Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Present-Tense Faith

Present-Tense Faith
Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126[1]
We are creatures of habit.  We like things to remain stable, predictable, under control.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.  It’s anything but predictable.  And anybody who’s ever tried to control the events and circumstances of their life can tell you that it’s a prescription for insanity!  One of the ways that we deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life in the past tense.  By that I mean we look back to a time when everything was just like we wanted it.  We hold onto that ideal image as a comfort when life in the present gets overwhelming.  Of course, if we really went back to that time, we’d realize that not everything was just like we wanted it.  But in retrospect, it’s easy to see the past with rose-colored glasses.
The same thing is true of our faith.  We can get stuck in the past when it comes to our faith.  It may be a past part of our life, or it may be a distant past, like biblical times.  Either way, we tend to idealize the past, thinking that it must have been easier to have faith in that time.  When we do that, I wonder if our faith doesn’t get stuck in the past.  I wonder if we have a hard time really bringing our faith into the present time with all its challenges.
I think that was at least part of what was going on in the people of Israel in our lessons for today.  The people addressed by the prophet Isaiah may have been on their way back from exile in Babylon, which was a long and dangerous journey through a desolate wilderness.  These days, we can romanticize the idea of going “into the wild,” but in biblical times the wilderness was a place that was feared.  It was a place of unknown dangers and scarce food and water.  You could die in the wilderness.[2]  The prophet called them to take their faith in the God who brought the people of the past safely out of Egypt and bring that faith with them on their present journey through the wilderness.  The same God who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isa 43:16) promised to do something brand new:  he would make a “way in the wilderness” (Isa 43:19).  God promised to bring them safely through their dangerous journey, and the prophet called them to bring their faith in the God of the past into the present situation that they feared so much.[3]
It’s also possible that the prophet was addressing people who had already made the journey back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, what they found was an abandoned city in ruins.  Having made their dangerous journey, they found themselves in even more danger.  The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city.  Rather than the safety of home, they found themselves under attack from enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence.  At one point, Nehemiah had to have everybody working on the project carry their swords with them as they worked (Neh. 4:17-18)! 
It’s possible that this was the context for our Psalm for today.  It’s true that the Psalmist speaks of their return from exile as a dream come true.[4]  But we know from the historical accounts that the dream took some time to realize in its full perspective.[5] They may have come home, but they had all kinds of challenges to face.  Not only did they have to fend off their enemies, but they also had to find a way to establish a reliable supply of food and water.  They had their work cut out for them.  And so they prayed that God would continue to “restore their fortunes” (Ps. 126:4).[6]
In fact, they prayed that God would work in such a way that those who went out to sow their seeds in tears would come back rejoicing in the harvest.  I can imagine that those who were sowing seeds in tears may have been like farmers who have endured several bad years, and they’re planting the last of their seed stock.[7]  If they don’t get enough rain to provide a good harvest this year, they might be finished.  And so they prayed, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (Ps. 126:4).  Now, the Negeb is a desert in the southern part of Israel, where there are gullies that are dry throughout most of the year.  During the rainy season they fill up with water that the farmers used to make their crops flourish.  Essentially, they’re looking at their situation, one that seemed difficult at best and dangerous at worst, and they’re putting their faith in God to provide for their needs.  They were doing exactly what the prophet Isaiah was trying to encourage: taking their faith in God from the past and bringing it into the present, regardless of how hopeless or desperate their situation seemed.[8]
I think that may be one of the most difficult lessons to learn when it comes to trusting God.  For most of us, it’s relatively easy to believe in a God who worked in the past.  But when it comes to trusting God to do something new in our present circumstances, that can be a completely different matter.  That seems to be one of the hardest challenges when it comes to faith—bringing it into present, with all its frightening changes and uncertainties.  But that’s where the water hits the wheel when it comes to faith.[9]  We have to trust not only in the God who “has done great things” in the past, but also in the God who always promises to do “a new thing” in our lives.[10] We have to learn to trust in God right here and right now.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/17/2013.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 73.
[3] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 72, where he warns that a “retreat from the hostile unknown to the comfort of the familiar,” if it becomes a “permanent posture, becomes spiritual escapism.”
[4] cf. Patrick Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving,” in Theology Today 45 ( July 1988): 180, where he says that Israel’s songs of praise “are fundamental indicators that wonders have not ceased, that possibilities not yet dreamt of will happen, and that hope is an authentic stance
[5] Cf. H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 449, where he points out that the Psalm reflects “the unique tension in which the community found itself in reorganizing after the return”; although they had experienced “a wonderful liberation,” the “actual realization of the prophetic promise was long in coming.”
[6] cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 400: he sees this as one of the “pilgrim Psalms,” songs sung by those who were en route to Jerusalem for the observance of a feast day.
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1195.  Although some see the tears as a ritual mourning for the fertility god, he points out that the tears in this case “may simply emphasize the urgency of the need already articulated.”
[8] Cf. Artur Weiser, Psalms, 763, in the metaphor of sowing and harvesting, the Psalmist sees the “mysterious power of God which creates new life out of death.”
[9] cf. Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving,” 180: “the countless hymns of praise, from the song of Miriam and Moses at the Exodus to the hallelujah chorus at the end of the Book of Revelation, arise out of the structure of faith in the dialogue with God.”
[10] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:382, where he reminds us that one’s present relationship with God “consists of more than a memory of past faithfulness, decisive though that be in certain contexts.”

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