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Sunday 3 April 2022: Lent 5

Old promise – new challenge
Isaiah 43:16-21

By John Coutts

Poet, theologian, former missionary, retired broadcaster, and worship leader in The Salvation Army

Context: a mixed – mainly adult – congregation that is concerned about the challenge of climate change

Aim: to consider the challenge of climate change in the light of a prophetic word and of the Easter faith

Our text for today is a word of encouragement: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?’ Let’s ask what it meant for those who first heard it, and what it could mean for us today.

It comes down to us as a message of hope, spoken by the prophet Isaiah, to Judean exiles in Babylon. They certainly needed encouragement, as they remembered the Temple in Jerusalem, looted and in ruins, and endured the mockery of their captors. The old could recall the precious world of their lost youth. The younger generation, born in exile and growing up as second-class citizens, must have wondered whether God’s promises had come to nothing. One of their number composed our Psalm 137, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ – a classic expression of the grief of a people in exile, with its haunting question: ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

And that’s a text that speaks to many Christians in the United Kingdom today, as they look back with nostalgia to fuller churches and more active parish programmes. In the secular media, Church news is often scandalous news. Older Christians, remembering ‘the former things’, sometimes feel like spiritual exiles in their own land. Younger Christians no longer grow up in what used be called ‘a Christian country’: instead they are seen as an unusual minority in a secular society. They too wonder how they can ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.’

To those Jewish exiles, long ago, came God’s great promise. ‘Behold I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ But what did it mean? The mighty Babylonian empire was overthrown, but the former kingdom of Judah became a small province within the Persian empire. Reconstruction meant hard work for the returning exiles, as Jerusalem and the Temple were slowly rebuilt. There was much praying and thinking to do as well. How were the Jewish people – with their unique understanding of God – to relate to the wider world? They were still searching for answers centuries later, when ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’ (Mark 1:14). The prophet of the exile had also spoken – mysteriously – of ‘the Servant of the Lord, who would bear the sins of many.’ We recognise him as the Lord Jesus Christ, and at Easter we shall celebrate his victory over evil.

And, like those exiles long ago, we face a puzzling present and an unknown future. The prophet spoke of rivers in the desert, but we face rising sea levels and global warming. The ancient world knew all about the fickleness of the weather – that’s why the irrigation canals of Babylon were dug in the first place – but they never dreamt of climate change brought about by human beings whose growing control over nature was matched by their power to damage it. If our present seems strange, then the future could be even stranger.

But for us too, the ancient promise holds good: ’I am about to do a new thing.’ And unlike the exiles in Babylon, we have the word, and living presence, of the Lord Jesus – the Servant of the Lord, the risen Saviour. We’re not called to forget the great days in the Christian past, but there is no need to be paralysed by guilt about the numerous failings of the Church either. Our place is here. Our time is now. And so, like those who returned to ruined Judah long ago, we are called on to reflect, to pray and to work – at home, at the parish level, nationally and worldwide – to preserve our precious planet for generations to come. Before the COP conference held in Glasgow last year, leaders of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches issued a joint statement, calling on us to ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live.’ ‘Choosing life,’ they added, means ’making sacrifices and exercising self-restraint.’

We can all do something, but what? As we try to work God’s will in time of climate change, for both ourselves and wider society, we can rely on his promise, spoken by the ancient prophet, and the living presence of our risen Lord.

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