Sunday, March 13, 2016

Phil Kniss: Wait till you see this!

Lent 5: An unexpected twist
Isaiah 43:16-21

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We’ve been thinking about this admittedly strange metaphor
    during the season of Lent: “Living Ink.”

It’s not a metaphor that just grabs you right away.
    At least it didn’t grab me at first.
    It’s a little bit of a stretch for me to picture ink as alive,
        and even more a stretch to picture myself as living ink.

I get it, yes. But it wasn’t compelling enough
    to make a big deal of it in my sermons so far. Until today.

So the notion behind this metaphor
    is that God is the “Grand Author” of our narrative—
        not just our individual story, but the story of the cosmos itself.
        The world and everything in it.
    The essential truth claim
        when we say God is Creator,
        is that the cosmos is not random,
            that there is intentionality in it,
            and it’s God’s intentionality.
    God had a purpose in bringing it all into being,
        and God has a purpose for its future.
    We affirm that creation has an aim,
        an endpoint toward which creation is leaning, and pointing.

    That’s what makes creation a story, and not just a thing.
        God’s intentionality
            means that creation not only exists materially,
            but has movement, momentum and trajectory,
                it means creation has a story.

That’s the metanarrative, if you will,
    the big story that God is writing—
        that Creation is being redeemed,
        being restored to the original intention of its creator,
        and will one day overcome all the damage done to it
            by eons of sinful human rebellion.

But we, God’s human creation,
    who have contributed to this injury against creation,
    have a role in this redemption narrative.
    It’s a role that is unique among all that God has made.

    We are not passive observers of the great narrative.
    We are not merely readers of it.
    We are invited into the project as co-authors.
        By God’s grace, we are the “living ink”
            with which God is writing God’s salvation story,
            the story of each of us individually,
            the story of the church,
                of the nations, the earth, and the heavens.

The scripture readings on this fifth Sunday of Lent
    are why I embrace this metaphor more enthusiastically today.
    If I look at these texts
        through the lens of this metaphor
        of being co-authors with God in God’s grand story,
        then something obvious stands out in these texts.

    Like most well-crafted stories,
        God’s story is full of surprising,
            and unexpected twists in the plot.
        We are going along in the story,
            expecting the circumstances we are in
            to produce the results those circumstances usually produce.

Like . . .
    When rains don’t come and sun is hot,
        the ground cracks and plants die.
    When there is too much rain too fast,
        rivers flood their banks and houses wash away.
    When something is truly inevitable,
        the inevitable happens.

But God, the master story-maker,
    brings an entirely unexpected twist to the storyline.
    It’s not the inevitable that happens.
        The inconceivable happens.

In the four scriptures that we heard this morning,
    from Isaiah, Psalms, Philippians, and John,
    there are inconceivable twists in the plot.
Things no one could see coming:
    There appeared a path in the sea,
        a path in the wilderness,
        rivers in the desert,
        seeds of tears producing a harvest of joy,
        gain becoming loss and loss becoming gain,
        death becoming resurrection,
        waste becoming worship.

    God’s method of operation, we see here,
        is to do something entirely new,
        that no one saw coming.

Who expected a dry path to emerge for God’s people,
    right when they found themselves trapped
    between Pharaoh’s army and the sea?

And who would expect rivers to flow in the desert?
    Or seeds sown in a drought to produce a bumper crop?
    Or death to give birth to life?
    Or the senseless spilling of priceless perfume
        declared . . . reasonable?

But this is the God who says to us,
    “I am about to do a new thing.”

Which brings me to the Isaiah reading from chapter 43,
    which stands out to me as one of the most fascinating,
        and provocative, texts of this season.

These words of Isaiah to the people of Israel,
    are from the section most scholars call “Second Isaiah,”
        chapters 40-55,
    believed to have been spoken by prophets from the Isaiah school,
        and proclaimed to the people
        while they were in exile in Babylon.

In this particular oracle, from chapter 43,
    God paints two very different pictures of deliverance.
    One refers to a past deliverance,
        the other to a future deliverance.
    One is a picture of God
        making a dry path where there wasn’t one,
            in the middle of a raging river.
    The other, a picture of God
        making a way in the dry desert,
            by providing a river, where there wasn’t one.
    In one, water is the insurmountable barrier
        keeping God’s people from being saved.
    In the other, water is what they need most for salvation.

The first one, of course, is a reference to the Exodus.
    That deliverance,
        when they were trapped on the shores of the Red Sea,
        with Pharoah and his army of chariots in hot pursuit,
            ready to drag them back into slavery,
        became THE defining day in their history with God.
    In the same way that our Christian understanding of God
        is defined largely by the person and work of Jesus,
        so the Jewish understanding of God
            is defined largely by the exodus from Egypt.
            It’s a story that makes all the difference,
                and will always be told, and is to this day.
        It was a dazzling display of deliverance.
        A spectacle so overwhelming, and so significant,
            it was impossible to miss,
            and impossible to forget.

    So what a curious message the prophet brings to the exiles!
    Many generations later,
        to people who have passed along the Exodus story
            since time immemorial,
            to their children, and children’s children,
        the prophet comes along and says,
            “Forget all that!
                Wait till you see this!”
            “Thus says the Lord,
                who makes a way in the sea,
                a path in the mighty waters . . .
                Do not remember the former things,
                    or consider the things of old.”

    In other words,
        “You thought the Exodus was something.
            That’s nothing compared to what God is up to right now!
            For the Lord says,
                I am about to do a new thing.
                    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
            Or as another translation puts it,
                “There it is, don’t you see it?”

    And in case they don’t see it, he spells it out for them,
        “I will make a way in the wilderness
            and rivers in the desert.”

    It’s one thing for God to make a way of dry land
        through the middle of mighty waters.
    It’s another thing altogether to make a way of refreshing water,
        through the middle of a dry and lifeless desert . . .
        which is the situation the people are in right now.
            A place of exile, of abandonment,
                where a full and abundant life
                has shriveled to almost nothing.

    But for some reason,
        God seems concerned that they won’t notice
            this new and improved act of deliverance,
                this path in the desert
                that will make the path in the river look like child’s play.
            “There it is, don’t you see it?”
                 . . . “See where I’m pointing . . . look carefully, now . . .
                        over there!”

        A greater display of power,
            and easier not to notice.

    A deliverance more impressive than the Exodus.
    A new thing so wonderful
        that we can just as well forget those stories from the past.
    And we’re in danger of missing it.

Well, yes, I guess it makes some sense
    that the dry path through mighty waters would be more noticeable.
    At least Hollywood made it seem spectacular.
        You know the famous scene,
            Charlton Heston, arms outstretched,
                red robe and white hair blowing in the wind,
                and two huge walls of water roll up.
        Yeah, a stream bubbling up in the desert
            doesn’t have quite the same visual impact.

But the visuals are not the issue.
    There’s a more insidious reason that God, through Isaiah,
        had to call special attention to this new deliverance in the desert.
    See, they are not running from a life of slavery in Egypt
        while being chased by an army.
    They are soon to be delivered from Babylon,
        where they’ve lived for generations,
        long enough to plant and harvest, many times over,
        to build houses, get married, settle down,
            as the prophet Jeremiah told them to.
        They are, by now, used to Babylon.
        While not the good life,
            it was probably at least an okay life.
            And they’ve gotten comfortable.

    Too many years have gone by
        without the communal practices of their faith,
        practices that reinforce their true identity,
        practices that help define and distinguish them,
            from the spiritually alien values of Babylon.
    They were stranded in a spiritual desert without realizing it.
    God wanted to deliver them,
        but there was a pretty good chance
        they would pass up the opportunity,
            for lack of noticing it.

    So, through the prophet Isaiah,
    God was pointing out what they were missing.
        That the life they were living was only half a life—if that.
    God was trying to tell them they had a spiritual home to go home to,
        where they could discover who they were really created to be,
        if they were only willing to be delivered.

        there are times for a spectacular exodus.
        There was for the people of Israel in Egypt.
        There is today—
            for people in Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Israel-Palestine,
            and many other places where we might well pray,
                “Lord, make a path through the raging waters,
                    deliver them from oppression,
                    save them from a violent end.”
        And even for us, there may be figurative raging waters
            or other kinds of oppression,
            from which we need an Exodus.

    But I think for many of us here today,
        the deliverance we need is something different.
        It’s deliverance from a wilderness we may not know we are in.

    As a community of God’s people,
        we forget that we are sojourners.
        We are exiles, in a manner of speaking.
        But we’ve gotten so comfortable,
            we no longer feel displaced.

If, even briefly, we look into the soul of 21st-century American culture,
    and notice the values that dominate this culture,
    and do not feel a profound dislocation . . .
        then we have gotten too comfortable in Babylon.
    We need to hear the word of Lord through Isaiah again,
        “I am about to do a new thing.
            now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

    God is drawing us, pointing us, toward a better way of living,
        a deeper, more authentic life,
        a more abundant and joyful life,
            than what our surrounding, dominant culture
            is foisting on us these days.
                especially now in this season of polarizing rhetoric
                    and violent thinking and behavior.

    Our Author and Creator God,
        has an intention for us and for creation.
    And looking around at our culture,
        I think we can all admit, this isn’t it!
        This is not the story God is wanting to write.
        There is a life of shalom and wholeness
            and beauty and truth and compassion available to us,
            and God is saying to us,
            “There it is, can’t you see it ?”

And no, much of the time, we can’t see it.
    We are blind to our cultural bondage.
    Many of us think a life of being lonely, alienated, and rootless,
        must be as good as it gets.
    We think that endlessly searching for meaning,
        and not really finding it, is to be expected in this life.

When we entertain thoughts like that,
    we are in a desert, and don’t know it.
    We are exiles in a foreign land,
        and have forgotten what home feels like.

But God is a delivering God.
The message of Isaiah 43 is that
    God wants to do a new thing among those of us in bondage.
    No matter what the source of bondage.

    For those who are trapped between a sea and an army,
        by all means, let’s call out to God with all that is in us,
            and say, “Hosanna! Save us!”
    But if our captivity is like that of exiles
        too comfortable in a foreign land,
        let us call out to God for awareness,
            for eyes to see the desert,
            for courage to drink deeply from the water God provides,
            for courage to return home.

May we all know, and notice, God’s deliverance still being offered.

—Phil Kniss, March 13, 2016

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