Some years ago (before the advent of the sat nav), having taken a wrong turning on a journey to Bala in North Wales and ending up 20 miles out of my way in the middle of the night with no other option (because of the mountains) than to turn round and drive the 20 miles back, I learned a very important lesson in life: sometimes we have to go backwards in order to go forwards!
In his book God Was In Christ, Donald Bailey suggests that we cannot understand the Christian Faith without paradox – two equal and opposite truths. An obvious example of this (and the one at the heart of Bailey’s book) is the doctrine of the Incarnation – Jesus Christ being at one and the same time fully human and fully divine. Thus the modern concept (despite it being rooted in a very old piece of scripture) of God doing ‘a new thing’ [Isaiah 43:19] in the church today, is balanced (to my way of thinking at least) by an equally valid concept, if somewhat unpopular view in this modern church age, that as church what we really need to be doing is to be asking God to reveal to us again the ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’ [Jeremiah 6:16]. My personal conviction is that in our constant search for new ways, new methods, new experiences, we have forgotten some of the old ways, old truths, old experiences which would stand us in much better stead if we were to recover them once again, rather than endlessly search for something new.
Jeremiah was both a priest and a prophet who prophesied to Judah (the southern kingdom) c.626-586 BC. He prophesied during a period of storm and stress when the doom of the entire nation of Israel – including Judah – was being sealed. His ministry began c.626 BC half way through the reign of Josiah – a period of real hope – but ended sometime after 586 BC at the conclusion of the reign of Zedekiah and the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. He was forcibly taken to Egypt (along with Baruch) by others who feared Babylonian reprisals (see Jeremiah 43:4-7) when he was around 70 years of age, and Jewish tradition has it that he died there. Jeremiah essentially presided over a period of decline in Judah, but one of the things he tried to do was to call the people back to the old ways, the ancient paths of Godly commitment and devotion – ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’ [Jeremiah 6:16]
This idea of God doing a ‘new thing’ in his Church today is in reality not that new. The idea has been popular amongst many Christians since the mid-1960s and the outbreak of the charismatic renewal. Personally speaking I have become tired of waiting for this so-called ‘new thing’ to manifest itself – there have been far too many false dawns – and I increasingly find myself actually longing for some of the ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’ – some of the truths and practices that characterised the church of my youth back in the late 1960s and early 1970s that we appear to have lost. In saying this I do not want to appear too critical of the so-called ‘new churches’ from whom those of us in the historic churches have much to admire and learn from – their enthusiasm in worship and witness, their dedication not least in financial giving and sacrificial service, their commitment to Christ and to one another in the church. If they appear to have gone too far in certain directions at times this is primarily because of an understandable reaction to the staidness and lack of spiritual zeal of many of the historic churches. We need to be careful not to use criticism of their more obvious faults and failings – the speck in their corporate eye – to cover up our own faults and failings – the planks in our own eyes that we have been guilty of in the historic churches for generations.
The advent of the ‘new churches’ has challenged many of us in the historic churches to re-examine the way we ‘do church’ today. We have been forced to re-visit key areas such as worship, financial giving, service, commitment, pastoral care, leadership in the church, evangelism, the gifts and ministries of God the Holy Spirit, and so on – indeed we have not been frightened to learn from them and try and discover for ourselves the ‘new thing’ that (the new churches continually tell us) God is seeking to do among us. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if – in our attempt to be new and original – the pendulum has actually swung too far and we have in fact, as church, forsaken some of the key things of the ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’? I have visited too many ‘new’ and ‘renewed’ churches in recent years where although the ‘worship’ has been lively there has been a noticeable absence of Bible reading and intercessory prayer, and Communion has been seemingly relegated to the back burner and observed either intermittently or on a kind of ‘help yourself’ basis. Despite an initial vibrant start even the new churches are struggling numerically today along with the historic churches.
I would suggest that the church today here in the West – like the Judah of Jeremiah’s day – is truly ‘stand[ing] at the crossroads’ and the decisions we make as church today about the way we go from here are absolutely vital for the future of the church! Is it time for us to stop asking God to do a ‘new thing’ among us … and instead ‘look’ for, even ‘ask’ God in his goodness to show us again those ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’ and give us grace to walk them once again.
Just one of those things – and the one I want to return to – is the art, the need, the priority of what used to be called ‘waiting on God’. Not waiting for God – a demonstration of some kind of stoic patience as we wait for God’s intervention – but rather waiting prayerfully on God for understanding, revelation, direction on a particular matter or situation concerning ourselves, our church, our nation, and so on. Whilst patience is a virtue, and something that we all need to demonstrate at times including those times when we do have to wait patiently for God to fulfil his promises or plans for our lives, waiting prayerfully on God is something altogether different and something that needs to be recovered in today’s church and in our personal walk with God.