I’ve always loved the season of Lent. (See my March Pastor’s Pen for more about why.) I always want to accomplish so much in this season. I want to improve upon my work and ministry, I want to go deeper in my relationship with God, I want to make the most of this intentional time in the church year to right some wrongs, turn away from that which keeps me away from God, and to get myself focused again on God’s call for me.
In Lent, I want to make a breakthrough. And don’t we all? Don’t we all want to make breakthrough—be it with our spirit, or our relationships, or our work, or in our parenting, or whatever? Which is why around this time in the season of Lent I always start to feel some pressure.
Palm Sunday is next week, followed by the rush of Holy Week, culminating with Easter Sunday that starts early, but seems to end quickly. And then it’s over. The intentionality. The focus. The sacrifice. The season. The joy. It all just stops. And I worry it didn’t take, it didn’t stick, or it won’t last. And I worry that if it doesn’t, I’ll just slip back into the ways I vowed to leave behind, and instead of having a breakthrough, I’ll end up having a breakdown.
Humans have experienced countless breakthroughs when we discovered or invented something that moves us quickly from one era to another.
Penicillin gave us a way to treat a number of previously deadly diseases.
The steam engine provided a way to power the factories, trains and ships of the Industrial Revolution.
The Wright Brothers figured out how to fly.
There’s also: the printing press, electricity, refrigeration, the combustible engine, jet propulsion, the internet, and among my favorite inventions…Baseball.
Everything we have today was at some point a breakthrough that has had life changing implications—even mundane vulcanized rubber created by Charles Goodyear. Whether well-known or taken for granted, all were breakthroughs.
So as we move closer to the end of this Lenten season, that has had us pursing the work of putting on Jesus, it is important to assess where we are with that work, before it’s over.
And to do so we turn today to the prophet Isaiah who is talking to the people of Israel who are having a breakdown and are in need of a breakthrough. Isaiah presents to them three opportunities to achieve the breakthrough they desperately need. And they are three opportunities we too can embrace in our effort to breakthrough and put on Jesus before Easter is over.
The people of Israel need a breakthrough because they’ve been exiles, suffering in Babylon, and they ache to return to their homeland.
When the prophet Isaiah says that God is the one who “makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” (16-17) Isaiah is reminding the people that God was the architect of the Exodus from Egypt— the one who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” When the Israelites were stuck between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, God opened a way where there was no way. God separated the waters and overwhelmed the attacking army, giving Israel a breakthrough.
And with this reminder Isaiah is telling the Israelites that God continues to remove obstacles, making new paths to walk, where and when there is none.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, thousands of people died and 400,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
Pastor Gadiel Ríos, along with many other church leaders, was in shock. He wondered, “What would happen with our families? What would happen with the communities of faith we ministered in?”
Ríos told Christianity Today, “A few days after the hurricane, local congregations started to meet, and a sense of shared community kicked in. Everyone started to look for opportunities to serve. Volunteers collected donations and headed to the places of greatest need. Mainline, evangelical, and non-denominational churches poured money and thousands of volunteer hours into the recovery.
Ríos continues, saying, “A crisis like this brings us back to the core of our calling.”
After the hurricane, God gave Pastor Ríos a breakthrough— the realization that he needed to focus on individuals, offering them a shoulder to cry on, a safe place to vent anger, and then hear a reassuring word of God’s love.
Despite the hardships that continue today, Ríos and his church press on to live out their core, and “Bring the Gospel of Christ with compassion and love to those who live in despair.”
Wherever we are, we are challenged to experience the same breakthrough—to see how God is making new paths to walk—“a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters”— even when there seems to be no way forward.
Ministry is not about the number of people in worship, the size of the church budget or the variety of programs we offer. Rather, it is about touching and transforming lives and giving people hope.
A second opportunity Isaiah speaks of is to look forward to the new thing that is surely coming.
God says through the prophet, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (18-19)
Look forward, says God, not back. God is doing something new, both in us and around us.
Beth Moore is one of the most effective Bible teachers in the evangelical Christian community. She has filled churches and sold out arenas. She was the first woman to have a Bible study published by LifeWay which has now reached millions of people.
Moore, you can clearly say, has had a breakthrough. But she isn’t done, and she is aiming for a new breakthrough, one to overcome that which has broken down, saying, “The old way is over. The stakes are too high.”
In saying this Moore is speaking to how she is appalled by the sexual misconduct in the worlds of politics and the church. She knows many of the millions she has impacted have suffered abuse, and even tells how she herself was sexually abused as a small child.
In a tweet to her nearly 900,000 followers, she said, “Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement and power.”
You can imagine Moore’s strong stand caused her to lose supporters, but she is convinced God wants her to address this issue. She is adamant that Christian men should always treat women exactly as Jesus did, saying, “Always with dignity, always with esteem, never as secondary citizens.”
“I am about to do a new thing,” says God.
God is challenging us to turn away from our old ways—especially our old ways of overlooking sexual misconduct—and to be part of a new era of respect and righteous behavior.
As we walk this path, we can trust God to give us guidance and support— “a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (v. 19)
Finally, God promises to “give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (20-21)
Notice God gives drink to us for reasons beyond the quenching of our thirst— God wants to refresh us so we can serve.
When you hear the word “Liturgy” in church, it’s referring to that which is said and read and done in worship, but it also includes the acts of praise.
The word “liturgy” literally means “work of the people.” “Work of the people”— not entertainment for the people.
We gather on Sunday for a “worship service” because it is in worship that we serve God, and are prepared to go and serve others.
Unfortunately, many people come to worship to be entertained by music or preaching or high-tech slide shows. (Not talking about any of you, because you certainly can find better entertainment than me!)
But those who do seek out entertainment, often soon give up on worship because they “don’t get anything out of it.” But maybe they give up because they haven’t put enough into it.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that in worship, the true audience is God. Worship leaders are the prompters, and members of the congregation are the performers. Then together, members and leaders declare God’s praise.
This approach has been a breakthrough for people who have discovered that true worship is based on what they can offer God, not on what they can get from the service.
One person, writing on the Theology of Work website, said, “Ironically, I found that the more I focused on giving to God, the more I got out of worship.”
The same can be true for us. As congregation members and worship leaders, our challenge is to declare God’s praise with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. When we do our best for God, who is our audience, we will come out of worship feeling energized and inspired, we will feel we truly have put on Jesus and are ready to go and share his love and Good News.
God performs a variety of breakthroughs in our lives. Most probably don’t look like medical miracles, scientific discoveries, or technological advances. More often, they include: new paths to walk; new stands to take; or new ways to serve.
But whatever the breakthrough appears as, it moves us forward and gives us new life.
There is some time left in this season of Lent. Time enough to walk in the ways of Jesus, open ourselves to God, and be led to having the life changing breakthrough we need—whatever it might be. Because at the heart of this intentional effort to connect with God and with God’s children, and deepen our faith and awareness of the Christ in me, the Christ in you, and the Christ all around us; is the opportunity to have the breakthrough that will change our life forever. Amen.