You heard our three Old Testament texts read earlier.
Did you hear the bone-deep weariness in the verses from Ecclesiastes?
Do you know that feeling?
Have you felt that worn out sense of an ever-cycling futility?
The Scripture writer sure did.
“All things are wearisome;
more than one can express ….
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.”
So we’re going to hold that in one hand—
that sad, bleak exhaustion,
and then, since we found that in scripture,
we’re going to ask, “What’s the good news to find in scripture
we can hold in the other hand?”
And, if we can find biblical good news to hold onto,
we’ll ask, “How do we then live without dismissing
what we hold in either hand—
the scriptural truth we hold in both hands?”
What do we do with the truth of both our confession of weariness
and our profession of good news?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Because we know the truth of the fatigue
and the no escape from the draining ever-recurring,
but what’s the good news to hold in the other hand?
Well we read Isaiah:
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating ….”
That sounds like good news!
Don’t you hear a refreshing sense of transformative renewal?
The sweeping out of what is—
that terrible same old same old same old same old—
sweeping it out with a new creation established in its place?
There are more times than not when my reaction to Isaiah is,
“When? I’m so ready—so ready to be glad and rejoice—
so ready to have reason to!”
And we read Ezekiel “A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
And that sounds like good news too.
And we want that—new hearts—new spirits.
Two words of warning though.
First, there’s one way of hearing the adjective “new”
that includes the idea of replacing,
supplanting, or improving.
It’s no accident that in its early years,
our country named New England, New York, New Haven—
and while maybe we hear a longing for the best of what was—
a longing for home,
the very names can proclaim not just a separation from what was—
a difference and a hope, but a supplanting—a replacing.
This way of, even unconsciously, hearing,
thinking, assuming, and expecting
can bleed over into theology—
into a new covenant and a New Testament.
You may have wondered why,
when looking for scriptural good news,
I didn’t mention Jesus.
We have to be so very careful,
with our affirmations and celebrations of Jesus,
not to unwittingly participate
in what is but an ecclesiastical cycle,
presenting itself as as hopeful and fulfilling,
but which, in truth, is full of despair and unaware—
unaware that some hope simply masks
the ever extending of hope into the future
because the past and present don’t live up to hopes and expectations.
And so we get a new covenant to replace the old one
because it didn’t work.
We get a New Testament
to supplant the Old that is not as true.
So hear me well now:
Jesus does not change, replace, supplant, or improve
the good news God has always extended people—
that God loves us and cares for us
and works for our redemption along with the redeeming of all creation.
That’s not to say there’s nothing new to Jesus,
but to say Jesus is nothing new to God.
Remember last week, we talked about
how even what we call the biggest breakthroughs in history
are often a new way of seeing what has been true
about what we’ve been seeing.
Another word of warning has to do
with the sometimes implication of the adjective “new”
of an expectation or a hope
that someone else is going to take care of this.
We’ll just sing the new song someone else writes.
We’ll just receive the new heart or the new spirit
that changes everything.
We’ll receive the new name,
and we won’t have to do anything for everything to be different—
for us to be different.
So there’s a way of hearing “new,” in other words,
that takes away all personal responsibility.
And some do understand Scripture and faith in this way.
It comes from (even as it’s a perversion of)
a profound (and an appropriate) emphasis on grace.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything—
don’t do good works
as changed, transformed, graced people, right?
That fear of too much of an emphasis on works
is largely why Martin Luther wanted
to boot the epistle of James out of the Bible.
The epistle of James which reads: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if you say you have faith but do not have works?
Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’,
and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
Have to say I’m with the Bible on this one, and not Martin Luther!
And it’s fine—it’s good—to hold Ephesians in one hand,
and to hold James in the other.
Earlier this year, I posted on my blog
thoughts about that familiar and beloved verse:
“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness cannot comprehend it” (John 1:5).
Thinking we tend to assume
that our contexts are light—
and, as followers of Jesus,
we don’t really need to distinguish ourselves
from our contexts—
from our families, our peers,
our friends, our co-workers,
our church, our country.
But we do, I suggested, more than we might think.
We are called to a living of distinguishing—
a distinguished living.
We’re called to be set apart,
and not just from what we want to be set apart from.
Well someone named Steve evidently took issue with what I wrote—
felt the need to post a comment about how works cannot save us—
including eight Scripture references,
and so much more than I wanted to read,
before inviting me to follow his “christian” blog
as opposed to my I don’t know what he was thinking it was kind of blog!
“Thanks for your comment, Steve,” I wrote back.
“I really was wondering less about works that save us
than about salvation that does not transform us.”
How easy, after all, to imagine this exchange:
“Doctor, can you give me a pill that will make everything better?”
“Well, I have a pill you need to take,
but it goes along with your commitment
to a new diet and regular exercise
or the pill won’t be worth anything.”
“That’s not what I wanted to hear!”
“I get that, but it’s what you got.”
And it is interesting, is it not?
how often those who have made healthy changes to their diet,
those who have incorporated consistent exercise into their routine
speak of feeling like a new person!
So do we hold onto the idea of God introducing something truly new—
That’s in keeping with a theology of the Transcendence of God, isn’t it?
The Holy Other.
Yet at an abstract, conceptual level,
there can be nothing new to or for God, can there?
Nothing new in God’s interaction with humankind.
Just what we might call new
that must always be consistent with who God has revealed self to be—
if we believe God has revealed self to us consistently, honestly and fully.
So our responsibility is to see ever more clearly what there is to see
(and always has been—in the Old Testament as in the New)
as the new out of old,
the new out of the present
the new that turns out to be known—
to be recognized.
And when the Holy Transcendent Other
was made manifest
it was within the familiar—recognized as a baby born like any other.
But familiar not just as the Word made flesh come to dwell among us,
but also familiar, I have heard it also claimed,
in that Jesus didn’t actually say anything—teach anything
not found in the Old Testament or in the rabbinic writings.
Now I’m not talking about affirmations made about Jesus
probably by the early church writers
as proclamations of faith and justification,
but nothing new in the way of his teachings,
his insights into and his affirmations of God.
In our Hebrew Scripture verses—
our texts from the Old Testament,
the hebrew word for new is hadash.
All those new songs, new covenants, new spirits,
new hearts, new heavens, new earths—hadash.
And now for your day’s Hebrew lesson.
Hebrew (it’s a reminder for many of you, I know)—
Hebrew is a language of consonants—
no vowel letters.
Now of course there were vowel sounds,
but the reader supplied them
with the relative ease of tradition and familiarity.
So just for fun, can y’all read this:
Lv th Lrd yr Gd wth ll yr hrt?
How ’bout this:
Mry hd lttl lmb?
See, you added the vowels to vocalize this string of consonants.
You even added the missing “a.”
How’d you know to do that?
Here’s the thing. It works with familiarity.
It works with a strong oral tradition—
a well known Scripture verse, a nursery rhyme.
But it became an issue after the Diaspora—
after Jews spread around the known world
and had other languages as their primary ones.
Then the question of how to read their written Scripture
became more of an issue.
So around 600 AD scribes began to develop
a way of adding markings around the consonants to indicate vowels.
So hadash, for example, would have had the “a”s added.
before that it would have been written hdsh (transliterating!)
What’s just so very interesting—
you knew it was coming, didn’t you?
What’s so very interesting
is that the hebrew word for “new moon”—
which is also the word for “month”—
which can also refer to festivals that occur at the time of the new moon—
all these repetitive events, these routines,
these cyclical measures of ever recurring time—
and the word for all of them is hdsh as well.
Now once the vowel sounds get added in,
you pronounce all of them hodesh
with an “o” and an “e” instead of two “a”s.
But “new” and “month,” in the ancient hebrew texts
is the same word—the same root consonants.
So the good news of Isaiah
and the weary word of Ecclesiastes are the same word!
And if we hold onto both of them,
then when we read in scripture, “Sing to the Lord a ‘new’ song,”
it’s as valid to think about how we make old songs new
as it is to think of coming up with ever-new songs!
That somehow we reinvest ourselves anew each time.
We invite new in through the familiar.
New finds us within the known.
It’s valid to think not so much “new” as “renewed”—
beginning again what’s been begun so many times before.
It’s valid to think of more continuity—
more conti (new) ity than we might ever have suspected.
What God seeks to accomplish in Jesus
is what God has always sought to accomplish.
Who God is in Jesus
is who God ever is and was and shall be.
I am that I am that I will be.
So I’m going to suggest we have to make sure
we have (and keep) both hands full.
In the one hand, all the cyclical same old
repetitive familiar rituals and stories and teachings
and hymns and names and insights
that we who have grown up in the church
have heard a thousand times,
while holding in the other hand, the promise of new—
of renewal, of conti (new) ity—
of eyes that see again and see more,
and ears that hear differently the same thing.
So in some ways, holding the same thing in each hand
with just a different perspective.
So prepare yourself for worship.
Stretch your hearts and minds and souls.
Warm up your grace and love.
And do not expect just to receive—
for what you need to be handed to you
nicely wrapped in what you like to hear.
The opportunity here and now is not what anyone does for you,
but what you do for yourself
because of what God does
in and through the routines of life and worship.
Remember our responsive call taken from Lamentations?
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
whose mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope.’
The Lord is good to those who wait, to the soul that seeks
You hear it? On the one hand, we wait,
on the other, we seek.
We bring the apparently mutually exclusive
we hold in our hands together.
And far from a rejection or dismissal of personal responsibility,
having received the grace of God,
it is incumbent upon us to seek it ever anew—
even as we wait for it—wait to receive it.
And so new haven, for example,
is not just a looking back with longing to what was,
nor is it a supplanting of the old with the new,
it is rather the commitment to work for what we seek
believing God is at work with us.
So some questions,
as we consider what’s new within our familiar.
How did I prepare myself for worship today?
How will I next week?
Based on some Wednesday night conversation we had
a while back about that,
did I read the Scripture in advance?
Did I pray about what I might experience during worship before worship?
What have I learned about myself and my context this past week
that allows me to hear new opportunity?
Did I enter worship with an expectant attitude?
Not because of what anyone would or wouldn’t do—
but because this our ritual can be the ever new mediator of grace and God.
So what am I hearing—what am I seeing—
what am I experiencing that is gift to me—
in the holding together of the old and familiar, the routine
and the new?
And in the knowing them as one and the same?`
And can I—do I—will I see,
in and through such revelation,
May it be so.