First Reading Isaiah 43:16-21
Epistle Reading Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel Reading: John 12:1-8
Sermon: “Looking Ahead ”
After being urged to remember so many scripture passages and stories, for virtually all of our lives – perhaps the scripture passages this morning might give us a case of spiritual whiplash. Isaiah writes the words given him by God: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” And Paul reviews his proud heritage among the Jews and then says he now views it as garbage and later continues to write: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Past, present and future swirl around in these readings – its enough to make us a bit dizzy. Likely we had best sit down for a bit and carefully consider what is going on here and what it might have to say to us today.
First, let’s look at what Isaiah has to say. He is writing to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon. As you may remember, the nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians and many of the leaders exiled. When those who remained rebelled, Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed. Many more who were not killed in that terrible time were also exiled. Isaiah’s prophecy is addresses to those exiles and their children who would spend a total of seventy years in that foreign place – hundreds of miles from their homeland – separated by a barren desert. Things seem about as bad as they can get, but Isaiah tells them that things are about to change. God has not forgotten or abandoned them. It’s a message of profound hope. It’s just the form of the message that offers the confusion.
The passage begins by doing the opposite what it seems to say. God reminds them of the defining moment in their past when they became a nation – The Exodus from Egypt, When God made a dry path in the middle of the Red Sea and then drowned Pharaoh’s army which was in pursuit. Every year, they had been commanded to remember this event in the celebration of the Passover. To look back and to gratefully remember what God had done; to remember who they were and where they had come from. Its good to remember such things. But to those exiles, such memories must have seemed painful. The nation was lost, where was God now? If only they had not gone into idolatry, if only they had remembered God’s laws, if only… if only…
It’s into that situation that these words are offered: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” That forbidding desert is about to be transformed into a highway home. Before, at the time of the Exodus, water seemed to bar the way. Now, water will ease the way – streams in the desert! The very people who seemed abandoned were claimed and had a future. It’s as if God were saying through Isaiah’s pen – Remember that whole exodus thing? Well… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! God is on the move and you are still in the plan. Get ready to be amazed. We are not to forget the past – Isaiah has just reminded us of it after all, it’s just that we are not to focus back there – God is active now and in the future as well. The past contains wonderful lessons and examples of God’s faithfulness to strengthen our faith – but our attention is to be on what God is doing now and where God is pointing toward the future.
That wonderful message of prophetic hope that echoes down through the ages. It is an example of how God’s steadfast, grace results in multiple and ever deepening fulfillments of those promises. In this case, the Babylonian empire soon falls to the Medes and the Persians. Cyrus the Great opens the way for any of the exiles who wish it, to return home and rebuild. He even returns the Temple utensils and vessels that had been carried off so many years ago and sends money along as well to aid the reconstruction. Truly a path was provided in the barren waste.
But God was not done. Not by a long ways. In the fullness of time, about 400 years later, even that grace would pale in comparison to what God was doing. A virgin conceived a child by the Holy Spirit and so Jesus came into the world. The very Son of God entered this world to teach, to heal, to show us the immense love of God. So much so that, as we will remember in detail in the next two weeks, Christ gave his very life on the cross and forever destroyed the power of sin and death by his resurrection. That fulfills Isaiah’s words even more wonderfully. Those who call Jesus Lord and Savior are formed into his body here on earth as ambassadors of an even further fulfillment yet to come. That will be when the Kingdom of God truly does come upon this earth and all is remade, clean and fresh and new as it was originally intended to be. No – God is not done yet! That is the message I want you to hear and take to heart this morning. The saving Grace of God is ongoing and God is not done by any means!
Paul’s message to the Philippians captures this same movement – but on a very individual level. He is not dealing with the transformations of nations and history, but the transformation of individual human lives. As he often does, Paul uses himself as an example. He cites his seemingly proud Jewish past: (Philippians 3:5-6 NRSV) “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” We learn in Acts that Paul studied, in fact, under the most highly regarded teacher of that age – Gamaliel. Yet, when he compares this past to the present and the future as a beneficiary of the grace of Christ, that past is regarded as … wait for it… Garbage! Of no value! Even less than zero – loss!
Now, of course Paul benefited from his heritage and education as he admits in other places, its just like the forgetting the past thing – he was so passionate about what God was doing in and around him that it too paled in importance.
Of course the past was in God’s hands. Its significance is not be denied. God’s grace and providence have brought us to this very moment. But the future will not look like the past. And let’s be honest, our recollection of the past probably doesn’t look much like that reality anyway. Paul urges us to emulate him and focus on where God would have us go rather than concentrating on where we have been or even on where we are right now. These scriptures point strongly to the message that God is not done with this world yet and he is surely not done with us either.
Perhaps you have known folks who will tell you all about when they surrendered to the grace of God – perhaps even giving you the exact place and time that they were saved. By the way, that is all we get to claim – surrender and acceptance. We do not pursue or find God, God pursues and claims us. All we get to do is say thank you. We also don’t get to stand on our Laurels and consider ourselves arrived. God is always moving — always calling us forward into God’s future. Our relationship with God is not “one and done”. An integral part of our obedience to the will of God is to be ready to grow and become more like Christ. This is just as true if you are eight or Eighty! To be a Christian, to live out our faith is allow the Holy Spirit to continually breathe into our lives and to direct us onward toward closer fellowship with God and fuller obedience to his will.
Even the Apostle Paul is driven to write words like these: (Philippians 3:12-14 NRSV)
 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
What is true for Individuals is also true for congregations. Perhaps you’ve heard of the seven last words of the church – ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ Change and growth are often challenging, Paul certainly found it so, yet he was determined to press on. How about us? How do we press on toward the goal God has set before us? Some worry ceaselessly that the church is dying – it is certainly not what it used to be. Perhaps part of that is good. What new thing is God doing? How are we called into the future?
Here is at least part of a starting point: Step one – acknowledge that God is not done with us. This is a church, not a hospice. Its far bigger than we are because it belongs to God, not us. Second – Dare to dream. Listen and look around for the hopeful opportunities that the Spirit places before us. Pray for direction, pray for eyes to see and ears to hear. Most of all, pray for courage to follow where God is leading. Third – Step out in faith. It may be baby steps, it might be scary, it will mean change. It does not mean we abandon who we are, it just means being open to being more than just that. The rest is up to God.
As Lent moves into Holy Week, and Easter, its good to remember what God has already done. It is important to take stock of where we are and where we most need grace. Its vital to look forward and to anticipate the ever-new thing that God is about to do. We come now to the table of grace set before us. Consider it food for the journey – perhaps even a training table for the race ahead. It is a wonderfully fluid sacrament in time. Through these elements we proclaim that God has been faithful in the past, God is Faithful here and now, God will be faithful still in the days to come. We journey forward in answer to God’s call.