Thus says the LORD: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.
Do you not perceive it?
+ + +
There’s a saying you hear a lot in the world of interviewing and hiring: past performance is the best indicator of future results. In other words, if you want to know what someone is likely to do if you hire them for a future job, don’t pay attention so much to what they say they’ll do. Pay attention to what they’ve done in the past. Someone who’s shown leadership skills in previous situations is likely to show those skills again. Someone who’s been resourceful, or flaky, or creative, in the past is likely to act those ways in the future.
Now that’s not to say we’re all prisoners of our pasts. People change and grow, thank God. We can all develop new skills and try out new behaviors. But it’s true that most of us do have a certain personality and certain preferences that are pretty stable. Even actors, the people you’d think are the most able to act out a wide variety of personalities, tend to get typecast into roles that suit them. A couple of years ago I read a book by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project. one of the rules the author developed for herself was, “Be Gretchen.” She’d realized she spent a lot of time trying to change herself. She sometimes wanted to be the kind of person who enjoyed going to jazz clubs at midnight—but she really liked staying at home in her PJs. So she learned to give herself permission to be Gretchen, and let someone else be someone else.
Now I don’t want to say that God is limited by our human personality structures. God, being God, is the source of all our various gifts and passions. God can behave in any way God chooses. And yet I think it’s also fair to say that God does in fact have certain recurring patterns of behavior.
Take our Old Testament reading as an example. This passage comes from a time when the people of Israel are in exile in Babylon. And the prophet speaks the words of the LORD: God is about to act. Slavery is over; freedom is at hand. The chosen people are going to be led out across the wilderness, nourished by God with miraculous waters in the desert, and brought out in safety to the Promised Land.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, says God in this passage. I am about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?
Except … this new thing is a lot like the old thing.
In fact, it’s almost an exact repetition of the foundational narrative of Israel, the Exodus, when God brought the chosen people out of slavery, not in Babylon but in Egypt, and let them across the wilderness, nourished them with waters in the desert, and brought them into the Promised Land.
You might say God is playing to type. There’s something about God’s personality that means that bringing the people out of slavery and into freedom is really what God does. In the midst of deepest suffering, when hope seems lost and evil seems to have triumphed, God acts, for liberation. God’s past performance is in fact a pretty good indicator of God’s future behavior. God is always doing something new—and yet, in another sense, God only ever does one thing.
Now it’s only afterwards that it all makes sense: yes, of course. This is God’s way of acting! This is the same God we knew from before, the one who sets us free. This is the new thing that God does over and over, each time fitting into the same pattern, each time unexpected and new. Do you not perceive it?
The story seemed to be completely over for the disciples of Jesus. They hoped he was the one who would bring God’s kingdom on earth and fulfill the hopes of Israel. Instead, he brought down all the power of religion and empire down on his head. We’ve started to feel the gathering clouds already in today’s gospel, in the story of his anointing ahead of time for his burial. And next week we will plunge deeply into the heart of the mystery, into the dark shadows of betrayal and death.
And then in raising Jesus from the dead, God does the most unexpected and mysterious new thing of all. Death is destroyed, violence is defeated. Jesus is risen. This is a new thing—and yet it is in keeping with what God has always done. No one could have predicted it; but in retrospect it makes sense: yes, this is the same God we knew from before! It’s this event, this resurrection—this person—that transforms the disciples’ lives forever. This act of God in raising Jesus keeps reverberating through the centuries, and it will reverberate right down until God’s final victory, when the self-giving love of Jesus is all in all.
It’s slow, and often it’s imperceptible. Evil and death still reign so powerfully, in so many places: in prison cells, in concentration camps, in dictators’ mansions, in our own broken relationships and addictions and petty acts of betrayal. And yet God keeps acting. Even when we least expect it, God does the new old thing again. We hear the strains of We Shall Overcome, and slaves are set free and walls come down and the poor hear good news.
It never happens without people perceiving what God is doing and joining in. And yet it’s never our initiative doing it all on our own. It’s the wild Spirit of God breathing over the world. This is the pattern that is knit into the fabric of creation. Or to say it a better way, this is the personality of the God behind all creation. Because the fullest revelation of God isn’t just a pattern; it’s the human being Jesus. This is the person Paul fell so deeply in love with that all the best and noblest things in his life came to seem like loss, like rubbish, compared to the total delight of knowing Jesus and his resurrection. This is the person Mary fell so deeply in love with that she poured out the priceless perfume, caressing his feet and honoring his person just before he was glorified.
And this is the person we meet whenever two or three of us gather together in his name. We meet him when we read the words of scripture, and we meet him when we celebrate the sacraments. We meet him in the faces of one another, and in the faces of the poor.
We’re about to dive into the very heart of the story. The next time we gather all together as a parish family, it will be to wave palms and celebrate his entry into Jerusalem—and then to hear the story of his humiliation, his suffering and death, and to walk the path toward the empty tomb. Holy Week and Easter are the whole pattern in miniature of God’s love. We do this every year; it’s always the same. And yet it is a new thing each time. Because this is not just a reenactment of things that happened in the past. The same Jesus is alive and present today. The same Holy Spirit is blowing where she wills. The mystery is always the same, but you and I are different, and God is still at work here and now.
Where in your life, I wonder, is God about to do a new thing? Where—even where you would never expect it—might God be about to set you free?