Text: Isaiah 43:16-21
The New New Thing is the title of Michael Lewis’ 1999 biography of Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon/WebMD – three billion dollar companies in Silicon Valley. Interestingly, Lewis has been criticized for focusing his biography on Clark’s building of the world’s largest schooner, the Hyperion, and on its transatlantic crossing virtually without human intervention, controlled completely by a computer.
The conception and construction of the Hyperion have had far-reaching implications for the direction Clark’s creative life has taken. His conception of Healtheon, another of his companies, viewed the entire health delivery industry as a self-contained world that can be computer controlled. You can thank Clark, in part, that all of your medical records are now computerized. He also conceived of constructing houses—smaller, self-contained worlds— that would be computer controlled, houses in which routine functions are programmed and executed by smart machines.
Jim Clark’s career provides the kind of unorthodox adventure story that makes for exciting reading. Because Clark lives barely in the present, always reaching impatiently toward a future that darts about secretively in his highly charged imagination, Lewis notes that his job in writing about him was both challenging and complicated. Lewis says of his subject, “As a practical matter, Clark had no past, only a future.” When Lewis tried to talk with him about his past, Clark’s attention wandered. When he got him into a conversation about the future, about what was to happen next, however, Clark surged with vitality, sprang to life with ideas.
In the case of his company Silicon Graphics, Clark believed that the corporation, to remain healthy, had to cannibalize itself. He argued that for a technology company to remain successful, it had continued to destroy itself, thereby making room for new ideas and applications, much as a forest that is leveled by a huge fire is reborn stronger in the years that follow the fire. He is convinced that if a corporation does not find the means of destroying itself and emerging from its ashes, its competitors will do the job for it.
Now maybe it is unfair for me to say, but I doubt Jim Clark is a student of the Hebrew scriptures. However, it would seem to one who does read the Bible that Clark took a page directly out of Isaiah’s playbook.
“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? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert…” -Isaiah 43:18-21
At the outset, there seems to be some tension in this passage between remembering and forgetting. In fact, before the discourse on how we are to forget the former things, Isaiah reminds us of the former things writing:
This is what God says,
the God who builds a road right through the ocean,
who carves a path through pounding waves,
The God who summons horses and chariots and armies…
Remember this God?
To understand this first part of our text it helps to set the context. “Scholars are now nearly in universal agreement that there were three separate authors for the book [of Isaiah], known as First, Second, and Third Isaiah. The First Isaiah wrote most of chapters 1-39 and is the prophet for whom the entire work is named. His influence was so great that he had disciples who carried on his prophetic ministry after his death. This led to what some scholars call an Isaiah “school” that eventually produced Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, in the sixth century BC, and Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, in the fifth century or later.”
Our text, Isaiah 43, is “taken from [the] portion of Isaiah that is often called ‘Second Isaiah.’ Although very few traces of the prophet’s identity can be found in Isaiah 40-55, the period of Second Isaiah’s ministry is located… [at a] time when Judah was suffering under Babylonian rule. Some of the people had been taken into exile in Babylon while others remained in the land, but both groups suffered to varying degrees the debilitating effects of being a conquered people. Physically, economically, culturally, and religiously, the people felt the might of Babylon, [the weight of their oppressor] and it seems that one of the tasks of the prophet was to rebuild the people’s understanding of themselves as God’s own people and to reassure them that their god was fully capable of taking on the [far right, I mean] Babylonian superpower in order to save them.” That is the context for today’s reading.
The text begins describing the god who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. “The image is stirring and visual and highlights the power of God over both the forces of nature and military [and political] might, a power to which the Exodus, the foundational story of the people of Israel attests. The story of Exile, the foundational narrative of the people is an impressive story to bring into play, but it is hardly surprising to find a reference to this story of redemption in the context of Isaiah 43. Clearly, the prophet wants the people to see that their own identity as a people is intertwined with the identity of their god.”
That is why it is so intriguing that the writer, going to such trouble to recall the past, shifts somewhat abruptly in verse 18 with the words: “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.” If he didn’t already have the people’s attention, surely he got it creating this rhetorical whiplash. Just after reminding them of what God has done in their history, it is as if he is now saying, “People, there’s no time to dwell in nostalgia – those good old days. It’s time to let go, move on, look to a future. Don’t think about what God has done. Look and see what God is doing right now. Something new is happening. Look! Can’t you see it? Use your imagination. See what God is doing now, today!”
For many of us, those are challenging words to hear in these distressing times when we long for a time past – the good old days – when we had more trust in those leading us.
The prophet is not specific about this “new thing” that God is doing, just that God is doing a new thing. Maybe that is intentional because immediately after proclaiming this new thing, the prophet asks a simple yet provocative question that stands for all generations: Do you not perceive it? Can you not see it, the new thing? That is the question for us today. Can we see what new thing God is doing and then have the courage to let go of the old ways, the former things, the way we’ve always done it for God’s new thing? Can we call upon our prophetic imaginations as God’s people to see where God is working and moving in our world and lives today? Can we?
So many have given up on the church to do this work, to perceive the new thing that God is doing. For many, the church seems stuck in the old ways and the former things. The church is stuck in the old ways of using the Bible as a rulebook rather than a field guide. The church is stuck in defining right belief and orthodoxy rather than compassionate living and nonconformity. The church is still fighting over whose in and whose not, who God loves and who God condemns, which sin is unforgivable and which gender God ordains for ministry. Old ways, former things.
But I get it. It’s hard to lay it down, to let go of the old ways: traditional alliances, committee structures, institutional power, program expectations. Some days it hard not to dwell in the nostalgia of former things: a full fellowship hall on Wednesday nights, family clusters, Faith at Work focuses in worship, frigid baptismal waters, Bill Finlator, Mahan Siler, taking time for house meetings to discuss important topics that deeply affect our life together, using our building for overflow on white flag nights in the winter. We long for the former things: simpler days, more time to give, and less pressure to be in three places at one time. Those good old days.
But God is saying, “Look! Look my people, I am doing a new thing, it is springing forth right now.” Can you see it?” Can you, my people perceive this new thing I am doing? Can we? Can we, the people of Pullen Church, see what new thing God is doing among us? Do we have the courage to engage our imaginations when it comes to seeing how we might find new ways to care for one another, new ways to collaborate with unlikely partners in doing justice and loving kindness, new ways to build alliances with the poor and the marginalized, new ways that God is calling us to radical hospitality, new ways to use our space, new ways to care for ourselves. Can we be like Jim Clark whose attention wanders when asked about the past but surges with vitality and springs to life with ideas when asked about new things for the future? I know it is a bit of an overstatement but can we, the church, adopt his philosophy that to remain a healthy church we will need to continually destroy the church, thereby making room for new ideas and practices, much as a forest that is leveled by a huge fire is reborn stronger in the years that follow the fire? Do we have the courage and vision?
While I have applied our text thus far to the institutional church, and specifically our church, this passage is also speaking to us as individuals. That simple yet provocative question the prophet asks is for us as individuals as well: Do we, can we perceive the new thing that God is doing in our own lives? Can we see how God is offering us water in our wilderness places? Can you see how God is making a way for you through the desert land you are traveling? Can we perceive the path, one that looks nothing like any other path we have ever traveled, as a new path that God is cutting for us? Can we see, as one lectionary participant put it, that no matter what we are facing we are still being led by God and there are provisions for those who set out on the journey to discover the new thing God is doing?
Sometimes for God to do God’s new thing, we, God’s people, have to be willing to forget the former things, to let go of the things of old – things that pull on our heartstrings – to not dwell in past places. Sometimes to perceive the new thing God is doing, we have to be like the trapeze artist: we have to let go of one rope and for a moment fly free before taking hold of the next rope that God is sending our way. That is the challenge of Isaiah 43. And it is the challenge facing the 21st-century church and 21st-century America.
God is always doing a new thing. And God is asking us: can we let go of what has been for a future that holds the promise to be far, far better than anything we might leave behind.