Remember the Past, But Don't Wallow In It
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Old Testament: Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalter: Psalm 126
Epistle: Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel: John 12:1-8
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.
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 (Isaiah 43:18-19).
Ah, the good ole days when life was simpler and when problems were not as difficult and less complicated. We human beings seem to have a recurring problem with amnesia about the past. It's not that there were no wonderful days in past years, but we tend to look upon the past with rose colored glasses that filter out the less than perfect moments. In the wilderness, the people of Israel reconsidered slavery in Egypt as something that really wasn't all that bad—at least they were well fed—even if it was for the purpose of completing Pharaoh’s back-breaking labor. In exile, being surrounded by the enemy in one's own land just a few years before and the trouble caused by Israel’s idolatry and disregard for the law of Moses now seems tolerable. In times of difficulty one can long for the good ole days in a way that we forget that the good ole days really weren't all that good. The temptation to create an idyllic past is strong indeed.
The exiles in Babylon no doubt wished for the good ole days, the days of Exodus freedom, and Solomonic prosperity. Never mind that those days also had their troubles; in hindsight they seem better than their current exilic circumstances. There is certainly nothing wrong with remembering and appreciating the lessons of the past, but when one focuses on the glory of the past to the extent that there is little hope for the future, then remembering morphs into wallowing. And God cannot use his people when they are wallowing in what used to be.
But through the prophet, God encourages his people in exile into a kind of amnesia of the past that instead of focusing solely on a return to the good ole days, allows God's people to look forward, to center their attention on the great things God has in store for his people.
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 (43:19).
These words are very relevant at the dawn of the twenty-first century when God's people, the church can struggle to move into the future because all they can think about is the way things were. John Holbert writes,
We 21st-century Christians run the same risks every Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. Our memories—of when the church was full of glad worshippers, when the choir had more than two aging tenors and more than one alto who can read music, when the “Hallelujah Chorus” rang to the rafters of the church, when the church actually had rafters—threaten to swallow us. We too often yearn for the “good old days,” now gone forever, devoured in the changing world, when so much we had expected to endure had not endured, when the preacher is not as good as Sister Emily, when the music minister is part-time, when the congregation can too easily be counted because they are able to sit so far from one another, even now during these High Holy Days.
God still wants to do new things in our midst. Sometimes it may be hard to perceive because the kingdom of God germinates like a mustard seed and often infiltrates unnoticed like yeast in bread dough; but one thing is certain—if God’s people keep focusing on trees that no longer produce fruit, hoping that just a little more water and fertilizer will do the trick and restore it to its former glory—and if the church continues to serve the stale bread of long dead ministries in the desire that at some point its freshness will be restored, they will be doing exactly what Jesus warned against: putting new wine into old wineskins (Matthew 9:17).
God wants to do a new thing through his people, God’s new creation. Are we working for new growth to spring forth, or are we wallowing in the glory days of old, that weren’t all that glorious without those rose colored glasses?
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