Tuesday, April 2, 2019

God's New Thing

Isaiah 43:16-21, the First Reading appointed for the 5th Sunday in Lent in the Year of Luke, is clearly a proclamation of deliverance.  The people who have known only exile in Babylon are about to be set free by Cyrus the Great, and they will return to their homeland.  Through the wilderness they will travel, across the rivers and burning sands, and amidst it all God has promised to accompany them.  God is "about to do a new thing."  How will they receive this?  That is the question.  How do we receive this announcement?  That is our question.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used in conjunction with many other fine sets of exegetical questions which can give us insight into a text.  These questions have been developed to explore how the Word functions - a  fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  See my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching to learn more about this unique genre of preaching.   Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted is available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  First , God is reminding the people of God's great acts of deliverance at the Red Sea.  Next, curiously he tells them to refrain from remembering "the things of old."  What does he mean?  Are we not to remember God's mighty acts?  That seems unlikely.  Finally, God announces the "new thing" that God will do - waters in the desert and wastelands.  This is pure Gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance it doesn't seem that there is any word of Law here, i.e. the Word functioning to lift up our need for Christ.  But if we consider the prohibition in verse 18 we realize that clinging to "former things" and "the things of old" can be death dealing for us. Phariseeism is nothing if not a clinging to "the things of old" especially when we have a Lord who says, "I make all things new!"  Perhaps the word of Law here is the word which reminds us that something has to die in order for the "new thing" to spring up.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly those addressed this text.  We are those who are held in exile by many things.  We are those who hang on tenaciously to the things of old.  We are those who both long to hear of something new and fear it.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in Christ, is not present here.  Rather this is a call to faith.  One might catch a glimpse of a call to obedience in the last phrase where people are called to praise, but that is a fleeting thought.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  From what we have said above we can imagine several appropriate couplets:  old/new; former things/new things; dead things/things springing to life.

6.  Exegetical Work:  I am indebted to Claus Westermann for his insightful exegesis of this text. In his classic commentary on Isaiah 40-66 he argues that God, in commanding the people to forget the former things, could not have been telling Israel to forget the mighty acts of God - especially the Exodus - because all throughout Isaiah God commands the people to remember the mighty acts of God.  Rather, says Westermann, "What he wants to say is [to] stop mournfully looking back and clinging to the past, and open your minds to the fact that a new, miraculous act of God lies ahead of you."  Israel, claims Westermann, "thought that God's saving acts were now a closed chapter." (Isaiah 40-66, The OT Library, p. 128).  "Israel requires to be shaken out of a faith that has nothing to learn about God's activity and therefore nothing to learn about what is possible with him, the great danger which threatens any faith that is hidebound in dogmatism, faith that has ceased to be able to expect anything new from [God]." (Ibid, p. 129)  In his Lectures on Isaiah Luther says much the same thing as Westermann:  "To do a new thing creates an offense for those whose mind is on the old.  Here He says, 'I am doing a new thing, by means of which the imperfect old will be fulfilled. This is the repeal of the old law.  You must be concerned about the new and forget the old'."  (LW, vol. 17, p. 97)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bill White in working with this text, suggested that "the things of old" that we cling to could be our doubts and unbelief.  He shows how this leads to hopelessness and eventually lostness.  It is in the wilderness of our despair that Christ comes and makes a way.  Go to crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis, archived there.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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