I am Doing a New Thing

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

He is a college freshman far from home. In high school, he was President of his class with a great group of friends. Now he is at a big school and doesn’t know anyone. It is a Southern school, so fraternity rush has already begun. He is a sociable guy, so he goes to the events and parties. But he doesn’t feel at home there; sometimes being at the parties only makes him feel lonelier. He thinks back on high school – those were good days. He thought he had been ready to go off to school, but now he is not so sure. The way forward is so uncertain and that makes him feel anxious.

She is a married woman – for one more day before the divorce becomes final. Last night, as she was sorting through possessions, deciding what to keep and what to give away, she came across a photo album from the first years of the marriage. They had been so happy then. But that was a long time ago. The decision to move ahead on the divorce was not lightly made; they had gone through various rounds of counseling. Her three daughters are showing various signs of anger, sadness, and anxiety, sometimes all at the same time. She feels empty. The future is so uncertain; will the pain of the failure of her marriage ever go away? Will she be happy again?

He sits on the edge of the hospital bed, all dressed and ready to go home. As he waits on his wife and the wheelchair that will carry him to the car, he looks back over the past weeks: a heart attack and bypass surgery. He had always been so active. To be sure his weight was high and he had been increasingly short of breath when playing golf or doing yardwork. But now, there is a long recovery, diet changes that the doctor, his wife, and his children are urging him to make. He can’t help but wonder if his best years are behind him.

I wonder if you have ever found yourself longing for what is past or anxious about what lies ahead. I wonder if you have ever had at least passing thoughts that the downward trend of your life would just keep going down. I wonder if you have ever felt like your best days were behind you.

Then you know something of what the people being addressed in Isaiah 43 are feeling. The prophet is speaking to a people in exile – refugees living in a foreign land ever since the Babylonians defeated their country and forcibly removed them from their homes. As one Biblical scholar writes, “their past [is] a trail of broken dreams, disappointments, shame, and horror, their present [is] filled with a constant ache for home. Consumed by the past and present, …there was little mental or emotional energy to think about the future. It was enough just to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other.”1

To this people the prophet brings a word of hope: defeat and exile are not the end of God’s story with them. There is a chance for the downward arrow of their life to turn upward. But “hope” is hard to hear when you have been down so long. So, the prophet calls on the people to remember – to remember what God has done in the past: the liberation of their enslaved ancestors from the Egyptian pharaoh’s yoke hundreds of years before.

But after recounting that past, the prophet’s message takes a sudden turn in verse 18, one that seems to contradict what he has just said. It is one of the most paradoxical verses in all of the Bible, considering what just came before: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”

“Remember what God did for your ancestors.” But then, “do not remember the former things.” You can easily imagine the prophet’s audience sputtering, “Remember or don’t remember – make up your mind!” Indeed, what is going on in these verses?

What wisdom do they have for our lives all these years later? Let us look at these contradictory instructions more closely.

First, the prophet tells us, do remember the past, do remember how God has helped you in your past.

I remember when I decided that God was calling me to leave my job and go back to school, to seminary, to become a minister. There were a lot of hurdles that stood in the way of making that move: I had to get a scholarship; Kerry, who had been working part-time after we had children, had to get a full-time call to a church near the seminary; we had to sell our house and then find a house that we could afford. I remember in the months before I began seminary worrying if we would find someone loving, reliable, and affordable to watch our daughters while Kerry was at work and I was in school.

After two sleepless nights, when I prayed yet again about finding good childcare I couldn’t help but hear: “Carter! I have taken care of the scholarship; I have taken care of the job; I have taken care of the houses. Don’t you think I can handle the childcare?!”

And God did.

When facing an uncertain future, it helps to remember how God has helped us in the past. When we find ourselves in the dark, it helps to remember how God showed us a way forward in earlier days. Throughout the scriptures, we are told to remember what God has done. Because God is faithful and reliable; the God who delivered us in the past will not disappointment us in the future.

There is something else subtle in the prophet’s instruction about remembering the past: he is speaking to a people, not an individual. In other words, when we look back on those times when God helped us find a way when there seemed no way, other people were inevitably involved. When I have heard folks here talk about difficult times in the past, you have spoken about the people who helped you get through it: the

people who showed up when a loved one died; the people who reached out to you when you lost your job; the youth advisor or faith formation teacher or pastor who let your children know they mattered and they were loved.

In our individualistic western culture, the importance of community is often overlooked. But not in the Christian faith. We need more than ourselves; we need even more than family. We need other people who are striving to live out love in the way of Jesus Christ. We need a community of faith – and that is one of the ways that God helps us through difficult times, something we may not fully see until we look back.

Remember the past, the prophet tells us. But here is the second part of the prophet’s message, the reason for that puzzling verse 18: Remember the past, but do not live in the past.

It is good to remember the past, to share stories with friends and families, to recall good times, and to count our blessings. But when we retreat to the past too often, when we see only what used to be and is no longer, then we cannot help but feel that the best is behind us. Even worse, we can think and act as if God’s best is behind us.

At the time of Isaiah 43, the Persian king, Cyrus, had defeated the Babylonians and issued a decree permitting exiles to return to their home country. At this point, the greatest threat against the Israelites’ freedom was not an external ruler. Instead, as one commentator on this text points out, the greatest threat to freedom “was the prison of the people’s own lethargy.” “One bar in that prison was the wistful sort of memory of the past that dulls one’s alertness to the present.” The exiles needed to be shocked out of their depression and lethargy. They needed to get up and moving, to stop looking back on the disappointments of their past, and to start looking forward to see what God is up to now.”2

This is the reason for the prophet’s reversal when it comes to looking back. God is doing a new thing: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” God says through the prophet. “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.”

What Isaiah is telling us is that God can be trusted to be at work in our present and our future, just as God was at work in our past. But that doesn’t mean that God will simply duplicate the past. Our God is too creative to be confined to taking us back to the past, to doing the same old thing over and over again. New times require new things, new ways; but it is the same reliable God.

To return to the situations sketched out at the beginning, God will not be taking that floundering college freshman back to high school, but that does not mean that the freshman cannot be blessed by new relationships, new friendships, and a new community in his new setting. To be sure, it may not come all at once, but God can be trusted to provide a way in the wilderness, a way when there seems to be no way.

The woman on the brink of divorce may not be able to return to the beginning of her marriage, before the cracks and fault-lines appeared. But that does not mean that she will not experience love and joy again. Even if she does not marry again, God is creative and capable enough to provide what she needs to experience meaning, happiness, and fulfillment. To be sure, it may not come all at once, but God can be trusted to provide rivers in the desert, to water her soul even in the dry seasons of life.

That man coming home from the hospital may not be able to return to life before the heart attack. But that does not mean that his life will forever be second-rate. He can still get better than he is when he leaves the hospital. And more importantly, he can still find the blessing of more years to live a life of purpose and love. To be sure, those

changes may not come all at once, but God can be trusted to do a new thing, even when his body is aging.

Isaiah has a word to speak to us in the dry seasons of our individual lives, especially when we have experienced losses, setbacks, and disappointments. Especially when life is a scary, trackless wilderness. God does not promise to take away the wilderness, but God promises to provide a way through that wilderness. God does not promise us there will be no dry seasons, no deserts in our lives, but God promises us that there will be streams in the desert.

Isaiah also has a word for this congregation and all communities of faith, especially those who find themselves in a wilderness, in a dry season. Remember the past, but don’t live in it, Isaiah 43 is telling us, because God is doing a new thing. The message is echoed in Luke 5. Be prepared for God to do a new thing, Jesus tells the Pharisees and other onlookers. Otherwise, God’s new wine may burst your old wineskins.

For this congregation, there may not be a return to a time when there is a staff of nearly 30, when people talk about youth choir trips with more than 50 people, or worship services with chairs set up in the narthex. But that doesn’t mean that God is not present and at work here and now. God does not promise to duplicate the past. God is too creative and generative to be confined to duplicating the past. The question is the one Isaiah poses: will we perceive what God is doing?

When we live in the past, especially when we think and talk about what we perceive to be the golden age of a congregation, our focus on the past can act as a blindfold keeping us from seeing what God is doing here and now. When you read the Old Testament, you cannot help but notice is not Israel’s golden age that they are called to remember, the reigns of David and Solomon when their wealth, numbers, and

influence were greatest. No, they are called to remember the Exodus and the Exile, the time when they were weakest, and yet God delivered them still.

Perhaps this congregation needs to remember more the times of struggle, when the people were weakest and God’s power was most needed: the time, for example, when your ancestors, so to speak, actually had to abandon the building used for worship because they were behind on their payments. Or the time, when the congregation decided despite much dissent to make the move from center city Allentown to here. Rumor has it that before my time, there was some dissent and concern expressed when six pews were removed from this sanctuary. Can you imagine the uproar and difficulty of leaving behind a whole sanctuary and facility?

“I am about to do a new thing!” Whatever God is up to, it is always “bigger and better and wider and stronger and more inspiring and expansive and liberating than we first imagined.”3 That is a given because God is God.

What about us? Are we ready to perceive it? Are we ready to start looking for what God is up to – not just in the past, but right here and now?

  1. Amanda Benckhuysen, “Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-isaiah-4316-21-5. ↩︎
  2. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation Bible Commentary Series, James Luther Mays and Patrick D. Miller, eds. (Louisville : John Knox Press, 1995) ↩︎
  3. Robert Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 172. ↩︎