“See, I am doing a new thing”. Isaiah 43:19
It has not been the most auspicious week in Irish history: the Catholic Primate facing calls to resign over his complicity in covering up child abuse; the man who exemplified the worst excesses of the credit bubble being arrested by Gardai; the European Commission saying that public spending cuts, cuts that hurt most the poor and vulnerable, may be need to be much deeper if the Government is to have funds to prop up the financial sector. There have been better weeks.
Bad weeks were a familiar experience in the 6th Century BC. The country had been invaded; Jerusalem had been destroyed; foreign armies had laid waste to the country; the leadership had been taken off to Babylon, where they remained for two generations. Yet the writer of Isaiah Chapter 43 is in positive mood. He begins his words of encouragement:
This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick;
Going through the spiritual and emotional seas and mighty waters, facing violent opposition and persecution, the Christian church was always at its best when at its weakest. Violence and force could not overcome the faith of those small radical groups in the early centuries of church history. They were not to be intimidated by hideous treatment, nor provoked into abandoning their principles of peace and love. Yet once their influence reached the highest authorities, they began to turn their back on the humble ways and to follow the paths of power and wealth.
The medieval church grew into Christendom, the church and the state were one and the same. The church dominated every area of life. In most of Europe, the state and the church began to separate from the 18th Century onwards, but in Ireland church dominance has continued into our own times.
The church has grown so used to being at the centre of things that it finds it hard to conceive of things as they once were; it has no memory of being at the edge of society.
Turning to Isaiah, the people in the Sixth Century are strongly attached to what has gone before, and are told:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past”.
For many people, Isaiah’s words are very painful when applied to our own time. Many church people are very attached to the past, to the titles and the hierarchies; to the power and the influence. When it comes to adjusting to the realities of liberal, secular, democratic societies, the church has barely reached the 20th Century, let alone the 21st. The church in Ireland clings onto its control of things, as though people can be insulated from what happens elsewhere in the world, and as though all the scandals are something to be forgotten.
There is no confidence in the Gospel story; the church behaves as though the Christian faith depends on it holding onto all its positions of influence; it behaves as though it would have nothing to say if it were removed from all its places on boards and committees.
In Isaiah, there is a promise of God doing something new and different. The failures of the people in the past had brought the downfall of their country and it was not possible to turn back the clock:
“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”.
There is a question the church must face, the question of confidence in God. If there is not the confidence in the promise to make a way where there has been none; if there is not a confidence in the promise that the places that seemed, to the church, to be like desert and wasteland will be transformed; then the church must ask why it exists. If it does not believe in the power of the God it proclaims, then what purpose does the church have?
God has no need of the old way of doing things; he has no need of the old structures and the old paths of power and influence. In Isaiah, God’s influence is expressed in the language of the natural world, a world which is beyond all political power:
“The wild animals honour me,
the jackals and the owls”,
It is an image that is, perhaps, troubling for the church because it says that a relationship with God is possible without any need for a church. For centuries, people were threatened with everlasting damnation if they were not within the church; excommunication was seen as a dreadful punishment. The church declared that there was no salvation outside of its ranks, yet here in scripture we have even the animals declared to have a relationship with God.
The mark of this new time to come is not what any human institution might achieve, it is what God himself does, in the words of Isaiah
“because I provide water in the desert
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen”,
For a country accustomed to clerical dominance, for a society where the writ of the bishops ran in every area of life, it is an unfamiliar concept; that the church would depend no longer on the exercise of control and power, but would wait humbly for god to do things in his own time and in his own way.
Isaiah’s prophecy leaves no doubt that the initiative for the new things, the initiative for the revival of his people, comes from God himself, he speaks of:
“the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise”.
They are God’s people, not the church’s people; they are formed for God’s praise, not the church’s praise.
Would the church be so daring as to leave its future in God’s hands? We might be amazed at what might happen.