Text: Isaiah 43:15-21
In the children’s sermon I talked about a cutting my daughter got and which is now growing roots and budding after being put in water and given sunlight. But it sure looked like a stick. In fact, we joke about it and ask how stick is doing and have given it names like ‘Stick’ and ‘Sticky’. That’s what this past year has felt like… kind of like asking Santa for one thing and getting a bag of coal in its place. Or a stick. You may have even felt like you got beat with that stick.
In our passage today, God’s people know what that feels like. They have suffered in Exile and you can pick your metaphor – it has felt like asking for a blooming tree and getting a stick, or getting the short end of the stick, or being beaten with a stick. But God speaks a message of hope to them through the prophet, Isaiah. And while the message is particular to their time and circumstance, there are some timeless questions and teaching for all who share similar experiences and put their trust and hope in God.
On this first Sunday in the New Year it seems fitting to look at God’s declaration in verse 19: “Behold, I will do something new.”
There are two parts to what we’ll look at: WHO God is and WHAT God has done.
WHO God Is (v.15)
Realize that this is just one short passage in one book in the whole of scripture. It is just scratching the surface of who God is. Look at verse 15 where God identifies Himself: “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.” Those are four different descriptions of WHO God is!
Lord – Lord is the revealed name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. It is translated “I am who I am, I will be who I will be.”
Holy One – God is holy, righteous, and pure. God alone is God and God’s people are to be holy, or distinct, in the world as belonging to Him.
Creator of Israel – God not only created the world, but also created Israel through a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God set apart this people to redeem and bless them, and through them the world.
Your King – God is also the Sovereign over His people (and the world); this is a reminder that though in the time of Isaiah there was an earthly emperor in power, God held more power and was the True King.
Though this naming of God has several purposes – for example it can lead to worship – the purpose here seems to be to underscore the message, “Listen up, God is speaking!”
WHAT God Has Done and Will Do (vv.16-21)
The rest of the passage describes both what God has already done for His people as well as what He is going to do. You may be able to tell what the first part references: the Lord “makes a way through the sea and a path through the mighty waters” and “brings forth the chariot and horse, the army and mighty man… they will lie down and not rise again.” (vv.16-17) Anyone? It’s a description of God delivering His people from Pharaoh when God led Moses through the Red Sea and then it closed in on the Egyptian army. God has delivered His people before and can do it again!
But then God says, “Do not call to mind the former things.” Salvation is coming, but not in the same way. Instead, God says, “Behold, I will do something new!” (v.19a) With vivid imagery, Isaiah describes this new thing springing forth unexpectedly like a road in the wilderness or a river in the desert. While the purpose will be to bless and deliver God’s people, the result will be the praises of creation and humanity, with the beasts of the field “glorifying” God as well as humanity “declaring God’s praise.”
It’s easy to just zip right through that, but the claims are staggering. God promises another salvation of His people on the scale of what happened with Moses and the Red Sea, but it will be new and surprising and garner the attention of the whole created world.
We’ve talked before about how Hebrew scripture, including the preacher-prophets, always has an immediate context. This was a message to Israel about how God was going to bring them home from Exile, delivering them from the new slavery of the Babylonians like God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But the scope and scale and language also suggest God is up to something on a cosmic scale, that God’s ultimate saving would shake the whole created order. That suggests to me the saving work of Jesus.
And indeed, when John the Baptist immediately preceded Jesus and announced his coming, he used some of these same images from Isaiah about making a path in the desert for the coming of the Messiah.
Are You Paying Attention? (v.19b)
So here’s what not to do with this passage: don’t read it as a description of God bringing an end to COVID or delivering you from financial insolvency or the like. This is not a personal prophecy for you or me. It was written in a particular time and place to Israel.
But do recognize that it foreshadows a work of God that does affect you and me and the whole world, and that is God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, the coming of God’s Kingdom, which does have implications for justice, healing, freedom, and salvation. And Jesus said not only is that Kingdom coming, it already IS here; it is in our midst.
And so I’d come back to the question in the second part of verse 19 after God says He will do something new, like an unexpected bud of life from a dead-looking stick: Will you not be aware of it? Other translations say, “Will you perceive it?” I’d paraphrase as, “Are you paying attention?”
God – the great and holy God who created the world and everything in it, who has revealed Himself to us through Scripture and through Jesus Christ – that God has done and is doing something earth-shaking… universe-shaking! Are you paying attention?
At the end of this year that looks and feels like the short end of a stick, perhaps even one that has beat you more than a little, are you paying attention to God in and among us?
As we wait for resolution from COVID bit by bit, as we continue to yearn for racial justice and an end to hunger, poverty, suffering, and death, are you paying attention to God in and around us?
I know I’ve asked this question before, but I can’t think of a better way to ask it, and I think it is such an important question for us at the beginning of a new year as well as every week and every day:
What is God doing in and around you and how will you be a part of it?
For us as a church,
What is God doing in and around us and how will WE be a part of it?
I long for us to not only be aware of it, but to declare God’s praise as we join in God’s work. May it be so! Amen.
Some Music Used
- He Leadeth Me – Rick Bean, piano
- I Will Change Your Name – worship team
- Cry No More (Forrest) – choir
- Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord – worship team
- Praise is Rising (Hosanna)
- Have Mercy on Me
- Creation Sings the Father’s Song