Listen To Article
Walter Brueggemann has said, “The telling of story is the way the power of God becomes available in each new present circumstance.”
That seems to be where Isaiah 43.16 is heading: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…” Identifying God in this way instantly brings the old stories to mind: crossing the Red Sea in flight from Egypt, fording the Jordan at flood stage upon entering Canaan. From there, as so often happens, the dominoes keep falling as story after story of God’s faithfulness come to mind.
Stories they heard gathered around the campfire about old Abraham and Sarah, stories of Moses and Aaron going toe-to-toe with Pharaoh; stories of the plagues of frogs and gnats and locust and flies that covered the ground and filled the skies; stories of the angel of death passing over their homes which were marked with the blood of the lamb, of Pharaoh relenting and then changing his mind again, of walking on dry ground through the midst of the Red Sea which churned on either side; stories of God leading them through the wilderness for forty years – forty years filled with red heifers, bronze serpents, talking donkeys, battles with various kings, and the death of an entire generation.
They remembered stories of Joshua having them walk in circles for days on end until Jericho simply collapsed; stories of wise old Caleb not slowing down as he aged, but rather asking to take on the hardest challenges; stories of Ehud losing a sword in the belly of fat King Eglon; of Gideon winning a great battle over Moab armed only with trumpets and torches, only to later turn away from God; outlandish stories of Samson’s strength; heartwarming stories of Ruth’s fierce loyalty and Boaz’s kindness; stories of the ark of the covenant being captured and then returned; of King Saul slowly losing his mind; of David’s rise from shepherd boy to giant-slayer to mighty warrior and king; stories of Solomon’s wisdom, the building of the temple, and a time of peace; stories of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel, and of Elisha picking up his mantle.
Remember, O my people; remember all that I have done for you. To a people living in exile the prophet identifies God as the One who brought deliverance and liberation. The prophet identifies God by what God has done in the past.
Then we come to Isaiah 43.18: “Do not remember the former things…” and the whole narrative seems to screech to a shocked halt.
What gives, Isaiah? Are we supposed to remember, or not? Why the whiplash and sudden change in direction? At least in part, I suspect, because how the people were remembering was not helpful. As with their forebears who once wanted to go back to Egypt, many of the people of Isaiah’s day would much rather have stayed in the familiarity of exile in Babylon than return to the unknown of a homeland which had been destroyed.
To a people living in exile and captivity in a land which is not their own, Isaiah identifies God as the one who brought deliverance and liberation in the past. But then Isaiah challenges the people not to become so sentimental about that past action that they are unable to see God’s current and future action which may look different but springs forth from the same character – bringing life out of death, freedom out of captivity, hope out of despair, redemption, restoration, and healing to the world. That is not only what God longs to do, it is who God is. Those actions spring forth from the very essence of God’s character.
In many ways, much of society here in North America seems to be poised on a similar hinge point as we keep emerging (hopefully!) from living through a pandemic to whatever is next, which will not be as it was before. Like any season of great change, this one brings with it a mix of excitement for new things to come and grief for things we loved which are no longer what they once were. All of that and more is jumbled up.
What does church look like moving forward? At my congregation, we are about fifty percent in the sanctuary and fifty percent live-via-Zoom as we worship each week. While there are new friends joining us, there are others whom I love who are no longer with us. Schools are understaffed. Prices have gone up on nearly everything. Anxiety is spiking across the board as so many people are stretched to the max and simply have no more capacity to navigate yet another change even as change continues to barrel toward us.
Isaiah speaks to a people in exile who are remembering the past in a longing-for-things-to-be-exactly-like-they-used-to-be-but-never-will-be-again sort of way. It wasn’t helpful. It hindered their ability to live fully alive in the present. And it made it nearly impossible for them to sense God doing anything new.
Remembering is not the problem, if we remember well and leverage the stories of God’s faithfulness from before into an ability to see God working in similar yet different ways moving forward.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
I do not know what this new way forward will entail. I do not know which way the path will twist and turn. I do know God is faithful. On my better days, I am confident God is doing a new thing, and that his new thing is not disconnected; it comes from and out of what has always been.
As Fred Craddock reminds us, “God is doing something new, but it is not really new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the new is God’s keeping an old promise.”