Back to the New Normal

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New normals are always sneaking up on us. Preachers ignore them to their peril and the peril of our hearers.

“New normals” are the stuff from which historians live. Historians rejoice when people are noticing in the current conditions of change that God has made change an integral part of human life, but we all have sensed that our lives are always on the move much earlier. Often we resist that fact, with a reluctance to take into account the changes around us. We search for stability and order—elements of what the Hebrews called shalom—in our usual patterns of routine and custom. They easily become idols, bestowing what only God can give. When routine and custom slip away or become unstable under the pressure of God’s design and structure for life, which asks us to find our rest and peace in Him alone, we panic, or at least we long for a return to times that in God’s configuration of ongoing human history never repeat. In 2020, we have the sense that our world is in the midst of more profound changes than in a “normal” year. That may or may not be true. The fall of the Towers on “9/11” changed life for most people outside New York City a great deal less than we originally thought it would.

It is natural for sinners who have had life pretty good for some time to yearn for a return to the good old days. But God did not design human life to be so. He is a God of history and shares with His people the movement of time as the only Unchangeable in the trajectory of human life. That trajectory can take unanticipated twists and turns on a personal level and also on the level of our entire society. God is not pleased when we try to find the stability and security of our lives in maintaining or returning to doing things the way we always have. He wants to be our only ultimately stable, security, and shalom.

To be sure, He does want us to treasure His gifts that indeed endure and do not need to be changed. He does not favor change for the sake of change since it also serves our attempts at mastery in this world. But, He also is displeased with us when we try to make our customary way of doing things the anchor of our lives and do not find our anchor in His Word and His presence.

God is displeased with us when we try to make our customary way of doing things the anchor of our lives and do not find our anchor in His Word and His presence.

New normals are always sneaking up on us. They generally come more subtly than when they arise out of plague or war or civil conflict. Preachers ignore them to their peril and the peril of our hearers. If we fail to address the new challenges of people’s lives and fall back on the same old expressions of the ever-fresh Gospel of Christ, our hearers find it easier to let their minds wander. That may be due, in part, to the fact that we who preach may become so used to one way of saying the message we cease to search the Scriptures and mine them for the riches they contain. We too easily overlook or do not search for fresh and lively expressions of what our Lord has done for us in the manifold ways in which the prophets and apostles spoke of God’s good intervention in human life.

The oft-repeated message can continue to arouse our passion for proclaiming His Word, but sometimes we find that saying it the same old way no longer solidifies the message in our hearers’ way of thinking and living. It no longer moves and excites us. When that is the case, it will certainly not move and excite them.

I have done it myself many a time, but it is not a good idea to whip out an old sermon, even in the best of times. The oldies that are goodies certainly may serve as reminders of how His message stays the same and can always be appropriately applied under new conditions. But we and our people have experienced His movement in history over intervening months and years. Apt words and references from “then” no longer fall on receptive ears in our new “now.” Charting the shifting ground under our feet is fraught with danger. The old sermons can provide some orientation for how we pointed God’s Word at the particular sins and weaknesses of another time. Words framed in the past can fire our imaginations to effectively formulate the words that deliver God’s goodness and the benefits of Christ’s cross and resurrection today. But we need to be mindful that our current setting may be at best only deceptively similar to our former settings and concerns in long-gone “today’s.”

How are preachers to gauge what the “new normal” really is? How can we estimate more or less accurately how much of our people’s changing attitudes stem from their actual experiences and how much from their unfounded fears and only partially grounded anxieties? Unless we listen carefully, we may miss clues to new perceptions of the world around us. We can too easily slip back into old habits of mind when determining what our people need to hear from God’s Word.

However, “new normals,” when we recognize them, allow us to look afresh at what the Holy Spirit is telling us in the pages of Scripture and delivering it to the new challenges in our lives and the lives of our hearers. But can we already plan and prepare for the new normals that are coming upon us too quickly but also too slowly as we want to find new solid ground on which to stand and to minister? Can we already adequately chart our post-crisis ways of ministering while our circumstances are still lurching through new transmogrifications week by week? Probably not. New normals come in stages as we struggle to retain as much of our old ways as we can while adjusting to the new, the strange, and the different. Flexibility and a spirit of experimentation are the order of the day.

“New normals,” when we recognize them, allow us to look afresh at what the Holy Spirit is telling us in the pages of Scripture and delivering it to the new challenges in our lives and the lives of our hearers

Moving into our “new normal” should not be so scary even if we do not clearly foresee all the contingencies around the corner and down the block. We seldom do. Some alterations in our worlds have dropped on us more radically, some crept in so slowly we have not taken account of deeper changes around and within us. During change, there is indeed “decay,” as hymn-writer Henry Francis Lyte noticed all around himself as he fought chronic illness, but there are also the invitations of the Holy Spirit to minister to hurting, frustrated, and fearful people. We have practiced reformulating plans according to changing circumstances our entire lives, sometimes into a hardly different new normal, but in sometimes significantly different fresh “ordinaries.” We must be ready to admit that some new solutions to fresh problems will remain helpful for only very short times.

So, even when this year’s challenges and hurdles seem more formidable and forbidding than ever before, our resources and support remain in place. The Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit stand by us and supply us through the Word of promise in the Gospel the critical resources and tools for addressing our people’s needs. The new shape of parts of our lives together in community is simply one of His invitations to move with Him in the adventure of serving Him by serving God’s people. We answer these invitations with the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ beside us and within us. The Holy Spirit lends His stabilizing presence to our everyday circumstances as they shift and refocus our thinking and living. He leads us along new paths in the company of the conqueror of death itself and all that threatens us. Jesus Christ promised to be with us to the end of the age, and He assured His disciples the Holy Spirit would be here and there and everywhere for us. He who was born for us, who died for us, who rose for us comes to be with us and for us amidst all the changes we experience on the roller-coaster of life.

The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God that created the world and gives it its stability, its order, and its peace. Jesus Christ, who gives a peace no human system or institution, custom or practice can give, is here for us, at our side, on our side, in every contention with every new normal. His presence and the power of the Holy Spirit take place through proclamation. Preachers implement Christ’s presence and the Spirit’s power through the proclamation of precisely this Word that never changes while so much or so little seems to change in the world in which we live.