A Broadened Horizon (Isa. 43:16-21; Php. 3:4b-14; Jn. 12:1-8)
This Lenten Season we’ve been thinking about the nature and direction of our discipleship to Jesus, and, I’ve suggested that sometimes this evaluative process leads to course corrections so that we can move on more fruitfully and helpfully in that discipleship. The question is what kind of course corrections might prove the best? There is such a thing as change for change’s sake, which doesn’t do anything but create a flurry of activity, and, activity by itself may only be perpetual motion going nowhere helpful and fruitful. At least twice during Lent, we have run into Paul’s statement that “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, the old has gone, just see it, everything has become new.” He really is speaking of a broadened or remade horizon that defines the “edges” of our experience of God and the world. It’s more about such transformation than it is simply about change. Our lectionary passages today are radical in their suggestions about this broadened, remade, transformed horizon. They say things like, “Be shaped by tradition and the past and learn from it, but don’t be limited by the vision of past tradition.” Our texts this morning also speak primarily of God’s action, and only secondarily of ours. God acts in magnificent freedom, and we have to infer from God’s actions what a good direction for our lives might be. No one said that living a fruitful Christian life took no effort or thought. To the contrary, it is one of the most strenuous projects I have known.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed over the years we’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary how often we are given Old Testament Lessons from Isaiah chapters 40-55, such as today’s from chapter 43. Once again, the context was Israel’s exile in Babylon, which ended their hopes of national greatness. Israel was sure that God’s goal for them had included national, political and economic greatness. The end of any kind of hope is devastating and Israel’s loss of seeing their “destiny” in national, political, economic greatness had cut its horizon down to a very narrow place. The poems of Isaiah 40-55 seek to broaden Israel’s narrowness, loneliness, estrangement and marginalization into a wide place of comfort, release, and ministry in a very different future at a very different horizon. One of the glories of poetry (of any kind) is that it may speak to historical specifics on one level and, at the same time, speak of universal principles on another. It may speak to many people across many cultures and generations. That’s why it’s difficult to read poetry and can take a long time. It carries many meanings. It’s also why tyrants throughout the world fear poets and preachers more than guns and bombs, and silencing of these revolutionaries is often one of the first marks of tyranny.
In an earlier part of the poem (before we started to read today) back in chapter 42, our poet had suggested that the exiles had lost their ability to see and hear – through the stripping of those aspects of life through which they were used to hearing and seeing that God was in their midst (the temple, the sacrifices, the form of government, the land). They had become spiritually blind and deaf. To say it again, they were trapped in the narrowness of their own horizons, and these narrow boundaries had collapsed upon them. Although our worlds are different from that one, when we can no longer operate in the ways in which we’ve become accustomed, is it possible that we find it difficult or impossible to see and hear at all, not physically, but spiritually? It’s possible that the changes that come into our own lives can cause our lives to become narrow and hopeless.
God began by reminding these blind and deaf folk just who it was that was now addressing them.
I am the LORD, and besides me there is no saviour. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
In other words, God had, of old, spoken to them and delivered them back in the good old days, and they are simply witnesses to all that God had already done in their midst.
Then God reminded Israel that, before in its remembered past, they had been in slavery with no prospects and in a very narrow place, and at that time, God had delivered their ancestors from the bondage of Egypt. They had been brought through the sea, and God had crushed the imperial power that threatened their lives. Of course, the exodus, as we call it, is a powerful image of God’s saving love and power even now. It is used as a picture many times throughout the Bible and beyond. We might think that our poet was using this image to raise the hope of those exiles that God would “do it again”! Is what the poet is saying here that “it can be just like this for us”? Well, contrary to any such expectation, almost as soon as this poet-prophet evoked this image of exodus, he said, “Forget it.”
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?
How can this be? God is always asking people to remember, not forget. Even later in these poems there is this line: “Remember the former things of old” (46:9). Well, at the very least, God has their attention (and maybe ours). These words “do not remember the former things here” do not mean “Don’t pay attention to anything that’s traditional.” “Do only new things.” Even if we attempted to follow such a course, it would only leads to the same kind of rootless narrowness of vision that we aim to flee. How could we recognize what God is saying now if we do not know from our tradition what God sounds like? What our poet, rather, means here is “Think about the exodus, and imagine that kind of freedom, but don’t limit your imagination.” Use the tradition of your old exodus to open a new broader horizon toward God for the future. God’s love, mercy, and grace is like that exodus liberation, but bigger. Re-imagine it!
The new thing that God was doing in that historical setting was inviting exiles in Babylon to go back home, but, this morning, don’t let even that kind of historical meaning limit our thinking about what God’s grace is capable of doing in the world today. To help readers with that, the poet used another image: “water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Imagine where the desert and the wilderness are for you, and for us (most of us don’t have to imagine it). In short, this passage invites us to remind ourselves to moments of grace and steadfast love in our past, and remember that God was at work in these. We often limit God to the horizons of faith that we have known, and some of that is inevitable and important in order to recognize God. The poet-prophet simply reminds exiles not to confine God’s grace to the horizon of the past. We are encouraged to allow our spirit a broad view to see that God is doing old grace-filled things in new ways. God’s grace wasn’t only important to people who died long ago. God’s grace is active today. Imagine it on the horizon of the future. How might we imagine it? The ability to see God’s grace in a mostly graceless world requires a broad horizon that is open to new possibilities for thinking and acting “outside the box.” While we must never despise what the past has given us, the poetry of Isaiah 43 tells us: “Be willing to allow God to broaden the ways in which we think about God’s grace in the world, and do that by being attentive to God’s contemporary acts of grace.” God is not calling for witnesses only to yesterday’s grace, but today’s, and to open our eyes to the possibilities of grace tomorrow. We are encouraged to pry open our imaginations to new things God is doing and about to do, even if we can’t name them all from where we stand now.
Today’s Gospel Lesson is wedged in between the raising of Lazarus and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (next week’s story). It is the story of Martha’s sister Mary’s lavish, outlandish gift of perfume that signals the opening of a broader horizon in her discipleship to Jesus. This gift, according to Jesus himself, was his preparation for burial. What? The Messiah going to his death? That would have been difficult for those who would have rather seen the Messiah as a big winner, but that’s right. Don’t assume God’s contemporary acts of grace are limited by our vision of what we thought possible. God’s new act that’s coming following Mary’s wonderful gift is the Messiah’s suffering, death, and resurrection, and through that a whole new horizon opens. Judas complained that Mary’s gift was unacceptable because it was outlandish, too generous and could have been used in another, more traditional, way (not necessarily a bad one) . But God opens a broader horizon of faith and acts outside the box in mercy, love, and grace in and through the life and death of this carpenter of Nazareth, this Jesus. And it took a broader view to take it in. Judas didn’t have it, it took the other disciples a while to get it, but Mary had it. Lent is a good time for us to work on it.
The reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians is an example of what happens in a person’s life when he or she is opened to a broader horizon than before, and emerges into God’s contemporary love and grace. The words clearly reflect Paul’s own situation, but they, too, can become principles for our discipleship. As the passage opens, Paul set out his own credentials for being a witness to God’s grace, at least in terms of his past. Without spending a lot of time at it, his credentials were impressive. In the old days they had meant a good deal to him. And, then he was overwhelmed by the new thing God did in Christ, and his horizon was widened considerably. He no longer saw it as necessary that people needed to follow one path to God. Although that’s not the reputation he sometimes has now, this made Paul a tremendously progressive thinker in his day. It seemed to him that all those things he valued so much were not as important as he thought. All the one-time treasures are now worth no more than rubbish. The Greek word used here is translated politely by the King James Version as dung. Having seen with the eyes of Jesus (as we said last week), or having widened his horizon, he first understood that he didn’t understand. He hadn’t, he said, even gotten it all together yet. But his widened horizon deeply revalued his priorities. His passion to know Christ, and to be like Christ led him daily on a pilgrimage of discovery. What he says about this pilgrimage is interesting and we ought to take it to heart. In verse 10 he wrote: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…”
Most of us might have expected Paul to start with Jesus’ sufferings and work through to his resurrection. Rather, what Paul says to us is that he is on a pilgrimage to know Christ and that this pilgrimage is empowered by Jesus’ resurrection to share Jesus’ sufferings. We’re not taken from the world and placed above the world’s sufferings when we recognize that the ways we have put life together aren’t radical enough to encompass the new thing of God’s grace in Christ. Rather we’re most often put right amidst the hurt and suffering of the world. And life becomes a pilgrim way to answer God’s call to us in Christ. That call is a call to serve as Jesus served, not in ways that enhance our credentials, but in ways that enable God to make people whole through us. That’s the upward call in Jesus Christ, to empty ourselves as Christ did into our worlds for the sake of the gospel and to be a channel of God’s grace. Let us pray that we may receive broadened horizons to perceive what God has for us as individuals and a congregation.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.