Isaiah 43:18-25

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with God

The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


George Barna, the sociologist of religion, notes that most people form their religious identities by the time they are thirteen years old. For many people true worship is what they experienced as children. Think back on what church was like when you were thirteen.

For me, it was the mid 1960s. My home church, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, was at the height of its membership—almost three thousand members. We had three services on Sunday morning and they had to set up folding chairs in the aisles most Sundays. During Lent, we had to come to the church at least twenty minutes early to get a seat. The Sunday School was huge—in my confirmation class there were 46 young people just in my grade. That is what church should be like in my mind. Today the membership at Our Savior’s is down a thousand, attendance about half what it was and there are two services instead of three. I doubt if they ever have to set up folding chairs. It is still a lovely church, a fine congregation. In some ways better now than then—they have an elevator for the handicapped, a grand piano and a pipe organ. But it is not what it was.

This past week we had dinner with a former pastor of Central, one who was here during glory days of the early 1970s. Central Lutheran Church was probably at its peak of membership, attendance and programs. Many folks look back fondly to that time. The pastor started laughing and said that when he was here, people looked back fifteen years before that, to the late 1950s when the church building was just built and there was so much energy here. He said that the congregation where he is now serving, a downtown congregation, has never quite got beyond the good old days.

Membership peaked in the mainline Christian churches, including the Lutheran Church, in about 1968. I recently heard Beth Lewis from Augsburg-Fortress the church publishing house say that the decline in numbers in our congregations can be traced almost completely to smaller families and fewer children in Sunday School. The publishing houses track the number of Sunday School books ordered pretty closely. When I was growing up many families had four, five and six children; now it is one or two. Most of you can remember large Sunday Schools, confirmation classes, youth groups. That is what Church should be like in most of our minds. Now many congregations have unused Sunday School rooms and fewer children around. It is easy to look back and think of those golden days when Moms did not work outside the home but devoted time to family and school and church. Those were the days!

But the problem with nostalgia is simply that it makes us unhappy with the present. It is not very helpful and it is not true to the Bible or our faith. As Christians we remember God’s work in the past, but we are also aware what God is doing today. We look to God’s saving activity in the past to remind ourselves that God’s promises are for us now and for our future. But God is active in the world today, changing lives, healing and saving. We also look forward to the fullness of God’s salvation. The best is not behind us but the best is yet to come.

A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “In my assessment, as a preacher and as a teacher of preaching, I find the exegesis in your weekly issues to be excellent, balanced, very complete. It is a strength of your service and I would not like to see it changed in any way.”

Christians are not afraid of the future. Jesus reminded us to live each day knowing the love and care of God and let the future worry about itself: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”Remember Jesus’ promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” The entire story of God’s people in the Old Testament and the New Testament is one of God’s faithfulness. When God made a promise; God kept that promise. It is also a story of human faithlessness—the people grow weary of faith, tired of hope, over and over again they gave up on God but God never gave up on them. God does not give up on us now and never will. God is with us always.

God’s prophet Isaiah spoke to a people demoralized and in exile in Babylon. They had suffered much—the towns and farms of Judah were destroyed, Jerusalem was in ruins and the Temple, God’s House, was despoiled. The land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was now in the hands of others who did not know the Lord God. God had brought the people out of slavery in Egypt into the land of milk and honey but now they were exiled from that Promised Land. It seemed as if God had abandoned them. But the words of the prophet went out: DO NOT REMEMBER THE FORMER THINGS, OR CONSIDER THE THINGS OF OLD. I AM ABOUT TO DO A NEW THING, NOW IT SPRINGS FORTH, DO YOU NOT PERCEIVE IT? God’s mercy and salvation were not only past actions, but present and future—and what is coming, the Lord says to the people of Israel —and us—is greater even than God’s work in the past.

God’s Word brings hope. Part of this hope comes from remembering God’s saving activity in the past. The people in Exile were called upon to remember God’s deliverance from Egypt where they had served as slaves to pharaoh. They needed to recall how God sustained them in the wilderness as they wandered for forty years and how God brought them into the land. God was even blessing them during their time of suffering in exile. True, the Temple had been destroyed and with it the system of sacrifices for sin at the center of Hebrew worship. But God was doing a new thing with the people in Babylon. Without a Temple, the people had to gather together in small groups, in congregations, to study and learn God’s Word. All that was left to them was the Scripture. The people gathered around Torah, God’s instruction and learned in a more personal way of God’s loving intention for them. The suffering of the people resulted in a closer relationship with God and a renewal in their trust and dependence upon God.

We remember what God has done for us as well. Our Christian faith is based upon God’s faithfulness in the past which we remember and also make personal. We look back to the Old Testament—and Isaiah’s prophecy came to pass—the people marched back through the desert home to Jerusalem. And after almost two thousand years in exile from AD 70 to 1948, the Jewish people have found a home again in the land of Israel. What God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 1900 years before Jesus is still God’s promise 2000 years after. For us as Christians we look to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the whole world. In Jesus, God Himself paid the penalty for our sins. In Jesus, God came into the world to be one of us; nothing human is foreign to this God. In Jesus, God is with us now and will be forever. God will never leaves us or forsake us.

And just before our Isaiah text is one of my favorite Bible promises of God’s strong and tender care: “Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” The verb tense used here is the present tense—God was not only with people in the past but God is with us today. God did not only save long ago, but God is saving us right now.

One of the pastors at our text study said he wanted to focus on the line, “I am about to do a new thing.” Another said that we must remember that each time God intervened to save, it was done in a new and different way—the result was the same—God saved the people; but each situation was different; God worked in unexpected and surprising but wonderful ways. The comments were encouraging. It is too easy for all of us pastors, most of whom are at least fifty years old, to look back to the days when churches were growing and expanding. One remembered how in southern California back in the 1950s, the mission developer would put an announcement in the newspaper that a Lutheran congregation was meeting in the local school building and the next Sunday three hundred people would show up. That world is gone. Another person shared what she had learned at the Youth Extravaganza, an event that Pastor Robyn also attended. Leonard Sweet, one of the most astute observers of contemporary Church life, predicted the coming of what he called “The Perfect Storm,” the combination of post-modernism, a pluralistic post-Christianity and even an almost post-human revolution in technology. And in a storm of this magnitude, Sweet noted the worst place to be is trying to ride it out in a supposed safe harbor. Remember last year’s tsunami. Ships at sea, would have experienced just a swell in the ocean. Those along the beach or in what were supposedly safe harbors were dashed to bits. What he was saying was that the Church must be daring and innovative, living in the present and preparing for what is to come. The past is not coming back.

And I’m glad. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the One who promises to make all things new. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” Our God tells us, “I am about to do a new thing.” God’s love and salvation is not just for yesterday but today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come. Jesus is with us even to the end of the age. Amen.

Copyright 2006, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.