Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, March 13
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness and your grace waters the desert. Help us to recognize your hand working miracles beyond our imagining. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, so that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love for all, and its presence in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
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.
The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
All Readings For This Sunday
1. What do you think is the role of a prophet?
2. Why do you think ancient empires carried away the artists with the political leaders?
3. Who are "rereaders" of Isaiah's text today?
4. What is the "something new" that you long to see God do?
5. What is the Stillspeaking God saying to the church today, in a new day?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
We may have to get past a common misconception about prophets in order to better appreciate the depth of beauty in the words of Isaiah in this week's focus text. Perhaps we imagine prophets as people who somehow, magically or miraculously, predict future events. Even our supposedly sophisticated, scientific culture shows a remarkable level of interest in "prophecies" that predict the end of the world, whatever their source, including the Bible itself.
I confess that it requires willpower on my part not to get caught up in such conversations (in person or on Facebook) even though, or perhaps, because most of my childhood was spent dreading the end of the world that was supposed to arrive with the year 2000. This "prophecy" came from vaguely religious sources, long before secular ones stirred up anxiety over Y2K or a little-known Mayan prophecy twelve years later. Such talk captured my imagination and held it hostage for far too many years. What the world needs now and always, however, is a word of hope, not self-proclaimed "prophets" who claim to predict future events beyond our control and full of doom.
Words of comfort in exile
This prophet Isaiah, however, is full of anything but doom. As we recall from our reading two weeks ago, the voice we hear in this part of the book of Isaiah is often called "Second Isaiah," and many scholars believe he addressed the people of Israel not to warn them with words of judgment (as First Isaiah seems to do, before the exile, in chapters 1-39), but to comfort them during their years of exile in Babylon, far from home, cut off from their homeland, from who they are and from how God wants them to live.
Walter Brueggemann speaks about the role--and timing--of these poetic voices in the life of Israel, when the people thought they had brought this calamity upon themselves by their faithlessness, or needed to be reminded about God's own faithfulness throughout their long history. When things seemed to be the worst they had ever been, God sent these prophets to sing a new song, to lift the spirits, expand the imagination, and solidify the hope of the people. "From the bottom of loss and guilt arose in Israel a series of new, imaginative poetic voices," Brueggemann writes, "...who took the loss with deep seriousness but who shrewdly reinterpreted old faith traditions to turn exilic Israel in hope toward the future." This is a key point, because we are called to be like Israel, "a buoyant community of hope that believed and trusted." In other words, this message was not just for one place and time, but a word for the future as well.
Can we trust this text?
Brueggemann often writes in general about poet/prophets, but he also writes specifically about this week's passage in the same spirit as Gerhard von Rad did, calling it "that most remarkable of all texts that we should not speak until we decide if we trust it." Considering how many texts Brueggemann has studied over the years, we can begin to sense the significance of this week's short reading. He describes the weighty consequences for Israel of Isaiah's words but certainly for us as well, because "they will have no personal joy, no public justice, no corporate repentance, and no family humaneness until the community received a newness it cannot generate for itself." Could it be that we fail so miserably at transforming our communities because we think, deep down, that we can do it all on our own, that it's all about us and our own cleverness and resourcefulness?
The two most momentous experiences in ancient Israel's life as recorded in the Old Testament, of course, were the Exodus and the Exile. In each situation, God heard the cry of the people and sent prophets in their hour of need: Moses, to the people in Egypt, and prophets like Isaiah to the people in Babylon. God led the people home in both situations, to the Promised Land in the first, and Back Home Again in the second. But there are differences between the two captivities as well, because the time in Egypt was formative for the Hebrew people: it's where they became a people and a nation.
A people dear to God's heart
Elizabeth Achtemeier writes about the way God shaped a people out of "a ragtag bunch of seminomadic Semites," slaving away under Pharaoh's cruel regime and crying out for help. We know that God did indeed hear them, took pity on them, and, Achtemeier writes, "set his love upon them." She calls that Israel's "founding story," and we know that they repeated it to one another, generation upon generation, reminding themselves of where they came from, and who called them into being the people they became. Over and over again, they told themselves the beautiful story of God setting God's love upon them. (I've always loved that story-telling process being described as necessary for "un-forgetting.")
On the other hand, the Jewish people did not suffer in Babylon in quite the same way that they suffered in Egypt. There were no bricks to make (with or without straw), no whips, no prison walls. It was a different kind of captivity, but perhaps just as wounding to their soul, especially if they forgot who they were and bought into the values and ways of the empire that had carried them off. Brueggemann has written often of this tension between Israel's identity and the pressures of empire, a tension that translates well into our own life, thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, facing different but still formidable powers that be. He describes the problem of exile in Babylon as severe displacement, alienation "from the place that gave identity and security…[and] the shapes and forms that gave power to faith and life."
For Israel, exile was being lost, homesick, divided, unmoored, rootless except for memory. It must have been challenging to resist settling into Babylon ways, Babylon beliefs, Babylon values. It must have been hard to resist the temptation to settle down, fit in, sell out, and forget the story that had held them together. After all, what good had all that done them? (An ancient version of "How's that working out for you?") Into that emptiness stepped a poet-prophet to sing a new song about ancient things, about the new thing that the God of old was about to do. Maybe that's why we use the words, "ever ancient, ever new."
Be sure to take the artists
I remember learning long ago that ancient empires knew how to eradicate a people. They didn't just defeat their army and take their king captive; they carried off the "flower" of the nation, including the artists, the poets, the musicians, those voices that sustain the people. They knew that they had to defeat more than armies: they had to destroy the vision, the dream, of the people as well. Babylon was doing a pretty good job at that when Isaiah stepped forward and reminded the people of Israel that they hadn't seen it all, not yet. Certainly, the saying "It ain't over till it's over" fits here, for God was going to step in and do something truly amazing. David Bartlett puts it this way: "Anything God can do, God can do better, and backwards and upside down as well….Isaiah predicts different performances by the same actors, different dramas by the same author."
It may be paradoxical, it may be ironic, but it's definitely surprising: right after describing God's actions in the past (and they were glorious, no question about it), the prophet says that we should "not remember the former things, or consider the things of old" (v. 18). What better way to get the attention of people who think that their glory days are over, that their story has run out? Maybe "the former things" are God's judgment and anger at the people's faithlessness in the past. Maybe. Or maybe "the things of old" are great works that are about to be outdone, as Bartlett puts it, by a God who can outdo anything God has done in the past. Does it matter? Both meanings are wonderful (full of wonder), and they hold true for us today as well.
Where you are matters when you're reading these texts
When any group of faithful people turns to the poet-prophet Isaiah for a word of hope, no matter which empire has its heel on their throat, Brueggemann says that "Scripture is 'thick' with many meanings that leave open many possible readings," and he assures us "that the text itself authorizes these many new acts of imagination." (No wonder that we say, in the United Church of Christ, that "God is still speaking.") Elsewhere, he invites us to think of examples of people who read a text like this one "from below," like women, people of color, the poor. After centuries of such texts being appropriated like property by those with power and authority (again, irony), Brueggemann calls these marginalized voices "rereaders" who grasp more readily "the radical quality" of this prophetic text and the lessons it teaches us about God and about the way God wants us to live.
Surely the world would be a better place if all of us--whether reading from above or below--became "re-readers" of these poems, and let the poetry transform us, let it turn our hearts and minds in hope toward the future God has promised and the new and surprising wonders God will work. Brueggemann quotes another great scholar, Claus Westermann, whose words sound like they are just as much addressed to the church today as they are a reflection upon the situation of the Jewish people long ago: "Israel requires to be shaken out of a faith that has nothing to learn about God's activity, and therefore nothing to learn about what is possible with him, the great danger which threatens any faith that is hidebound in dogmatism, faith that has ceased to be able to expect anything really new from him." Brueggemann himself writes that "biblical faith is geared to the future. It moves always to God's coming miracle that pushes past old treasured miracles...."
Consider our hymns and creeds and Bible studies and doctrines and church history: are we so focused on the past that we have forgotten to expect the unexpected? Have we forgotten that we worship, and listen for, a God who is still speaking, and still acting, today, and that we cannot even begin to imagine the great things that God is about to do?
Waters of creation, waters of life
Because he is a poet, the images Isaiah uses are both beautiful and compelling. They evoke primal human experiences, like profound thirst. In fact, the most powerful image in this week's reading is water, and many scholars take note of the waters of creation, the waters of the Red Sea, and, of course, waters in the desert--for the people wandering on the way to the Promised Land, the people on their way Back Home, and for all of us who thirst for justice and wholeness and peace.
While water can bring life, it can also block it (think floods), as Michael E. Williams notes, and both of these meanings are present in this passage: it's because of God doing a new thing that water brings us life instead of keeping us from it. Williams asks about the barriers in the life of the congregation that keep it from experiencing God at work in new and surprising ways, including "the seven last words of the church": "We've never done it that way before." He also takes note of the easy-to-miss mention of "jackals and ostriches" in verse 20, the "most dangerous and outlandish of God's creatures" that will be included in these great works, and will have sense enough to honor God for the great gift of water that sustains their lives even in the wilderness: Williams suggests that we learn from them. Amen to that!
Letting go of past pain
Margaret Aymer suggests several ways to approach this text, encountering God as the "way-maker" who cuts paths for us when it seems that all we face are obstacles and hopelessness, and telling the story again and again, especially to those most in need of hearing it. She also suggests that our Lenten discipline might be one of letting go of the past and its pain, a most difficult thing for us to do. For example, how might such a movement transform our families? For the larger community, Aymer presents a specific challenge when she asks us to consider letting go of our shared pain and outrage over the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which, in many ways, have shaped our national life for almost fifteen years. Is memory in this case something we hold onto in order to justify what we do and feel today, or are we willing to open ourselves up to "a relinquishment of past pain"?
A world that is filled with both trouble and beauty
We live in a world filled with both trouble and beauty, a world that finds it hard to let go of pain. We hear the cries of anguish and desperation of those who suffer. What is our response? Have we ourselves forgotten the story of God's great love and works of love and justice, compassion and restoration? Have we also forgotten to open ourselves to the new and amazing things God is about to do? Have we contained our dream too closely, and practiced a meager economy of expectations? Have we forgotten how to hope?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
"Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand."
James Baldwin, 20th century
"The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen."
Jesse Jackson, 20th century
"Our dreams must be stronger than our memories. We must be pulled by our dreams, rather than pushed by our memories."
Houssaye, 19th century
"We must always have old memories and young hopes."
John Keats, 19th century
"Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity--it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance."
Alice Walker, 21st century
"Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise."
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century Hungarian biochemist
"Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water."
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