Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:14-21

Notes on the text:

14Thus says the Lord,
   your Redeemer[1], the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
   and break down all the bars,
   and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.[2]
15I am the Lord, your Holy One,
   the Creator of Israel, your King.
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[3] the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
19I am about to do a new thing;[4]
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make[5] a way in the wilderness[6]
   and rivers in the desert.
20The wild animals will honor me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,[7]
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
   21   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Isaiah 43:16-21
abylonian armies captured Jerusalem in 587 BC; many residents were deported to Babylon. Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah were written there in the final years of the Exile. The author had great faith in God as intervening in human affairs when needed throughout history. He sustains the theme of a new Exodus throughout Second Isaiah: God will surely restore the Israelites to Judea (v. 14).
A prophet serves as a channel of communication between the divine and the human realms. Today we say that history repeats itself; this prophet would add: continually. In vv. 16-17, he recalls God’s saving act of enabling the Israelites to cross the Reed (or Red) Sea: how the waters separated, providing “a way in the sea”, and how the Egyptian chariots, “army and warrior[s]”, were swallowed up by the waters, “never to rise again” (Revised English Bible). This is who God is: he was the motive force behind Israel’s deliverance; he saved Israel from slavery. (Perhaps the audience is people who, in exile, have given up on God.) But, says God through the prophet (v. 18), do not wallow in the past to the extent of being blind to what is happening now! God is “about to do a new thing” (v. 19); in fact, he has already begun (“now”). Can’t you see it? He is providing a godly way for his people, protecting them and giving them sustenance (“water”, “drink”, v. 20). The allusion is to return from exile across the Arabian desert: the animals who will honour God live in the desert. Israel, the people whom he moulded by his instruction and discipline (“formed”, v. 21) are to declare to all that he is praise-worthy for his love and actions on their behalf. However, say vv. 22-25, the covenant relationship between God and his people has become one of weariness for, in spite of God being reasonable in his expectations as to how the people should honour him, the Israelites have ignored him. All they have done is complain and stray from his ways. Even so, God is merciful; he will forget their waywardness.

Note that in other parts of Isaiah, the prophet admonishes the people to remember, but here he tells them to forget.

Isaiah 44:21
21Remember these things, O Jacob,
   and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant;
   O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

Isaiah 46:8-9
8Remember this and consider,*
   recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9   remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
   I am God, and there is no one like me,

Isaiah 47:7
7You said, ‘I shall be mistress for ever’,
   so that you did not lay these things to heart
   or remember their end.

But here the advice is to forget the things of old.

The first thing is to “Remember not.” Don’t try to predict the future based on what you had in the past.

Note: There is a slight debate in scholarly circles as to whether the prophet is saying “forget the past stuff that you did that got you here” (i.e., the sins, the idolatry, the mistakes, the greed, etc.) or forget the mighty acts of God from the past that were pretty awesome (i.e., the Exodus from Egypt). For the former the message is “don’t get bogged down in the past out of guilt or shame or feelings of inadequacy, because God is about to do a new thing that does not take that into consideration.” For the latter, the message is “Don’t evaluate what I am about to do in light of the mighty things I have done in the past. This will be greater and grander than anything you have ever seen before. For this sermon, I am emphasizing the former interpretation.”

n the one hand, we have to do that. Those who do not know the past will be condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, our pasts can also bog us down. They tell us what we cannot do in the future. Some of us are so tied to what we tried to do once before that we no longer have a vision for the future. Sometimes what we have done in our pasts is so awful that we cannot even envision a future in which we will be forgiven and redeemed, and empowered to be new.

Sometimes we have lived in such pain, either emotionally or physically, in our pasts that it gets in our way of seeing a future, that is actually clean and clear and hopeful. Sometimes we have tried everything in the past to get us through one set of crises, that we think there is nothing new that we can do. Some of us feel so inadequate, so small, so helpless, so powerless, that we cannot conceive of ourselves succeeding in the future. Our pasts can blind us to the possibilities of the future. So,
remember not things of old…
Behold, I am doing a new thing” (ch. 42:9; 2 cf., Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:9).

Remember the seven last words of the church?: “We’ve never done it that way before…” That is (slightly) funny, but it also means that we as  church an individuals, we can get so bogged down in the old ways that we did things that we can really get blocked at seeing any new path out of our personal or church lives. The truth is that we desperately need to listen to God and hear the words, “Behold I am doing a new thing, can you not see it?”

The phrase, “Remember not” in this Isaiah passage, is not the absence of memory, but the freedom from it. That’s not the same. It’s interesting to note that there are two words in Hebrew for “forget.” One means to “cover up” the memory. The other is to “blot out” the memory. The one used in this passage means to “blot out.” The significance of that is that we tend to want to just cover up our past, to deny it, to forgive, but not actually forget it, to “blot” it out. And when we do that we find ourselves being tortured by our past even when we don’t know it. We haven’t forgotten our past we have just not looked at it. It controls us and we don’t know it. This passage in Isaiah, says forget it completely. You can’t go on with your future while your past is thoroughly in control.

The way to deal with the dark spots of our pasts is to take them out, look at them, address them, be honest about them, stare them in the face, wrestle with them, atone for them, apologize for them, and then blot them out and move on. Of course we usually can’t do all of that. Our mortality gets in our way. We much prefer to cover them up, deny them. But the closer we can get to honest wrestling with and blotting out, the healthier our move into the future will be.

The past left untouched or addressed can haunt us and make us fearful of the future. It can blind us to the future.
Israel was haunted by their spiritual infidelities that they believed led to their exile. As such, they were not able to see themselves in a new way but only as the people who had failed God. That was their primary identity. The prophet knows that energy consumed in haunting memories will limit their ability to perceive a future free and unbounded by their past. This will be Israel's challenge. They must find a new identity. They must perceive a new thing.”[8]   

And that is the second issue: do we actually see it? Are we yet capable of seeing the new thing that God has in mind for us? Are we able to open our eyes and see the new world unfolding before us, and will we be ready for the new thing that God is preparing for us?

Sometimes we are ready to see something and sometimes we are not. Last week the Gospel lectionary reading was the “Prodigal” (so to speak) Son. If you used it in your sermon, you know that in it, the prodigal had to get to the very bottom of his life before he heard God speaking to him. Here, today, we can say that Isaiah was not certain that as wonderful as God’s new thing was, would the people actually be able to see it. What makes us able to hear?

Do you know the old (and admittedly weak) joke about the guy who bought a pack mule? It might be appropriate here. The seller said the mule really understands orders. So, it’s important that all you need to do is tell him where he should go and what he should do. However, when the buyer got home he tried to get the mule to go forward and he refused. He couldn’t get him to move, never, not at all, nothing. So he took the animal back to the original owner and said, “You lied to me.”

The seller looked at the mule, looked at the buyer, then picked up a two-by-four and hit the mule right in the head with it. Then he said “go forward.” The mule did it.

The buyer said, “what on earth did you do?”

The seller looked at the mule, and the buyer and smiled. Then he said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do something dramatic to get their attention.”

Does that apply to us too?

[1] “Redeemer” ( גְּאוּלִים, גָּאַל , go’el) v. To act as kinsman, one who redeems. Do the part of “next of kin,” whose job was to take over propetty if the head of household had died or was no longer able to do it, by marrying brother’s widow, etc. Sometimes to beget a child from her for him. To redeem from slavery, to redeem land.
[2] nrsv: Meaning of Heb uncertain. Oxford Bible Commentary says of this: “The reference to ‘lamentation’ in NRSV is a speculative emendation of the text.” Barton, John ;   Muddiman, John: Oxford Bible Commentary. New York : Oxford University Press, 2001, S. Is 43:14. Lectionary Commentary says, “the Hebrew of verse 14 is indecipherable, although the RSV reading (which contains the world ‘lamentation’) is probably as good an emendation as is possible.”
[3] “Remember not,” rsv.
[4] This sentence begins in the Hebrew with the word (   hinnêh) Behold, lo, see. Many, if not most, other translations have it but, for some reason, the nrsv does not.
[5] The Hebrew includes “even” here for emphasis.
[6] The theme of “way” or “road” (derek) in the wilderness is common in second Isaiah. . See 55:12-13. For “a way in the wilderness,” see Isaiah 40:3, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
[7] “Give water in the wilderness”: See Exodus 17:1-7 (water from the rock at Rephidim).
[8] From "Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent" Rev. Todd Donatelli, April 1, 2001,