Sermon, 5th Sunday of Lent

St. Paul’s Church – Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
The Rev. Robert Griffith
The Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 25, 2007
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We find God’s people in a predicament in the context of today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 43. Isaiah chapters 40 – 55 take place during the middle of the sixth century B.C. The northern Jewish kingdom of Israel ceased to exist long before, and people of the southern kingdom, Judah, are languishing in the Babylonian exile. God’s chosen people that lived in the Promised Land were now aliens in a strange and pagan country, taken captive by a foreign power. In 586 B.C., the City of God, the holy city of Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Babylonians. The royal line of David came to an end, and Solomon’s glorious temple lay in ruins and ashes. The people of God were not able to practice their religion, as God had given it to be practiced. The temple, the very dwelling place of God on earth, was gone. The peoples’ rebelliousness separated them from their God.
All that they had known was no more. Nothing left. It surely must have seemed to many that their God had abandoned them. Perhaps, even, that the gods of Babylon were stronger than their own God.
As they lived in exile their children grew to know the “old country” and the “old ways” only in stories. The new generations did not know the glories of their former country, the splendor of worship in the temple, and the promises of their God in a land flowing with milk and honey. As best they could, some kept the traditions alive through the oral history and by the words of Moses and by way of the prophets.

Now, God’s people over time where not treated all that badly. Some of the Jews where able to acquire land and homes, some began new businesses. There was a good kind of liberty, even while they were held captive and not permitted to return to their homeland. Mind you, they were still enslaved, even if it did not seem so bad.
Over time, they were enculturated into Babylonian society, and that included the worship of Babylonian gods. God’s people were being lured to worship other gods and to have a manner of life that was contrary to God’s way – the very way that made them a distinct people. Babylon was called “the mistress of kingdoms; its gods had wrought great victories and extended its power to remote regions.” (1) How could all this not influence some of Jews in exile?
Over time, God’s people in exile, not just in Babylon, but everywhere, were too easily susceptible to the worship of other gods. Here, I want to say just a bit about the gods. I am relying heavily on Benjamin McGuire’s study on Isaiah 43.
During Isaiah’s time as a prophet, we might contrast what we could call “Biblical” religion with popular religion (that is what the text says the people should be doing, and what they were actually doing). Israelites had adopted many of the religious practices of their neighbors – and one of these was the worship of the Canaanite deity Ba’al (meaning master or owner) (2). Ba’al – according to Canaanite myth – had attained his status of king of the gods by defeating Yaam, the Canaanite God of primordial chaos, the god of the sea. In another episode, Ba’al confronts Mot (the Canaanite god of death) and is defeated and Ba’al dies. While he is dead, there is an attempt to find a replacement for Ba’al as the king of the gods, but ultimately they fail. In any case, Ba’al gets resurrected, and continues in his position as king of the gods.
In Canaanite myth, their god Ba’al becomes god only upon defeating Yaam, and this includes the idea (which was explored in the mythology) that if Ba’al could gain his position by defeating another, then in turn he too could be replaced. Isaiah’s intent in this part of the passage is to contrast YHWH, the God of Abraham, with Ba’al. And so the prophet declares to God’s people in chapter 43, our current chapter, verse 10:

“You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.”

In other words, YHWH didn’t become God by replacing someone, nor can he be replaced.(3)
The God of the Jews did not obtain his position by defeating any other, He was, and is, and will be. Yet, I can imagine that the people of God held in exile for so long could well begin to believe that perhaps Ba’al had defeated YHWH, and was in fact king of the gods.
This was their predicament, but the story does not end, here. God claimed to be faithful through His covenant to His people – there is no other god who can defeat Him, in fact there is no other god but God, period. God is faithful.
Beginning in chapter 40, Isaiah the prophet proclaims;

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD… And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” (4)

The way of the LORD must be prepared, for upon that preparation He will appear and lead his exiles home.(5) During all this time in exile a great soul searching, if you will, took place among God’s people, and He heard their voice and He responded.
And through Isaiah’s writings, we are privy to the imminence of a great, divine event.
Well, now we are back to today’s reading:

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.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
…for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.(6)

We know that He did bring them back from exile. He was faithful, even when His own were unfaithful. People once again knew their God, again knew how to be His people and live within His promises – no longer under the sway of foreign cultures or foreign god’s. His will was realized – freedom, peace, joy, reconciliation to God and one another in the Promised Land.
Well, here we are at the beginning of the last week of Lent. It seems almost impossible this time has gone by so quickly. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and the beginning of Holy Week – a horrific and terrifying time as we live through our Lord’s Passion and death. But oh, the splendor that is to come in Easter. And, we are privy to the imminence of a great, divine event.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
You see, humanity lives in exile – figuratively we live in spiritual exile. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, our home is the Kingdom of God and we are returning to that home. Like the exiled Jews of Isaiah’s time, we find ourselves so influenced by our culture, a force that acts upon us in ways that draw us away from who we really are in Christ. Mind you, our culture cries freedom, but we are still enslaved, even if it does not seem so bad.
We turn to other gods that fill our time and that distract us, and they blind us to our true condition. You see, for the generations of Jews who only knew captivity, it seemed natural to them. Those other gods seemed just as powerful and important, even more so, than their true God. Well, other gods cannot replace God. Yet, the people were drawn away. And, so are we.
This world is so familiar to us that we can’t remember anything else, we no longer know what it was like to live in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. All we have are stories and the experiences of our elders.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is our predicament, but the story does not end here. We will return home as we humble ourselves, examine ourselves, and allow God to renew and transform us into the people He created us to be – to take us out of exile.
People of St. Paul’s Church hear the word of the LORD, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Sometimes, sometimes, along the way, being brought back home is a difficult journey. Sometimes, when we do our soul searching we discover just how far from God we really are. Sometimes, we learn just how much our own Babylon has corrupted us, has taken from us our birthright, our knowledge of our true home, our life as God intends it to be. It is hard; it is sobering; it is not pleasant. Recognizing our sin, our rebelliousness, and our captivity never is.
Sometimes, it can be too much, and what we really need to hear is something like:

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are week but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The bible tells me so.”

Sometimes, we need to hear,

“I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert…
to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself…”

Hear what Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Babylon no longer has sway over us. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
In the midst of this all, as I and as we try and as I and as we often fail, I take solace in the Apostle Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own… Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Take this final week of Lent and either continue to or begin to do that soul searching – prepare the way of the Lord. As we are reconciled with Him and one another, He will bring us back home from exile. We aren’t there quite yet, but soon we will be. If the journey proves too hard, remember that God is faithful and that Jesus loves you!
End Notes:
1. The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. V, pg. 397.
2. Baal, Alan G. Hefner,
3. Isaiah 43:10, Benjamin McGuire,
4. Isaiah 40:1-5 (NIV)
5. The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. V, pg. 399.
6. Isaiah 43:16-21 (NRSV)