A Provocation: Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 7, 2019: Isaiah 43:16-21

Isaiah 43:16-21
43:16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,

43:17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

43:18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

43:19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

43:20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,

43:21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Three years ago, my Provocation explored John 12:1-8. I found myself thinking about the anointing scene, which appears (with intriguing differences) in all four gospels. In John alone does the Anointer have a name: Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. If you would like to explore that Provocation, search for it in the archives of this blog.

I have chosen to explore Isaiah this year.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the LORD quench chariots and horses “like a wick?”

Some Longer Reflections:

“I am about to do a new thing.” The new thing springs forth, which is a growth metaphor, a crocuses-leaping-from-the-ground metaphor. It brings water, rivers, and drink to people who are dying of thirst in Exile.

These words could come from many moments in Jewish history, but they sound to me like words of hope in the desert of Exile, the hope that kept the people alive and gave them the courage to continue until Cyrus the Persian came to power and allowed them to go free. This freedom was not a simple thing, and the return home was not without crushing contradictions to both hope and freedom. Read Ezra. Read Nehemiah. Read the rigid rejection of outsiders, the fracturing of families, the forced divorcing of wives who were not descended from those who returned from Exile. Read the rejection of this rigidity, both Ruth and in the gospel of Matthew. Read it in Isaiah.

It matters in this passage that hope enters as a crocus leaping from soil that was, only just yesterday, frozen concrete. In this passage, in this image of hope, I hear my grandmother’s voice. I see her on her knees, tending the flowers that she accompanied as they stretched themselves up into life. She accompanied them. “Oh I don’t grow flowers, honey,” she said once when I asked her about her garden. “I don’t grow them, they grow all by themselves. See how beautifully they grow, all by themselves? I just give them water when they ask for it, and fertilizer. They ask because they want to grow.” By the way, she told me that she called me honey because honey was a gift that bees give us. “You are a gift,” she said, “and that’s why I call you honey.”

I think Isaiah sounds like my grandmother. The hope Isaiah sings about springs up because it wants to grow. Even jackals and ostriches want to give gifts.

This would never have happened in the former times. In the former times, chariot and horse, army and warrior, came out to stomp on the earth until it obeyed. We seem all to share the imagination that sometimes things get so bad that we just have to kill them a little more to bring them to life.

I know that we have had sometimes to go to war. Many years ago, when I met with my draft board in reference to my application to be recognized as a conscientious objector, they asked me if we didn’t have to go to war sometimes, and I said to them what my father (82nd Airborne, 508th PIR, WWII) had taught me to understand: “We have indeed had to go to war.” The men on the draft board, all of them combat veterans, looked at each other. One of them said, “The really important thing is that we all have to work to keep anyone else from having to go to war. That’s what I learned on Iwo. That’s all I learned.” The others nodded. They granted me an exemption from military service, and assigned me to work for two years in a nursing home. Some of the residents there had fought in the trenches of WWI. Some of them said the same thing.

“Do not remember the former things,” says the prophet, speaking for the LORD. And then the LORD points to her flowers, just like my grandmother did. It matters in this passage that Isaiah speaks for the LORD. That Name for God is used when the Hebrew original has the unpronounceable Divine Name, YHVH. The rabbis say that Scripture uses the Divine Name when God is acting to create life through Mercy. Mercy is what creates life. Mercy creates the world. And Mercy creates the chosen people. Even in Exile. Even there, Mercy is the force that makes life.

Mercy is not the only option. Read Psalm 137, also written during Exile. Psalm 137 is raw. It is honest. It is scripture. It is angry. It hopes for a time when Babylon the devastator will have its babies smashed against rocks. I understand the anger. I understand the dreams of violence.

So does Isaiah.

But Isaiah identifies all of those dreams as “former things.” “Do not think of them,” YHVH says, and points to the flowers and the flowing water. Just like my grandmother did.

Near as I can tell, these days we are waist-deep in anger. The current president talks about how many bullets his followers have. His followers hint at impending civil war. And everywhere I listen, I hear anger and a demand for purity of ideology. I hear people appalled at the dysfunction of Congress, and I hear people dreaming of never needing to compromise with anyone from whatever “Other Side” they are currently imagining.

I remember once visiting my grandmother in early summer. She had planted beans. Every morning we went out to her garden, looking to see the first moment when they would sprout. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” says Isaiah, speaking for YHVH. My grandmother said the same thing, though not in quite the same words. “See how the plant waves the bean seed at you?” she asked. “It is thanking us for planting the seed.”

I think my grandmother sounds like Mercy. I think Mercy creates life.