Teaching Series Introduction:
At the start of a new year, what is in store? Using the text from the book of Isaiah in the Bible (Chapter 43, verses 18 to 19) as our ‘text for the year’, we will be able to transition from 2020 with confidence and expectation? 2020 has been a year like no other, and in the complexity maybe God is doing something wonderful. As we reflect on the journey we’ve been on, and the journey ahead, we will be able to step forward with faith and excitement?
Title: Back To The Future – Part 1
By: Tim Chilvers
Date: 3 January 2021
Bible Passage: Isaiah (Chapter 43, verses 18-19)
As we kick off the new year, we will reflect on ‘The journey we have been on’ and also ‘The Journey we are going on’. We can look back with remembrance which helps us to look forward with confidence.
(None this week)
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1. At the start of this new year. What are your biggest hopes and fears?
2. Read Isaiah 43:18-19, which provides an encouraging ‘key verse’ for the year. You may like to read it out loud three times, with a simple pause after each time. What words and phrases strike you as you do so?
3. During Tim’s talk on Sunday, he mentioned 4 components from this verse that are important for us at the start of the year. The first aspect was that God promises to be with us (read Isaiah 43:4-7 as a backdrop). What are the two things that God promises to do in verse 19? What is the implication of this for you during 2021?
4. The second aspect that was mentioned is the reminder of God’s rescue. Read Isaiah 43:16-17, which describe the events of their exodus from slavery. Why is this such an important backdrop for when we read vs18-19? How might remembering the ultimate rescue of Jesus enable you to step forward with confidence into 2021?
5. A third component of this key verse is the challenge to keep our eyes open (‘…do you not perceive it?’, v19). What do you think it means to ‘keep your eyes open’ to what God is doing? How can you persist with this attitude throughout 2021?
6. The final encouragement from Isaiah 43:18-19 is the opportunity to play our part in what God is doing, as he ‘makes a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland’ (v19). How can you play your part in making 2021 a year like never before, in terms of stepping into what God is calling us to?
7. Take some time to pray into these four aspects for your life, for Riverside, and for others you know
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Well, happy New Year to you. I guess that many of us were happy to even get to New Year’s Eve and to see the back of 2020, because for many of us, if not all of us, it was a year like no other. Full of uncertainty, of pain, for some of us grief, but certainly lots of challenge and lots of questions at the end of the year. And so as we begin a new year, I guess there’s a mixture of emotions. We’re pleased that 2020 has gone. We’re excited about some of the opportunities and we long for the day when vaccine will begin to roll out more fully. But of course, I guess there’s also an element of real uncertainty still. There’s real challenge. There’s big questions still.
So at the beginning of this year, we’re going to spend a couple of weeks focusing on a particular verse in the Bible that, if you like, has some important things to remind us of at the beginning of the year, but also to carry us through this year as well. So we’re going to read it together. Isaiah chapter 43, verses 18 and 19, and we’re going to dwell on this today and next week and unpack what it might look like for us. So let’s read it together. Let me read it to you. Isaiah 43:18-19. “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 wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
In the last couple of days, I had one of those messages on WhatsApp, do the round-robin where everyone just forwards them on and he ended up getting loads of them, and this one was a video and the video was called The Best Moments of 2020. So I went to click on it and nothing happened. And to begin with, I thought there was a problem with the video, until I realized the joke, that that was the point. What were the best moments of 2020? Well, nothing, and I guess some of us do feel a bit like that. And whether or not you felt that 2020 was really brutal for you or you’re just weary, or frankly it was just inconvenient. These words from the Book of Isaiah, I think have some immense freedom for us. Because out of them, there are four things I want to simply draw our attention to you. Four aspects that we can cling onto as we begin a new year. There’s a promise, there’s a reminder, there’s a challenge, and then there’s an opportunity.
So, firstly, the promise, the promise of God’s presence. Did you hear, as we were reading through it, who the focus is on? It’s on God, isn’t it? “See, I am doing a new thing. I am making a way.” And that might seem small, but for the original hearers of this, that was huge because this verse comes right in the middle of a hugely challenging time for God’s people. They’ve been ripped out of their Homeland. Their city, Jerusalem, God’s city is in tatters. And the promises that they’ve clung onto for centuries of God being the God, their God doing good things, seem really uncertain because they’re in exile. They’ve been ripped out of their homeland.
And I guess for some of us that feels the case. That we once felt God’s so close, but now we’re questioning whether He’s even there. Or for others of us, we’re not sure whether we’d call ourselves Christians or followers of God and the challenging circumstances of now make us question that. And so into this circumstance, God reminds them. He promises them that even though the circumstances aren’t what they would have chosen, He is at work. “I’m doing a new thing. I am making a way in the wilderness.”
I follow a lot of blogs and a lot of people on social media who are leaders from around the world who are kind of … There’s been lots of things where people have been commenting on about this moment and wondering what God might be doing. If God’s God, He’s got all of this in his hands, and so therefore what might be He doing? What might he want to teach the world or what might he want to say to the church or for us as individuals?
Lots of really good stuff, but all of those are kind of floundering around in the dark because we don’t actually know what God is doing, but these verses remind us that God is doing something and it’s something good. How do we know that to be the case? Well, back at the beginning of chapter 43, God reminds his people of something really important about how He sees them.
Let me read to you verse four of Isaiah 43. He says, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight and because I love you.” In verse five, he goes on, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. Even though the circumstances are really tricky, I am with you because I love you, and not only that, I’m going to be doing work in you for the generations to come.”
The promise is that God is committed to us, and I think that’s a promise worth clinging on to. God is God. He is the God of love who is building His people because He loves them and is committed to them. Even though the circumstances make us question that, God is God, He is good. He’s still at work. That’s the first thing. There’s a promise in these verses.
The second aspect is this. There’s a reminder. Now, we read this the other side of Jesus, but of course they were reading this before Christ. And so when they thought of God doing good things for them, they would have always gone back to that moment in their history when God had rescued them from slavery. You remember back in the Book of Exodus, they were slaves in Egypt and God dramatically rescued them, parting the sea so they were able to go out into the land that they were promised.
That was the moment where God proved once and for all that He’s on their side because he rescued them. And in the previous couple of verses to our verse, he’s reminded them of that. This is what verse 16 says, 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.” In other words, He’s reminding them, “I’m the same God that rescued you in the past.” And he says to them, “Therefore, forget those former things, don’t dwell on the past.” As it were, He’s reminding them, “I’m the same God who rescued you in the past, and so therefore you can look forward to what I’m still doing.”
And of course for us, we don’t look back just to those days of the Exodus. We look back to that moment where Jesus died on that cross, where God with us, that we’ve just celebrated at Christmas, stepped into our brokenness and taking all of our mess, all of our sin, all of our brokenness on Himself. That great rescue mission, we look back to that and know once and for all that God is with us and so therefore we can look forward knowing that he’s committed to us. He holds us, He’s got us.
I was given a present for Christmas. It’s a beautiful present from my mum and dad. It’s a note from my great grandfather from 1950. He wrote it. He was also in ministry, church leadership. And he’d written this note, which I’ve now got in this frame, and he quotes from Isaiah chapter 12 and he writes this, “Behold, God is my salvation. I will trust and not be afraid.” And he’s got this little personal note under it, which is lovely. He said, “It’s good to trust when we are afraid, but better still to trust and not be afraid.” He wrote that, H. Tydeman Chilvers, Ipswich, April, 1950. And I love that and I’ve got that on my desk because it’s a reminder to me of a century ago, my great-grandfather reminding himself of some truths that God is at work in his life.
We need those reminders, and friends in the middle of these difficult days, isn’t it good to remind ourselves that God has been at work, and therefore we know that he will be at work. He promises to be with us. He loves us, and so therefore we step forward with confidence, knowing that it’s the same God yesterday, today, and forever. So that’s the reminder.
But the third thing therefore is a challenge. Having had this promise and having me reminded of God’s rescue, there’s a challenge for us to look at this moment, not just with the eyes of fate, but to look with the eyes of faith. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Stockdale Paradox. The Stockdale Paradox is named after a guy called James Stockdale, who was an American military officer in Vietnam and he was imprisoned in a prison camp for seven years. And afterwards, he did a bit of writing around what was it that made certain people in those prison camps survive and what made certain people not survive. And he noticed that the people who died quickly were the optimists because they were the ones who always thought, oh, they’d be free by Christmas. And then Christmas came and, of course, they weren’t free. And so then they would keep on being optimistic about what was around the corner, and as a result, hope quickly died.
Optimism, as it were, crushed them because it was never realized. But in contrast to this, the paradox says the pessimists who are just woe is me, it’s all terrible, had no hope, were crushed too. And so we read these words, let me read it to you, beautiful phrase. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
What that quote is saying is we need to look on this moment with both realism and optimism. That yes, this year has good things in store. God is at work, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also not going to be challenging. We’re called to have the eyes of faith for what God is doing in the middle of great challenge. Do you see what the prophet Isaiah says? “Forget the former things. See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?” In other words, eyes open, look to what God is doing even in the middle of brokenness.
One of the things that I love doing is being there when Caleb, our son wakes up in the morning. As many will know, he has complex disabilities and he’s blind. And one of the things that I love that teaches me so much is that every day as I carry him through into our kitchen, he has a big beaming smile on his face. It’s almost as if every day is a day of wonder what this day is going to be. He rarely wakes up with a grudge or a moan. It’s expectation of what’s going to happen. Who’s going to be there? That wonder, that open-eyedness to see what is happening.
Maybe that’s how we can approach this year, in the middle of the challenging reality. That yes, circumstances aren’t what we would choose, but, “I am doing a new thing,” says God. “Do you not perceive it?” So the challenge is for us to have our eyes open to what God might be doing this year. So there’s a promise that he is with us. There’s a reminder of what’s happened in the past, and therefore we can trust Him for the future. There’s that challenge to have the eyes of faith, to know in the middle of challenging circumstances, He is doing something beautiful. And then there’s an opportunity, the opportunity is to play our part in it.
Do you see what those verses said again? What is it that God’s doing? Well, verse 19, “I am making a way in the wilderness, streams in the wasteland.” Now, if you contrast that to remember how God rescued them in the past, He made a way through the sea, but now He’s saying, “I’m going to do a new thing. I’m going to make a way in the wasteland, in the desert.” Same principle, God, the rescuer, doing amazing things, but in different ways, and maybe that’s the opportunity that we have this year. That maybe this moment now for all of us as individuals, for us as a church, is to recognize that God is still the same God doing the same thing. Longing for people to turn to him, to find the hope and freedom of Jesus, but maybe there’s an opportunity to do it in new ways.
As many will know, our heartbeat as a church is this. We want to help people get to know Jesus and grow as his followers in Birmingham and beyond. That’s the DNA that runs through everything we do as a church. And simply at this moment in time where, if you like, huge amounts of what we normally do have either changed or stopped, as we approach a year where things are going to change back in some way, we have both an opportunity and our responsibility to ask some big questions.
If there are things that need to change to help us better help people get to know Jesus, we’ve got the opportunity to do so and we may not necessarily want to take things back up that maybe weren’t as fruitful as we would like them to be. In other words, this moment now enables us to say, “God, what is it that you’re calling us to do in a new way that we’ve now got the opportunity to do?” And throughout these coming months, we’re going to be exploring what that will look like. And as a result, there’s a call for all of us to begin this year in a particular way.
Next week, we’re going to have two days of prayer and fasting together. We’re going to do this because ultimately God is the one who can break through in our nation, in our city, in our lives. He’s the one that we need desperately to shatter the burden of this horrible virus. He’s the one that we need to get on our knees before as a community and pour our hearts, saying, “God have mercy on us.” And so what better way to spend two days in prayer and fasting. So we’re going to do that next Sunday and Monday, and we’re going to do it in a number of different ways. There’ll be opportunities to gather together on Zoom to pray, and the details will be coming of all those different events through this week. So do watch out for your email. We’ll put them on the website as well.
Now we recognize that at this moment for some of us the idea of fasting is just too much, and that’s absolutely fine. If you know that fast thing right now is something that is a burden too heavy, either because of your emotional health or because of what you’re carrying at the moment, that’s absolutely fine. Feel free to join us in one way or another. This is not meant to be a crushing thing. It’s merely meant to be getting on our knees to say, “God we need you, because we need to both see what it is you’re doing, and we need to step forward with faith so that we might be involved in helping making your way in the wilderness and the streams in the wasteland.”
2020 was a year like no other and our hope and prayer is that we can play our part in making 2021 a year like no other, but for all the right reasons. As we go back to basics for the sake of the future, may God go with us and in us because He’s got us, friends, and so we can keep our eyes open, looking with expectation to what He might do in us. Let’s pray together. And wherever you are, you might like to hold open your hands to say to God, “I give you this year. God, with all of the uncertainty, with all of the questions, with all of my fear, Lord, I give you this year. May I keep my eyes open to what you’re doing. I give you my life, Lord, lead me this year, I pray. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.”