In today’s passage, Isaiah is talking to the people of the Babylonian exile. They are suffering, and Isaiah wants
to give them hope that things will change. Their exile did not mean that their God was weak or did not love them.
God still cares and will rescue them. More than that, God will restore them to wholeness, resurrect them as it were.
Isaiah 43:16-21 (The VOICE)
16 This is what the Eternal One says, the One who does the impossible,
the One who makes a path through the sea, a smooth road through tumultuous waters,
17 The One who drags out chariots and horses,
armies and warriors, and drowns them in the sea—
They will go down, never to rise again;
their lives are snuffed out like a candle wick:
18 Eternal One: Don’t revel only in the past,
or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by.
19 Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak,
and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert;
Waters will flow where there had been none.
20 Wild animals in the fields will honor Me;
the wild dogs and surly birds will join in.
There will be water enough for My chosen people,
trickling springs and clear streams running through the desert.
21 My people, the ones whom I chose and created for My own,
will sing My praise.
“[Isaiah] appeals to a powerful memory: the exodus. He reminds God’s people—all descendants of slaves in
Egypt—how God liberated them from oppression, how God devastated the powerful army that pursued them in
order to take them back to the whip and lash, back to servitude in Egypt. Stories of the exodus have been told time
after time for many generations; they are permanent fixtures in their minds. The prophet evokes these amazing
memories to comfort them and assure them that what God is about to do is like what God did do for their ancestors
centuries ago.” (The VOICE, notes for Isaiah 43:16-17)
And yet, God says not to be stuck in the past. Remember God’s power to save, but understand that this time God is
going to do it in a new way.
It has been said that anyone can master anything, given 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. “Deliberate practice”
does not mean a few hours a day of half-hearted plunking on a piano will make you an expert concert pianist any
more than playing around on the monkey bars would make you an Olympic gymnast. Deliberate practice requires
total, whole-bodied, whole-hearted focus and devotion. It is the kind of practice for something that you would feel
without; something that finds an echo in your very bones. Ten thousand hours is about 10 years’ worth of persistent,
intentional effort, until mastery becomes more like muscle memory. Then doing that one thing that you’ve worked so
long and hard to master feels like coming home.
For the people of God, our one thing is resurrection – the movement from death to new life. We practice resurrection
as a church and as individuals all the time, or at least we should. Every time we gather in a space for prayer, confession,
and ask for forgiveness, we practice resurrection, unburdening our lives and our hearts from the weight of sin we have
carried far too long. Every time we come to the Lord’s Table for communion, we practice the movement of death toward
new life. We come starving, hungering for nourishing grace and bread that sustains our bodies and souls and leave the
experience, full of community, hope, and memory. Every time we lift ardent prayers for one among us who is suffering,
trusting that our prayers rise to a God who hears our every need, we step out of a grave into a new reality. Every time a
child of God comes to the waters of baptism, and we recommit ourselves to be covered in the same Spirit that hovered
over the waters at the beginning of time, we walk into new life. It is deliberate, this practice that we do, until something
as strange as resurrection seems like the most natural thing in the world to us. It is our truest home.
The word that God is continually doing a new thing to save us to transform us, rescue us, resurrect us, is something that
can give us hope in the most trying of times. It is important for the church to hear when there is so much constant change
and upheaval. God’s character has not changed. If we can remember and trust, the grace and power that has sustained us
before will help us to move into the future. Hear this poem by Wendell Berry called “A Homecoming.”
… In the trust of old love, cultivation shows a dark and graceful wilderness at its heart. Wild.
In that wilderness, we roam the distance of our faith;
Safe beyond the bounds of what we know.
Open. Show me my country.
Take me home.
“Safe beyond the bounds of what we know.” That is what we are talking about here. When we are uncertain and afraid,
Isaiah 43 is encouraging us to look for signs of God’s resurrecting work around us.
But it is hard to keep that level of intensity up all the time. Jesus tells us in his parable of Matthew 25 that even the five
wise young ladies waiting with the oil in their lamps for the bridegroom fell asleep while waiting. (Mt 25:1-13) However,
going through the motions or compartmentalizing our spiritual life is not sufficient for God. As Jesus quoted from
Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind
and with all your strength.” In other words, with every part of you, a love that is more than just a feeling but causes you
to do what God wants in every part of your life. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have dry periods. Then, doing it anyway
is discipline, is faithfulness that the dry period won’t last forever.
I grew up in a place where one’s faith was a private thing. The people were nice, helpful, generous. Maybe this was a result
of their faith, but they never mentioned it. I also saw people who were awful to others who were very outspoken that they
were Christians. Not a very good witness, but that’s another story.
But, as an agnostic, or someone who was unsure or ambivalent about God, Jesus, and Christianity, I saw no positive evidence
that following God made a positive impact on someone’s life. The problem was that people just didn’t talk about it. Depending
on where you are geographically located in the country and the world, there are differences in culture and expectation.
I may have mentioned before that my father passed, some years ago now, at the end of November. I took him to Minnesota to
be buried near the rest of his family. While I was there, I went to a daily noontime Advent service at a very large church. I found
it comforting. Every day there was communion, but one day I couldn’t go up because I was quietly sobbing into my scarf.
Now, if I had been in Texas, where I was living at the time, even as a stranger, someone would have come over to me and given
me a hug, a literal shoulder to cry on. This didn’t happen in Minneapolis where people are naturally more reserved. However,
several people acknowledged my distress in another way by squeezing my shoulder as they passed by to go up for communion.
I was struck by the difference. This way was so different in showing support based on culture and custom. But, you know what?
It would be unlikely that I would have recognized them as Christian if I passed them on the street.
When God says return to me with all your heart, what does that look like? Is it a private affair to be kept secret and hidden?
Or, it going to be more like a wedding banquet where you announce it to the world and invite people to join in?
Next, week we will see Jesus enter Jerusalem to much honor and fanfare, but then go to the cross alone as everyone
deserts him. Not one stood up to be counted.
One of the ideas of Lent is that we consider what we would be without God. We figuratively sit in sackcloth and ashes
remembering that we are dead without God. One, God breathes life into us. Then, God rescues us from our brokenness.
If we are feeling grief and despair, separation from God, this Lenten season is the time to remember that our thing is resurrection.
Do you think that the disciples had any idea once they knew Jesus had been nailed on the cross, his body laid in the tomb,
that their real life was about to begin? They thought that everything was over, lost, done, but … God was about to do a new
thing that they couldn’t even imagine. Jesus resurrected, and their new life to begin. Let me repeat that. Jesus resurrected,
and their new life to begin.
One of God’s defining characteristics is creation, creativity, doing something new, beyond our imagining. Can we trust God,
even if we can’t see it, even if we don’t understand?
Of course, it’s going to be on God’s timetable, not ours. We’re waiting, and it seems like forever. Think of the Israelites
wandering around the desert for 40 years, a trip that could have been as short as two weeks, but no. And, they’re griping and
complaining. We have no food. We have no water. (Even though they did.) Why did you bring us out here? We were better
off as slaves in Egypt. Doesn’t God even care?
Are any of you familiar with the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes? It is about a six year old boy and his toy tiger, which Calvin
imagines is a real ferocious tiger. This comic strip hasn’t been in the paper for some years. Every day, I get a vintage comic
strip from the old series. In a recent story line, Calvin saw this great offer on the back of his favorite breakfast cereal, Chocolate
Frosted Sugar Bombs. He could get an official beanie with a battery powered propeller on top and a big star on the front. He
only had to get four proof of purchase seals to get it.
He eats his way through the four boxes with a total sugar buzz, of course. His mom sends in the paperwork, and now he’s
waiting, waiting, waiting. He’s dreaming what he’ll look like in his beanie. What it will be like to fly through the sky wearing
his beanie, and each day he comes home from school. He runs in the house and asks his mom, “Did my beanie come today?”
Nope. Sadness. Disappointment.
One day at school Calvin prays, “Please, let my beanie come today! I promise I won’t ever be bad again! I’ll do whatever you
want! Please. Please. Please! I’ll never ask another favor if today is the day I get my beanie!” He comes home and asks his mom,
“Did I get my beanie?” Nope. And he shouts to the sky, “WHAT’S IT TAKE, HUH?”
Calvin will get his beanie. It probably won’t fly, but it’s coming. The Israelites did enter the Promised Land. The Jews returned
from exile in Babylon. Jesus was resurrected. Through the centuries of the Church, God is continually doing a new thing. It is
coming. We have to be looking for it. But before we can fully embrace it, we must let go of all that holds us back.
In Isaiah, God promises that the new thing that is springing up will make gardens out of deserted places and even the weirdest
looking animals (jackals and ostriches) will honor God by practicing resurrection. This newness is about transformation. Rivers
will not run through deserts without fundamentally changing the deserts, just as God’s love cannot flow through our hearts without
transforming us. We are reminded that God has made us for this exact purpose. We cannot praise the risen Christ, let alone rise
ourselves, if we are still stuck in the old, former things.
As we turn our faces toward Jerusalem this week and the cross that awaits in a story of betrayal, crucifixion, and death that leaves
us in stunned silence, we must remember to practice resurrection. The world knows this sad story too well. The world knows the
pain of death, of innocents accused or injustice inflicted upon the last, lost, and least far too often. We are the only witness that can
authentically testify that these deaths are not an ending. They are an opening for a rising up into a new life with more promise and
joy than we dare to dream of as long as we keep practicing resurrection.
What’s your story? How is God doing a new thing in you? What is your story? Are you willing to tell it? You are God’s witness
to the world whether you want to be one or not. What do you want people to learn about God by seeing you? Are you going to be
a positive witness, one that gives glory to God? Something to think about this week.