Fifth Sunday of Lent - RE: "Restore"
This week we are going to continue our Lenten sermon series--a series entitled "RE:" "RE:" is drawn from the Latin prefix that denotes change or transformation. Each of the sermons in this series is connected to a practice for the season of Lent: Remember, Repent, Renew, Remain and Restore.
This week we are going to explore the Lenten practice of restoration, which I believe is at the very heart of what God is up to in the world. Restoration is the act of taking what seems broken, used up, neglected, forgotten and making it new. In fact, that's the one thing I want to make sure that we hang on to when we all walk away from worship this morning: Restoration is God's way of getting what God wants.
The passage of Scripture that we'll be studying today is from the prophet Isaiah chapter 43. It is a passage of Scripture that the renowned Hebrew scholar Abraham Heschel held in highest esteem as an unbelievable word of hope. He wrote "No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries."
Let's read and see for ourselves:
16 This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
Let's do a little bit of history so we can understand what is happening here. The years is probably 545 BCE and the Hebrew people have been in exile in Babylon for a generation. They lost everything in the exile: homes, livelihood, families and in many ways they lost their understanding of God. The world they once knew is long gone. Jerusalem was basically destroyed. Solomon's Temple was absolutely destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of people were killed, and thousands more brought forcibly to Babylon.
God's very identity is at stake at this juncture of Israel's history. They are asking themselves why God would have allowed all of those thing to happen. They are wondering why God would send them into suffering, allow them to die, to lose their homes, their families and their faith. What kind of God does that? The kind of God who used to love and care for God's people, perhaps?
Then the prophet begins to speak into this grief, loss, despair and resignation. He relates memories from Israel's past when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but then shockingly says, "Do not remember the former things." What does this mean? The prophet just got through helping them to remember what God had done for the people of Israel in the past.
This is not about historical recollection. It's about acknowledging the new thing that God is about to do. In fact, it's about acknowledging that God is always doing new things. The people listening to the prophet here are being asked to move beyond all of the bad things that happened, to let go of the things in the past that they need to let go of in order to move forward into the future God has in store for them.
And this new thing that God is up to--it's about getting what God wants. God wants to restore God's people. God is in the restoration business, after all. It's no coincidence that God constantly sides with underdogs and outcasts--that God favors a small tribe of forgotten people who had been ruined by the Babylonians, defeated, destroyed and relegated to the dustbin of history.
This was about God letting them know that dustbin or not--God hadn't forgotten them.
I love how God points back in Israel's history to the barrier they faced at the Red Sea--a barrier of water that could not be crossed without a miracle. Then he points forward to the way that water is going to spring up in the desert in the form of streams that are conveyors of life. What was once a barrier, is now being used as life-giving, life-changing symbols of God's goodness and absolutely joy at the restoration of God's people.
One thing that seems very clear in all of this is: there is a difference between remembering a God who leads us to freedom and clinging to the past that enslaves us.
Let me ask you a question. Where are you feeling exiled right now? Maybe you experienced the sudden death of a loved one. The unexpectedness of their passing crushed you, left you feeling wrung out and hollow inside. Maybe you are dealing with a broken relationship. You are estranged from a sibling, perhaps or maybe a parent.
Maybe your marriage is falling apart. Or perhaps you made some bad decisions or one really bad decision and now it's affecting all kinds of areas of your life. Maybe you are dealing with the after-effects of the cruelty of other people--or maybe even with your own cruelty to others.
It's so easy to get lost in the maze of those feelings and the despair that can so easily fall upon us when we get stuck in our past. It's also easy to look back on all of the ways that God has rescued us, redeemed us, given us a second chance and new life, and say "Well, that might have been God back then, but God doesn't seem to be all that interested in me right here, right now.
Based on what I see in the text for today, I believe there are three basic steps toward the kind of restoration that God longs for you and I to experience.
First: Moving toward the Future. God is a God of the future. Throughout the entirety of Scripture we see God calling to God's people from the future--moving them forward. God reminds God's people of the past only to help them see God's faithfulness, not to become convinced that God lives in the past and is stuck in the dusty, ancient pages of history.
When we move toward the future where God is, we find that we can imagine what it would look like if God what God wanted in our lives, in the world around us and in history itself. One of the things that I try to do whenever I am counseling someone who is going through a tough time is to help them imagine a future where they were happy, content, peaceful, and filled with true purpose. It's one of the most difficult things for most people to do--especially when they are feeling exiled.
But when we move toward the future where God is, believing that God has already prepared a place there for us--using the words of Jesus himself--we will find ourselves one step closer to finding the restoration we seek for our mind, body and soul.
Second: Remembering the Past. What God has done for you before, God will do for you again. You aren't defined by your past, but it does serve to help you move forward if you will be honest about it, and then boldly name what must be left behind as you move forward.
I meet all kinds of Christians who tell me about all of the trials and tribulations they've faced in their life, and how overwhelming those struggles have been. Yet so many of those people find they can't be free of that past because they won't let go of their anger, their hurt and their pride. When you name the things you need to leave behind, it helps you begin to take steps in the right direction.
Listen, there is no way that you will ever find restoration and newness of life if you aren't prepared to leave behind the things that are truly keeping you from being the person that God has always dreamed for you to be.
Finally: Reversing the Past. There is a phrase that I've heard more than a few times during my life in the Church: We've never done it that way before. Those words have been called the 7 Last Words of the Church for a reason. Churches or organizations within the Church that use that as their mantra every time something new springs up will never move forward, never survive.
Hear me on this--the very character and nature of God is the same yesterday, today and forever, but that doesn't mean that God is stuck in the past. It doesn't mean that God isn't working, moving and restoring in new ways. Think about the way that God worked in the past. He restored the ancient Hebrew people through the Exodus from Egypt and then generations later through the Return from Babylon. God's modes of restoration are always different.
And God doesn't waste anything. God doesn't waste our mistakes, our bad decisions, the murkiness of our past. God redeems it, transforms it and moves us forward. In the same way that God took the barrier or water, and then used water as a conveyance of life and grace--God uses the dark moments of our past to both amaze and restore us.
When I think about my own past, I am amazed at what God did to redeem me. All of those experiences, even the bad ones were used to make me into the person I am today.
If you are struggling right now with God's identity--if you are wondering what God might be up to, or if God has forgotten you... If you are not able to imagine a hopeful future, or find ways to reconcile and move beyond your past, know this: God makes a way where there is no way. God is always restoring what was broken, neglected, forgotten and left for dead. God is always creating streams in the desert, giving new life to dark places and filling the world with the hope of resurrection.
This is who God is, who God has always been. God may use different means to show God's goodness and grace, but God never, ever stops wanting to see you restored, lifted up and exalted.
And restoration is God's way of getting what God wants.