Our reading from the prophet Isaiah is certainly timely as we begin to wrap up our observance of Lent with the events of Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. Our passage today reminds us that the Lord is getting ready to do a new thing. Certainly part of that promise has already been fulfilled, just as He delivered Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Dead Sea. It is a great reminder but an even better promise. Israel should not be able to hear the references to the water and not think of all that Yahweh has done for them in their past. From the Passover event to the wandering in the wilderness and the manna and quail to the theophany and the torah at Mt. Sinai to taking possession of the land across the Jordan in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, God’s deliverance of Israel was remarkable. It should have been embedded, as it were, in their DNA. No doubt faithful Jews might even be reminded of other acts of God in salvation history. Certainly you and I should.
All of that, of course, pointed to the Incarnation of His Son our Lord and the Cross and Resurrection. You and I live on this side of the Ultimate fulfillment of that promise to do a new thing. Christ died for our sins; Christ was raised for our justification; He ascended to heaven to make intercession for us and to empower us to do God’s will through the empowering Holy Spirit. The events in two weeks are the focal point of all of God’s actions of mercy and love.
And yet, you and I still live in a wilderness of sort. You and I live in a culture which few of us could have predicted in our youth. Nearly a third of Millennials now claim to be some variant of atheist or agnostic, the highest number ever seen in our country since its founding (if we read and believe the dire headlines, though I must confess I wonder who was taking surveys of youngsters for the first two centuries of our country’s existence). Is it the scientific advancement or progress which has caused the dip in faith among our young? The abrogation of parental responsibilities? The failure of churches to live out their call faithfully and so inspire the youth? Maybe a simple failure of the church to disciple our youth? Bad preaching? Too many soccer games on Sundays? Liturgy too hip? Not hip enough? My guess is that for each youth, there is a specific failure. It is hard to generalize what is essentially a personal relationship with the Redeeming God we celebrate each time we gather in worship. By virtue of His willingness to adopt us into His family, we have tons of brothers and sisters, but that initial adoption comes after a personal response to His offer of grace.
Ultimately, that reminder about the Exodus event to Israel is a reminder that it has experienced God’s grace in its past. Better still, God is promising that He is going to act in a new way, that His grace will be experienced in a new way. The same is, of course, said to us, the new Israel. We are called to remember the expressions and lessons of what has taken place in history, but we are also reminded that God delights in doing things in unexpected ways. It is those new ways of doing things in our wildernesses which gives us new experiences of God’s grace to share with others. Those experiences become our testimony, a loaded word which probably makes some cringe, but which should simply remind us that we all have stories to share about God’s grace, God’s work, in our lives. Each of us gathered here shares the realization of the promise of the Cross and Empty Tomb. But each of us gathered here also have particular wildernesses experiences in which God has acted in surprising new ways.
What do I mean by that? Take our wilderness experiences of provision. How many of us have genuinely been concerned about finances? How many of us have been laid off? How many of us have had difficulty finding a job? How many of us have been forced to stretch our finances to cover others experiencing such difficulties? Has God met our needs in the same way? Of course not. Sometimes we have that unexpected windfall. Maybe it is a check from the company for which we work, maybe it is the state or IRS finding an owed refund, or maybe it was that ultimate sign of God’s provision--a bank error in our favor! I am still waiting for our Lord to get around to using that winning lottery ticket in my life as a new thing. Each of us has a story of how God met our need for daily bread. That’s part of the reason we have served wonderful meals to the hungry and homeless at the Community Meal for nearly 47 years! It is part of the reason we gather each week and pray the Lord’s Prayer rather than read or recite it.
How about the wilderness experience of bad health? Again, God has met our needs individually. Many of us can point to good treatment on the part of physicians and nurses, though I must admit there have been a few times as I have observed the care of some of you when I have thought that good doctors are as rare as springs in the wilderness and, therefore, just as miraculous. Some of us can point to “lucky” diagnoses. We have gone into the doctor’s office for one reason only to be diagnosed with something serious, but early. A few of us have been blessed to experience miraculous healing that stumps even our doctors. But, each one of us alive and gathered here can ultimately look to the Healer for preserving us thus far in our lives.
How about the wilderness experiences of relationships? Some of us have been in abusive relationships. Some of us have been in relationships that for various reasons were not good for us. Some of us have experienced what it is like to be used by someone rather than loved, as our Lord first loved us. But, somewhere along the way, we have met Him. We have met the One who truly loves us, the One who knows us and all our secret faults and still loves us. And once we became aware of His love for us, we were able to love others as He loved us or, in some cases, ourselves. We still sin against others, but for most of us gathered here there is a genuine effort to love others as He loved us and to expect others to love us as He loved us. And, once we understand that our sins against others are really sins against the Lord who made them and us, we rightfully go to them and repent when we sin against them and our Lord. It is those wilderness experiences and His provision which serve as part of our testimony as to why others should join us. Of course, for all this, there is yet a sense in which Isaiah’s prophesy still has not been fulfilled completely.
In Lent, we rightly focus on our relationship with God and our need for a Savior. We try, as a community of faith, to eliminate those temptations which lead us from God and to encourage those behaviors which help us walk closer with Him--that should be the purpose of all your Lenten fasts and disciplines. And yes, these individual stories of provision in our personal wildernesses serve as wonderful stories about His faithfulness. But ultimately, His promise is that the wildernesses will become a place where even the jackals and ostriches proclaim His grace. One day, these experiences will no longer be part of our reality. Behold, yet again, He is doing something new and it is about to burst forth!
The same Lord who engineered the Exodus event, who sent His Son that all might be freed from sin, who redeemed your particular wilderness experiences has also promised that one day, in the future, He will do another new thing. He will recreate that which has been marred by human sin and restore it as it was in the garden. Then, then there will be no weeping, only joy. Then, there will be no pain, no sadness. Then, all our wildernesses will be verdant pastures. And we, we will finally share in the glory He purchased for us in Jerusalem 2000 years ago and promised before He ascended to His Father. For now, it is our task to wonder the wildernesses of our lives, as did our spiritual ancestors, knowing that He will provide springs of life and grace, as He leads us to that inheritance promised to all His children.