• Steven Marsh

The Gospel of the Future: a Reflection on Isaiah 43:16-21 and John 12:1-8

In 1523, an English animal trainer named John Fitzherbert said, “The dog must be trained when he is a whelp, or else it will not be [trained]; for it is hard to make an old dog [find a new scent].” Today, we’ve summarized his insight into this well-known adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It sounds good, but is it really true?

A show on the Discovery Channel called Mythbusters likes to take timeworn adages like this one and see if they’re true or false. So MythBusters’ hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage decided to go after this one, too. They found a pair of aging Alaskan malamutes who didn’t know a single trick in the book. Malamutes are known for their stubbornness. As 7-year-old canines, siblings Bobo and Cece were equivalent to a couple of 50-year-olds in dog years, arguably qualifying them for the “old dog” category. After four days of training, Bobo and Cece proved Fitzherbert flat wrong. Each could heel, sit, lie down, stay, and shake upon command from Jamie and Adam.Their conclusion: Myth busted. You can teach old dogs new tricks.[1]

Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century Reformed theologian preaching on Isaiah 43, notes, “…there yet remains…to be accomplished, in bringing the whole world to Christian faith and settling the world in that state of light, peace and holiness…”[2] Can the church…can individual followers of Jesus learn that is relearn to be evangelists, sharers of good news?

Isaiah sees the future and it is unfolding by God doing a new thing. It doesn’t take much reflection to come up with barriers that are in place to stop humanity from living in light, peace, and holiness. Hate, anger, chaos, arrogance, posturing and the like have raised their ugly heads. The human spirit is motivated by fear these days. Gridlock is the way of life. We need a new thing and Christians can lead the way. But we need to lead with the good news which shows the light, peace, and holiness of God making a real difference in real people’s lives who live in a real world.

Isaiah uses the image of water as a barrier and a conveyor of life. For the Israelites, the Red Sea was a barrier, but God parted the Red Sea and after the people of God passed through, the water captured Pharaoh’s army. The future of the Israelites was bleak as they faced the barrier of the water, but the future unfolded when they trusted God and began to walk through the barrier and experienced God turning the barrier of water into a conveyor of life. Faith compelled the people to enter the barrier.[3]

In the first century, there were leaders in the Christian movement who believed that the practice of circumcision had to be honored for Christianity to be truly valid. These leaders, called Judaizers, were converts from Judaism to Christianity, but would not let go of Jewish distinctives such as circumcision, particular traditions, and certain high holy days. The Judaizers advocated a “Jesus-plus” theology. Simple faith in Jesus Christ plus specific and distinctive beliefs and practices equaled true Christianity. Paul warned the Philippians and warns us that confidence in the flesh is destructive.

Even Mary wanted a future. Her extravagance of anointing Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume overcame the barrier of Judas’ rejection that she was being wasteful. Mary could only give her best to Jesus in that he offered her a future. Believing in Jesus is strange, because it means listening to his voice and heeding his values…defying government as savior and embracing him as the only one who can save.[4]

We are living in a time of great uncertainty. As individuals and a church, we must make a clear assessment of our losses and gains in the way we are currently doing things. On Good Friday, our services focus on the seven last words of Christ. Do you know what the seven last words of the church are? “We’ve never done it that way before.”[5]

As Christians, we must turn the barriers of rigid fundamentalism into conveyors of life: the message of the Bible is salvation; belief in Jesus Christ saves us from ourselves and false saviors; our assurance of salvation is not based on merit, only grace; there is never enough evidence to prove God’s existence only the full sufficiency of faith; and all praise, honor, and glory to God. Our existence is not our own.  Peter J. Gomes former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals writes, “We Christians, especially those of us who share a Protestant and an evangelical faith, need a bigger God that goes against the conventional wisdom of our little faith. With such a God we need fear nothing the future has to offer…”[6]

The future waits to be lived into. As we exercise obedience and trust, some might become reawakened in their Christian faith and practices while others may even become Christian. In both cases, life has changed. Barriers are turned into conveyors of life.

[1]Source: Mythbusters Database, “Is It Possible to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks,” Discovery Channel.

[2]Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “They Sing a New Song.” Found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, volume 22, edited by Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch, with Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 231.

[3]The image of “water” as barrier and conveyor of life was gleaned from Michael E. Williams in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

[4]Gleaned from William G. Carter in in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 143.

[5]Gleaned from Michael E. Williams in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, 124.

[6]Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, (New York City, New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 158.

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