a sermon on Isaiah 43:16-21 and Psalm 126 for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
preached on March 17, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The other day, I met a friend in Manhattan for a cup of coffee after work. He needed to run a couple errands, so I joined him in wandering around Manhattan as we talked. Most days at this time of year, this would have been a refreshing way to spend a late afternoon, with a gentle, crisp breeze to keep things cool but not cold and the late afternoon sunshine taking the edge off the wind.
But sun was not in the cards for us that afternoon—it was overcast and gray. Even worse, though, it was a drizzling and misting day, raining just lightly enough that you didn’t really need an umbrella most of the time, but as we walked along, we ended up getting soaking wet—not just our coats, not just our shoes, but everything, soaked to the bone.
As I pondered this text over the last few days, this soaking mist kept coming back to me. Usually we think of waters much like we hear in our reading from Isaiah today, rushing around, pouring into our lives, changing things quickly. We look for waters that will quench our thirst and bring us a taste of new life. We seek the full promise of Isaiah’s prophecy:
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
We long for new springs that will not damage us or destroy us, hoping for the presence of God to bring waters that will make a way where there was no way, quench the thirst of a dry land, and refresh the people of God. We look to be refreshed and renewed by the memory of who God has been and what God has done, to once again set aside the former ways of destruction, the frustrations of exile, the mourning and crying and pain of the past, so that we can embrace this new thing, a way opening up through the wilderness, the possibility of new life breaking through into the weariness of our world. We seek something so easy and so dramatic that everything changes, that everyone stops and takes notice—like in Isaiah’s world, where even the wild animals pay attention, give their honor, and share the gift of life in this new water, and all people are enabled to declare great praise.
But when we look around us, when we stop and wander around in hope of finding something that has eluded us, more often than finding gushing springs of new life, we find what seems to be a dreary mist—yet before we know it, we are soaked through and through. And we just don’t know what to do with that—while I know of few people who don’t appreciate a good wet shower or a nice rainstorm from inside, most of the time we’re just ready to dry off and dry out already! Yet God’s new thing is sinking into us anyway, soaking us like a drizzly New York day, getting us wet whether we like it or not, calling us to set aside where we have been and keep our focus on where we are going.
I love these words from Isaiah, but something is missing in them. When I read more closely, I realize that Isaiah isn’t worried about convincing people that this is the right thing. He doesn’t seem to be concerned that they might be anxious about taking a new path. He certainly doesn’t worry that God’s people will share the emotions that I feel almost every time I face a new way—that strange blend of deep and real and true excitement mixed with a healthy and honest dose of fear. And he doesn’t spend a lot of time wondering how to get them to accept this challenge—it seems almost a given that they would welcome this new way.
And that makes a lot of sense in the original context of the prophet’s words. The people of Israel were desperate to be back in control of their own destiny, to set aside foreign leadership and feel that they had power again, to come back home and get things back to normal once again. They were ready to sing songs of praise and joy, as in our psalm for today—they were like those who dream, with mouths filled with laughter, tongues with shouts of joy, and praises echoing among the nations.
Yet for us, the promise of something new is not always so joyful. Since we are generally well-off and without difficulty, change means that something that has at least felt settled in our world will have to be made new. We are afraid of what this new thing will mean for the past and present that we know and love—or that we just know and expect to not love! We struggle to change our plans and our ways to make space for something more than what we have always known. And we wonder how much we will have to change in order to adapt to the new thing. How soaked will we be when this drizzle ends, and how much drying off will we have to do? Can we just stay a little dry and keep even a little of this new thing out of our lives? Or even better, can things change without getting us wet at all?
The reality is that God’s new way changes everything about us. We spend these forty days of Lent preparing for Easter not because we like to beat ourselves up, not because we need to know what it is like to be thirsty every now and then, and not even because we are sinful people who need to change our ways. No, we set aside this time of penitence and preparation because the new thing ahead—the Easter of joy and gladness, this new day of resurrection—inaugurates a new way of life in our world, and we have the opportunity to join in.
When the new thing that God is doing really sinks in, when the little drizzle of grace that we sometimes even struggle to feel on our faces starts to soak us through and through, when we recognize how the waters of baptism have seeped into us and changed us as much as we might have tried to resist them, we start to perceive what God is doing in our midst. We start to see the way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. We see a new path emerging just where we thought we were staring into an abyss. We watch as God opens unexpected doors, offers us unusual opportunities to give honor and praise, and shares the crisp gift of the water of life with us all.
So as we make our way through these final Lenten days, as tomorrow night we begin conversations about our future as a congregation and wonder what new path God may offer us, as we look for a way forward for our congregation and even more for the life of faith in the midst of a world that is changing even as it is longing for something new, may God’s amazing grace soak us through and through so that we may be a part of the springs of new life in our weary world, the way of hope in the wilderness of our lives, the rivers of justice in the desert of our world, and the gift of the water of new life for all those who seek something new.
So may we be wet with the abundant mercy of God’s love, now and always.