“GOD AT WORK”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
January 28, 2024
Isaiah 43: 16-21 NRSV
16 Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
There are different theories about the idea of God at work. Of course, one opinion is that there is no God and therefore God cannot be at work. Another is that God did create everything but then has stepped back and does not interact with creation. Some see God at work in miracles everywhere all the time. Others might argue that God is at work but only through us. We are the ones who have to “embody” God’s work in the world today. Maybe you have a different theory.
I’m not so much here to argue one theology over another. I’m more interested in the testimony of Scripture. What it witnesses to in its pages. It is truly the testimony of human writers sharing how they understood God at work in their lives and in their world. And there are a lot of different examples or testimonies given.
This morning we get a bit of the Prophet Isaiah’s thinking. Speaking with his “God voice,” Isaiah tells us “thus says the Lord.” Then he reminds us of some of what his people believed were God’s works in the past. He reminds them of God “making a way,” and clearing “a path in the mighty waters.” It’s a reference to the Exodus story when the soldiers of Pharoah are swallowed up in the Red Sea.
But then the prophet pivots 180 degrees and says, like Tony in “The Sopranos,” “fuggedaboudit.” God isn’t sitting around reminiscing about the good old days. Mostly because those weren’t good old days. They were days of slavery, and suffering, and nation holding another nation hostage by its power. Isaiah reports God saying, “I am about to do a new thing! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In other words do you not see it? Do you not have the vision to see God at work on a new way, a new thing, a new reality?
Of course, in this instance Isaiah is speaking about the liberation of the people of Israel from Babylon. The King of Babylon had his armies destroy much of Israel and drag most of its inhabitants off to exile in Babylon. As Isaiah wrote these words he seesn God at work through Cyrus, the King of Persia, to liberate the Israelites. Good news, Isaiah proclaims, God is at work.
The only problem is that liberation is one thing, getting home is another. Getting back to Jerusalem means crossing about 900 miles of desert! What? Desert? Again, wasn’t it enough we had to cross that desert out of Egypt? Another desert? I can imagine the beaten down, enslaved people of Israel being told there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is God is going to liberate us again. The bad news is we gotta get across a whole ‘nother desert to get home.
But the prophet says God’s work isn’t just liberating the people for a new day, a new reality, God intends to “make a way in the wilderness.” God is even going to make “rivers in the desert.” Why it will be so spectacular jackals and ostriches will praise God for it. By the way, who knew there were ostriches in Israel? But I digress. “You are my chosen people,” God says to them, “I formed you for myself! Why? So you can declare my praise,” says God.
We might not feel like we are in exile today. But we might feel like the powers ruling over us hold us hostage, or that the craziness in our political system today seems like the jackals and ostriches are running things. We may not need to cross a 900-mile desert to get home, but the question still remains. Is God still at work today? Can God bring a new vision to reality? Can God bring sanity and compassion and justice to those who feel exiled by our national reality and make it work again in our midst?
Closer to home, as we seek to develop a more focused vision for our work as a church will God be at work? Will God work with us? I think we all have a pretty clear view of what makes our church unique, important, meaningful and effective. The issue is how do we enhance these things so others can see God at work in us more clearly? What will it take?
Rev. Ed Markquart, [“The Junk Man,” sermonsfromseattle.com], who pastored in Seattle for many years, tells a story that seems to me to fit our question. He reminded his congregation in a sermon once of the great American theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich’s theology was very philosophical. In one of his books, The New Being, “there [ is a ] sermon is entitled, “The New Creation.” He wrote, ‘If you want to summarize the message of the Christian faith, you can summarize it in two words. It is the message of …new creation. God who sat upon the throne said, “I make all things new.”
Rev. Markquart asks, “But, what does that mean? How do we translate that word? How do we understand that phrase - ‘I make all things new’?” Rev. Markquart says he “telephoned an antique dealer. Their business specializes in restoring old furniture. I asked that person, ‘What goes into being an excellent restorer of old furniture?’
The antique dealer answered, “Imagination. Creative imagination. You have to see past all the layers of paint, chips, past the mars and scars, past all the faults in the wood and the broken pieces. You need to be able to see the piece of furniture in its original beauty. Your eye and mind have to have imagination, and you actually get kind of excited about the possibilities that you see beneath the surface. Then, you have to have time and energy. Not a little bit of time and energy - a lot of time and energy. These things don’t just happen overnight. It takes time. It takes disciplined energy. The miracle doesn’t happen just at the snap of a finger.” And then he said, “Love is more important than skill. You need to love the piece of furniture and its possibilities. The skills aren’t that hard to learn. Using the right solutions to strip it. Choosing the right sandpaper. Fixing a broken hinge. These skills are important but not as important as loving the possibilities you can see in the furniture.’ Rev Markquart thanked the man and commented that the old furniture restorer “seemed to be a wise man.”
Most of us here believe that Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated God’s love at work. Theologians say he “embodied” that love of God. Richard Rohr, a Catholic theologian, wrote about St. Francis of Assisi in his book, Eager to Love.’ He said Francis’s life and work demonstrated how “doing” was the heart of his theology because he believed strongly that “doing” was the heart of Christ’s mission. St. Francis looked at the work of Christ to be our example because Christ’s actions and words were examples of God at work. He said, “For Francis … Jesus became someone to actually imitate and not just to worship.” To put it in today’s context, Jesus was doing God’s work in healing, forgiving, liberating, and calling for the religious and political leaders to do what was just and right for all people. This was Jesus’ work because that’s what he believed was God’s work.
I believe that God is still at work. I believe that God has a vision for the work of Coral Isles Church. I also believe it starts with the love we share with one another and offer to anyone who comes here. We don’t tell people that they have to conform to our beliefs for us to love them and welcome them. We’ll invite them to work with us, to do the things that Christ calls us to do, not because we expect them to be like us or think like us, but because we believe God’s love is broad enough and powerful enough to do new things. And when new people come in they help us do new things, too. And because God is doing new things, we don’t all have to think like someone did a century ago, or a thousand years ago. We can learn from that, and appreciate or dismiss that, but if it isn’t based in love – like the old furniture restorer said – love is more important than skill or being able to recite some creed or some Spiritual Laws to be one of us, or to be loved by God.
Can God work to make a new thing spring forth even in a desert? My wife took an old orchid from her mother and father’s home in Vero after they passed away last year. It hung on one of the steps on the side of our home here. No blooms, no real sign of life. But she kept loving it as a sign of her love for them and their love for her. Today there are four beautiful purple blooms on that old orchid, and more than that yet to come. Here’s a picture of it. She didn’t put a lot of effort into making those new blooms burst forth, but she kept loving that plant. And there it is. I believe God did the work but he used her love to do it.
I think we believe in a God who puts us to work even when we are old and broken down. I think God has the love to see us working on the new things God is doing even if we aren’t very skilled. I think when we don’t see any way, God will be at work making a way. I believe God put a lot of work into creating this world and I don’t believe God is willing to give up on it now. I think God is waiting for more of us to see the vision God has for a new thing. And I believe we can see that thing in Jesus Christ: creating relationships, healing, correcting where hate has taken over and blessing wherever love lives and nurturing it so a new thing can spring forth.
For me these are reasons for praise. That’s what God says God wants from us! Isaiah says. “I give water in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people I formed for myself, so that they might declare my praise.” God is at work. I think we have plenty of reasons to praise. AMEN.
 Rohr, “Eager to Love,” p. 82