A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church
Little Rock, Ark on March 21, 2010.
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14
It was a long time ago. Six hundred years before Jesus came preaching, in fact, and the people of Israel find themselves still exiled in Babylon. I say still because they’ve been there a long time. Long enough that the only thing they know about their God is that God existed only in the past. He sure didn’t come over with them to this god-forsaken foreign land. Or so they thought.
The prophets went along with them to Babylon, and occasionally they reminded them that God still had plans for his people. But if that was true, God had a funny way of showing it. As far as they could tell, the prophets’ talk about God was about as close to God as they were ever going to get. Or so they thought.
At least the prophets knew their stories, and were able to recount for them the narratives of their faith that up to the time of the exile had always sustained God’s chosen people and given them a certain measure of hope. Perhaps their favorite story was about the time when God parted the Red Sea and let his people pass in order to escape the bondage of the Egyptians. They’ve been told about how all the soldiers and chariots and horses of the Pharaoh had met their watery end when the waters came rushing back to engulf them. This story is as much in their collective consciousness as you and I can recount some of the narratives of our own history. However, there’s no Red Sea in the vicinity of Babylon, so they’re not counting on anything like that ever happening again.
Would they be ever able to escape the tyranny of Babylon as their ancestors had done with Egypt? They better not count on anything like that. God’s people labored in Egypt four hundred years. And while it’s been a long time since they first came to Babylon, it hasn’t been nearly that long. Still, they live every day with this sense that if God hasn’t done something by now chances are God isn’t going to do anything… ever.
God may be patient, but they’re not. When patience gives out, despair takes over, and for the people of Israel, exiled in Babylon six hundred years before Jesus came, despair is the name of the game.
Then along comes the prophet Isaiah offering his strange advice. He tells the exiled people of Israel to forget the past. The Lord…
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick…
in other words, the God who parted the Red Sea and brought the Egyptians to destruction, is…
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…
give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
When the prophet tells them to forget the past, does he mean the stories they have been told of how in history God has intervened on behalf of his people? Yes, that’s what he means. When the prophet tells them to forget the past, does he mean they are to forget what they have experienced in the exile, how they were taken from their homes to a foreign land by people who did not speak their language and did not know their ways or their God, and were forced to live in servitude for all these many years? Yes, that’s what he means.
Forgetting the experience at the Red Sea is one thing. That was way before their time. Forgetting their own history is something else entirely. After all, it’s a whole lot easier to forget someone else’s past than it is your own.
I have great admiration for the generation that came before me and fought the second World War. And despite the fact that I can still remember, when I was very young, our next-door neighbor who came back from Europe with his legs gone, it’s a whole lot easier for me to forget his tragic experience than it is for me to let go of the memory of my high school friend Tim Clark who came back from Vietnam in a government-issued casket. The experiences of World War II precede me. Not by much, but they still precede me. Except for the TV ads trying to sell the videos of that great war, I can put it behind me because I did not have to experience it personally like some of you did. Vietnam, however, is still very clear in my memory and in my mind. I can never forget what those days were like, even though I did not fight that battle myself.
I’ve told you before about the first small rural church I pastored down in Dallas County when I was a college student. One of the young men in the congregation had recently returned from Southeast Asia. His wife would confide in me that there were nights when she had to leave their bedroom and in fear lock the door, his nightmares became so violent.
Tell that young man to forget his past and see what kind of response you get. Sitting around his family’s dinner table on Sunday afternoons, he would tell us what it was like, while the rest of us sat in rapt silence, hurting for our young friend who was having such a hard time putting his demons behind him. We knew it was good for him to tell his story, that there was healing in it for him somehow. At the same time, it was obvious that if he ever got over the trauma of the war, it would be a long, long time.
This is strange advice the prophet Isaiah is offering his people, if for no other reason he can’t seem to follow it himself. He tells them to forget their past, but for the life of him he can’t promise them what is coming without then reminding them of what has happened in their past. Do not remember the old days, Isaiah says, then what does he do? He recounts the old days. Seems to be a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it?
Maybe what he is really telling them is that they shouldn’t expect that which is yet to come to be the way it once was. The future never takes the same form as the past. Just as their exile in Babylon is not exactly like the one in Egypt that their ancestors had to endure, their return home won’t be the same either. The future never exactly mirrors the past.
I had lunch with a friend of mine last week and we were talking about this church. I shared with him some of the things we were doing to invite new people to come and join us in our ministry efforts. We talked about some of the good things that are happening, and in the course of our conversation we discussed how Jesus accepted people as they were without making any demands on them. He simply offered them his unique form of grace, knowing that in that grace they would find a way to become the kind of people God wanted them to be.
I suggested to my friend that we who are in the business of being the church need to relate to people the same way. It’s pretty hard to share God’s grace with others when we don’t accept them because they don’t behave the way we think they should. That was my point, and my friend, who does not attend our church, agreed.
Then I quoted my wife Janet. I do that sort of thing every once in awhile, you know, especially when she’s right! I’ve heard her say on a number of occasions “ and I bet our youth have in Sunday School as well “ that when Jesus was in Jericho and confronted the little man Zaccheus, who had positioned himself up in that sycamore tree, Jesus didn’t tell him he would come to his house for lunch if he would give back all the money he had swindled from people because of his position as a tax collector, hired by the Roman government. Instead, he told him to climb down, that he wanted to sit with Zaccheus at his table. That’s all. No demands, just an invitation. It was simply being in the presence of Jesus that caused Zaccheus to want to turn his life around.
My friend looked at me and said, Randy, if the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church is going to become what it can be, you’re going to rebuild it with Zaccheuses, not with Josephs of Arimathea.
I knew immediately what he meant. Do you?
Are you familiar with Joseph of Arimathea? He was the wealthy Pharisee and member of the prestigious Sanhedrin who buried Jesus in his own tomb. Maybe he did it “ offered his tomb to Jesus “ because it was getting late and Jewish law forbad a body to hang on a cross when the Sabbath came, and he just couldn’t stand the idea of the Sabbath being desecrated like that. Maybe.
But the gospel of Mark hints at something else that might be a further clue into Joseph’s motive. We are told that Joseph was looking for the kingdom of God, a fairly vague statement that suggests he liked Jesus, perhaps, appreciated his ministry and was fond of the young Nazarene, but couldn’t quite bring himself to commit fully to Jesus’ cause. Joseph was on the outside looking in, so to speak, cruising around the edges of Jesus’ way of life, testing the waters but not quite jumping in.
Maybe that was because of his wealth. Perhaps he was simply cautious by nature. After all, he had a lot to lose by casting his lot with Jesus. You didn’t get to be a member of the Sanhedrin overnight. He had worked hard to gain his prestige and standing in the community. To follow Jesus surely would mean he would have to turn his back on all that, or certainly jeopardize his reputation, and perhaps Joseph couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.
We don’t really know, not for sure anyway. It’s purely conjecture. What we do know is that he was a seeker… somewhat. It’s in the somewhat that the mystery of Joseph, to this day, is still found. Whether he ever discovered what he was looking for… well, that’s another matter.
Two men, Zaccheus and Joseph, both wealthy so money doesn’t define their desire “ or lack of it “ in following Jesus. If that’s true, then, what does?
When I first came here fourteen years ago next week I was told that at one time, when our church was bursting at the seams, there were thirteen millionaires sitting in these pews. That’s a good round number, isn’t it? As I recall, it was stated as a point of pride. What does that say to you now? You would be surprised, I would think, if I didn’t tell you what it says to me.
We can be grateful for their past leadership in this church. There’s no doubt we would not have these buildings were it not for the commitment of those successful and influential people, nor would our church enjoy its good name and reputation that is still so obvious in our community. Surely, a number of folk from around these parts joined our congregation through their influence. That may include you. We should give thanks for their stewardship and the lingering legacy they have left our church. For some of you their names still cross your lips in conversation because you knew them, sat beside them in these pews. They were your friends, and the memory is good and the heritage is strong that invokes your recollection of them.
And unlike Joseph of Arimathea, they didn’t skirt around the edges. They got involved and they made things “ good things “ happen. But they’re gone. For the most part anyway, they’re gone. There are precious few Josephs of Arimathea left in our church.
We need to take the advice of Isaiah, not so much to forget the past but to not depend on the past to tell us what the future will be. The future for us is found in the sycamore tree, not in Joseph’s borrowed tomb.
What the prophet Isaiah is offering his people is a new hope that is built not on the shoulders of the past but on the promises of the future. That which stands between the past and the future is the journey of the present. If that journey is not made in the confidence that God is in control, the people of Israel will simply relive the errors of the past. And so shall we.
Those who opposed Jesus and his vision of the kingdom of heaven were the ones who were stuck in the past. Their traditions were their teachers and their attachment to father Abraham was their guide. So while they lived in Israel, in truth they were in exile.
Did you hear earlier what Paul said about this? Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on… he says. I press on. In his own way, I think the prophet Isaiah would definitely agree. After all, while it may be strange advice, it’s still good advice. The question is, are we willing to take it?
Lord, find us as a people faithfully moving into the future, not because we have a glorious past but because we have a gracious God who guides our future. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.