What's next

Isaiah 43:16-21

“God welcomes all, stranger and friend. God’s love is strong and it never

ends.” This song, and others that we sing in worship, come from the Iona

Community, on the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides in Scotland. If you’ve ever

wondered about whether a song is from the Iona Community, there are three

ways you can tell when looking in a songbook or on the screen. The song credits

may say ‘Iona Community,’ or ‘Wild Goose Resource Group,’ or list the names

‘John Bell and Graham Maule.’

Interestingly, these songs did not come from this community itself. The isle

of Iona had a ruined abbey that dated back over a thousand years ago. George

MacLeod, a minister in the Church of Scotland, organized his friends and other

ministers to rebuild the abbey, so that a new community of intentional worship,

peace, and justice could take root there. However, the community itself didn’t

really gain greater notice until the 1970’s, when John Bell and six other ministers

founded the ‘Wild Goose Resource Group,’ and began to craft music and collect

songs from cultures around the world for worship at Iona.

These songs are intended to reflect the global community. Their words are

lyrics evoke powerful images, whether the music has a more familiar style of

hymnody, such as ‘Will you come and follow me if I but call your name’, or songs

sung in solidarity with often overlooked peoples from all over the world, such as

‘If you believe and I believe and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must come

down and set God’s people free.’

Compare these songs with ones we also sing from the Taize community in

the Burgundy region of France. Unlike the Iona community, the Taize community

is much newer. It began as a ecumenical monastery of monks who sought to

provide refuge for Jews and other vulnerable peoples during the 2 nd World War.

Yet even though daily worship was part of the life of the Taize community for

decades, its distinctive worshipping style did not gain wider notice until the

community commissioned composer Jacques Berthier to craft simple chants that

could be sung with one voice, instrument, or language, or many voices,

instruments or languages. The genius of Berthier’s compositions is that they can

be quiet and contemplative or they can be orchestral and magnificent, and can

move from one extreme to the other quickly as a matter of musical preference or

worship necessity. We’ve used songs like ‘Gloria, Gloria, in excelsis deo’ as part of

our Advent worship, and alongside others in a focused Taize style worship service.

In both communities, there was openness to crafting music and worship in

a new way, to literally breathe new life into dry bones. The result was styles of

music and worship that continue to inspire and impact Christian worshippers with

their melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. Our worship evolves as a means to inspire

and deepen our soul’s connection with God in community. It always has been that

way, whether it was Benedictine monks singing simple chants to teach the Gospel

to illiterate masses, or Martin Luther crafting new lyrics for old bar songs to

rebuild connections for disaffected Germans. The American Christian church has

missed the mark with the now defunct worship wars, believing that all we had to

do was put coffee shops in our lobbies and rock music in our worship. Worship

cannot simply be another consumer focus group laden product. It must be a

means to connect with the mind, the body and the spirit.

The scripture from the prophet Isaiah reflects this sentiment. This text is

one that is familiar, yet not usually in the context of worship. As a quick refresher,

the people of Israel and Judah have been conquered by Babylon. Half of their

people are in Babylon, and the other half in their home country under Babylonian

rule. Isaiah is one of several prophets who speaks to this crisis, but does so in a

way that is distinct from previous Hebrew literature.

Prior to Isaiah and the other prophets, the Hebrew scriptures typically were

written with one of three varieties – a historical synopsis of their ancestors, such

as Genesis, Exodus, or the books of Kings or Chronicles; a recounting of the laws

of the temple, such as Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy; or a collection of

songs used in the synagogue, such as the Psalms. Rare was the work of Hebrew

literature that was poetic and inspirational, drawing upon themes that would

offer symbolic hope to an often forsaken people.

That is what the prophet Isaiah provides. The images of the prophet’s

writings are stark, honest, and powerful descriptions of the nature of Yahweh,

and God’s relationship with the Hebrew people. ‘Thus says Yahweh, who makes a

way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,’ begins our reading for today. Do you

see the message it sends? If Yahweh can create a path in the might of the ocean

and sea, then God can offer respite and hope in a time of chaos and despair, like

the one the Hebrew people are experiencing.

‘Do not remember the former things,’ say Yahweh, ‘I am about to do a new

thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ The honest answer from the

Hebrew people to Isaiah’s Yahweh question is ‘no, we don’t perceive it.’ We don’t

perceive anything. But the answer is less important than the question. The

question allows the people to begin searching, to begin seeking to perceive that

God may be doing something new in their midst. That God may, in fact, still be

with them and provide a way forward out of their exile.

And that’s exactly what Yahweh promises in the next stage – ‘I will make a

way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ The promise of a way forward

when there is no discernible way – the Hebrew people may hear these words with

skepticism, but they hear them, and those words take root like seeds blossoming

faithfulness, hope, and peace. And why would Yahweh offer hope? ‘To give drink

to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself.’ Yahweh reminds the

Hebrew people of covenant, the covenant Yahweh made in the Garden of Eden,

in Noah’s rainbow, and in the promise to Abraham and Sarah.

Isaiah’s words encourage the people of Israel and Judah to imagine a future

where they could witness God’s goodness and love upon them again. These ideas

dared them to hope in a time of hopelessness. It reminded the people that God is

also looking forward, looking forward to what’s next. Yahweh is a ‘what’s next’

God and the challenge and opportunity for any community of faith is to embrace

its call as a ‘what’s next’ people.

One blessing of our worship here at Beacon Heights is our constant

openness to change. It is rare to find a congregation that is so open to new

experiences within worship, and is so open to evaluating its own worship. A

couple of months ago, the Worship Team at Beacon Heights distributed a survey

for the congregation to offer its insights and input on the worship service. There

were 55 responses, and a wonderful assortment of opinions, reflections, and

suggestions.

The Worship Team has spent times at each of its meetings the past months

discussing and dissecting the survey results. The work is not yet finished, but will

be in the coming weeks. Overall, we as a congregation like the overall feel of our

worship service and appreciate many individual facets of it. However, there are

areas that we’re examining for change or improvement. This morning’s worship

offered some ideas for exploration, but you will also see other areas in the coming

weeks and months.

As we continue to work at improving our worship experience, it is my hope

that we will bring the same ‘what’s next’ attitude to other aspects of our

community life together. For we worship a ‘what’s next’ God and we are given the

opportunity and the challenge to embrace our call as a ‘what’s next’ people.

Amen.