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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 04/07/2019

The prophet Isaiah wasn’t Lutheran; he couldn’t have been since Martin Luther wouldn’t arrive on the scene for another 2000 years or so. Or…maybe he was and just didn’t know it because the book of Isaiah taken as a whole is a pretty good example of what Luther called law and gospel, with the distinction between law and gospel and the understanding of it being central to the theology he would develop many years after Isaiah.

The way that Luther unpacked this was to say that while the law was necessary as a guide to life lived according to God’s will, even more it was to show us that try as we might, we can’t follow that law perfectly. In some fashion we always come up short which then reveals to us our need for the good news of grace, our need for…the gospel, salvation that comes from faith that what Jesus has done for us is sufficient. So…with the law comes judgment and recognition of sin, with the gospel comes hope.

Over the course of 66 chapters, the book of Isaiah offers both law and gospel. The first 39 chapters center on judgment for failing to follow the way of the Lord with warnings of defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, defeat and exile that did happen. The focus in these chapters is law and the consequences for failing to follow the law.

Chapters 40 to 55 are words of hope spoken to the people in exile. It’s hope that announces that the exile will end and the people will be able to return to Jerusalem, a return that by the grace of God did happen; that’s gospel. The final chapters are more words of hope, more gospel in the face of the challenges and disappointment the people faced when they did return. All of this happens over a period of several hundred years so the thinking is that there was more than one Isaiah.

Today’s verses come from the middle section known these days as Second Isaiah. It’s largely because of this section that the book of Isaiah is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel because of its words of hope and also because there is much that can be understood as prophecy concerning Jesus, imagery that ultimately gets connected to Jesus.

Today’s verses though have a “You ain’t seen nothing yet” feel to them. Keep in mind that at the time these words were proclaimed there wasn’t any apparent reason for the people in exile to think that things were going to change any time soon and besides, for many of them life wasn’t all that bad; it wasn’t like they were slaves or being badly mistreated. They were just strangers in a strange land, pretty much resigned to the idea that life in Babylon was the new normal. At that point though, Isaiah, speaking the word of the Lord says in effect, you ain’t seen nothing yet. “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.”

Those are words that were surprising and not just because the possibility of anything new seemed unlikely. They’re surprising because the people of Israel were deeply grounded in remembering the former things, the things of old whether it was remembering creation and the Lord bringing order to chaos or if it was remembering the Exodus and Moses and the Lord bringing the people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Their identity was grounded in those memories.

It’s also possible that the former things had to do with the harsh judgment that caused the people to wind up defeated and in exile; but remembering that would seem to be important too. Those who don’t remember and learn from the past are bound to repeat it. Regardless of what former things are being referenced here, the bottom line is that their tradition was rooted in those things and remembering them was important.

The point of this text though is the importance of looking toward the future with hope. What matters is believing that with the Lord, something new is always possible. Despite what anyone remembers about the past, despite the facts on the ground, despite evidence to the contrary, something new is always possible.

To convey the magnitude of what is possible, Isaiah uses poetic imagery as he writes about a way through the wilderness, about rivers in the desert from which jackals and ostriches and other creatures will benefit. It’s transformation on a cosmic scale that changes a barren landscape into one where new life is possible. According to Isaiah’s word from the Lord, all of creation will be part of this transformation, but the focus is on “my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself.” That means that the very ones who had been shamed and seemingly abandoned in exile will experience new life and new possibilities.

What this text and its promise brings up though is the relationship between the old and the new, the former things and the things yet to come. Not surprisingly, it’s a relationship that can be explored from a variety of angles. Situated as it is during Lent, for us it’s another text that invites a repentance angle especially as we’ve thought about repentance as a mindset change, a theme that has surface and resurfaced over the past few Sundays.

One of Martin Luther’s best known writings is titled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” What he was writing about was what he saw as abuses and errors within the Catholic Church of his day. That’s not my concern here but I think it could be argued that we are in a different kind of Babylonian captivity these days. Like the exiles in Babylon at the time of Isaiah, we too can be resigned to things being the way they are. We can be captive to things being the way that they are with no hope that things might change, no hope that something new might be possible.

That captivity creates a mindset that hears, “I am about to do a new thing,” but quickly dismisses the possibility. That captivity creates a mindset that hears “I am about to do a new thing,” and doesn’t hear it as “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” but instead says “I’ve seen it all.” It’s a mindset that has no hope for the kind of radical transformation suggested by the poetic words of Isaiah. It’s the kind of mindset that is in need of repentance.

When the word of the Lord spoken by Isaiah says “Do not remember the former things,” perhaps a better way to think about it is “Do not be held captive by the former things.” That could mean believing that while God has acted in wondrous ways in the past, those days are gone and nothing new is possible. Being held captive to the former things could also mean being so fixated on the past that we don’t want to allow for anything new and instead spend all our time longing for the good old days and bemoaning change.

For the people of Israel in captivity at the time of Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing,” was a word of much needed gospel hope…if they could hear it…and they did. Ultimately they experienced it as the exile ended and they were allowed to return to their homeland.

As Christians, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words about a new thing. For us though, many years later, does that now make Jesus a former thing? The answer is both yes and no. We do remember the former things; that’s what we do as the gospel is read throughout the year. It’s especially true in the coming weeks as we hear and remember the cross and resurrection, the central story of our faith.

We do hear and remember and it’s important that we do that, but we don’t lock Jesus in as a former thing, we don’t make him a museum piece, just a figure from history because…because of Easter. The story doesn’t end at the cross but instead there was and is new life. Jesus is always about God doing something new. In Jesus things are always being made new.

“I am about to do a new thing” is a good refrain for the church these days especially for a church whose slogans include the phrase “Always being made new.” It’s pretty evident that the church is changing and it’s very easy to fall into the captivity of just seeing that change as negative, just remembering and longing for the old, the former things and being unable to see the positive possibilities of the new thing the church is becoming.

We don’t want to be held captive by the former things, but we don’t want to be too dismissive of them either. Martin Luther himself was a pretty good model for this. He was a major influence in the church of his day becoming a new thing, but both theologically and liturgically he retained and valued much that was old including the ancient creeds of the church and the basic structure of worship. He remembered the former things, but could also envision a new thing.

For us then, whether it’s talking about what’s going on in the church or about what’s going on in the world or what’s going on in our personal life, we should hear hope in the words, “I am about to do a new thing.” In Christ, things are “Always being made new.” And so…we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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