All four of the Lectionary readings for this Fifth Sunday of Lent share a “past and future” theme. Psalm 126 talks about the restoration of Israel’s fortune in the past and calls on God to restore Israel’s fortunes in the future, so that those who “sow in tears can reap with shouts of joy.” In Philippians 3:4-14 Paul turns his back on his illustrious past so that he may gain a deeper knowledge of Christ in the future. So, he forgets what lies behind and presses forward for the prize that lies ahead. John 12:1-8 is based on the recent past of Lazarus’ resurrection and looks ahead to Jesus approaching death and resurrection, as Mary anoints Jesus’ body for the grave. This tension between the past and the future is something every Christian understands as we journey to the cross.
Here in Isaiah 43, a classic rehearsal of Israel’s redemption from Egyptian bondage is followed by the assurance that God is going to something so startling in the future that Israel is commanded to forget the former things. Right now, though, Isaiah 43 is addressed to Israel stuck between the past and the future, with little hope for the latter even though they know the former. Most scholars think Israel is somewhere between 550-538, midway through the Babylonian Exile. Until Isaiah begins his prophecies of hope in chapters 40-55, Israel has no hope of release from bondage.
They are hundreds of miles from home; some scholars say the distance was nearly 1700 miles, while others maintain that it was “only” 900 miles. The difference is probably between “as the crow flies” and “as the rivers flow.” If they followed the well-watered route of the Euphrates and other rivers, it would be the longer mileage. If they took the “short cut” straight across the Arabian Desert, there would be 900 miles of burning sand, and not a drop of water to drink apart from the occasional oasis.
But any escape route was nothing more than idle speculation for the Jewish captives, because Babylon was still firmly in control; Cyrus the Persian was still far off in the geographical and chronological distance. The recipients of these prophetic words were nowhere close to where they wanted to be, and they had no hope of ever getting there.
But then Yahweh spoke. For the second time in three verses we hear the classic prophetic introduction: “This is what the Lord says,” or as older translations used to put it, “Thus saith the Lord.” This is not the word of a prophet; heaven knows there were plenty of false prophets who gave their own predictions about the future. This is not that. This is Yahweh himself speaking.
In the previous verse, Yahweh has identified himself with three terms emphasizing that Yahweh can do and will do what he is about to promise. Yahweh is “the Holy One,” the Wholly Other who controls both nations and nature. He is Israel’s Creator who took a ragtag bunch of semi-nomads and turned them into the chosen nation. And he, not Nebuchadnezzar, is Israel’s King.
What does Yahweh say to his captive nation? He reminds them of the story of their birth as a nation. Verses 16-17 are Israel’s founding story, much like the story of the Pilgrims and the Revolutionary War form American’s founding story. Obviously referring back to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, God reminds Israel that he was the one “who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters.” And he was the one who lured the Egyptians into the middle of the dried up Red Sea and then let the towering walls of water come crashing down on Pharaoh’s armies. They all died, “extinguished, snuffed out like a wick.” All of Israel’s subsequent history and identity was based on that mighty act of redemption performed by their God. They would not exist were it not for that divine action.
That’s what makes the next words of Yahweh so astonishing. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” Wait a minute! Wasn’t forgetting God’s amazing redemption precisely the sin that led to the Exile? Psalm 106 is the classic description of Israel’s disastrous forgetting. Yahweh was always telling his people to remember. How, then, can Yahweh tell them to forget the former things in the past?
Well, God might be talking about the recent past of the Exile, the trouble they had been experiencing for the past 30 or so years. That’s possible, but the most obvious referent of “former things” is what God had just rehearsed, namely, their founding story.
But why would God tell them to forget that? Well, the story of those former things was complex, involving complaint, scarce resources, divine absence, and the judgement of death over an entire generation. Is this a call to forget the negative things of the past, even though the past was dominated by the miracle of the Exodus?
That’s possible, but the most likely reason for God’s call to forget the past is that God wanted them to concentrate on the future. “Forget the former things” was a hyperbolic way of calling Israel to hope in the future things God would do. Perhaps they had begun to think that salvation was only a thing of the past, that their best days were behind them, that God can’t act now, that there was no hope for another Exodus.
That is precisely what God promises them– another Exodus, but in reverse. The God “who made a way through the sea” will make “a way in the desert.” The God who dried up the Red Sea will make “streams in the wasteland.” The God who did the impossible when he led Israel out of Egypt will do another impossible thing by leading Israel out of Exile. He will make a way through all those miles of burning sand. He will provide water for his people, not just the fountain of water that gushed from the rock at Marah, but streams, even rivers, flowing through the wasteland. The desert will bloom, as Isaiah 35 prophesies, and the wild animals will join the people in praising God for this miracle.
As we preach on this text, it is important to point out that God does not deliver his people because they are good people. The very next verses point out that these people have burdened God with their sins and wearied him with their offenses. Even when they prayed and offered sacrifices, their religious activities were half-hearted. From the first days of Israel’s life to the present, they have not been faithful covenant partners. That’s why they are in exile.
So, God will deliver them again, not because they deserved it, but because he is a God of grace who forgives the undeserving. Verse 25 puts it pointedly, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” He will lead them out of Exile and provide water for their journey, so “that they may declare my praise (verse 21).” In other words, God redeems us again and again, not because he sees how good we are, but because he wants a people who become good and praise him for his grace.
God’s question for his exiles is a good question for us to press on our people. “Do you not perceive it?” “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Our answer is almost always, “No, I don’t perceive it. I don’t see the new thing God is doing in my life, in our world.” We walk by faith, not by sight.
So in our sermons on this text, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we must call people to believe that God is doing a new thing even though we cannot see it. We haven’t finished our journey yet. The cross and empty tomb are before us in the liturgical year. God did an astonishing new thing there in the future on Good Friday and Easter, but we can’t see it. Thus, we must believe it. And the return of Christ is still before us. God will do a new thing then, redeeming and recreating a whole new world. But we can’t see that yet. Thus, we are called to believe it.
And even as we rehearse the founding story of the Christian faith and remind people of its future fulfillment, we must call our people to believe that the God who acted in the past can still do new things in their own personal futures. We will be preaching to people who are stuck, imprisoned by forces beyond their control, who cannot imagine that God can or will set them free, who have despaired of getting back home where peace and prosperity can be found again. We must remind them of The Story and assure them that God will send streams of mercy and rivers of grace into their lives, not because they deserve it, but because God is full of grace and faithful to his covenant. So, praise the Lord, even as you wait for God’s new thing.
The “past/future” dynamic in our text reminded me of all the “before and after” pictures we see each day. There are commercials for weight loss programs that show the “before” of a man who weighed 300 pounds and then the “after” of a man who followed the program and now weighs 185. Or a skin cream that clears up blemishes is demonstrated by one picture of a woman whose face is scarred by acne and a second picture of her with a clear complexion after 3 months on the treatment. Or we see the terrible contrast between the city of Paradise, California before the Camp Fire and that same city after the fire. Our text contrasts the before of the Exile with the after of God’s new thing.
I just finished reading Purple Hibiscus, a novel set in Nigeria during a time of political unrest. It centers on the family of a wealthy, sternly Catholic businessman who can’t do enough good for his church and community, or enough evil to his family. As he spreads the wealth around in the name of his Catholic faith, he also tyrannizes his children. He beats his wife for minor infractions of church law, causing her to have two miscarriages. Things get so bad that he beats his beloved daughter nearly to death because she treasured a painting of her pagan grandfather.
The family lives in a hell they cannot escape because their father does so much good in the community that no one would believe their story of family abuse. Their situation is hopeless, until suddenly this Christian version of Hannibal Lector is found dead in his office. It turns out that the downtrodden mother, after the beating of her daughter, had begun to incrementally poison the father. By her own hand, she set her family free. God set us free with his own hand, through the death of his Son.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21 Commentary