In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The things that we have experienced over and over, and the emotions that go along with them, very often determine how we see new but similar events. E.g., how we remember congregations of our our youth, or various pastors, drives how we see congregations or pastors today. But our memories are so selective that they often become cliches, or events reduced to a single fact, and we try to force everything into the light of that single fact. The fact may be true, but it has lost its significance, because we have forgotten the context in which it occurred. We sometimes do this with the cross. We sum up the Gospel by saying, “Jesus died for my sins,” which is true, and may be as well as we can do with young children. But when that true fact eclipses any thought or reflection on Jesus’ death; when we think the words are enough without considering the reality behind the words; when it becomes the only phrase we have for talking about our salvation; when we have trouble recalling why Jesus died, or how He, being God, could die, or what it means for our lives every single day, then that “memory” of Jesus’ death becomes nearly useless. It has become a cliché, which we repeat again and again as if it were some magic mantra, but we can no longer make any connections between that past event, and our present life, and our future.
Israel had a similar problem. They all knew that God had used Moses to bring them out of Egypt, that He had rescued them from slavery, that He had brought them into the land they now possessed. But it was a past event. It was something that happened far away in the hazy mists of generations long gone, and it had become a cliché. We are God’s chosen people! He has given us the land! But none of that seemed to have any effect on the way they lived, except to make them complacent and lazy and to take for granted that this God was their God and he would never leave them (not that they’d notice if He did, at least until an invading nation comes). Would we notice? Would we notice if God suddenly ceased to exist? Would it matter or affect the way your life goes? Yes? How?
God was tired of the cliché. All it did was make of Him an idol that Israel carried around. Nice to have around in a pinch, but a little inconvenient. He had become a burden, because He was no longer their God but a kind of general excuse for the way things went. Sort of like a financial cushion, a fat bank account, which will always be there and so you can spend however you want. But that illusion would soon be destroyed for Israel: “Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary, and deliver Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling” (43:28). Our section of Isaiah 43 ends with God talking about ostriches and jackals, which consistently live in the ruins of cities and in the wilderness, signs of destruction and judgment—God says that they will honor Him; they recognize His goodness. Not so the people God made for Himself, that they might praise Him: “[Y]ou did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense…But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities” (43:22-24). Israel had turned everything around: viewing God as the burden, sort of like a cosmic Big Brother following you around. In reality, Israel was the burden, with all their typical, boring sins and iniquities. There is nothing new with sinners. Sin is never creative, never new. It’s always the same old boring sex, lies, sedatives, greed, and murder. It titillates for a moment, but what’s left in the morning but a little heartache and vomit? And it’s always been that way. God says to Israel, “Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me” (Isaiah 43:27).
No, God is tired of the cliché: “Forget the first things and stop thinking about the ancient things, as if I had stopped My work way back then. Look, I am doing a new thing; now it springs up like a crocus in the snow, don’t you see it?” Why do you act as if My work is in the past, as if it were done and over? No: I am with you all the days, until the completion of this age. “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (42:9). The older prophecies have been fulfilled, such as bringing Israel into the land. But that does not mean God is done with His work. Yes, the exodus has happened, but it is not something in the past, something over and done with. It is now, it is the way God always acts. God is always doing something bigger and better, but He is consistent with the pattern He has set. He planted a Garden and put in it the man and the woman whom He had formed to praise Him. And when they were weary of Him, convinced He was holding out, they exchanged the glory of God for images of Him that they constructed themselves. But He wasn’t done. He planted a new Land, flowing with milk and honey, and put in it the people whom He had formed for Himself, bringing Israel out of Egypt into that Land. But when they were weary of Him, convinced that things would always be the way they were, they grew complacent and exchanged His glorious gifts for the boring gods of Canaan, who did the same things year after year, spring, summer, fall, winter. But He wasn’t done. He planted a divine Seed in the belly of a virgin, a new thing that sprang up in the earth. Instead of making a desert in the water for Israel to cross, He made living waters in the desert, for thirsty sinners to drink. But when we were weary of Him, mouthing holy words but following the gods and doctrines of every culture in which we find ourselves, we exchange the glorious Son of God for our own thoughts and memories. But God is not done. He has planted a new creation in His Son’s resurrection. What Christ gives to you in baptism is not over and done with, lost to your infant memory. His salvation is now; now His wrath passes over you; today He leads you toward the Land of Promise. He has become your past, He is your present life, and He is your future.
“[N]ow thus says [Yahweh], he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” (43:1-2). The God who makes a way in the sea and in the mighty waters a path, He is with you against death and the devil. What appears so powerful in this world—all the idols in which you daily put your trust—they all fall in the tides of your baptism. They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick. “[H]ear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says [Yahweh] who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not…. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am [Yahweh’s],’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘[Yahweh’s],’ and name himself by the name of Israel” (44:1-5).
“Remember 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. I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you” (44:21-22). “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (43:25). Remember these things, you who belong to Yahweh, who are called by His Name.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/19/13