(Isiaiah 43:16-21; Ps. 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8)
When you rehearse a play, the first day is mostly taken up with what’s called the table read, which is just that: the actors all sit around a big table, with the director and the stage manager, and read the play aloud. The producers, designers, and the theatre staff are usually all there too, to meet and greet, and show support; but they’re also there to get a taste of what this particular group of people is going to be bringing to this particular production, and because they all have a role to play in making it happen. There’s a half-hour or so of socializing, and then everybody sits down, the actors at the table, and they read the play straight through from start to finish. So the reading itself has a certain performance aspect to it, for better or worse.
For a number of years, when I was starting out as an actor, probably over half the time, midway through this first reading I’d find myself looking at one of the other actors – it was always someone I’d never worked with before - and thinking, Why in the world did they hire this guy? Just based on what I was seeing in the reading. But within a couple of weeks, that feeling always went away (leaving just a not-so-slight sense of shame); because I always came to see that what I’d thought was a wrong-headed approach to the character, or a lack of talent, was in fact just a different approach, or a different kind of talent, that I hadn’t seen before, that I hadn’t been able to recognize. The problem was always mine. (I should also say that, after a couple of weeks of rehearsal, I was usually thinking, why in the world did they hire me?)
What each actor uniquely brings to the creation of a role affects everyone else’s understanding of what they themselves are doing, and of the play itself – it’s what gives life to the whole experience. That’s the fun of rehearsal: the unknown, the unexpected, the new: that’s the juice of any production; and the whole point is to share with the audience this new thing that you’re all creating together.
Like a lot of what I learned in the theatre, what used to happen with me at the first reading is the same in the rest of life: very often, when we encounter something we’re unfamiliar with, we tend to see it not as new, but as wrong; so we just reject it.
There’s a book of Lenten meditations by the Episcopal priest Martin Smith called A Season of the Spirit. One of them is titled, “I Can Live With Mystery And The Unknown”, which Smith begins by saying that our instinctive response to the unknown is fear, rather than trust: we don’t usually feel safe until we know what it is that we’re encountering. He goes on to talk about the problem this creates in human relationships: that it’s fear of what we’re unfamiliar with, what we don’t understand in others, that prevents us from being in community with them. Fear is usually at the root of why we reject, or turn aside from, relationships with other people: why we dismiss them, why we don’t really hear, or see them, we don’t give them a chance; so we keep them in the category of “other”.
We want things stay the same, in life. That’s not hard to understand: we want to live in a stable, safe world. We want to live in peace: we want our families, our communities, to run smoothly; we think that happens when things stay the same, so we try to do what we can to keep it that way.
The problem with this is that things don’t stay the same: because God is always creating. God is never not creating. So when we want things to be the same, when we insist that they stay the same, we often shut ourselves off from the new life that God is always offering us to join in, and to grow in, to be enlivened by. The desire to keep things the same is a habit, a reflex, which we need to keep ourselves aware of. Because this doesn’t apply just to our marginalization of other people: it extends into all of life. The new life God creates has no limits; thank God.
The passage from Isaiah that we heard today contains two verses which speak directly to all of this: “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?”
The book of Isaiah is addressed to the people of Israel living in exile in Babylonia. The Babylonian exile – which lasted for over half a century, three generations - meant much more than people simply being forced to live in a different place. This event was the great spiritual rupture in the story of the people of God. God had given them the land of Palestine, it was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham; and now, as far as they could see, that covenant had been broken, and broken by God. So they found themselves asking, Who was God? Who were they, if they weren’t God’s people? They were lost; they’d been cut adrift.
The passage that we heard today, from chapter 43, is an oracle of salvation, addressed to those people. It begins with a reminder of who God is: of how, way back when, God had delivered them out of Egypt: the Lord “makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (a reference to the parting of the Red Sea.) Then comes the army of Pharaoh pursuing them: the Lord “brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior”; and those same waters that, in God’s hands, had been the miraculous means of the Israelites’ deliverance, now, in God’s hands, becomes the instrument of their salvation from those who would destroy them: “chariot and horse, army and warrior…lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.”
Through the voice of Isaiah, God is saying, I have not abandoned you. This is all the story of your people: a story that is continuing, even now. And we’re about to start the next part of that story: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old”, those things I just reminded you of. If we simply bask in the memory of God’s mighty acts, if we treat them simply as feel-good reminiscences of our glorious past, then we walk right past the truth: that that same God is alive right now, working, with that same power, to change the world. Isaiah is telling us that the point of understanding the past is to transform our understanding of the present. We know what God can do, so we know how to look for what God is doing now.
Notice this: in this passage, it is the prophet who describes God’s action in the past. But when God speaks, God looks to the future. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old”: that’s God speaking, it’s a divine command. “I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it?” It’s an open question. God tells us, Be alive to what’s happening now, or you’re going to miss the amazing new life I’m holding out to you.
And notice just how God is going to go about it: “I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” In the flight out of Egypt, God had turned the sea into dry land: now, as the means of deliverance, God is doing the very opposite, turning dry land into rivers. Instead of water that extinguishes life, quenches it like a wick, in the salvation of the people of Israel, now it’s water that creates life, sustains life, for the same purpose. So what we know, what we’re familiar with, is turned on its head; and it’s God at work in all of it.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” I think this is one of the most important verses in the Bible. Throughout the gospels Jesus repeatedly tells the disciples – those who are following his way – to stay alert, to watch to be ready, to stay awake. This is because God is alive, and always doing new things. Next Sunday we begin Holy Week, which winds up with God doing a new thing: the most new thing since the creation of the world. May it never be, for us, a former thing, a thing of old. Resurrection is always happening. So let us stay alert: let us be ready when it springs forth. And let us always live in its light. Thanks be to God.