A Pivotal Moment

This is a message I brought to a church in Elmira, Ontario on August 1, 2010. Based on Isaiah 43:1-19, it speaks of the direction that the church will take in the near future. We certainly find ourselves at a pivotal moment. And more and more, I believe that the younger generations will guide us into a new phase of life.

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The books of Kings and Isaiah tell the story of the destiny of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. The book of Kings ends with the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. We read in the final chapter of 2 Kings, “On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. 9 He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. 10 The whole Babylonian army, under the commander of the imperial guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. 11 Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile the people who remained in the city, along with the rest of the populace and those who had gone over to the king of Babylon.” The Babylonian army forces the people of Judah into exile, leaving the poor and the weak behind. They destroy and pillage the city and the kingdom of Judah is taken away into captivity. Thus ends the book of 2 Kings

Enter Isaiah, the prophet of God called to speak to the people of Judah. The words that make up the book of Isaiah are a reflection and meditation on the experiences of Judah. The first 39 chapters foretell Judah’s entry into captivity. It is widely held that these 39 chapters are rooted in the real life of a prophet named Isaiah, who lived roughly from 742 to 689 BCE. In these chapters, the prophet warns Judah to be careful in thinking that they are safe—that they’ve got everything figured out. He warns them that they are breaking the law, they worship other Gods, and they oppose God through acts of injustice and cruelty to others. Toward the end of chapter 39, the prophet says to King Hezekiah: “The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD.”

Now, this is where the book of Isaiah takes a major turn. Many scholars hold that beginning in chapter 40, a new prophet, writing in the name and tradition of Isaiah, is now the major player in the book. This is why chapters 40-55 are known as deutero or second-Isaiah. The words of second Isaiah are heard after Judah has been marched away to Babylon. They left in chains, their homeland in shambles.

The year is now 540 BCE. The kingdom of Judah has been in exile for nearly 50 years. Considering the life expectancy at this time was less than 40 years, it is likely than most of the people who were taken into exile have died and a new generation has come of age never having stepped foot into their homeland and the great city of Jerusalem. After 50 years of exile, hopes have faded. Many are probably becoming accustomed to life in Babylon and may think that this is just the way things are and the way things ought to be from now on. After all, how would they know any different?

But a new voice begins to cry out among the people. “Comfort, comfort, my people.” It is the voice of second Isaiah, speaking the words of God to Judah. After half a century in Babylon, it’s about time that someone reminds Judah that God has not forgotten them. For the next few verses, 2nd Isaiah uses metaphors and poetry to speak of God’s love and fidelity to Judah. “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

But in the past 50 years, things have certainly changed. Go back to 1960 and think of everything that has happened since then. The Civil Rights Movement, Beatle mania, the Quiet Revolution, the Cold War, the Moon Landing, Woodstock, Watergate, Billy Idol, the rise of Wayne Gretzky, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, the Internet, the Quebec referendum, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Internet 2.0, the election of the first African American President, and even Bieber Fever. I’m sure those of you today who can remember back to 1960 can tell us of how the world has changed.

So, second Isaiah is offering his words of comfort to Judah after almost five decades of enslavement and exile. And we come to the passage read earlier, found in the 43rd chapter of Isaiah. God seems to be preparing the people of Judah for some drastic changes. Judah is reminded that they are God’s people and that as God redeemed them before, God will not leave them again.

       When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
       and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
       When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze
       Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
       You are my witnesses.

This was a pivotal moment. The Spirit of the Lord was certainly working to stir up the people and inaugurate great changes in the lives of the people of Judah. And, in turn, these changes would bring about new ways of worshipping God—after all, Jerusalem, the site of traditional temple worship, was in shambles and was miles away from them. Through second Isaiah, God comforts Judah by reminding them that God is indeed at work amidst these changes, using them to bring about a new phase of their relationship to one another. In verses 18 and 19, God says, “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 desert and streams in the wasteland.”

These are inspiring words to me as I consider the landscape of today’s church.

Let me explain. In verse 19, God says to Judah, “I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Deserts don’t just fall from the sky. They are gradually formed over years through natural phenomena like air pressure, air currents, ocean currents, and rain shadows. Land that was at one time fertile can become a barren desert.

So it is with the church. You see, even though the church began about 2000 years ago, much of our theology and practices today came about as a result of the modern church. What I mean is that over the past 500 years—a period of time which has come to be known as modernity or the modern era—the church had pioneered great advances in theology, spirituality, and the way the church understands itself. Through the reformation, than Anabaptist response, and the counterreformation, the church took shape in new and fresh ways about 500 years ago. This was a pivotal moment in the life of the church.

At the time, God was doing new things in the desert. A stream of life and authentic faith was pouring over the religious wasteland. And new life certainly took root. But, over the past five centuries, this fertile ground has again become like a desert. Like Judah before it was captured and marched into exile, we too might believe that we have everything figured out—that our answers are the right answers to questions about God, the church, the Bible, and life.

You see, throughout the modern era, the church experienced tremendous shifts in theology and faith that eventually led us to where we are today. It was during this time that common doctrines were forged and solidified, such as views about atonement, Jesus’ death and resurrection, the foretelling of the prophets, baptism, the role of the Bible, and, perhaps most crucially, salvation. But, over time, as these doctrines, beliefs, and practices came to be affirmed and codified by the church, they have led us to fooling ourselves into thinking we’ve got everything figured out.

After years and years of touting our theological parties’ lines, we find ourselves where we are today. The world around us is shifting away from modernity and into something new, something post-modern. The prefix post simply speaks of something that is after—so post-modernism basically means after the modern era. What postmodernism is yet, we do not know for sure. After all, it’s evolving right around us.

But we do know that, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a-changin.’” And as the world moves forward, the church is getting left behind. In our arrogance, as we believe that the doctrines we “perfected” during the modern era are the only true views, we are getting more and more out of touch with the world every day. This is a pivotal moment.

So, what are we to do about it? Are we supposed to hold firm to the beliefs forged during modernity or do we wade out into the waters of postmodernity to see where they will take us? Some people might say that we must remain firm—after all, the views formed during modernity are often seen as the “right” views. In reality, however, who among us can know the truth with a capital T? Who among us is capable of knowing God—I mean really knowing God as God knows Godself? Not I. And not anyone else, for that matter. That is part of being mortal, of being human. We are all limited in our perspectives of God.

In an article I wrote in Canadian Mennonite, I argue that one reason that people in the church are afraid of postmodernity is that they think that modernity’s version of the gospel is original Christianity. They forget that the church and the gospel are living things that grow and take shape in new ways. The gospel of modernity arose in response to problems and issues that the modern church was facing. And the church today—the church amidst postmodernity—has new issues and problems to deal with. And we need new ways of understanding God, the Bible, and ourselves. This is a pivotal moment.

I could go on and on about how we can move forward and faithfully swim among the waters of postmodernity. But our time together is limited. So I want to leave you with a thought. God was with Judah during their years in exile, even though many of the people may not have been aware of God’s presence. If everyone knew that God was among them, then 2nd Isaiah wouldn’t have needed to remind them of God’s living presence in their midst. Maybe, even though some of us might cringe at the thought, God is also at work within postmodernism. While we might see the postmodern worldview as a threat to our modern beliefs and faith, perhaps God is already there. Maybe God is even using postmodernity as a river to replenish a dry and desolate church. Maybe we need to open our ears to the words that God spoke through second Isaiah: “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 desert and streams in the wasteland.”

This is a pivotal moment in the life of the church. A pivot is a point on the end of which something rests, turns, and moves. Think of a teeter-totter. The pivot allows each side to go up and down. We in the church of 2010 stand at the center of the teeter-totter, pivoted between modernity and postmodernity. Will we shift our weight back to what we know, to the safety of modernity and modern assumptions about God, the church, the Bible, and life? Or will we, along with the world around us, shift even slightly to the postmodern world that awaits us, a world that is being continually forged? If we do so, we can have a hand in shaping the world that is to come.

As I speak and talk about the church amidst a postmodern world, I am often asked a common question. It goes something like this: So should the church just embrace postmodernism or should we whole-heartedly stick to the modern views that we know? My response is that we are to do neither. After all, we are not disciples of modernism, nor are we disciples of postmodernism—we are disciples of Christ. As we set out on this journey to follow Christ, modernism is not the starting point, nor is postmodernism. Christ alone is our starting point, the solid rock on which our faith is grounded.

In this pivotal moment, which way will we go? If it was in my hands, I know which way I’d move. But the truth is that the answer is not in my hands—it’s in yours. You are the architects of the church, building the future of the body of Christ. You are the guides of the church, leading us as we continue to forge our way in the world around us. And as you muster the courage to take your first steps forward into new, uncharted territory, remember what God said to Judah: 

       When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
       and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. 
       When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze
       Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
       You are my witnesses.

So I have a simple question for you: “Where to?”

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