This is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Next Sunday we will turn our focus to Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem with the celebration of Palm Sunday. We will then gather on Holy Thursday and Good Friday here in the Sanctuary to remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ last living moments. I know it will be Spring Break for many next week – but I do hope you’ll find time to be here and to be reminded of the witness of God in Christ that makes possible our renewal and new life.
Our text this morning comes from the second section of Isaiah, known as the Duetero-Isaiah, which spans chapters 40-55 in the prophet’s writings.
This section of Isaiah is written to the people of God while they are still living in exile. The land of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians who took the Israelites into exile. However, the Persian King, King Cyrus, has led the Persian armies to defeat the Babylonians and Cyrus now claims ruler supreme in the region. As the ruling King, Cyrus issues an edict that allows the Israelites to return to their homeland. While they have been offered the freedom to return, the people remain in exile. It is in this time – having the ability to return home but having not yet begun the venture – that our text today is offered.
For us to faithfully hear the message that is offered by Isaiah, it would do us well to put ourselves in the mindset of one who is living in this “already, but not yet” mindset. Why is it that the people of Israel, who are living in a foreign land, are slow to pick up and move back home?
Things had been so good when they were back home prior to exile at the hands of the Babylonians. The community was flourishing. They had everything they needed; every house found themselves fulfilled. To leave that time period of flourishing was certainly not something any of them had wanted. They enjoyed the fruits of their labor and the fellowship of their united community. They had children running and laughing through towns and cities in joy – as you would expect any child to do in such a hospitable and well-run society. Life was grand.
But then all things changed. Quite unexpectedly, the people found themselves living in a foreign land under the hand of an oppressive regime. They went through famine and pain. The luxury of joy they had once known was taken away. The desire for living was scarce for many. And at the base of all their concern was this fledgling hope in the God who had promised to always care for them. When things were going well, the community almost took for granted the presence and beckoning call of the Lord of all creation. Yet, now, living lives of misery, all they wanted was to return home – to have things as they had been before. They wanted to once again enjoy the luxuries of their tireless effort. And they found themselves wanting for what they could not have.
Time went by – much time went by – in this state of want. They spent years yearning for something they could not seem to have. And, as one would think possible of persons displaced, they began to make a new life as a people relocated. They began to work to find a new life in a new land. They put down new roots and began new families.
Things weren’t as they were before. Do not confuse the necessity of changing to sustain life with the desired return to a life that was flourishing. The people had been through a great deal – they had a hard time being kicked out of what was a time of great success. But, they made an attempt at peace in exile, and found themselves acclimating to the change.
And then the Persians overtook the Babylonians and King Cyrus offered them the chance to return home.
Comforts and success were replaced by poverty and insufficiency. But time made a way for the insufficiencies to grow enough that the community was getting by. The people getting by were offered the chance to return to what potentially could have resulted again in the luxury of comfort. But they sat on idle hands.
The unpleasant life we know is often preferred to the possibility of new life if we are unassured of what lie on the path to renewal. Better the evil we know than the evil we do not.
What’s to say that if they return home – if they once more pick up life and move back to the land of Judah – that the same exilic crumbling doesn’t happen again? Imagine the questions they asked themselves: Are we any more assured of peace back in Judah as we are living in Babylon? Can we afford to make the journey through the dessert to get ourselves back to the land we once called home? How much longer are we going to have to put our lives on hold? We must pack up the lives we’ve created here and move back to a land we haven’t seen in ages? Do the homes and communities we left in Judah even exist? Was it all burned to the ground and left smoldering in the wake of exile? Not to mention the necessities of life. The land hasn’t been cared for in years – will the soil provide the same harvest it had before?
The certainty of an unpleasant past combined with the uncertainty of the future is keeping them from taking the next step.
And then Isaiah comes and speaks.
Isaiah first reminds them of the work of God in the past. The people are reminded of how God has saved them and led them before. “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” The prophet begins with a reminder of what God had done for the people, saving them from slavery in Egypt.
God made a way in the sea – a path in the mighty waters. Do you remember the story? As the people found themselves fleeing Egypt in the Exodus, the came across a great barrier in the Sea. The barrier separated them from certain death behind and the wilderness ahead. Turning to God for help, God split the waters and made a path through sea.
As Isaiah does in many other places in his prophetic text, he reminds the people of God’s faithfulness in the past. The God who created us as a people – the God who led us from a time of turmoil under the oppressive regime of the Pharaoh – the God who led us to the promised land before is still calling us to hear the Word. This God – the one who has saved us before – is calling us to hear the message of salvation once more.
Isaiah continues in his message, but his next words seem oddly placed. The prophet speaks, “Do no remember the former things, or consider things of old.”
Often, when the prophet is calling us to hear the message of God’s salvific promise, he begins with the words, “Fear not.” But here, the prophet’s message begins, “Remember not.”
Is the old man mad? He’s just reminded us of the Exodus itself. He’s drawn the imagery in our minds of one of God’s greatest feats in the leading and offering direction for the people whom God calls “mine.” And yet, now that we have this fresh visual of the waters parted and God calling us forward, we are told to remember not that which has been done in the past.
Isaiah does a great job of catching our attention in having us recall the great work of God in offering salvation to us before. So why then, in the midst of this moment of great nostalgia, would we want to turn away from our thoughts of the past?
Dr. Paul Hanson offers this suggestion in his commentary on Isaiah, “Under what circumstances should Israel not remember the former things? At the point where a nostalgic relation to tradition threatens to tie the people to their past and to stultify alertness to present realities, responsiveness to new opportunities, and the potential growth into yet-unrealized possibilities.”[i]
In other words – if we focus so much on the way things used to be, we are likely to limit our capability to hear what God is trying to do next. If we focus only on how God has led us in the past – on how God offered us salvation in times before – if we only equate salvation and success as God’s people using the terms of our historic tradition – then we are likely never going to hear the voice of God calling us to a new place in a new time.
And we know, says the prophet Isaiah, that God is doing something new. Immediately after calling them to remember not the times of the past, Isaiah, speaking for God, offers these words, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Isaiah is using an odd rhetorical practice of inviting us to remember the past and then calling us to not dwell on the past. The call of the prophet isn’t to forget the past – not only is forgetting the past unlikely – it’s not what the prophet truly wants. Isaiah himself is in the constant practice of reminding us of the past. It’s important to remember how God has been faithful in the past.
In this case, Isaiah’s call to remember not isn’t a call to forget, it’s a call to allow God to move in new ways without thinking that the only possible ways to proceed forward are the ways of the past. Isaiah is saying quite plainly, don’t put God in a box.
To the people of Israel, God continues to speak through the prophet. Hear the Word of God as the proclamation is made of a new thing springing forth, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. … I give waters in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.”
In the Exodus, the people were saved as God made a dry path in the wet land of the sea. Here, as God is calling them forward to a new time and a new place, God is promising a wet path through the dry desert. The path through the sea was great, but that’s old news. God is now promising rivers in the desert.
You know they old song, Anything You Can Do, originally written for the Broadway Musical, Annie Get Your Gun? In the theater, it’s sung by the characters Frank Butler and Annie Oakley. I’m glad some of you remember it; that play was written long before my time. I do remember the song being sung for the Gatorade commercial in the late 90s with Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm as the two compete against each other.
Anyway – you know the song? The song begins with this line, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”
I imagine that’s what God is speaking to the people here who are so unsure of returning back home. The recollection of the Exodus and the path being made in the water is a claim of what God has done. And in the midst of that memory, God begins to sing, “Anything I can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than me.” Anything I can do, I can do better.
You thought the Exodus was something special? You though the parting of the sea was something spectacular? That’s nothing compared the new thing I am doing now. What has been, it is no more. What will be, that’s what I’m in the process of making happen now.
You haven’t been waiting for me to do the same thing again, have you? You didn’t think that sending you through the river, into the wilderness, toward the promised land was the only way I knew to offer salvation, did you?
The prophet, calling us to look back every so briefly, only to be reminded that looking back will not get us forward, is calling us to remember, “[This is] always the same God, but not always in the same way.”[ii]
This passage finishes with a promise of God’s new work, defining for the people who hear the stated intent of God’s new work. This new work is springing forth – indeed, God’s new work is already underway, and this new work has a purpose. It’s purpose is so that the people whom God formed for the work of God might declare God’s praise.
God is willing and desiring to lead the people once more back home. God is once more naming the desire to fulfill the end of the covenant promised to be upheld on behalf of the Creator – to offer a way forward for the people. God is once more doing a new thing for the people who had failed to be obedient and faithful. God is once more making a new way to a better and more faithful life – a path in the wilderness. God is doing a new thing – a great thing – a salvific thing.
Do you not perceive it?
As this season of Lent is waning fast, do not think that God will only raises us up and delivers us to live the same life we have lived before. God is doing a new thing – great things – in each of you and in us as a community of faith. May our renewal in this season of Lent lead us to once more offer our praise to the mighty and everlasting God, who brings new life. Amen.