Restoration is often a slow process but the Lord is always at work inviting us to sing new songs along the way. Will we linger in the past or move forward with the promise He gives?
All right, great to see everyone. Happy New Year, our first Sunday of 2021, wow. It’s hard to believe. We’ve reached the marking point, haven’t we? If you’re new here and joining us for the first time, I’m pastor Terry. I’m the Lead Pastor here at Cornerstone Church in San Francisco, and I’m thankful and grateful. Yes, I am, for this new year. I am ready as I think a lot of you are for a change and if last year taught us anything it was, I think humility. I mean, it reminded us of how very little we actually do control. I mean, we may think we are in control sometimes but we’re not.
It reminded us that our assumptions and even our best-laid plans are more vulnerable than we could have imagined. I mean, none of us could have envisioned how in 2020… well, it was going to be the year of the COVID, couldn’t see how it was going to unfold at the time. I mean, way back in March I just thought, “Oh, this is going to be for a couple of weeks, maybe a few months at max, none of us realized the span and scope of what we were dealing with and how much it was going to alter and affect our lives.
I mean, not only have we had a global pandemic to deal with, we’ve had shelter-in-place and it’s been a lot of mask-wearing. That’s created its own kind of interactive experience with other people that have been very different than anything we’ve ever had to deal with. So you look back on the year and you add into those things like a lot of discussions around racial justice. There was also a lot of civil unrest and of course, political polarization at a level that I personally haven’t seen before in my lifetime. So just a very challenging year that we’ve just walked through together. Even with the vaccine being rolled out, things still feel a little bit precarious. We’re hopeful, everybody I think is leaning into optimism but at the same time, it’s a reluctant kind of stepping forward.
The good news is the Lord is with us and the other part of that I rejoice in is that we are together, we are. As a church, as a community, as an extended community, really in not only in San Francisco and the Bay Area but in other parts of the country and even other parts of the world we’ve been together, we’ve made this journey together and how thankful I am that we’ve been able to do that. Even now, Lord, as we prepare to start this sharing time, the first message of a new year, 2021, we just want to say how grateful we are for your goodness and your grace and we ask that you would speak to us in unique ways, that your word becomes a word for us. This is our prayer as we open up our hearts to you. In Jesus’ name, amen.
We’re calling our new series Breakthrough. And it’s something that we are believing for, aspiring for, pursuing with irrepressible optimism that is anchored in the abiding faithfulness of God, a conviction that God is ever faithful, and that’s what’s driving us. We don’t put our confidence in man or in institutions or in governments. We can see how easy it is for policies to change and administrations to come and go. Now, let’s put our confidence in God, the God who spans human history. Let’s put our confidence not in the language again of the scripture, the arm of flesh, but in the Lord. Our confidence is in the God who doesn’t disappoint but rather appoints us for every good work in each unique season.
As I sought the Lord for, and I really did this, for how he wanted us as a church, as a people to enter into the new year, I didn’t take it lightly. This message means a lot to me. I consider it a sacred gift and entrustment every time I have the privilege as I have done now for decades of sharing God’s words, starting when I was just a teenager, as a young man of 16 and 17, 40 years ago. But every time I share, I try to remind myself that it’s a great privilege to teach God’s word, and I delight in it, I really do.
But at the same time, this particular one, the messages that are connected to the beginning of a new year, stand out a little bit to me because they set the tone. Now, later on in the month, we are going to have what we are calling our vision Sunday. There’ll be a unique service just devoted only to sitting with the vision we have as a church for this coming year, but this sets the tone. For me, this word is to be a guiding principle for all of us. I’m really believing that and it’s something that I hope all of us will not take lightly but rather we will give attention to what we sense is God’s saying to us as a people.
I was praying about, Lord, what is it that you want to say to us at the outset of this new year, 2021? I found myself drawn to a particular passage in the older Testament Book of Isaiah, the 42nd chapter actually, and I’d like to just have us read it through a little bit. So starting with verse five, Isaiah 42, “Thus says, God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out.” I mean, it starts with God and who He is. “Who spread out the earth and what comes from it. Who gives breath to the people on it and Spirit to those who walk in it.”
I mean, what the prophet is declaring here is that God stands beyond and outside of time as the creative force, as the unique creative force that holds all things together. He is the originator of life, the designer, the great designer, and the master animator of the human spirit; all that we know and see. Think about that. He says, “I am the Lord.” And talking to His people Israel specifically He says, “I’ve called you in righteousness.” And I love this next phrase, this next declaration, this next statement. “I will take you by the hand and keep you.”
What a tender promise that is? I mean, maybe for some of us that may actually be a word that we’re supposed to embrace for this season, that He wants to hold us by the hand and keep us. He says, “I will give you as a covenant for the people. This is my calling for you, to be a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. From the prisons, those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name and my glory I give to no other nor my praise to carved idols.”
Then the verses that I feel that follow right on the heels of what we’ve just read, that I really sense are a word for our church, our body, as we make our way into the unknown of 2021. “Behold,” the Lord says, “The former things have come to pass and new things I now declare. Before they spring forth I tell you of them. Sing to the Lord a new song.” There it is, the title of this message. A new song for a new year. Sing to the Lord a new song. Come on, let’s sing His praise from the end of the earth. Let’s not pull back on our praise. No, not at all.
If anything, let’s use the momentum of a new year to push into praise. Let us praise beyond our lips, let’s speak out His words. As we meditate on them, let’s sing songs to Him. Let’s be joyful and glad, and hopeful. Let’s sing a new song to the Lord in 2021. By faith, we shall do this. Then look at what it says. It says, “Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise from the end of the earth.” The other part that caught me, “You who go down to the sea and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants.” Look, it’s on the coastlands.
Now for Israel, the coastlands where the blue Mediterranean, the water’s edge, I’ve seen it. It is beautiful. But as I was sitting with this and thinking, “Wow, God, you want us to have a new song.” Then I read the bottom of that verse, that 10th verse, do you see it? I think you do. The coastlands. He was saying, “I want you to think about the coastlands.” And I found myself thinking about where we live here in the San Francisco Bay Area and by extension any of you who are connecting with us, you’re a part of us via the digital highway.
But we also literally live on the coastlands. I grew up on 47th Avenue here in San Francisco, literally a block away from the beach. You had 47th, 48th Great Highway, and then you were right there. I mean, the Pacific Ocean was always a part of my life. San Francisco is so unique because it has the coastlands. It has the Bay, it’s surrounded on three sides by water, and I think that this word has a particular meaning for us. I resonated with it when the Lord said the coastlands.
I think it’s helpful though also to remember the context of this passage when it was given when God had Isaiah to share it. Because it was given at a time when Israel was living in captivity, think about that. Does that resonate a little bit? They were in captivity, in their case they were in a foreign land. They were locked up by the rivers of Babylon, their harps hanging on the willow, the willow trees in grief and loss. They were people who have been forcibly removed from their homeland and receded if you will. Literally told, “This is your new home.”
And one thing about Israel and God’s people, and it goes all the way back to David, but they were a people of song. Still to this day, there is a particular sound of Jewish singing and the la la la, and there’s these all kinds of life in it, and joy and happiness, and it’s full. I mean, if you’ve ever seen a fiddler on the roof or you’ve been to Israel, or you’re just somebody who’s been around you realizes what I’m talking about. There’s a joy, a celebrated-ness connected to the declaration of song in God’s people. It was that way with David and it’s been that way for generations. Yet they couldn’t sing. They found themselves unable to sing because they were overwhelmed with grief and loss and despair.
So if you think about it, they were a people of song, who couldn’t sing because they were in captivity. In fact, it’s interesting because I pushed into that a little bit further and it’s actually touched upon specifically in one of the Psalms themselves, Psalm 137. And I want to just show you this real quick. Look what it says. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yay. We wept when we remembered Zion,” that is Jerusalem, the City of David. “Our old home, the land of our fathers.
“And when we were in Babylon we hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away, our captors, those who carried us away captive asked of us a song. And those who plundered us requested mirth, that is gladness and a happy song. ‘Sing your happy song. Sing us one of those songs of Zion that we’ve heard you sing.’ And we said, ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?'”
In this particular case I know there’s a time for us to sing and to praise when we find ourselves in the prison place, I get that, and how sometimes praise can become a mechanism of deliverance in our lives. But in this case, it was more about the principle of disloyalty. They felt that they would in some way betray their love for God and their homeland Jerusalem that they would never, ever let go of. That for them to sing songs in the land of captivity would mean to come in some way into an agreement that this was going to be normative, and this was going to be their new home.
They refused to believe that. They were committed to a belief even though at the time was almost like a vapor of a belief. There wasn’t much to it, but one thing they knew is they never were going to be at home in this place. So they said, “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. I will not play my instrument if you are not on my mind if I’m not there with you. If I do not remember you, no, I will not sing. Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.” That for them, the song was connected to place and to promise.
But then I want to go back to the Book of Isaiah. Because 137 Psalm really does capture how they were feeling at the time when Isaiah spoke these words to them. But God was speaking. In that 42nd chapter, He was telling them through His prophet that a new day was coming. As incredible as it sounded, what the Lord was saying is, “Your captivity is coming to a close and I’m about to deliver you.” And that’s why He said, “I want you to start to sing a new song. I want you to sing a new song because a time is coming of restoration.”
That is resonating with me right now and I hope it resonates with you. What the Lord was saying is, “I’m going to send you home. I’m going to send you back to the land, to the coastlands.” And it was important that they embrace that promise and sing a new song, sing to the Lord a new song, embrace the promise of what He said will come to pass.
Then, as if God wanted to reiterate with a double force, He states it in a different way in the following chapter, Isaiah 43, a word that I believe, I believe this, is a word for us as well. Look at it with me, oh, I love these two verses. Isaiah 43:18-19. “Forget the former things. Do not dwell on the past. See, look, 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.” Look, what does the Lord say? “Forget the past. Learn from it but don’t dwell on it.”
I kind of believe that’s something that the Lord would say to us about the year we’ve just had, 2020. It’s an incredible year in its own right. I don’t think that we are to not allow certain things to instruct us if you’re like me. There’s been a lot of things that we’ve learned. I’ve tried to process it through, I hope you take some if you haven’t done it. Is a process through a lot of what we’ve been walking through, but at the same time I don’t think we’re supposed to dwell on it. Learn from it but don’t dwell on it.
In fact, the Lord says here, forget the past, that is, let it go. Because there is a new thing that I want to do, a new horizon that I want to get you to. Now it springs up basically where the Lord is saying, “Can you see what I am doing? Now it springs up. It’s springing up, literally, a harvest.” But the thing was they couldn’t see it in the moment. Just like a lot of times when God is moving we don’t see what’s going on under the ground. That’s what the Lord is saying, “It’s springing up. Life is going to burst out. Even if you can’t see it, it’s happening. I am moving. Do you not perceive it? It’s on the move. The growth is beginning to happen. I will even make a way in the wilderness,” the Lord says. “And rivers in the desert.” That is, and I love the phrase, streams in the wasteland.
I mean, some of us have felt like this has been a wasteland, and may the streams come even in the wasteland. That’s God’s way of saying, “I will guide and I will provide. I will show you the way. I will give you a path. Do you see it?” They would move both through a literal and metaphorical desert. There was a literal desert they would have to cross to get back from Babylon to the land of Israel, to the coastlands. Along the way, the Lord was saying, “I’m going to be walking with you, I’m going to take you home. Do you not see it?”
You’re leaving this time and I’m hopeful that that is exactly what the Lord is doing for us. That He’s going to do for us by faith. He’s going to guide and He’s going to provide. He’s been doing it, but He’s going to do it in a fresh, new way. If 2020 was a year of captivity and dormancy then 2021 will be by faith a breakthrough year, hence breakthrough. Breakthrough. We’re going to claim the promise. It’s going to be a time of transition, a time of opportunity, and a time of restoration.
Now, think about that. When the Lord gives the word to Israel in the place of captivity. He’s saying that you’re going to move into a new season. I’m giving you a new song and I want you to sing that song. But to get there, you don’t get there all at once. It wasn’t like they were literally transported from Babylon, all of a sudden, boom, they’re sitting there in the middle of Israel overlooking the land and the sea, and the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, no. They were going to have to make a journey and it was going to take a little time. That’s a perfect analogy for what we’re all going to be walking through. I believe this has transitioned to a restoration but we are to sing new songs along the way.
It’s a tremendous honor opportunity for us, I hope you see that. I hope you’re as excited as I am for what we’re about to walk into and walkthrough and walk towards. I think it’s going to be a time of incredible restoration, and at a spiritual level, I think we will have to learn things. I don’t believe there’s a part of that phrase that says, “Forget the past. Don’t go back to it. Don’t dwell on it, don’t dwell on the past.”
Put it this way. When we return, we return differently. When Israel returned, they returned differently. They weren’t the same people, they had been to Babylon and now they were coming back but they came back differently. They had a song, they came back to the same places but they were different. They had learned to suffer, they had learned to endure captivity, they had learned to trust God’s promise. All of those things are for you and me.
So here’s what I’m thinking. We’re going to come back to many things that we were familiar with. Just like Israel was returning to a land of familiarity. By faith, that’s what we’re doing. But we’re not going back in the sense that we’re going to go back to exactly what was, we’re different, things will be different. We will return to what was, but we will be a new person in it. We will sing new songs. There will be changes and those changes are good, they’re fine. They may even be better. The Lord will show us the way. He will provide streams for us through the wilderness, through this transition period into a place of restoration and blessing. Okay. That’s a great promise.
I want to go back to that phrase, there’s one more phrase. I need us to hear it because the Lord says, He says, “Do you not perceive it?” Think about that. “Do you not perceive it, this new thing that I am doing? See, I am doing a new thing. It springs up, do you not perceive it?” When I really try to understand what God was saying, it wasn’t actually that God was saying to you, them, “Do you not understand? Can you not comprehend what I’m saying?”
Now, what He was actually getting at was, think of it this way. Will you embrace it? At least part of what was meant there was, “Here is my word of promise. I want you to sing a new song, I want you to embrace. Do you not see it? Do you not perceive it? Will you not embrace it?” The older version says, “Shall you not know it?” Which is another way of saying, “Will you not give heed to it? Will, you not receive it? Will you not act as if it were so?”
When we receive the word of the Lord we respond, we are acting as if it were so, that’s what we’re doing. We’re acting as if it were so, that’s what faith is. Faith believes and then aligns with that conviction. It acts as if it were so. The Lord was saying, “Do you not perceive it? Will you not receive it? Will you not embrace this?” And I think that’s so good for us, I mean, what are we going to embrace in this coming season or months? What are we going to embrace? What song are we going to sing? The choice is ours, it is.
This is not a time for hanging our harps on the willow tree, it’s a time for singing a new song, we might as well start practicing. I know, we say, “It’s not better yet, things are still tough and hard and there’s a lot of things that we don’t know and….” I know. I got it, I got it. But it’s already springing forth, do you not perceive it? Are we going to linger in the past or move with the promise? I need to say that one more time, are we going to linger in the past or are we going to move with the promise of a new day and a new song?
Come on now, come on. I was thinking about the new year and how we’re supposed to enter into it, how we’re supposed to move into it. I want to put a couple of things, just lay them out for us, just ways of singing that new song. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on each of these things but maybe one of them will really connect with you and you will resonate and you’ll feel a need to hold it.
But one of them has to do with this, we need to make a decision to cultivate a relentless optimism, a relentless optimism. As we make our way into this new year we were to be a people of hope. “Why?” You say. Because we have Jesus, that’s why. And He is with us. I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am with you always even to the end of the age. Cultivate an irrepressible, relentless optimism that continues to be resilient and it’s our attitude. It is important, it’s the key. We talked about the power of resilience, building resilience. Last year we talked about going up and over, using the example of Joseph as a model. And we’re going to come back to Joseph, by the way, a little bit later. Sits more with that amazing life.
Another thing that we can decide to do is cultivate a growing edge. By the way, I’m committing myself to both of these things. When I say cultivate a growing edge, I’m talking about really making a decision to plant my flag and to pursue spiritual expansion and development that you are called to be a deeper man or a deeper woman in love with the Lord. I remember what Christina Rossetti said in one of her poems. “Choose love not in the shallows but in the deep. Choose love not in the shallows but in the deep.”
Now, that’s where the Christian life is meant to be lived, not in the shallows, but in the deep. Now, we can live it in the shallows, but it wasn’t meant to live there. It’s meant to be lived in the deep, deep calls on the deep. Whereas Jesus told the disciples, “Launch out into the deep.” That’s where it works best. When we only love in the shallows we won’t get what we were meant to receive. The shallows, the dabbling, the halfhearted approach to following Jesus. It may get us to heaven but it won’t be anything close to what it was meant to be. The life of the gospel is when it’s fully applied. That’s why Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me because when you die you live. Let’s cultivate a growing edge, you guys.
If you haven’t thought about how you want to move into this new quarter, if there are things God’s calling us to pursue with fresh intention, maybe like we’ve talked about the rise and shines, but just complimenting that with consistency in reading His words, applying ourselves to quality reading material, digging more deeply, having a quality godly conversations. Surrounding ourselves with more music that lifts up our soul, being really careful about what we’re taking in so that it’s not undermining the goodness of God’s work in our lives, confusing our mind that I will be single as the scripture says. If we’re going to do this as my grandfather used to tell me, “If you’re going to serve Him, serve Him. Come on, don’t do it halfway, give it your best.
I was thinking about this because I was reminded of Longfellow’s poem that I’ve heard quoted a few times called A Psalm of Life. I love the title because it connects with our message. We were about a new song for a new season, and Longfellow’s written in 1838, wow, was called a Psalm for life, A Psalm of Life, A Psalm of Life, A Psalm of Life. This is how it goes, this is a part, this is just the back part of it, the second half. “Trust no future however pleasant.” We cannot presume upon what we cannot control. Didn’t we just learn that? Trust no future however pleasant. “Let the dead past bury its dead.” We can’t change what has already been. I can’t go back and redo. Act, now, act in the living present.
See, we can decide who we will be in the now, that we can do. “Heart within and God overhead.” I liked that. “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime and departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.” Footprints in the sand, the things we leave behind. The impact of our life, we’re thinking about at a new year. “Footprints that perhaps another sailing o’er life’s solemn main, a forlorn and shipwrecked brother, seeing, shall take heart again.” That is inspired by our example.
“Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate.” That is active and engaged. Remember, growing edge, nimble and adaptable. I love that phrase. “Let us then be up and doing with a heart for any fate.” That is, we can walk through things, we can endure. We can grow, we can go over the walls. That’s what we’ve been talking about, sitting with, walking together, committing ourselves to how to be active and engaged, nimble, and adaptable. A faith that is just highly adaptable. Come what may, we can handle being blessed and we can handle being beaten down. We can get through anything because we live anchored in the hope of Christ, that’s what I’m talking about.
Let that song resonate inside of us. Then Wadsworth goes on, I mean, Longfellow goes on to say, “Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.” Oh, I need to say that one more time. Let us then be up and doing with a heart for any fate. Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait. There it is. Learn to labor and to wait. There is a time to push and there’s a time to be patient, isn’t there?
You hear me say this, another thing to be considered as we make our way into the new year, let’s be patient with the process. Hey, I say loved ones, we are not always going to feel it, we’re not always going to feel it. We’re not always going to be motivated. We’re going to have dips and we’re going to be disappointed sometimes with others, sometimes, this is a hard one, with ourselves, sometimes with circumstances and yes, even sometimes in our foolishness with God, we will.
But as Emory Austin said, “Some days there won’t be a song in your heart, sing anyway.” That’s good medicine. Some days there won’t be a song in your heart, sing anyway. as Arthur Ash wrote, a motivational great tennis player of days gone by. “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can patient with the process that things play out. Remember, from the land of captivity to the land of promise, there’s a transition in a journey to get there. It’s okay.
Some days will be okay, some days will be joyful and happy and the song will flow easily, it’ll just come right out of us. Oh, good you are, so good to be alive. Other days it’ll be cloudy and hard sometimes. We don’t want to sing, we just want to mumble and grumble. Someone says, “Sing a song.” I don’t want to sing but sing anyway.
A couple more things. Some of us I think maybe we need to be a little bit more gentle with ourselves. Maybe we’re pushing too hard, clenching too tightly. Maybe we need to open up our hands, oh, literally, and sing to the Lord a song of surrender. Hey, songs of surrender, songs of openness, songs of letting go. My professor, when I was working in my seminary, said Dr. Pinkton, “What you won’t let be, won’t let you be, Terry.” That was good, that was good for me, holding on too tight.
Lastly, let’s be a little kinder to others. A little more kind, why? Because love is patient and love is kind, let that be part of our song too. Less irritated, less agitated. Come on now, less aggravated, a little more grateful, and a little more joyful. I’m convinced God has a new song for us to sing in 2021 as a church and as an individual. I know He has a new song for me to sing, and I want to be part of the song of who we are as Cornerstone, I’m convinced of it. But we’re going to need to sit with the idea of what we’re going to embrace. Are we going to linger in the past or move with the promise? The choice is ours.
So I got us on this here and disconnected right here, the breakthrough. But I also want to remind everybody that this is the time. Well, this is the time when I remind you about giving and you can do it a lot of different ways. Some of you send it in, some of you go directly through online. Others if you’re like me just go through the app, give that way. But like I say, may you first give your heart. So Lord, we just ask that you bless this time we’re sharing in song and then let me come back, let us come back together, I have one final thought.
All right, breakthrough. Are we going to magnify the problem or magnify the promise? Are we going to magnify our loss or magnify the Lord? God wants us to sing by faith a new song for a new season. So let’s do it, let’s sing. Let’s sing to the Lord a new song. He’s so good. So, God, He wants us, I don’t tire of saying it, to sow good is to sow God. Sowers in the field singing our happy songs, in Jesus’ name. Let’s have a great year, a growing year, a God year.