April 7, 2019: Lent 5C (English)
Lent 5C, 2019. Zion, Baltimore
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Pastor Eric Deibler
Everybody loves a good story. They can make us laugh. In my dad’s family, we have been blessed with a long line of gifted story-tellers. There was, for example, my dad’s great uncle, Clint Herb. He and his brother, used to tell the story of how they drove together from Snydertown, PA clear out to California in their Model A Ford. It was a nice enough trip.
The trouble came when it was time to come back and they had to drive across “the California desert”, as they put it. They claimed the police stopped them and told them they couldn’t cross, because it had become too hot. They protested that they had to get back home to Pennsylvania. The policeman relented but only under the condition that they not drive below 100 mph, so that their tires wouldn’t catch on fire. So, they claimed, that’s what they did. They drove across the California desert at 100 mph. In a Model A Ford.
Stories can make us cry. Supposedly, Earnest Hemmingway was challenged to write the shortest story possible, and he came up with one that was only six words long: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.”
But stories do more than entertain us or stretch us emotionally. Stories also tell us who we are. Every family has stories that get passed around and, when the time comes, get passed down, and they become a part of our DNA. They inform our understanding of where we have come from. We allow them to define us, in many ways.
Which makes the reading from Isaiah quite curious. It begins with a recounting of the rescue of Israel as they fled captivity in Egypt. “16Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”
He reminds them of the story of their birth as a nation. Referring back to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, Israel is reminded that God was the one “who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters.” And God 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.
(Psalms 106:9-15) He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry;
he led them through the deep as through a desert.
10 So he saved them from the hand of the foe,
and delivered them from the hand of the enemy.
11 The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
12 Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise.
13 But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel.
14 But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness,
and put God to the test in the desert;
15 he gave them what they asked,
but sent a wasting disease among them.
Yahweh was always telling the people of Israel to remember. How, then, can Yahweh tell them to forget the former things in the past? Why on earth would God tell them to forget that?
The reason for God’s call to forget the past is that God wanted Israel to concentrate on the future. “Forget the former things” was a hyperbolic way of calling Israel to hope in the future things that God would do. Maybe their years in exile had caused them to begin to think that salvation was only a thing of the past. Their best days were behind them. God, for whatever reason, can’t act now. There’s was no hope for another Exodus.
And yet, that’s 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, according to Isaiah 35, and the wild animals will join the people in praising God for this miracle. God will deliver them again, not because they deserved it, but because God is a God of grace who forgives the undeserving. Just a few verses later, in verse 25, it’s quite pointed: “I, even I, am the one who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” God 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 God sees how good we are, but because God wants a people who become good and rejoice in God’s grace.
“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 might respond with the words of Paul, from 2 Corinthians 5:7 “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
And yet, I tell you, we can see it! Four years ago, we were worried about having to close our doors. Now we welcome new members and have new ministries springing up in our midst.
18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? We’ve invested time and energy in preparing a Children’s Chapel program. Young children now have the opportunity to take look at the gospel in an age-appropriate way that also has the nice side-effect of reducing some of the distractions that can happen during worship. Eight people have stepped forward to be part of this new ministry.
18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? We invited all families with teens to a planning meeting for a Zion Teen Group. Ten young people gathered around the table. There was a tremendous level of excitement among them and their parents for this new ministry. They’re excited to have the opportunity to engage in Bible study and faith sharing, to carry out meaningful service projects, and just to get together for fun activities. When was the last time Zion had such a group?
18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? At the congregational meeting, a couple of weeks ago, several of our young families raised the idea of whether or not Zion should have more bilingual services. And nobody got angry! Nobody got mad! The tone of their presentation at the congregational meeting, and the tone of the discussions both at the congregational meeting and the following council meeting were commendable. That fact that we could calmly and respectfully discuss such a major change shows us how far Zion has come over the last few years. There is hope and trust among us now that allows us to entertain new ideas without fear.
18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah calls the people of Israel to believe that God is doing a new thing even though they cannot see it. But we can see it. Granted, it may not be as grandiose as separating the waters of the sea and swallowing up the entirety of the Egyptian army. But it’s just as life-giving for Zion as it was for Israel.
We haven’t finished our journey yet. The cross and empty tomb are still before us. God did an astonishing new thing there in the future on Good Friday and Easter. Maybe we can’t see the resurrection of Jesus. But we can see what that resurrection has the power to do in our midst. And so, we can 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. We can’t see that yet. But we are called to believe it. Seeing what God has been able to do in our midst, we are empowered to do so.
Every day, God calls us to rehearse the founding story of our faith. And every day, we are called to remind one another of its future fulfillment. We are called to believe that the God who acted in the past can still do new things in our own personal future. Maybe we feel stuck. Maybe we feel like we’re imprisoned by forces beyond our control. Maybe we can’t imagine that God can or will set us free. Maybe you don’t see a way of getting back home where peace and prosperity can be found again. But we have The Story. Not just any story, but THE Story.
And we can be assured that God will send streams of mercy and rivers of grace into our lives, not because we deserve it, but because God is full of grace and faithful to the covenant perfected in Christ. And because we have seen it happen here. So, praise the Lord, even as you wait for God’s new thing. Thanks be to God. AMEN