Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 13, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21 Commentary

At first glance, Isaiah’s invitation to “Forget the former things” seems right up 21st century North Americans’ “alley.”  After all, we’re not even very interested in last week’s “former things.” If it’s not on our homepage, the 6 o’clock news or local media website, we’re hardly interested in what happened even yesterday.  Today’s news quickly becomes tomorrow’s deeply buried archive.  “Do not dwell on the past”?  We scarcely even remember it.

Isaiah probably first wrote this call to refuse to dwell on the past to Israelite exiles in Babylon.  God had used Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s armies to send Judea’s leftovers into exile in the 570’s BCE.  Now, however, the Lord has raised up Cyrus of Persia to defeat Babylon and return captive Israel to Palestine.

Yet along the way to a brighter future, the old prophet wants to remind Israel just why God exiled her in the first place.  In doing so, Craig Barnes says the old prophet doesn’t “pull any punches.”  God was, in fact, harshly judging Israel for her sins.  Yet God also wanted to use Israel’s exilic experience to deepen her understanding of God’s covenant with her.

Perhaps that’s why Isaiah begins the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday by recalling Israel’s past.  He reminds her of her exodus from Egypt, particularly of God’s making a way for her through the Red Sea on dry land.  Isaiah also reminds Israelites of the tragic fate of her Egyptian captors who drowned when God allowed the Red Sea to return to its natural ways.  The language, says a colleague, is vivid and gripping.

This offers Isaiah 43’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on the act of remembering, especially remembering God’s acts of faithfulness.  How important is it for God’s people to remember what God has done?  Just what things God has done should we make sure we remember?  How can we cultivate a culture of remembering in a society that remembers little?  What role does remembering God’s past faithfulness play in generating confidence in God’s ongoing faithfulness?

Yet preachers and teachers need to remember how as soon as Isaiah has fueled the fires of our imaginative memories, he turns us 180 degrees and points us forward.  “Forget those wonderful former things!”  he tells his Israelite readers.  “Do not dwell on that amazing past!”  Isaiah essentially says, “Don’t remember!”  “Fuhget about it,” a streetwise prophet might say.

What explains that radical turn?  After all, Elizabeth Achtemeier compares God’s call to “forget the former things” to having someone tell us to forget our redemption from slavery to sin and death through Christ’s death on the cross.  Were it not for Jesus’ suffering and death, we would be no people, just as were it not for her exodus from Egyptian slavery, Isaiah’s Israelite readers would be no people.  So is the prophet inviting his readers to simply forget their founding story?

Of course not.  So what is God doing through the prophet?  While God is the same yesterday, today and forever, human circumstances change.  In her best moments, exiled Israel remembers what God did in her past.  Yet she’s tempted to think that’s precisely the problem – God’s redemptive work is all in the past.  Israel easily assumes exile = forgottenness by God.  “My way is hidden from the Lord,” Israel grieves in Isaiah 40:27.  “My cause is disregarded by my God.”

Does this point to a kind of danger in an unhealthy obsession with any kind of remembering, including fixating on what God has done?  If we’re so busy remembering what God has done in the past, it may be difficult to muster any energy to imagine what God might do in the future.  Think of friends you had in childhood but haven’t contacted since then.  If you actually finally got together, what would it be easiest to talk about?  The past.  Yet for any kind of relationship to continue to flourish, it requires both a past and ongoing interaction.

God wants not just a history with God’s people, but also a future with us.  So as if to make that point, God makes a startling point: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing.”  In other words, in the words of my colleague Scott Hoezee, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

It’s interesting to note that the place of God’s past and future actions are at least somewhat similar.  After the Exodus, God safely led God’s Israelite sons and daughters through the “desert” to the land of promise.  Now a chastised Israel lives in the “desert” that is her Babylonian exile.  Yet in our text God insists God is not yet done with God’s covenant partners.  He has a kind of “new exodus” in store for her.  God promises to again lead Israel through the desert, again providing water in that “wasteland,” so that she can finally make her way home again.  The wasteland Israel associates with emptiness and hostility is the very place God promises to graciously and generously work.

21st century North Americans sometimes romanticize the desert as a place to get away from it all.  Writers like Edward Abbey invited us to seek the wilderness’ great beauty and scolded us when we marred it.  Yet Isaiah and his Israelite audience had no such glamorous visions of the desert.  It was to them a strange and threatening place that they either avoided or hurried through as quickly as possible.  Yet Isaiah invites his audience to think of that apparently barren place as precisely the place God loves to work, not just in the past, but also in the future.

This imagery offers Isaiah 43’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on our own worshipers and students’ various “deserts” in which God loves to work.  Transitions.  Illness.  Loneliness.  Fear.  Doubt.  Loss.  Grief.  How is God making “streams” to spring up in those wastelands?  How is God providing living water in those places where so little nourishment seems to be found?

The season of Lent, among other things and seasons, reminds us that the God who was faithful to Israel in the Exodus as well as her exile remains faithful.  The God who has done such great things in our past is also doing amazing things now and will continue to do so in the future.  In our own estrangement from God and each other, God sent Jesus the Christ into our world.  He is the Living Water that nourishes us even in our wildernesses.  Jesus is the Christ who promises never to leave or forsake us, even when we feel so terribly alone.

Illustration Idea (from Scott Hoezee’s 3/11/13 CEP Old Testament sermon article)

In one of his many memorable clinical pieces, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells us about Jimmie, a man whose memory somehow became a sieve. Jimmie remains forever stuck thinking it’s 1945. Harry Truman is president, the war just ended, and this ex-sailor believes he has his whole future to look forward to. Sacks reports that Jimmie is a very nice, pleasant fellow with whom you can have a good conversation about a number of things. But if you leave the room after visiting with him for two hours and then return a short while later, he will greet you as if for the first time.

Now, of course, that’s simply tragic all by itself, but even more interesting is Dr. Sacks’ observation about the overall effect that this temporal vacuum has on Jimmie: he has no joy. Jimmie is joyless in that he is confined to an ever changing, yet finally meaningless, present moment. With nothing new ever to look back on and so with nothing ever to look forward to, joy is simply impossible.

Curiously, there is one time when Jimmie displays something resembling joy after all.  There’s one moment when the vacant look on his face is replaced with something that Sacks can describe only as a look of completeness and of hushed calmness. This happens whenever Jimmie takes communion in chapel. Sacks once lamented to one of the Catholic nuns who runs Jimmie’s nursing home that Jimmie had lost his very soul due to the disease in his brain. The sister reacted with outrage! Because once a person saw Jimmie caught up fully and meaningfully in taking holy communion, there could be no doubt that God was managing to minister to Jimmie’s soul even so. Sacks could not disagree, even though there is no good neurological explanation for the change that comes over Jimmie at the Lord’s Table.

The past, and our accurate memory of it, lends substance to the present and to the future.  Someone once said that only the past is inevitable.  Or maybe not. Because of what happened on the cross, there is a kind of holy inevitability also to what can happen right now in the present as well. That past inevitably fills our present and even our future with hope.


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