine?
Or do we just pour it into the same old same old wineskins
(Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-39)?

We are surrounded, I sometimes think,
by bushes that burn but are not consumed,
yet we remain oblivious to the fires all around us.
We’re surrounded by stairways or ladders into heaven—
into the very presence of God, who comes down
those stairways and ladders into our very midst,
usually unbeknownst to us—
we who are surrounded by old wineskins
that contain so much more than we could ever imagine.

Now it’s not all our fault!
We have a culture that both devalues and underestimates new.
New TV shows and movies are based on familiar, formulaic plots—
often reboots.
New i-phones and new windows are not new!
They’re i-phones and windows with upgrades—
with some bugs worked out hopefully—
with a few additional features.
Is that new?
Really?

We’re also limited by our perspective.
We do the best we can.
At the London museum of natural history,
we saw the skull of a mastodon—
an extinct ancestor of the elephant.
Fossils of mastodons have been found on the Greek mainland
and some of the Mediterranean islands,

and looking at this massive skull, it was very clear
how if you were looking at such a massive skull—
and didn’t know about mastodons,
and so were imagining what sort of creature it might have been—
and so not knowing that that big hole in the skull,
right there, front and center,
was where a trunk was attached,
it would not have been that great a stretch of the imagination
to deduce … a Cyclops.
Doing the best they knew to do,
but before such skulls were identified,
they were misidentified.

We see darkly, we do; we see in part.

But every now and again, there comes a time
and someone sees more than has been seen before—
sees more clearly than has been seen up to that point.
Whether that’s by virtue of insight, discipline, hard work,
brilliance, commitment, luck,
someone sees through the darkness, past the parts
to a greater wholeness.
We call them break throughs.

Russ Dean and I have been in conversation for years now,
and Rob Bell came out with a book earlier this year,
about how quantum physics has required
a reevaluation of so many of our assumptions—
as what appears to be solid, isn’t.
There’s more empty space to this pulpit
than there is any thing.
What appears to be unrelated, isn’t;
what appears to not be in communication, is,
and the behavior of pairs or groups of particles is linked
in quantum entanglement, and even separated,
they’re somehow in touch and effect each other.
And it is our own investment in what we see
that, more than we ever suspected, determines reality
in the observer effect in which the act of observing effects change.
Our participation in creation is, in truth then, ongoing creation.

And something thought to be either this or that
can turn out to be both at the same time—
energy and matter can act like particles and like waves.

There was once the expectation of a parallel
between the movement of planets in the solar system around the sun
and subatomic movement around the nucleus,
but unlike the heavenly bodies, “electrons don’t orbit the nucleus
in a continuous and consistent manner; what they do is
disappear in one place and then appear in another place
without traveling the distance in between ….
particles are constantly in motion,
exploring all of the possible paths from point A to point B at the same time.
They’re simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
A given electron not only travels all of the possible routes
from A to B, but it reveals which path it took
only when it’s observed” (Rob Bell,
What We Talk About When We Talk About God
[New York: HarperCollins, 2013] 36-37).

Danish physicist “Niels Bohr said anyone who wasn’t outraged
on first hearing about quantum theory
didn’t understand what was being said” (Bell, 41).

Outraged or not, quantum computing will eventually
not work out problems as our binary computers do—sequentially:
figure this out, then move on to that, then that,
but simultaneously. So what takes current super computers days to do,
will take a quantum computer seconds.
And fast?
An “electron can do forty-seven thousand laps around a four mile tunnel
in one second” (Bell, 40).

So we were talking about break throughs.
Break throughs happen in history,
but we usually can’t look ahead to see what’s coming—
to recognize the implications of what’s coming.
Nor do we tend to recognize a breakthrough when it’s first offered—
the reevaluation it requires of everything we thought we knew.

Break throughs are recognized most clearly looking back
seeing how everything changed—
and then seeing how some people got on board late
as they came to see, and how some never did—
arguing until their dying day that the old rules still applied.

Though, looking back, what we tend not to see—
especially the further from break throughs we get in time,
is all the preliminary work leading up to them.
We tend not to see them as process—as conversation.
We think if Copernicus, for example,
and his idea that the earth revolves around the sun instead of vice versa,
and we tend not to think of his teachers and conversation partners.

And for those who achieve a break through,
usually most aware of their place in a development of ideas,
and those who appreciate it,
often less aware of process,
there’s more than just pride and admiration.
There’s also WOW!
There’s so much more than we knew.
So much more at which to marvel.

And here’s what struck me as interesting.
Break throughs are most often about a new way of expressing—
a new way of seeing, thinking, understanding or explaining—
full of new possibility, previously unsuspected,
but they’re all expressions and explanations of what’s around us.

It’s not reality that changes—that’s new,
but our perspective—our understanding of it.
Quantum reality has always been real,
but not been experienced before—not been known before.
So quantum theory may be new,
but not quantum reality, right?
Unless knowing it made it so—
which in quantum theory is not out of the realm of the possible!
There’s typically though, a break through the known,
but not into the unknown, but into some kind of re-known!

And we acknowledge and celebrate
how much more there is than we thought we knew—
how much we assume there still is we only think we know—
without assuming we’ll reach a point
where we’ll understand it all.

So when God says, “See I am about to do a new thing
that will curl your toes—
give you goosebumps—
take your heart into your throat—
bring tears to your eyes—
stutter your breath—
or take your breath away,
see I am about to break through—
break through into new—
break through you—
break you through—
break through the old—
what you think you know.
Jim Morrison was actually quoting God
when he sang about breaking on through to the other side!
As a preacher, you just got to quote the Doors when you can,
don’t you think?!
When God says, “See, I am about to do a new thing,”
it is more than you can envision—
more than you could know to hope for.

So what is it?
You keep talking about it. We get it, it’s a big deal in Scripture.
What is it?

A word of warning first.
New carries with it always
the hope of better.
And the excitement of new
can rather easily be manipulated.
And that can get us in trouble, can’t it?
We can just keep bouncing from one thing to a new thing—
from one relationship to a new one.
There’s something about this new though—God’s new,
that has to do with roots—
with growing in knowing.

But what is this “new” of which you speak?
Give us this news.

That’s why we call it the news, isn’t it?
The new information—most current—up-to-date.
The news is what we know not, right?
If we knew it, it wouldn’t be new and so couldn’t be news.

“You don’t really know, do you, John?
You’re talking about new, but you can’t tell us what it is.”

And on top of all that, we are those who proclaim good news.
So what is our news—our good news?
What’s new about it?
What’s still new about it after thousands of years?!

And what did we not know before it was news to us?
That’s worth considering too
(even as another obvious stalling tactic!).
What did we not know before it was news to us?
Maybe how beloved we are?
How much God expects of us?
How much of a transformative difference we can make?
How much of a transformative difference God makes—
God with us?

And then to affirm and celebrate
that though minds will ever be too small
to conceive a God bigger than the limits of our mind,
we can nonetheless affirm that God,
and so not settle for the assurance of our assumptions—
not settle for less mystery and less miracle and less wonder.
And quantum physics says the same thing!

And so good news is catching a glimpse into what that means
when we break through the spell our world weaves—
and our minds—
when we see past or see through
the thin places
to see that all is connected—all is related.
That we are always co-creating a new reality
that contains all possibilities,
and that what we choose matters—makes a difference
in and to the reality always being shaped—
always being determined.

We may not think in terms of new, but we do experience new.
And we proclaim that possibility for all.
You can experience new.
It’s when our experience leads us to speak of a new birth,
a new life, a new song, a new hope, a new heart, a new spirit.

Let’s take a quick look back to our Scripture.
God says, “I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”
Now none of that is new (wilderness and straight path and river).
All is familiar,
but not put together the way it is.
In fact, we define and understand wilderness
pretty much as a place with no straight ways,
and desert as a place of no water.
That’s what makes it wilderness; that’s what makes it desert.
So you take the wild desolation of wilderness,
but you make a straight path through it.
You add water.
And you don’t have wilderness anymore.
You have farmland; you have pasture.
You have possibility where there was none before.
And that’s somehow integral to God’s new.

Now when did the world—
when did our culture
last associate the church with WOW?
With break through?
With new?
With the excitement of wonder?
The anticipation of possibility?
With other than what is and what’s been?

Pope Francis is actually the freshest breath of air
we’ve had in a while.
But whether the church is a part of it or not,
whether the church is coming to see
and getting on board
or clinging to the old until it dies,
God is doing a new thing.

And we’re a part of this new—
here at Woodbrook, I do believe.
Not by ourselves by any means.
And it’s a new that’s long been in the making.
We’re part of an ongoing conversation with lots of partners.

But it’s time—
time to take our images of desolation
and see in them the possibility of abundance—
not accepting the limits of what we think we know,
but reaching for the truth God unfolds ever before us—
to realize the story is not just one told to us,
but also the one we tell—
the one we choose to live and tell—
as new as our experience within it.

Like I said, it seemed like a good idea at the time!
But there’s something about new
we’ve got to figure out.
There’s something about new we have got to share.
Because what’s old and what is,
ain’t goin’ where we want to go.

(with much gratitude to authors and books
I don’t claim to begin to understand,
but that have intrigued and illuminated,
puzzled and confused, mystified and wowed.
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything;
Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe:
Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions,
and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
;
Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow,
A Briefer History of Time;
Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe:
Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down
;
Chad Orzel, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog;
John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology:
An Unexpected Kinship
.)

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