The cross is looming large before us on the horizon. We are deeply into Lent. At the end of our service next Sunday we will find ourselves at the foot of the cross, watching as Jesus’ hands and feet are nailed into the wood, cringing as he is left hanging in the sun to die.
The season of Lent is often portrayed as a wilderness or desert — an environment that is often inhospitable to humans. We began the season with Jesus being driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert for 40 days, where he faced hardships and temptations as he tried to discern what God expects of him.
In these weeks before Easter we are all invited on a journey of examining our souls, to discern what God expects of us, and to reflect on where we may be falling short of those expectations.
The journey might seem unending at times. But scripture tells us that even on desert journeys there are oases of God’s mercy, compassion, and redemption.
Today we hear about such an oasis offered to the people of Israel, a people who know about the wilderness — first as slaves in Egypt, then for 40 years in the wilderness searching for the Promised Land.
Now, after generations of enjoying the fruits of that land, the descendants of slaves are in the wilderness again. Foreign armies have taken over Israel, and many of its people have been forced into exile in Babylon.
God’s chosen people are separated from their homeland. They suffer the humiliation of military defeat, with its implication that the God of Israel is not as powerful as the Babylonian gods.
And now they risk losing their religious identity, as they are more and more assimilated into the Babylonian culture.
It is into this situation that we hear God speak in today’s reading.
“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.”
These words tell the story of God’s great act of salvation — parting the waters of the Red Sea so that the people of Israel can pass through safely, then closing the waters to drown the Egyptian army that wants to force the Israelites back into slavery.
This reminder of God’s actions in their history gives comfort to a people battered on all sides by a threatening world filled with unfamiliar gods, rulers, languages, and customs.
Recalling the days when God acted to save the people gives comfort and hope to them in the current hard days.
Scripture reminds us repeatedly that to forget God’s promises and past actions brings trouble. Faith and hope are kept alive by repeating the stories of faith from one generation to the next.
That is why the next words from the prophet Isaiah are startling. Instead of recalling their history, God commands, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”
There is nothing wrong with recalling the past, but to live constantly in the past is a form of spiritual escapism. The exiles had come to believe that the best was behind them, that they had lost a golden age that would never be recovered.
The implication is that God is past God’s prime, creeping into old age, resting on past divine glory, not a deity who is alive and active in the present.
The Israelites’ nostalgia for the past has blinded them to the present, and to the possibilities of new life in the future.
God is not saying we should totally forget the past and what God has done. Instead, God is encouraging us to leave behind those things that keep us from recognizing God’s presence in our lives now and moving into the future with hope.
God’s words to Israel and to us are a powerful wake up call, reminding us that God is not content to rest on past laurels, or to be confined to the pages of history.
“Do not remember the former things,” God tells us. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?
The situation of the Israelites in Babylon should not seem all that alien to us. In times of exile, or seasons in the wilderness, it can be difficult to imagine anyone, even God, doing a new thing — a thing that radically transforms the current situation.
In the wilderness of war, it is difficult to imagine peace. In the despair of illness it may be difficult to imagine health. In the desert of poverty or joblessness, it is difficult to imagine a hopeful future.
And yet it is at those very times that God speaks to us, proclaiming, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.”
One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Paul Tillich, says of this proclamation, “The new thing is born in us, just when we least believe it. It appears in remote corners of our souls which we have neglected for a long time. It shows a way where there was no way before.
“The new which we sought and longed for comes to us in the moment in which we lose hope of ever finding it.”
That must have been what the disciples experienced as they witnessed Jesus’ suffering and death.
In those sad and bitter days, when they least expected it — when their teacher and friend had been executed and his body lain in the tomb — when their despair was at its darkest — when their hope is at its lowest — God’s “new thing” springs forth.
The risen Christ appears, showing a way where there had been no way. A way from death to life.
Just as our faith is ever ancient it is also ever new. Melancholic nostalgia is as unbecoming for us as it was for the people of Israel.
Whatever the realities of our past, good or bad, we cannot remain there,. We are a people on the way — from wilderness to promise, from desert to flowing waters, from death to life.
Again today, God proclaims to us: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”