Fourth Sunday in Creation—Rivers
September 27, 2020
There are a number of sayings that came to mind this week as I read the Scriptures. “It’s easier said than done.” “Do as I say, not as I do.” I was reminded of people who “say what you want to hear,” of people who “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.” And finally, more connected with the Isaiah passage, “The evil you know is better than the evil you don’t know.”
The passage from Isaiah is from what is commonly referred to as Second Isaiah. The book was likely written by at least three different prophets at three different times in the life of the people. The first, before exile when the prophet warned the people of Judah that their neglect of their faith would have dire consequences. The second, during exile when the prophet offered hope that the people would, indeed, return home and that God would make the way. And the third, upon their return, when what they encountered was a devastation of what they had left.
In Second Isaiah, the struggle for the Jews was not only how to remain faithful to God in a new place, away from their Temple and their Promised Land, but also how God could possibly bring them back across the wilderness—of the land and of their lives. Today’s passage offers hope and promise. Isaiah reminds them that God is mightier than both the natural world—God made a way through the sea, clearly referring to the Red Sea and the escape from Egypt; but God is also mightier than military might—Pharaoh’s chariots and warriors were extinguished by the very waters separated as the Israelites made their way across.
So, it’s interesting that God would first remind them of God’s works of the past and then tell them not to dwell on former things and the things of old. But the people were holding on to the past like a talisman. How can we worship without a Temple? How can we be faithful without the holy places and the holy land? And Isaiah wonders for the people whether God is bound by the past. Do you not perceive it? Do you not see that God can do new things in new places? You should know—see how God has worked in the past. God works now, as well.
Sadly, as I mentioned, “the evil you know is often better than the evil you don’t know.” And it’s the process of making one’s way through new territory that is the scariest. We know that. We’re in wilderness right now, and not by choice. Life seems scarier than usual as we smile behind masks and plastic shields, pray for climate migrants and displaced person, and argue vehemently about election day and what might or might not happen the day after that. We mourn the truth and honest conversation. And we fear for the future—the future of the nation, the future of the people of the world, the future of creation itself.
It’s enough to get us stuck right where we are—stuck in depression and anxiety, stuck wondering how to move forward, stuck longing for what was and looking back because we just can’t bear to look forward. We’ve lost our imagination for what could be—for the waters God can create, even in desert places. We’ve lost imagination for what the water can look like, feel like rushing over our bare toes, taste like to parched lips and scratchy throats.
This is the kind of ‘stuckness’ the chief priests and elders experienced when they came to Jesus questioning his authority. Let’s take a look at the context of today’s gospel passage. It’s Monday of Holy Week. Jesus has spent the weekend causing holy trouble—entering Jerusalem on a stolen donkey, riling up leaders of the Temple and of Rome, being adored by crowds of sinners and peasants, cursing a fig tree, and overturning the corruption of the Temple, both literally and figuratively. And now he has the audacity to teach in the Temple. What gives him the right? That’s not how God works.
They were holding on to old ideas and old ways. They couldn’t imagine God doing anything different—anything scandalous—anything they hadn’t approved of first. So, when Jesus responds to their question with a question, they get even more stuck. They’re quandary about whether John’s work is from God or human standards isn’t the real question for them. The real question is how they can maintain their power in the conversation—how they can maintain the status quo. Religious leaders—good. Trouble-makers—bad.
And they find that they can’t. They can’t stay in control. They can’t stay in control if they answer the question, and they lose control when they don’t answer the question. They’ve been caught out. “Do what we say, not what we do.” “That’s easier said than done.” Not unlike when Jesus heals the paralyzed man brought to him on a mat and lowered through the roof of a house. First, he forgave the man, but that made the religious leaders mad. Who has authority to do that except God (and us)? And so, to prove his authority, he tells the man to get up, pick up his mat, and leave. And the man does. And the leaders are put in their place—stuck in their narrow views of what God can and will do for God’s beloved people.
So, Jesus tells them the parable about the two sons who do the opposite of what they say they will do. I know I’m not the only parent who has used this parable on my own child once or twice. And the parable seems disconnected with the questioning that happens before it. Except Jesus brings things back around—“John came to you showing even you what God is up to—that God is doing a new thing—and you closed your eyes to it. You call yourselves leaders and yet you refuse to lead people in the ways of God. And even when you see for yourselves what God is up to, you don’t change your path and follow.”
They thought that they could talk spiritually without living according to their instruction—to their ideas and words about the God they claim to follow. “Doctor, heal thyself.” “Practice what you preach.” We have so many sayings about this kind of situation because we humans are notorious for saying we believe one thing when our actions prove the opposite. And we simply can’t see our way to bringing the two together.
We say creation is a blessing, a sacred gift—and yet I have foolishly put trash cans out here to throw away the plastic of our communion elements for these past several weeks. Talk about hypocrisy. What is easy takes precedence over what is right. It’s easier to stay in exile, complaining about how God has abandoned us, complaining about COVID, complaining about masks—who wears them or who refuses, complaining about the price of food, complaining about national leadership. But what are we doing to change things? Debie Thomas says in her blog, “The life God calls us to live is a wholly integrated life--a life in which our words and our actions infuse, enrich, mirror, and reinforce each other.”
God is leading the way. Do you perceive it? God is doing a new thing. Through things like science and art and imagination, we have so many new opportunities for caring for creation, for people, for animals, for one another. What is stopping us? Too hard? Not sure what to do? Afraid to take a step?
Look, God is doing a new thing: now it springs forth. God is creating water through the wilderness. It is there for us to drink from and cleanse with and share with one another.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church