A devout Jew in the first century BC would have gone to the synagogue every Sabbath to hear teaching and readings from the Scriptures. Each week, men from the community would rise to read from the books of the Law and from the prophets who foretold a Messiah, scribes and respected elders would explain the meaning of these Scriptures to the people, and then they would all go home as another week cycled on past, as the people and the weeks had done for generation after generation. One imagines a middle-aged man and his family, from Capernaum, say; godly, careful to observe the Sabbath, there every week to listen as the old scrolls are opened and the thinning grey beards move over them in patient explanation. He might sit on the same bench where his father had sat, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, as they listened to the same words, promises so old they predated the worn stone walls around them. So they waited. And then, one Sabbath, someone from the audience rose to speak in the usual way, and the most unexpected thing happened: what they had been expecting. “They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach. They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
One of the world’s greatest lies is that nothing ever really changes. Sure, Eve, eat that fruit–God may not be happy, but really, what’s the worst that could happen?
Don’t worry about that big boat Noah is building. Even if he really knows something and there’s a lot of rain, we’ll just move to higher ground like we did last time there was a flood.
What is one wooden staff against storehouses of spears? This magician and his locusts may be inconvenient, but no army of insects can hope to challenge mighty Egypt.
I know he looks like a prophet, but the risk is too great. If we have to choose between peace with Rome and allegiance to this Galilean, it’s only prudent to throw in our lot with Roma Aeterna.
Everything will always be more or less the way it is now.
Except that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes things change for the better, forever. “And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” Sometimes they change for the worse, forever. “Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.” We become so used to being able to revise and revisit and repeat that it’s startling to suddenly realize we’ve passed a fork in the river and there’s no paddling back upstream.
The thing about forks in the river is that they are often hard to see coming. It’s why Christian tracts ask the reader to consider, if he died tonight, where he would end up–because someone, somewhere is going to receive a Christian tract today, and put it aside to think about tomorrow, and die tonight. Or maybe they don’t die, but today’s act of rejection becomes the decisive moment in a lifetime of turning away from Christ, and they throw away that tract in the morning and it sinks on down through the river which carries them past the last fork they’ll ever see.
But forks in the river also bring hope. Because if there’s anything we can learn from the life of Christ, stretching from that synagogue in Capernaum to the thief on the cross, it’s that real change can happen at the most unexpected times. In a world which is quite sure that things will just continue right on as they always have, it’s important for us to remember that is simply not necessarily true.
We need to remember that as we pray for our country. To all appearances, America has entered a moral death spiral. Everywhere, in public institutions and private life, unbelief and sin seem ascendant and Christians are back on our heels in the face of aggressive and arrogant immorality. It’s hard to imagine how our culture could turn and see true repentance and revival. And then one remembers the book of Jonah and how “the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.”
We need to remember the possibility of change as we resist persistent sins. As we struggle with doubt or anger or lust, the world loves to whisper that it will always be this way: we will always feel the choking, world-swallowing pull of whatever sin we’re fighting. And yes, we will always need to resist temptation. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just take up residence in a new Christian and then go to sleep. He is active, and the moral change we call sanctification is real. God promises, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” The struggle with sin is a battle with lasting victories even in this life.
We need to remember it as we mourn broken relationships. It’s so terribly easy to look at the other person and be sure they’ll never change and there’s nothing we can do about it. But Paul encourages the spouse even of an unbeliever, “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” How much more can we hope for healing in a relationship between two Christians who share the Holy Spirit within? People change.
None of this is to suggest that change comes easily or is a foregone conclusion. Paul prayed bitterly for the removal of the “thorn in his flesh,” and nothing changed. Abraham begged the Lord to spare Sodom, yet the city was destroyed. Sometimes the change we desire is not the good our Father plans. But there is this: the Christian cannot imagine that real change is impossible. Perhaps it will come tomorrow, perhaps in a year or a decade, or perhaps not until Glory. But perhaps it is right there, poised just over the horizon, as it was for those families in that synagogue in Capernaum. Whenever and whatever the change may be, let us remember as we work and pray that things do not always continue as they were, and that we serve a God with whom all things are possible.