Pastor Peter Walther / March 13, 2016 / Lent 5 / Isaiah 43:16-24 / I’m Doing a New Thing!
Their backs were up against the wall. They were cornered. The enemy was practically breathing down their neck, moving quickly to catch up to them. Pharaoh’s best and brightest were after the Israelites, ready to kill whoever they needed to in order to bring them back and to enslave them. It was the thill of the hunt as you can imagine these Egyptian soldiers with smiles going after the Israelites. The horses and the chariots giving vibration to the ground as it rumbled to the feet of the Israelites as they looked backwards. Can you imagine the tension as parents are trying to persuade their children that it’s going to be ok as Egyptian soldiers were chasing them with swords and spears? Their feet were getting wet as they were backing up into the shore of the Red Sea. Their clothes getting damp from the spray of the waves. How were they going to get out of this? No one expected to turn around and see what they saw: walls of water, splitting the sea, and safe passage to the other side.
The Exodus account is one of the greatest accounts in all of the bible. To think of what all happened: Moses going before pharaoh. The plagues. Families killing an unblemished lamb, the angel passing over and killing the firstborn throughout the land. The people getting to the Red Sea and thinking that they were stuck and then…it seemed as though God had done the impossible when he “made a path through the mighty waters.” And after they passed safely through, the walls of water came down upon the army. How crazy is that? This occasion was so great that the Israelites celebrated the Passover every year. Here in Isaiah, God is yet again reminding his people of what he has done and the extent he has gone to save his people. If he hadn’t led them out of Egypt, they’d be goners. If he hadn’t separated the waters in the Red Sea, they’d be goners. If he hadn’t closed the waters on top of every single one of those Egyptians, they’d be goners. The things God has done for his people are amazing.
Sometimes on the Price is Right, when they reveal what a contestant could win, it’s pretty amazing. You could win a new refrigerator, or a new bedroom set. But, when the second door is opened, we see a much better prize. You could win a brand new car, or a trip to some island that would cost an arm and a leg if it was on your own dime. All of a sudden, the previous door that had a refrigerator is awesome, but this new door is better. God is sort of doing the same thing with us today. He opened the first door and said, look at this! Pretty awesome, huh? But wait, there’s a door two. Now take that wonderful bit of knowledge, that wonderful account of the exodus…and forget about it, because I have something even better for you. Now, this wasn't to minimize the Exodus. But compared to this new thing that the Lord is about to do, the previous act pales in comparison.
And here, Isaiah reveals to us God’s plan as if he is Bob Barker or Drew Carey, and he says let’s take a look at door number two! And as the door opened, it was like music to the ears of the Israelites: These Jews, who would be taken into Babylonian captivity because of their sin, would experience a new exodus. They would be physically delivered out of Babylon. They would get to go home. Not only would God provide a way out of Babylon, but he would even make the way back to Jerusalem an easy one. You see, many people would have to return home through the Arabian desert. There weren’t necessarily paths or water through the Arabian desert. However, God would transform this wilderness into a highway easily traveled with fertile land and water. Isaiah uses this figurative language to say that even the animal kingdom that is enslaved to the desert would be blessed because of this new water that would bring life. But none of this would have been possible, this return to Israel through the desert, if God wouldn’t have provided a highway for them.
But wait, there’s more! God had much more in mind for his people who were exiled in Babylon. This physical redemption of his people would lead to the world’s spiritual redemption. God describes something very very important to his people as he draws up this beautiful picture. The Israelites will be returning through a lifeless desert, something that could kill them because of the lack of water and shade, and lack of protection from scavenging animals or robbers along the way. God shows how truly helpless the Israel nation was. He wasn’t saying that they were helpless because they didn’t know how to pour water into a canteen, or wear certain clothes to protect from the sun, or even know how to use a weapon. He was picturing for them with this desert their spiritual helplessness, a picture that comes right to our door.
Our spiritual life is all too often like a spiritual wasteland. Jesus described himself as living water, something that gives life to us, just like H20 does for a physical body. When we remove him from the equation, we are starving and dehydrating ourselves. Our sin that we fail to bring to God in repentance continues to fester and rot away at our flesh. And Satan and his minions are like a bunch of vultures and hyenas ready to tear us apart. And in our foolishness and in our sinful delusion, we think we see water. But it is only a mirage. When Jesus isn’t a part of our everyday worship, we look to the mirages in the desert. We continue to strain ahead towards this mirage thinking that it might get us something, as if it might be life giving. We think that if we sacrifice just a little more, God might look on us with some favor and we might catch a break. But just like the desert is a harsh reality, so is our sin and the eternal consequences of that sin. We have no way to escape God’s wrath and eternal death because of the consequences of our sins; there isn’t anything we can do to save ourselves. Sometimes we cling to things we do like the Israelites foolishly clung to the ceremonial laws like superstition. Like Pharisees of the past and present, we look to deeds rather than Christ and the gracious salvation he brings. We cling to the outward sacrifices yet never cling to the promises of God.
That is what our sinful nature always tries to persuade us. It tries to convince us that our actions and our good intentions will bring more grace from God. If I sacrifice just a little more, if I give more money to charities and to church, if refrain from looking at porn for a while, if I am nice to my coworker who is the meanest person, if I choose to give up my favorite vice for lent, well then God must look at me in a better light. God says hold up! He says let’s look at the timeline. These things that you call sacrifices are nothing. God’s people have not earned God’s deliverance because they had fulfilled his regulations. God never instituted religion that rewarded people on the basis of their performance. God had saved Israel long before he even commanded them to do burnt offerings, or grain offerings, or incense. Israel deserved nothing from the Lord; neither have we gained any favor from God because we simply chose not to eat chocolate in Lent.
God says to us, “You have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses.” These words could be better translated “you have forced me into labor” because of your sin. In other words, it forced God into action. It wasn’t a sacrifice that we did for God but it was a sacrifice that God can only do for us. No sacrifice done by an Old Testament priest could fully do it, none of our sacrifices could do it; only one kind of sacrifice, a bloody one. Only a bloody sacrifice could remove our sins forever and bring us peace with God. Jesus Christ, God himself took on that role, because only God could atone for the sins of the whole world.
Look at what God was willing to do for the nation of Israel and for the whole world. Take your eyes of yourself for once and look to the only one who can give us peace with God, look to the one who refreshes us like water in the desert. From the beginning it was not based on what I did or what people did, but it was always based on what God did for them. God’s action is the reason why we are his people. Life and salvation are possible only by God’s gracious intervention. In the uphill battles of our lives, we draw on these words. We have no reason to thirst after anything else. Jesus has already given us that life-giving, soul-quenching water to satisfy our thirst, and he offers it to all who are spiritually thirsty as well.
In a world that is constantly searching for identity, or for purpose, and in a world that is constantly questioning our relationship with one another, God gives to us purpose. The answer is right in our text. The purpose of our lives is a simple one: it is to praise God in everything we do. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come.” Yes, the spiritual salvation of all people is what God had in mind. In the cross we are saved. There we are saved; there we are forgiven; there we are assured we are children of God. All of these things were to serve as a strong incentive for us to praise their Lord, as the Israelites were led to praise Him because of their deliverance from Egypt. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that God has planned better days ahead for us. We have the confidence that our greatest enemy has been thoroughly and completely conquered, and that with God’s help our earthly troubles and spiritual struggles can be conquered as well. God gives us these victories only through the our Savior.
In these final hours before Holy Week, even as we rejoice in the great things God has done for his people throughout history, let us put the ways of the past behind us and continue to strive for the new thing, our salvation, which Christ has laid hold of. Amen.