April 7, 2019 (Lent 5)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

John 12:1-8

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

Let us pray: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe on us with the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray. Amen.

43:16 “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick. 18 Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (Isaiah 43:16-21, NRSV)

Have you noticed any newness around you? This morning when the service is over, and you are walking to your car notice the daffodil’s coming up. In the midst of the cold and rainy weather we have had the last few weeks have you noticed that the trees are budding, the weeds in the yard are turning green?

As spring is trying to bloom on us.  Is it a coincidence that we read this from the Prophet Isaiah concerns newness?  The Israelites didn’t notice the newness that was breaking forth all around them because they were too concerned with their own struggles.  They were fearful and lost, overwhelmed by their circumstances.  In order to fully understand their predicament, we have to look at what happened prior to this passage.

          In chapter 39, the prophet Isaiah foretells of Judah’s exile in Babylon. Then the next two chapters 39 and 40, 150 years pass. It is during this 150-year period that Israel is led into captivity just as Isaiah, the prophet had predicted.  The temple and the whole city of Jerusalem were both destroyed.  The Israelites were living in exile, whose lives had become nothing but chaos and confusion.  The crisis the Israelites were living through would be a harsh test for the most secure, the strongest an the most faithful people of any time period. Chaos became the norm. The people lost their way.  The poet, William Butler Yeats describes so well, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”[1]

It is exactly into all of this chaos and destruction that God delivers the judgement on the people of Israel, because they were not living faithful lives.  God expresses divine anger.  Because of their sinfulness the people of Israel have lost favor in God’s eyes.  They wondered if this might be the sin that breaks the covenant?  These are people who have seen destruction, been in exile, afraid, lost and alone.  They lived with the humiliation of being held captive and over time they lost their understanding of God.  Now they were exiled from both the land and from the notion that God would protect and provide for them.[2]

Remember this as we move forward to Isaiah 43, the Prophet Isaiah spoke the word from the Lord.  He proclaims salvation to the people of God.  He tells of God’s promises that came from a particular past, Isaiah reminds them of the Red Sea, retelling Exodus event, what God once did for the slaves, God is doing for the exiles.  God is going to make a way where once there was no way.

Isaiah’s confidence to speak so boldly is built on God’s ability to do a new thing that God has done before and will do again.   Isaiah talks about hope that is not manufactured but is actually rooted in the glories of Israel’s past.  Precisely because of what God did at the Red Sea and in the Exodus event, Israel can believe that God will act again.

When all of the sudden Isaiah makes a drastic change from talking about the glories of the past and abruptly, he says: Do not remember the former things or things of old.  This is where the passage gets tough.  Forgetting our past is not what our counselors and psychiatrists tell us to do.  They have a word for someone who refuses to deal with the past: the word is “denial.”  People in denial are like ostriches who stick their heads in the sand, or a person who pretends that everything is fine, normal, when an enormous elephant is sitting in the middle of the room.   Do not remember the former things?  That’s not what our teachers and religious leaders tell us.  That is not what Jesus even tells us: “Do this in remembrance of me…”[3]

Remember the famous quote of George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, poet, and humanist: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[4]  One look at the newspaper tells us that is true.  And those of us who try to live as people of faith in this confusing world we have traditions, and sacred stories, and scriptures that we read, over and over and we hold on to them.  We aren’t in the business of forgetting tradition.  We work at remembering it, we try to keep it, and we try to live by it, honestly and faithfully. Do not remember the former things? 

How are we supposed to do that?[5]

Isaiah means don’t live in the past, don’t dwell on what was, don’t just sit around and wish for the good ole days.  Appreciate what God has done in the past but live in the present.  Be alive now, in this moment, for such a time like this.

In this passage from Isaiah, we are given words to live by.  God’s promise to Israel, and God’s promise to us, is that each day we live in this beautiful journey called life, God will do a new thing.  God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

It’s a strange promise God makes, when you think about it.  God doesn’t promise to domesticate the wilderness; only to make a way through it.  God doesn’t promise to take away the desert, or take you out of it, only to find some water in it. God doesn’t promise to tame the wild animals; no, the only promise is to make a way and to find the water, so that even the wild animals and other people will stop and see the new thing and honor God.

I think that is the promise for us, for all of us.  God will do a new thing.  No matter how wonderful or how awful things seem to us today, God will do a new thing.  No matter how tired we may be tomorrow, God will do a new thing.  No matter how mundane the routine, or sleepless the night, or painful the argument, God will do a new thing.  And it isn’t clear what that will be; there is no promise to fix or mend or put more hours in the day.  There is only the promise to make a way in the wilderness, a river in the desert – if we will look for it. “I am about to do a new thing,” says God.

On this fifth Sunday of Lent, may each of us wake up each morning and say to ourselves and those we love,

“Today, God is about to do a new thing.  If and then, let us open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts and go out and look for it.  Don’t let your imagination be closed off by what has come before.  Remember what you have; the former things: seas that split open so that the people could pass through on dry land; pillars of fire in the night that led the people through the wilderness; rocks that rolled away from the tomb.  The dead raised; the lost found, the prodigal welcomed home, sin forgiven.  We have a memory of God at work in our lives.” 

It is a question we asked our Confirmation Class this weekend on the retreat, where have you seen God at work?  If you haven’t then maybe you haven’t been looking!

For this is the day that the Lord has made.  God is about to do a new thing.

Do you see the newness around you?

Let us pray:

[1] Dr. Paul Hanson, Interpterion Series, (Biblical Commentary series) page 5.

[2] Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, “On the Wild Side Isaiah 43:16·21. National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC.

[3] Reverend Dr. Anna Carter Florence, “A New Thing,” Isaiah 43:16-21. Program #5013 January 7, 2007.

[4] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: page 284.

[5] Reverend Dr. Anna Carter Florence, “A New Thing,” Isaiah 43:16-21. Program #5013 January 7, 2007.