God’s instructions to exiled people in Babylon through the prophet Isaiah strike me as highly relevant now.
“Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?” (Is 43:18-19)
These words help us avoid the trap of old mindsets and ways of doing things so we can re-focus our attention on the new things that the Spirit is initiating in our lives and world.
The “former things” for Jews in exile, included the glorious and romanticized past of Israel’s successes, awesome temple worship and religious feasts, and powerful kings.
Lately, I find myself remembering the early beginnings of Tierra Nueva in Honduras, where we went from village to village on our motorcycle, meeting with farmers in their fields, leading spontaneous reflections on Scripture under trees in corn fields. I think of the many dynamic Bible studies in past years in our local jail, our vibrant worship and gatherings in the months before Covid that brought in the most vulnerable, and many other high points of our lives.
Calling the idealized past to mind stirs up nostalgia and invites comparisons, leading to discouragement and desires to return to the sacred beginnings or traditions that hold power. The Lord prohibits this as distraction that keeps us looking backwards rather than forwards.
“Former things” also include the people’s individual and corporate failures: idolatry, rebellion, refusals to pay attention to the prophets… When I focus on my failures, I can easily despair over things I can’t go back and re-do. It is important to carefully discern how things went wrong, to learn from past mistakes so as to not repeat them. But the replaying of failures must come to an end; otherwise regrets, remorse and discouragement will result, which can be better resisted and overcome through honest confession, repentance, receiving forgiveness and choosing to listen to God’s voice now.
“Former things” can also include past hurts and traumas that have wounded and crippled us, causing us to see ourselves as victims. Israel’s past traumas are called “oppression” (Is 52:4) and “former devastations” (Is 61:4). Blame, resentment, bitterness, hatred towards those who have harmed us can invade our lives. False guilt, shame, self-hatred, and despair can also become installed when we listen to and internalize accusing voices.
Rather, we must learn to identify and carefully name offenses, uncovering the wounds to the healing light and cleansing waters, and engage in the process of grieving, lamenting, receiving God’s healing and comfort, and eventually forgiving.
I don’t believe Isaiah is suggesting escapism, denial or a spiritual smoothing over of past atrocities or brutal ways we were sinned against or participated in sin ourselves.
Right before these challenging instructions of Isaiah 43:18-19, God calls himself “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” and describes the destruction of the Babylonian perpetrators and the liberation of the oppressed using the language of Exodus from Egyptian slavery.
The Lord “makes a way through the sea, and a path through the mighty waters. The chariots, horses, army and mighty men “will lie down together and not rise again,” writes the prophet, stating God’s commitment to effectively addressing injustices that traumatize, rather than overlooking them and calling people to forget about past atrocities and traumas. God can be trusted to be 100% about liberation and life.
But everything in the past is included in “former things,” which are not to be called to mind or pondered. We are only to remember God’s past saving actions (Is 46:9), a remembering which is essential so our faith is enlivened so we can watch for the new.
“Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?”
God promises something new that is underway, in the future and even immediately—now! “Now it will spring up! Will you not be aware of it?” This evokes God’s original creation (Gn 2:9), righteousness (Is 45:8), the living word (Is 55:10); recovery (Is 58:8) and newness of life (Is 61:11).
Waiting and watching for the new in the here and now requires active faith, described earlier in Isaiah 43:10-11.
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me. “I, even I, am the Lord, and there is no savior besides me.”
In order to become an active witness of the new work of God in the midst of devastation, I am seeing I must surrender and cooperate with the Lord’s choosing and recruiting movement. We are chosen so that we “may know and believe and understand” that the Lord (identified as Jesus in the New Testament) is true and real—the One—and that there’s not other savior options.
Paul writes about this is in his own way in Philippians 3:13-14
“I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Faith in Jesus is required if we’re to identify and attune ourselves to the “something new” that’s springing up. This is how we receive the mind of Christ, rather than leaning on our own way of thinking.
“Will you not be aware of it?” asks the prophet.
Will I not?
I pray that you and I will be spared from ignorance. I pray that you and I will become freed up enough from focusing on the past to perceive the new works that God has prepared for us in this season. I want to notice and step onto the pathway God is making in the wastelands and drink from the rivers in the desert.
May God bless you with active faith so you will become aware so you can fully participate in the new movement of God in these times.