Fifth Sunday of Lent (C) - Isaiah 43:16-21
I’d never seen Laurel nervous before. Granted, I’d only known her for about seven weeks, the length of time we’d been together at Bear Creek Lutheran Camp as counselors, but in that time, she’d always struck me as a strong, confident young woman of great integrity. Well, strong and confident for age twenty, anyway. It was a very strange experience working on a staff with people who were all a decade younger than I. In any case, we all knew Laurel for being a strong person, with feminist ideologies that were, actually, perfectly suited to help form and empower the young, faithful girls entrusted to her care. She was always the first one leading any hike, especially on the way up Bald Mountain, which meant, well, looking at my figure, we were always on opposite ends of the parade. Laurel was always eager to meet any challenge head-on. So it was a surprise to find her seriously concerned about her ability to face up to the task ahead: Taking on a group of campers in senior high school.
Funny, she’d made it three-quarters of the way through the summer without having any campers beyond elementary school. Our younger children, she could handle. But realizing that some of her campers the following week would be just three years younger than her sent her into a tailspin. How would she have any authority with them? She wasn’t older and wiser; she was just out of high school herself. And she certainly couldn’t impress them with her books of fairy tales, witty songs, and silly craft projects like she had been doing for all of the children earlier in the summer. These “older” people were perfectly mystifying to her. She and I talked about it—I was kind of a “sub-chaplain” for the camp staff, sort of, that summer—as we picked our way through Bear Creek, from which the camp got its name.
Bear Creek was, simply put, just a creek. Kind of a trickle of water across a beautiful creek bed made up of smooth, round stones. This was especially true this year; rainfall rates were low that summer, and there wasn’t a whole lot of water to trickle. In a few spots, it came up to our ankles, but for the most part, there was were plenty of dry rocks to pick our way along. Nearby, somewhere, was the campsite she’d be taking her campers to that following week, and soon we found the spot. I assured Laurel that so far, she had been one of the best, most skilled counselors we had that summer, that the children loved her, and the older children would too. That God had given her the wonderful gifts she needed to be a good counselor the following week, and she’d be able to draw on a strength and creativity whose depths she didn’t even know. She looked at me with kind of a wan smile that suggested she felt I was nice to comfort her, but that she didn’t quite believe me. And I could sense that she wanted to hang on to her past success and not move forward into this new adventure. She couldn’t do it. She wasn’t ready. But ready or not, here it comes.
Last week, in our Old Testament reading, we heard about the Israelites arriving in the Promised Land. Before they took their first steps forward into the challenges that lay ahead of them, they stopped to celebrate the Passover, to look back at where they had come from, to define themselves through God’s saving acts toward their ancestors. That looking back was necessary to help them learn who they were as a people. The base coat, upon which layers of new paint could be applied.
Some five hundred years later, though, the Israelites were still telling the same old stories. Which is fine, as stories go; for that matter, they’re some of the stories we tell today to help form our own faith lives. But when they become just that, just stories, nothing more, stories of how God once worked in some ancient and distant people’s lives to do something nice for them a long time ago but which has no connection to today, when we spend all of our time looking backward, they lose their power. They convey the story of a God who was back then, but isn’t now. The rituals become rote, the seeking after justice becomes making sure we behave correctly (whatever that means), and the devotion to God becomes a sort of obligatory sense of, “Well, our parents did this, so I suppose we’d ought to as well.” If you don’t see hints of this in yourself, I think you can probably catch a glimpse of it in some of the other people in our culture who say they’re members of a church but never attend, or who are “spiritual but not religious,” or something like that.
And that’s exactly where the Israelites were in the sixth century BC. We have all of this wonderful literature from the prophets about “justice rolling down like waters,” or that we should “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God,” which is the prophets reminding the people that their rituals have become rote, and their seeking after justice has become making sure they behave correctly (whatever that means), and their devotion to God has pretty much slipped off the rails, and if they don’t return to the Lord their God soon, they’ll have lost who they are completely. And so they do. The nation is occupied by the Babylonians, the people are carted off into exile, and the Hebrews, as a people, mostly cease to exist. And even then, they just keep telling the same old stories. “Oh, remember when God did something to save us, that long, long time ago? Too bad God isn’t doing that sort of thing anymore, isn’t it?”
Which is when Isaiah’s prophecy in our reading today is spoken. Isaiah begins with the old stories. Remember when God made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters? Remember when God brought out the chariot and horse from Pharoah’s army, when the waters came over them and extinguished them, quenched like a wick? We’re talking about the God of our ancestors, the God who delivered the people way back when. That God. Or have you forgotten Him already?
And then Isaiah says something strange. He says, well, go ahead and forget Him then. Forget what God has already done, because God is about to do a new thing. God has not given us up; God has not abandoned us. God is active not just in the distant past, but now, today, here, among us, in this place! God is going to make a way for us to leave our exile in Babylon and head back home, through the desert, through the dry, parched, impassible land. God is now going to carve out streams in the wilderness, water to drink, to sustain us for the journey home. And what God will provide will be so much, will be so great, that even wild animals, jackals and ostriches, will be fed and nourished from God’s abundance!
And what’s really delightful is that Isaiah not only tells his people to forget the old story, but he uses that same old story to craft the new one. It’s no accident that he begins by recalling the exodus, when God made dry land appear in the midst of the water, in order to prophesy that water would appear in the midst of the dry land. It’s the same old story, turned on its head, renewed for the new day. God is the same God he ever was, but he is working, saving his people, today.
A week after my conversation with Laurel, I walked out to meet her and her group of senior high campers at the campsite we’d found earlier. I had a day off, and thought I’d check in on her, see how things were going. I picked my way through the forest and across the old bridge, and then stepped down into Bear Creek. A few hundred feet up the watercourse, the landscape changed dramatically. A family of beavers had built a dam across the creek, and had turned the riverbed into a lake. I foolishly remembered the last week, when the water had come up only to my ankles, and took a step in. It came up to my elbows.
And there, just a little further up, were Laurel and her campers. Swimming. Relaxing. Enjoying the goodness of God’s creation. Things had of course been going swimmingly. Not perfect, mind you; the male counselor working with Laurel had sloughed off a bit, leaving the bulk of the work in Laurel’s tired, but capable hands. And she didn’t exactly feel comfortable telling the campers the truth about how old she was. But for the most part, it had been a successful week so far. So much so that I never got to don my chaplain hat; I left soon, I knew where I wasn’t needed, or really wanted. The counselors and campers had bonded with each other, and the changed landscape of Laurel’s comfort with her own gifts reflected the changed landscape of the campground, the water poured out in the wilderness.
The exodus is ours too, you know. And the exile, and the return home. And especially the Good News of Jesus Christ, the story we are about to tell over the course of Holy Week, as Jesus enters into Jerusalem, and is arrested; taken to the cross, to death, and to resurrection. We can participate in it by rote if we want. Our seeking after justice can forgotten as we teach our children how to behave correctly (whatever that means) and try to do so ourselves. And our conversion into disciples of Jesus Christ can become a sort of obligatory sense of, “Well, our parents did this, so I suppose we’d better keep it alive, too.” If we’re too attached to the past, we can busy ourselves keeping an institution alive without ever actually being the Church, the body of Christ in the world. And how dull that would be. Just another Easter (whatever that means).
But don’t you see? God is doing a new thing. God is active and alive now, in our church, and in our lives. Those places that look dead, the dark and broken corners of our lives, they are coming alive again, like watercourses through the desert. The ancient story is our story too. We are walking with Jesus to Jerusalem. We have been put to death with him in our Baptism. We have risen, and will rise again. And again. Forget what God has done already, because God is about to do a new thing. God is active not just in the distant past, but now, today, here, among us, in this place! God is working, saving his people, today!