Message by Rev. Jenny Carter
April 7, 2019
Based on Isaiah 43:16-21
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of something that was going badly, causing you to struggle, and wishing you had a great big reset button that you could push? You know, a big red button that would freeze the current debacle, and rewind the tape of our lives just a little bit, so we could make different choices that would, hopefully, lead us to a different scenario. A scenario where we wouldn’t be facing whatever calamity or inconvenience, we are having to live through.
There have been far too many times in my life where I have found myself thinking, “Oh, oh dear, this isn’t going at all well.” There have been many, many times that I have wished that I could hit a button and go back in time so that I could do things differently. Like encourage my friend in high school to measure just one more time, before cutting a hole in the roof of his car so he could install his brand new sun roof. Or pay more attention on a certain fourth Sunday of Advent where a distracted thought caused me to set the Advent wreath on fire in spectacular fashion. There have been times where I wish I had chosen softer words in a conversation, or let an insult slide instead of taking issue, or spoken up sooner, or not spent two of the last four months of my brother’s life caught up in a stupid disagreement, over a bit of nonsense. And since I have no doubt that I will again find myself in tricky and hard situations, probably many more times as I go through this life, a reset button would be totally awesome!
But, as we all know, life does not come with a reset button.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the most often quoted passage of the entire book of Isaiah. It is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to prophetic words, especially those of Isaiah. For pretty much all of the writings of Isaiah, the prophet is telling the people of his day that they must “remember.” They must remember who they are. They must remember who God is. They must remember to live into the covenant with God and creation. They must remember to trust, remember to hope, remember to keep watch, and to remember the power of home.
But here, in chapter 43, he suddenly says that the people should NOT remember. That they should forget the things of old. That God was doing a new thing, and so they should forget all of the things that came before this very moment. They should, “remember not.”
If only it were that simple! There are lots of things in my life that if I could wave a wand, or hit a reset button, so I could forget, or “remember not” I would totally do it. But that isn’t how life works. We all have pasts filled with precious things, difficult things, and things we would change if we could – and there is no “forgetting” those. We have those things as individuals, and we have them as communities and nations and as a world.
Yet I am still drawn to the words of Isaiah here. There is something intriguing and incredibly powerful in his words to “remember not” so that we might be free to see the “new thing” that God is doing in our midst. The point Isaiah is trying to make begins with the understanding that “not remembering” doesn’t mean that we give ourselves amnesia, or deny things were tough, or pretend things in the past didn’t hurt. His main point in this part of the passage is that we should not try to predict the future based on what we had in the past.
The prophet first spoke these words to the Jewish people who had been held in Babylon for generations as slaves. The word was out that King Cyrus of Persia was winning the war against Babylon and once that happened, Cyrus would free them and they would be faced with a decision. They could stay in Babylon as freed slaves, or they could go home to Judah as freed citizens. So here Isaiah was, in effect, saying, “Just because you were, and are, slaves, do not think that means you will always be slaves.” Isaiah’s point was simply, if we use the past to predict the future, we will never be able to rise above our current situations – we will never be able to see the new thing that is unfolding in our midst. So we cannot use the past to predict our future.
It is clear, that we are all formed by the events of our past. The events that we have experienced have given shape to our lives and to our self-understanding. So of course we remember our pasts. But over remembering our pasts can bog us down. The good use of memory is that it can tell us what not to do in the future; the bad thing is that some of us can get so tied up in what we tried to do once before that we no longer have a vision or path for the future. The tied down, concrete, immovable past can blind us to the open ended, liberated, future.
This happens to us humans all the time. Sometimes the past is glorious! And in our over remembering of those glory days, we cannot see the new thing that is happening right now in our lives. Sometimes we have failed in the past – and we tell ourselves, that since we couldn’t accomplish that thing then, we will not be able to accomplish anything like it now. Sometimes, we have made mistakes in the past, some of them really big, and we cannot even envision a future where we might be forgiven and able to start over fresh. Sometimes we have so much pain from something that has happened to us that it gets in our way of seeing a future that is potentially clear and hopeful. Sometimes we have tried so hard to get through one set of crises, that we think there is nothing new that we can do or have the energy to do. Some of us feel so inadequate, so small, and so powerless, that we cannot conceive of ourselves succeeding in the future. Isaiah was right, sometimes our pasts can blind us to the possibilities of the future.
It is interesting to note that there are two words in Hebrew for “forget”. One means to “cover up” the memory. The other is to “blot out” the memory. The one used in this passage is the one that calls us to blot out. So the phrase, “remember not” in this passage isn’t referring to the absence of memory, but is referring to the freedom from it. Those are not the same things at all. To “cover up” the past, or deny it, or even forgive it even though we can never forget it, is to remain bound to the past – and doomed to never rise above our current situations or find the new life God offers.
Yet, when we examine our pasts, raise up the glorious bits as well as the dark spots, stare them in the face, wrestle with them, make amends if need be, offer forgiveness where appropriate, and then blot them out and move on – then we are free to see ourselves, others and our world in brand new ways. This is how we as people of faith hit the reset button. This is how we can find a better vision for the living out of our lives.
A past that is left untouched or unaddressed can haunt us and make us fearful of the future. It can actually blind us to the future. That is what was happening to the Jewish nation held as slaves in Babylon. They were haunted by their spiritual infidelities and political mistakes that they believed led to their exile. As such they were not able to see themselves in a new way, but only as a people who had failed God, failed themselves, failed their ancestors, and failed their children. Failure was their primary identity. This is a prime example of over remembering.
We, as a community of faith, could probably spend hours listing the ways we too have tended to over remember one thing of another, and how that has kept us bound to our pasts. Yet more is out there for us – a better life is out there for us – we just need to be able to free ourselves from the past, so we can fully embrace our precious life in the here and now.
To be clear, Isaiah was not at all certain that – as wonderful as God’s new thing was – that people would actually be able to see it. I am sure we can all identify with him on that point. Amid all the devastations, all the former ways of mistreatment we have been subjected to, or subjected others or the environment to, through all the mistakes we have made, it can be hard to see the new and the miraculous that is right in front of us. Hard – but not impossible – if we are willing to do the work of “remembering not.” Today, right now, right in front of you, is a new way of feeling and being, a fresh start – your faith task is to look until you see it.
May it be so in your life and in mine.