A New Normal | If Only
Over the course of the last year, I’ve had a lot of what I’ve come to call “If I could only…” moments. So what is an “If I could only…” moment? Well, an “If I could only…” moment is a moment where you feel like if you could only do one thing then your life would be normal again. And, let’s just be honest here, after living through a pandemic for the last thirteen months, a lot of us wish that our lives would just be normal again.
So, at different points over the last year, I’ve thought: If I could only eat inside of a restaurant then it would feel normal again. Or if I could only send my daughter back to school then it would feel normal again. Or if I could only go on vacation then it would feel normal again. Or if I could only go back to an in-person worship service then it would feel normal again. Or if I could only get a haircut then it would feel normal again. And by the end of last May, I was starting to look like this. So I really needed that haircut.
But you know what? Over the course of the last year, I have been able to do every one of those things. I have been able to eat inside of a restaurant again...but I was uncomfortable the whole time I was there, so it didn’t feel normal. And I’ve been able to send my daughter back to school...but she’s only going two days a week, so it doesn’t feel normal. I’ve been able to go on a short weekend getaway...but I was stressed the whole time I was gone, so it didn’t feel normal. I’ve been able to get a haircut, but having my barber have to fool around with my face mask is just weird, so it doesn’t feel normal.
And now, this is the fifth Sunday that we have offered an in-person worship service. But plenty of people in our church still feel more comfortable worshiping online. And when we’re here we’re wearing face masks, and sitting six feet apart, and we can’t shake hands or hug. So it doesn’t feel normal.
So a lot of us are having those “If I could only…” moments when we come to church right now. We tell ourselves that if I could only take my face mask off then it would feel normal again. Or if I could only be together in-person with my small group then it would feel normal again. Or if I could only sit next to my friends or share a hug or two before the service begins then it would feel normal again.
So right now, a lot of us spend more time wishing for the future than we do living in the present.
We spend more time wishing for the future than we do living in the present.
And focusing more on the future than the present can be a very dangerous thing.
And I’ve experienced why it can be a dangerous thing first hand. And probably the first time that I really learned how dangerous it can be to focus on the future instead of living in the present happened when I was learning how to drive.
When I was learning how to drive and getting close to taking the test to get my driver’s license, my dad thought that we should go out every afternoon for a couple of weeks to practice. So every afternoon, we would cruise through my neighborhood and travel down a few slightly busier roads. But after fifteen or twenty minutes out on the open road, we'd always end up in the same place: an empty church parking lot.
Why? Because by the time I was getting ready to take my driving test, I had already had my learner's permit for months, and I had most of the basics down pat. It was those lesser-used skills that still needed some work. And there was one particular skill that we worked on every single afternoon: parallel parking.
And I’ve gotta tell you, I still don’t really understand why you have to know how to parallel park to pass your driving test. I mean, I have now had my license for twenty-two years and I’ve had to parallel park less than a handful of times in all those years. And on top of that, car manufacturers have been offering cars that can parallel park themselves since 2006. So in my book, it’s a pretty useless skill.
But you have to be able to parallel park to get your driver’s license. So my dad wanted to make sure I could do it. And every time we went out to practice parallel parking, my dad followed the exact same routine. He would pop open the trunk and pull out two folding lawn chairs that represented the two cars I would be parking in between. Which I have to admit wasn't a bad idea since I'm pretty sure our insurance company wouldn't have liked it if I was learning to parallel park between two actual cars. And once the two chairs were in position, my dad would take his regular spot beside the front chair, carefully instructing me how to maneuver the car.
And, although his instructions were usually pretty helpful--and probably the only reason why I actually managed to pass my driving test--they also became a little too much for a teenager to handle by the end of those three weeks. And that’s because I was more focused on my driving future than I was on learning to drive in the present.
So, when I was out with my dad, I wasn’t thinking about parallel parking. I was thinking about what it would be like to pull up into my high school parking lot behind the wheel of my own car instead of being dropped off by one of my parents. Or I was thinking about what it would be like to borrow the keys from my dad on a Friday night so I could go out to the movies with my friends. Or I was thinking about what it would be like to hit the open road like they do in Cannonball Run.
So one afternoon when we went out to practice parallel parking, I let my teenage angst get the best of me. And I told my dad that I could handle parallel parking on my own. I didn't need his directions this time around.
So, my dad got out of the car, he set up those lawn chairs and he let me do my thing. So, I positioned the car perfectly and began slowly backing in. And let me tell you, I was doing great. As a matter of fact, I was doing so well that the DMV probably should’ve been out there shooting an instructional video on how to parallel park a car. With one last adjustment to the wheel, I eased into the spot and I knew I was positioned perfectly by the curb.
The only thing left to do was straighten the car up. So I slid my foot off the gas pedal and pressed firmly down on the brake, reaching for the gear shift to put the car back in drive. And, at that moment, I’m not exactly sure what was running through my mind. I don’t know if I was picturing driving to school, or going to the movies, or racing across America like Burt Reynolds. But when I went to put the car back in drive the car didn't stop.
Instead, it started moving backward at a rather alarming speed. And the next thing I heard was the rather unpleasant sound of a lawn chair being hit by a car. You see, while I was busy dreaming about what the future held, I kinda missed the brake pedal in the present and accidentally hit the gas pedal instead. That poor lawn chair never even saw it coming.
And, the worst part of it all is that I brought it on myself. I thought I could do it all by myself, without any guidance from my dad. But somewhere along the way, I forgot what he had taught me. I let my mind drift off into the future and I wasn’t focused on what I was supposed to be doing in the present. And I made a big mistake. I'm just glad I only dinged up a lawn chair and not something far more valuable.
Now that was a fun little story, and I’m sure some of you are going to want to give me a hard time about my driving skills after the service. But what does this story have to do with us? Well, when I was learning to drive, I got so busy thinking about my future as a driver that I stopped paying attention to my dad in the present. And that led to a big mistake. And right now, a lot of us are spending so much time dreaming of the future where things get back to normal that we aren’t paying attention to our heavenly father in the present.
We are spending so much time dreaming of the future that we aren’t paying attention to Godin the present.
And it will lead us to a big mistake if we aren’t careful.
That’s exactly what happened to the people of Judah in the years leading up to our scripture reading for today. Now, remember that after King Solomon died the kingdom of Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was still called Israel. But the southern kingdom became known as Judah. And about seventy years before the story that we’re going to look today at took place, the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. And it happened because the people of Israel weren’t paying attention to God. They had turned their backs on God. And God was going to allow them to suffer the consequences for their behavior.
So the Babylonian Empire invaded and, in 586 BC, they destroyed Jerusalem. And the word destroyed doesn’t really do justice to what happened. In the book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah writes about what it was like to walk through the war-torn streets of Jerusalem. And he starts out by writing:
1:1 Jerusalem, once so full of people, is now deserted. She who was once great among the nations now sits alone like a widow. Once the queen of all the earth, she is now a slave.
So the city that had been the capital of a kingdom was now empty. And many of its inhabitants had been taken as spoils of war and they were exiled throughout the Babylonian Empire. But 70 years later, the people of Judah would be allowed to return home. And when the people of Judah learned that they would be headed home, I’m sure they had their own fair share of “If I could only…” moments.
If I could only walk back through the gates of the city. If I could only make it back to my old home. If I could only see my neighbors again. If I could only go to the temple. And with every one of these “If I could only…” moments, the people of Judah looked forward to the future. But they also forgot about God in the present.
And that’s where our scripture reading for today comes in. In the passage we’ll be reading, another prophet--named Zechariah--is going to remind the people of Judah that they don’t need to get so caught up in the future that they stop following God in the present. So let’s take a look at Zechariah 8, and we’ll start reading in verse 1. Zechariah writes:
8:1 The word from the Lord of heavenly forces came to me: 2 The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:
I care passionately about Zion; I burn with passion for her. 3 The Lord proclaims: I have returned to Zion; I will settle in Jerusalem. Jerusalem will be called the city of truth; the mountain of the Lord of heavenly forces will be the holy mountain.
4 The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:
Old men and old women will again dwell in the plazas of Jerusalem. Each of them will have a staff in their hand because of their great age. 5 The city will be full of boys and girls playing in its plazas.
6 The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:
Even though it may seem to be a miracle for the few remaining among this people in these days, should it seem to be a miracle for me? says the Lord of heavenly forces.
7 The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:
I’m about to deliver my people from the land of the east and the land of the west. 8 I’ll bring them back so they will dwell in Jerusalem. They will be my people, and I will be their God—in truth and in righteousness.
9 The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:
Be strong, you who are now hearing these words from the mouths of the prophets spoken on the day when the foundations for the house of the Lord of heavenly forces were laid. 10 Before this time, there were no wages for people or animals; there was no relief from distress about going out or coming in, because I set everyone against their own neighbor. 11 But now, unlike those earlier days, I’ll be with the few remaining among this people, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
12 The seed is healthy: the vine will give its fruit. The land will give its produce; the heavens will give its dew. I will give the remnant of this people all these things. 13 Just as you were a curse among the nations, house of Judah and house of Israel, so now I will deliver you; you will be a blessing. Don’t fear, but be strong…
Zechariah 8:1-13 (Common English Bible)
So, in the verses that we just read, God promises the people of Judah that a lot of their “If I could only…” moments are going to happen. God promises the people of Judah that they will return to the Holy city of Jerusalem and that God will meet them there. God promises they will once again grow old in their own kingdom, and that their kids and grandkids will be able to safely play in the streets. God promises that they will be able to plant gardens on their own land again, and they will harvest more food than they can imagine.
But there is a catch. And that catch comes a couple of verses later in Zechariah 8:16-17. So let’s listen to the catch together. Zechariah writes:
16 These are the things you should do: Speak the truth to each other; make truthful, just, and peaceable decisions within your gates. 17 Don’t plan evil for each other. Don’t adore swearing falsely, for all of these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
Zechariah 8:16-17 (Common English Bible)
In these verses, God tells the people of Judah that if they want to experience their “If I could only..” moments that there are things they have to do for God right now. If the people of Judah want to get back to Jerusalem and enjoy their normal lives again, they have to do what God commands them now. They have to be honest now. They have to be just now. They have to be peaceful now. Zechariah tells them that if they want to receive God’s promises in the future then they have to follow God today.
And the same thing is true for us. If we want God’s promises for the future, we have to follow God today.
If we want God’s promises for the future, we have to follow God today.
It’s just like when I was learning to drive a car. Like just about every other 16-year-old, I really wanted my driver’s license. I wanted to be able to drive myself to school or go to the movies without having to bum a ride. I wanted the freedom and the independence that came with my driver’s license. But in order to experience everything that a driver’s license promised me in the future, I needed to listen to what my dad was trying to teach me in the present.
And I know that right now, a lot of us are looking forward to a future when the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over. I know that a lot of us are looking forward to a day when we can sit in a crowded restaurant or movie theater or sanctuary without feeling at least a little anxious. I know that a lot of us are looking forward to a day when we don’t have to wear face masks anymore or when we can just shake hands with other people again. I know that a lot of us are looking forward to a day when our church can do all the things that we had been doing for years before this novel virus struck.
But I don’t know when or even if any of those things will ever happen. So I don’t want to put off following God until they do. I want to follow God and I want us all to follow God right now. So that’s what I want us to commit to doing as we live in this new normal for our church. I want us to commit to let go of some of those “If I could only…” moments. And I want us to commit to following God with everything we have today.
We can do that by committing to come into God’s presence to worship him every weekend--whether we do it online or in-person. We can do that by committing to really praise God--even if it means singing with a mask on our faces. We can do that by committing to align our priorities with God’s priorities--and to follow God’s direction in our new normal instead of forcing God to follow ours.
But the decision is yours to make. Are you committed to following God right now when your life, the world, and our church aren’t exactly what you want them to be? Or are you only going to follow God if he would only make everything the way you want it to be.