Sunday, March 25, 2007

(Lent 5) God Makes a Way...One Way or Another

Isaiah 43:16-21

I hope you were listening to yourselves sing.
And not just the music, although it was a beautiful old standard.
I hope you were listening to your words of worship.
If not, you ought to pull out the hymn book again,
and do a quick read of #28.
We worship God the Rock, unmoved, secure,
like mountains...a strong foundation...our rock of confidence.
And...we worship God the River, flowing fast,
with life renewing, waters sweeping past.
We worship God, the Rock and River, one.
These are very different images of God—opposite, really.
Is it okay to think about God in such opposing ways?

Before we get into this morning’s text,
let’s ponder for a minute.
How did these opposing images of God emerge?
Did we make them up to explain the fact
that we experience God in very different ways?
Should we pick and choose from these different images,
according to what suits our needs at any given time?
Do I stand on God the Rock, when I want a Rock to stand on?
Do I dive into God the River, when I want a River
to wash over me and refresh me?
And when I need God to be something else,
do I come up with some other image that suits me?
Are these images evidence that, as some people say,
God doesn’t so much create us humans in God’s image,
as we create God in our image.
That God is, for us, whatever we want God to be for us.

Is that what we should conclude from these different images?
I think this is one of the many reasons why it’s important
to be a biblical people—a people of the Book.
Scripture is rich with images of God.
Images that God’s people for thousands of years
have found to be true,
in the way they represent the nature of God.
In the practice of faith, God’s people have found these images
to give us a deeper and truer picture of God.
We can avoid the temptation to create God in our image,
to invent a God that suits our present needs and desires,
if we lean on this sacred record of God and God’s people,
and let these sacred images reveal God’s character to us,
even when we might want God to be something else
that seems more comfortable to us at the moment.
I think it’s healthy for our faith,
to look in the pages of scripture
and come face-to-face with God the Rock,
at a very time in our life when we want to resist certainty,
and want to keep everything fluid.
And I think it’s healthy for our faith,
at times in our life when we’re resisting change
with all our might,
and feeling threatened by new expressions of faith,
to find in scripture the image of God as a life-renewing River.

Which brings me to today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, ch. 43,
if you want to turn to it again.
In these few verses, this one prophetic oracle,
there are two distinct images of the one “God who makes a way.”
In both images, God is the Deliverer.
God brings us through whatever is oppressing us,
whatever is keeping us from being
the people God created us to be,
and whatever destruction the enemy of God
would like to bring upon us.
God makes a way through.

These words of Isaiah came to the people of Israel
when they were in exile in Babylon.
And God spoke to them through the prophet,
painting two very different pictures of deliverance.
One of them was looking to a past deliverance,
the other to a future deliverance.
One was a picture of God making a way through the mighty waters,
the other of God making a way in the desert.
In one situation water functions as an insurmountable barrier
that prevents the people of God from being delivered.
In the other, water is what they need most for life and deliverance.

In the first (ch. 42, vv. 16-18), Isaiah is reminding them of the Exodus.
It was a pivotal day in the history of the Hebrews,
when they were trapped on the shores of the Red Sea,
with Pharoah and his army of chariots in hot pursuit,
ready to drag them back into Egypt as slaves.
But God led them through the mighty waters,
parting the sea, forming a path of dry land.
And in a dazzling display of deliverance,
God made a way for his people.
But the enemies of God perished.
It was a spectacle unlike anything they had ever witnessed,
and from that day, until today,
the story has been told and retold to every Hebrew,
and to every Jewish descendant ever born.
It was a kind of deliverance so overwhelming in power,
and in significance,
that it would have been impossible to miss,
and impossible to forget.

So it’s interesting that Isaiah’s message to the people of Israel in exile,
is to say,
“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...
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.”
The prophet reminds them of who this God is who is speaking,
the one who brought about the exodus, through his powerful hand.
And then says, “Forget about it.
Don’t remember and don’t consider, those old acts of God.”

Now, I doubt Isaiah is saying
that the people should literally forget this cataclysmic event,
that has forever been imprinted on their identity.
If they were supposed to forget, why did Isaiah remind them?
No, I think what Isaiah is saying, is more like,
“You think what God did in the Exodus was great?
Well, forget that!
That’s nothing compared to what God is up to right now!”
Then v. 19: “For the Lord says,
I am about to do a new thing.
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Or as the Contemporary English Version puts it:
“There it is, don’t you see it?”

And then he describes what this new deliverance will look like,
this deliverance that makes the Exodus seem like nothing.
“I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”

It’s one thing for God to make a way of dry land
through the middle of mighty waters.
It’s another thing altogether to make a way of refreshing water,
through the middle of a dry and lifeless desert.

And it sounds like,
judging from this Word of God being proclaimed by Isaiah,
that the second way of deliverance, the way through the wilderness,
not only is a greater display of God’s power,
it’s also easier not to notice.
Peculiar.

It’s so much greater than the day God delivered the people
by parting the raging waters, and drowning Pharaoh’s army.
But God is concerned the people won’t notice it when it happens.
“Don’t you see it?...There it is! Do you not perceive it?”
“See where I’m pointing...look carefully...over there!”

A deliverance more impressive than the Exodus.
A new thing so wonderful
that we can just as well forget those stories from the past.
And we’re in danger of missing it.

Now, why would that be the case, I wonder.
On the one hand, it does make sense that the first deliverance—
the Exodus through mighty waters—
would be the more spectacular one.
Hollywood certainly reinforced that.
A picture that probably comes to mind for many of us,
is Charlton Heston, arms outstretched standing by the sea,
dark storm clouds boiling,
red robe and long white hair blowing in the wind,
and two huge walls of water roll up...you know the picture.
A stream bubbling up in the desert
doesn’t capture our attention in quite the same way.

However, I think there’s a more significant reason
why the Lord, through Isaiah,
had to call special attention to the new deliverance.
Remember, this was a deliverance from Babylon,
where they had been in exile for many years,
long enough to plant crops and harvest them,
build houses, get married, settle down.
I’m guessing the people were getting used to the wilderness.
Maybe they were getting a little too comfortable in Babylon.
They were living a spiritually dry and barren life,
but didn’t know it.
Stranded in a spiritual desert without realizing it.
God wanted to deliver them,
but there was a pretty good chance
they would pass up the opportunity.
So, through the prophet Isaiah,
God was trying to get them to realize what they were missing.
That the life they were living was only half a life—if that.
God was trying to tell them they had a spiritual home to go home to,
where they could discover who they were really created to be,
if they were only willing to be delivered.

Deliverance from a life of brutal slavery and oppression,
is something people know they need, when they need it.
When you are trapped between a raging sea,
and a thundering army of horses and chariots,
it’s pretty clear that what you need is deliverance.
And sometimes we are in precisely that position.
We have probably all known times in our lives,
where an Exodus-type deliverance is what we cried out for.
When we needed the powerful wind of God to blow,
and make a way through the mighty waters.
Our family had a time like that quite recently.
Believe me, I’m incredibly thankful
that we serve a God who saves, and brings deliverance.
I know what it is to need it.

And I think we all recognize, as we look around the world,
there are many peoples, tribes, and nations,
who need an Exodus.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Colombia.
“O God who makes a way, we beg of you,
make a way through these mighty waters.
Free your people from oppression.”

But I think for many of us here today,
the deliverance we need is something different.
It’s deliverance from a wilderness we may not know we are in.

Many of us have forgotten, that as a community of God’s people,
we are sojourners in this land.
We are exiles from another kingdom.
We have gotten so comfortable here,
that we no longer feel the least bit displaced.

If we can look deeply and honestly
into the soul of 21st-century American culture,
and reflect on the values that dominate this culture...
and not feel a sense of profound dislocation,
then we have gotten too comfortable in Babylon.
We need to hear the word of Lord through Isaiah again,
“I am about to do a new thing.
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
God is drawing us, pointing us, toward a better way of living,
a deeper, more authentic life,
a more abundant and joyful life,
the life for which we were created,
and God is saying to us,
“There it is, can’t you see it ?”

But we are blind to our cultural bondage, I’m afraid.
The values of independence, autonomy, individualism,
of materialism, of greed, of pursuit of personal pleasure,
have become so commonplace,
we forget how foreign they are to disciples of Jesus.
We think the typical modern life that is filled to overflowing
with frenetic activity,
frantically doing less with more,
is par for the course.
And we think the resulting life
of loneliness, alienation, and rootlessness,
must be as good as it gets.
And we think that endlessly searching for meaning,
and not really finding it, is to be expected in this life.
We think that living life on the surface is good enough.
When we find ourselves thinking like that,
we are in a desert, and don’t know it.
We are exiles in a foreign land,
and have forgotten what home feels like.

But God is a delivering God.
The message of Isaiah 43 is that
God wants to do a new thing among those of us in bondage.
No matter what the source of bondage.

But if our bondage is this silent, hidden, cultural bondage,
our first prayer is not the desperate prayer
of a people trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army.
Our first prayer needs to be a prayer for awareness.
We need to be given eyes to see the wilderness we are in.
Our prayer is the prayer of Lent:
Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy on us.
Show us where our lives are parched, and lead us to the River.
Show us where we have settled for what is shallow,
and lead us to your springs, and help us drink deeply.

Then, when awareness comes, we will be able to hear God’s voice,
saying, “I’m doing a new thing.
There it is!...Don’t you see it?”
Yes! We see it. We see what you are about to do, Lord.
And we want to participate in your deliverance.
We want to know the kind of freedom we were created for.
We want to come home.

God is a delivering and saving God.
Whether it’s a deliverance that sweeps over us
in a way no one can possibly miss.
Or whether it’s a gentle and quiet invitation
into a deeper life,
a more authentic life.
God makes a way...one way or another.

God wants to deliver us. God wants to save us.
If we are trapped between a sea and an army,
let us call out to God with all that is in us,
and keep calling until our saving God delivers us.
But if our captivity is like that of exiles
who have gotten too comfortable in a foreign land,
let us call out to God for awareness,
for eyes to see our wilderness,
and for courage to drink deeply from the water God provides,
and for courage to return home.

May God help us see, and respond.

—Phil Kniss, March 25, 2007

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