Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 3, 2022
Isaiah 43:16-21 Commentary
One thing I always tell my preaching students is never utilize a sermon introduction that exists merely for the sake of grabbing people’s attention but that has precious little—if anything—to do with what follows or with the main thrust of the sermon. So you would never kick off a sermon by saying “Altogether too often these days we hear terrible stories about how sometimes even trusted grandparents can turn out to be sexual predators of their own grandkids! Dreadful!! But . . . that’s not what we’re here to talk about and so instead we turn to the parable of the Lost Sheep, which . . .”
No, no. That will never do.
Someone (not me) should tell God.
Because in this section of Isaiah 43, we see God doing a rather odd thing through his prophet Isaiah. In gripping language, God evokes the past. Specifically he sketches out the story of the Exodus and particularly that most dramatic of all Exodus episodes involving the Israelites crossing safely through the Red Sea only to have the waters tumble back down upon the Egyptians once they try to follow and pursue the Israelites. The language in verses 16-17 is vivid and gripping. It’s the stuff of high drama. It brings our minds and our imaginations right back to that great story.
But no sooner have we brought that drama into a tight focus in our minds and suddenly verse 18 says, “Forget the past! Don’t dwell on what was.”
Then why did you start out talking about the past, making us dwell on it and remember it through your vivid descriptions of it? It seems like God has pulled the rug out from underneath our feet, done a little bait-and-switch with our imaginations and the images we were projecting onto our mental screens.
Instead we are told to focus on things yet unseen, on the future, on new things God was going to do. The imagery shifts from a place that had too much water to a wilderness setting that does not have enough. It shifts from a scene where the Egyptians died to one where the people of God could die but will not die on account of God’s making streams to flow in the desert. God is saying that despite all the reasons the people could find to praise God for his past faithfulness, the future would provide even more reasons.
In short, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
This is the section in Isaiah (beginning in especially the 40th chapter) that floods light and hope back onto the scene after many chapters of bleakness and judgment. God is going to restore Israel one day. The Servant of the Lord is coming and he will make all things well again. In fact, the future restoration will be even grander than the glories of the past. And so as in this 43rd chapter, so throughout these chapters we are told that while nostalgia for the glory days of David and Solomon was all well and good, the key to the future was looking ahead to the greater Servant still to come. And what that Servant would accomplish would outstrip the past so much that people would scarcely have time or imaginative capacity to moon over what was in favor of praising God for what is.
As a text for the Lenten Season, this is very curious. On the one hand, of course, we can now celebrate the reality of that chosen Servant of the Lord. We know the reality of Christ Jesus. On the other hand, however, for us celebrating that Savior and Lord—that Messiah of God—requires that we do not forget the past things but, as a matter of fact, celebrate them. We, too, can look forward to a future brimming with renewal, the likes of which we can scarcely imagine.
But that future reality is rooted in the past. Indeed, there is a sense in which Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was an infusion—an inbreaking—of the future into the past (think of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s take on the resurrection). Still, it would not do for a preacher in the Christian Church today to tell people, “Don’t dwell on the past!” The locus of our Christian hope is in that past.
But perhaps there is, rhetorically, more going on in Isaiah 43 than we noticed. Because God was actually not making the mistake of introducing imagery that had nothing to do with what followed. Israel’s confidence in God’s ability to do the new thing he goes on to talk about is actually rooted in the glories of the past. Precisely because God did what he did at the Red Sea and in the Exodus, hope rises in one’s heart that these future things will come to pass, too. No, we don’t dwell on the past things as though nostalgia alone were somehow our only hope or as though we’ll never live to experience what those lucky pups way back when got to experience. That would be getting stuck in the past in ways not helpful. But if we can move through the past and use it as a way to bolster our faith and our hope and our confidence in also God’s future, then we are appreciating our sacred history correctly.
Lent is not just about what happened long ago and on a hill far away. It’s not just about what the disciples experienced back then. It’s about now and it’s about the future, too. But precisely because of all that, we also don’t make the past into only a personal reference point.
That’s why I like this little insertion about the jackals and the owls in this passage. It’s an odd notation! But for me it points to the larger purposes of God. What God is doing and what he will do in the future catches up so much more than we could imagine. If the past is any indication, then we can know for sure how much God loves the whole of his creation. Salvation and redemption are never just focused on an individual person or an individual group of people—God’s plans encompass everything, including wild animals, jackals, owls, you name it. Isaiah makes this clear all over the place, of course. His most lyric visions for what God will accomplish always include trees and fields, mountains and hills, streams and creatures of all kinds. The past is not just about us or our little causes. It is always so much more.
Again, as a Lenten text this helps us remember the past and move toward the future but not just for us or our little cause but for the whole, glorious world God created in the beginning.
Note: Our special Year C webpage for Lent and Holy Week Resources is now available. Please check out additional sermon ideas, sample sermons, and more by visiting this resource page.
In one of his many memorable clinical vignettes, 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, affable fellow with whom you can have a good conversation about this or that.
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 is simply tragic all by itself, but even more interesting is Dr. Sacks’ observation as to 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 akin to joy after all; 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 Christ’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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