April 3, 2022 Reflection
The readings for this Fifth Sunday of Lent have a theme of “past and future” and of distance over which people move.
In Psalm 126 –
‘when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion …then we were like those who dream…then was our mouth filled with laughter…
‘Restore our fortunes O Lord…those who reaped with tears…will reap with songs of joy…’
In Philippians – Paul looks at his past, all the reasons why he was ‘confident in the flesh’
Now, he regards that past and what he had – as a loss because now he knows the greatest value is in knowing Jesus…
…I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish, in order than I might gain Christ and be found in him…’sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead….
In the Gospel reading from John …the story begins in the home of Lazarus – whose past was literally dead. He is beginning a new life, setting out a dinner and sitting at the same table with Jesus. Mary has purchased expensive perfume and is anointing Jesus’ feet. In response to being chastised for the expense by Judas, Jesus speaks out forcefully – it was bought to be used at an event in the future – his burial.
The book of Isaiah is considered a composite work, the product of several different prophets ministering at different periods in the history of Israel. Three sections, first, second and third Isaiah, written years apart, the writer for parts two and three building upon what came before.
The namesake of this book lived in Judah about 700 years before Jesus – during the waning years of the kingdom, a contemporary of the prophets of social justice (Amos, Hosea, Micah). To their cries for reform, he added his own prophetic admonitions: the holiness of God, the coming Messiah, God’s judgment, he exhorts the people to place their trust in God – not fleeting movements or nations.
Our readings on this fifth Sunday in Lent, are in the second book, written somewhere around 538 BCE. The writer (not Isaiah) is living in Babylon. The time is toward the end of the Judean exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
The Judeans have lived for (an estimated) 70 years following the Judean defeat and the destruction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Seventy years is almost four generations. Most of the people who survived the trip have died by this time. Others have lived their entire lives in this foreign city. In 2015 a cache of cuneiform tablets (found in Iraq) were made available for the first time for critical examination by western historians and archeologists. These tables fill in a critical gap in understanding what was going on in the life of Judeans in Babylonia more than 2,500 years ago. The Judeans traded, ran businesses, and even has positions within the administration of the kingdom. They were not slaves – or not all of them.
Kingdoms rise and fall, the Persians conquer Babylon and allow the Jews to return to their homeland. By this time the population in Babylon had swelled considerably and the estimate of those who chose to return is 40,000. They could not all leave at once – it would take several years for all those who wanted to go back to actually get there. Second Isaiah is about exhorting the people to return to Jerusalem and to participate in the rebuilding of the temple.
If first Isaiah is about judgement, second Isaiah is the promise of deliverance, help and consolation, the returning Judeans are reassured that God will protect them, provide lifesaving water …
I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert), free from fear of wild animals (…wild animal will honor me…
God is the controller of their destiny, not a nation, a king or government.
The reading refers back to great deeds – the parting of the Red Sea…
(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)
and then to go forward as it is written…
‘…do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs, do you not perceive it?’
We are reading these words in the 21st century in the season of Lent – thousands of years after it was written, read, absorbed – and obeyed by the writer’s target audience. We know the entire story – we can read all the books and we know the characters and the outcomes of that time.
But in the year 538 BCE, those people did not. They did not know their futures. Something on the order of 40,000 people took on a journey of 900 miles across a desert – a journey of 5-6 months for an individual or a family. They packed up their lives – what would they take that would be most valuable to them along the way – items to trade with hostile desert tribes for food or directions to find water? What would be valuable enough to take over all the miles of this perilous journey? They walked in heat and dust, carrying all their possessions, at risk from hostile Bedouin tribes and trusting they will find water – because not enough water can be carried. Some chose not to make this journey across the desert. Perhaps they had no memory of Jerusalem, the stories of their elders, passed down over generations were not enough and instead they struck out in smaller numbers, west and north, and settled in new areas. Some stayed in Babylon.
There is a tension between the past and the future – how much to hold onto, how much to acknowledge and how and when we let go. In Lent, we are charged to reflect on who we are, what and where we have been. We journey from the past…
…Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old…
to the future …
…I am about to do a new think, now it springs forth…
I am trained to study the past. I think a lot about time, about people moving through time, how the past is used and when is it buried and when it brings light. We could talk about the thinking of people who returned – or those that chose not to return. Were they looking to the future? Or could they not let go of the stories they had been told of their homeland and the risks were worth it. I do not know. We can finish this story as it suits ourselves. But I want to talk about something else I see in these lessons, this history and us – today.
We live in time where looking to the past seems to be a persistent and comforting occupation – we still talk of ‘before 9/11’ and ‘pre Covid’. The utter failure of the public health message, ‘mask up to move on’ is a sad reminder that our new reality is an unwanted future – not progress.
Many of us remember a time when TSA were only letters, when the words ‘climate change’ was a mere warning – recycle some bottles and paper – we did not fully know the meaning of a ‘tipping point’ as a steady drumbeat of destruction. We did not think about where water comes from as it dripped from garden hoses in driveways. We laud the fortitude of exiles forced to leave their homeland. In fact, they are weary of what seem to be easily said platitudes – they want safety – they want their lives back – not forced to persevere into a ‘new thing’.
Now the threats of nuclear war, chemical war, biological war seem too close to our own lives, a Texas size garbage dump is floating toward the west coast and there is even talk of garbage floating above our planet as spiraling out of control. The news brings daily reports of a new variants, its threat to us uncertain – we must keep our masks close at hand. Culture wars, political instability – what other threats can emerge? The world seems very small, there is plenty to worry about and we cannot see where we are going.
So, I wonder – how do God’s people in this time, move forward to a ‘new thing’?
I watched most of the hearings for the candidate for the Supreme Court. It was on the radio – I was doing other things listening randomly. Then I turned on the TV as my interest was caught by her voice as she answered questions – the degree of difference between her voice and those of her questioners. And then, I sat down and watched for the two days.
Judge Jackson is a black woman – with an impressive resume, brilliant, thoughtful, a descendent of slaves, and a powerful reminder of the history of our own country and the people who were brought here against their will. A story some people in our nation are, sadly, all too glad to abuse the words of Isaiah …’ do not remember the former things…’
For me, it was a revelatory two days watching Judge Jackson, alone at a table facing two rows of interrogators. At times it was confrontational – white men yelled at her, talked over her, interrupted her, twisted her words most egregiously. A white woman told her she should proud that ‘she had made something of herself.’ It was cringe worthy and hard to witness.
Judge Jackson remained calm, composed – sometimes showing slight vexation, but never raising her voice. She remained serene and focused, losing her temper would have derailed her purpose in being there. She found strength, she was hopeful, and she persevered.
Isaiah writes – ‘thus says the Lord…
…do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; and now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert…
To give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself…
Judge Jackson’s past encompasses all of us. Her story evolves out of slavery and that history belongs to all of us. She spoke movingly of her family and what she knows she represents. How could she forget? How could we not remember?
I doubt this ‘day of judgement’ in front of Congress was the only time she has ever faced the disrespect and incivility that surely was common to generations of her ancestors. But what I saw was that it did not define her, instead I think she embodied what is written in Isaiah… words of deliverance, hope, consolation, and promise
…now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert…To give drink to my chosen people…
Judge Jackson drank of the waters in the desert, felt God’s consolation and hope, and saw the ‘new thing’
As I watched her, I was thinking of the remarkable coincidence that my witness of her day of ‘judgement’ occurred during Lent.
Lent is one of the most enduring seasons in our Christian calendar – we set aside something, we pray and reflect in preparation to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Despite the turbulence of church history, the ebb and flow of human migration, kingdoms rising and empires failing, for centuries Lenten practices remain pretty much unchanged for nearly two thousand years.
We here in 2022 look back over thousands of years – Isaiah’s words come to us as they were written and first heard. We do not know our outcome anymore than the Judeans of Babylon knew theirs. It seems dire, we are walking in a desert wondering if we will find lifesaving water so we can carry on. But they did it and so can we.
In our Lenten journey, we give up to move forward – painfully and slowly – we need to find God’s water and drink of it – to work toward fixing the broken things in our lives, replenishing our perseverance.
As it was written in Philippians…
…I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.
And if we do this –
…then, we were like those who dream…then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy
…those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy,
shouldering their sheaves…