Don't Forget

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
Isaiah 43:16–21, Psa 126, Phil 3:4b–14, John 12:1–8

First the text of the day, with a few boring translation and textual notes, followed by some reflections and "sermonic" comments. 

Isaiah 43:14-21

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[3] chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18Do not remember[4] the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
19I am about to do a new thing;[5]
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make[6] a way in the wilderness[7]
   and rivers in the desert.

20The wild animals will honor me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,[8]
   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.

Sermon thoughts, introduction
This week’s first reading comes from the second part of Isaiah (called creatively by Bible scholars, “Second Isaiah”) and runs from chapter 40-55. It was a very popular section for New Testament writers back in the day, and is still so for Christian types today. In fact, it is one of the most frequently quoted areas of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament, and it hogs nearly all of the first readings in the modern lectionary. And it’s no wonder. These fifteen chapters are “filled with proclamations of salvation and celebrations of the Lord’s redemptive work,” and Christians have for centuries “seen the similarity of this prophet’s message to the new Testament’s good news.” [9]

I. Remember Not
Note that in other parts of Isaiah, the prophet admonishes the people to remember, but here he tells them to forget. “Do not remember  the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing” (vv. 18-19).

In Case you don’t believe me, here are some examples of the “remember” passages:
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,

But here, in Isaiah 43:14-21, his advice is to forget the things of old.
So, if I were constructing a sermon on this passage, I think my first word of wisdom would be this one: “Remember not” (from the RSV, by the way, not the NRSV)
Don’t try to predict the future based on what you had in the past.
To be fair, there is a slight debate in scholarly circles as to whether the prophet is saying “forget all the stuff that you did in your past that got you here” (i.e., the sins, idolatry, mistakes, greed, etc.) or “forget all the mighty acts of God from the past that were pretty awesome (i.e., the Exodus from Egypt) because what’s coming up is even better.” 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 my comments below, I am emphasizing the former interpretation.
On the one hand, we do have to remember our pasts. Of course, as George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I never was too sure what that meant, but if a famous philosopher and foreigner said it, then it must be very wise.

But on the other hand, over-remembering our pasts can also bog us down. The good use of memory is that it can tell us what not to do in the future; the bad thing is that some of us can get so tied up in what we tried to do once before that we no longer have a vision or path for the future. The tied down, concrete, immovable past can blind us to the open ended, liberated, future. I wasn’t able to accomplish “A” and “B” in the past, so surely I also won’t be able to accomplish “C” today. In addition, sometimes what we have done in our past 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 so much pain (either emotionally or physically) from something that has happened to us that it gets in our way of seeing a future that is actually (potentially) clean and clear and hopeful. Sometimes we have tried so hard to get us through one set of crises, that we think there is nothing new that we can do (or have energy to 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, as “Isaiah” put it:
“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 old saw about the seven last words of the church?: “We’ve never done it that way before…” That is intended to be funny (though only slightly), but what it is trying to say is that church people can get so bogged down in the old ways that we did things in the old days, that we can blind ourselves from seeing any new path into the future for our church (ourselves). The truth is that most of us desperately need to listen to God and hear the words, “Behold I am doing a new thing, can you not see it?”

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 phrase, “Remember not” (“Do not” ’al, “remember” zâkar) in this Isaiah passage, isn’t referring to the absence of memory, but the freedom from it. That’s not the same.

The significance of that for some people is that some of us tend to want to just cover up our past, to deny it. To forgive it, perhaps, but not actually forget it, not to “blot” it out. And when we do that we find ourselves being tortured by our past even when we don’t realize it. That person hasn’t really forgotten his or her past they have just not looked at it. It controls them and they don’t know it. This passage in Isaiah, says forget it completely. I don’t think that Isaiah is saying to go catch a case of amnesia, but to forget it as a weight that bogs you down, and drags your life. And keeps you from becoming the person that God created you to be. You can’t go on with your future while your past is thoroughly in control.

The way to deal with the dark spots in 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 in real life we usually can’t do all of that. Our mortality gets in our way. We much prefer to try to cover them up, try to deny them. But the closer we can get to honest wrestling and blotting, the healthier our move into the future will be.

Incidentally, when I was little, my grandfather was famous for making beer in the back yard. When it was time to ferment, he would bury it in big vats underground, and let it sit there for weeks until it was ready. He used to say that emotions are kind of like his beer in the back yard. He said that if you try to hide from them and bury them, the longer they stay buried and not taken out and looked at and dealt with, the more likely that they will someday explode something fierce and harm someone close to them. You can hide from your emotions or feelings, and you can bury them, but the longer you do that, the more likely they will explode and hurt someone close to you.

A past that is 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.”[10]   

II. 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 dealt with (among other issues) the so-called “Prodigal” Son. If you used it in your sermon, you know that the prodigal had to get to the very bottom of his life before he heard God speaking to him. In today’s Hebrew scripture, we can say that Isaiah was not certain that—as wonderful as God’s new thing was—people would actually be able to see it. What makes us able to see God’s miraculousness? What makes us (some of us) be able to hear it?

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” (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). Elizabeth Achtemeier, writing in the 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” (“Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C,” Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 343).
[3] “Brings out” (yâtsâ') vb. “In an ironic play on words, the prophet uses the same verb, ‘brings out’ (ys), to describe the activity of the Egyptian army that is used in other exodus narratives to describe Yahweh’s ‘bringing out’ of Israel from bondage (Ex. 3:10 and elsewhere). The enemies of human liberty are responding to the initiatives of the same sovereign Lord as were the liberated tribes. The forces of evil are summoned from their place of safety and are crushed (‘extinguished, quenched like a wick’) by the power of Israel’s God.” James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching:  A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year C (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 229.
[4] “Do not remember” (“Do not” ’al, “remember” zâkar) “Remember not” (rsv). 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.”
[5] This sentence begins in the Hebrew with the word hinnêh, which would mean something like Behold, lo, see. Many, if not most, other translations have it but, for some reason, the nrsv does not.
[6] The Hebrew includes “even” here for emphasis.
[7] 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.’” Note that “the ‘way in the sea’ of v. 16 was a dry route through the threatening waters created by a merciful Yahweh. But the "’way’ in  v. 19 is a life-sustaining thread of watr through an arid wasteland. It is ‘way in the wilderness’; it is ‘rivers in the desert.’” Newsome, Texts for Preaching, p. 230
[8] “Give water in the wilderness”: See Exodus 17:1-7 (water from the rock at Rephidim).
[9] Gene Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International: 1994), p. 160.
[10] From "Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent" Rev. Todd Donatelli, April 1, 2001,