God’s call to exiles in Isaiah 43:18 to “not call to mind the former things or ponder the things of the past” is a plea to break with our inherited or self-constructed identities, and open ourselves to our true selves and future.
After all, we humans mostly see ourselves and others according to our pasts: our upbringing, education, successes, failures, losses, traumas, hardships, etc. But truly perceiving ourselves through God’s eyes, and stepping into our spiritual identity changes everything.
Earlier in Isaiah 42:1, the Lord presents the very people who were then-and-there enslaved to the Babylonians as “my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” God stakes his claim, countering past and present realities by stating the outside empowerment and mission freely given.
“I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
Servant Israel is far from enlightened, qualified or even completely free. They are deaf and blind (v. 18), “a people plundered and despoiled; all of them are trapped in caves, or are hidden away in prisons; they have become a prey with none to deliver them” (v. 22).
This is the people who are called to “establish justice in the earth” (v. 4), be “light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon” (v. 6-7).
The prophet Isaiah calls us to not let the past dictate how we see ourselves now, but to step into the realm of faith, expecting it to be true that: “I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?” (43:19)
Right now as I grieve my mom’s death, we face the departure of more of our Tierra Nueva colleagues, and we continue to lament 16 months of not being able to ministry in the our local jail and prison, Gracie and I are trying to not focus on the past, but anticipate the new springing up before us.
“I will even make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”
The words here for wilderness include the Hebrew midbar (desert), used often as the destination of fugitives, the despised and rejected, and prophets (Gen 16:6; 21:14, 20; 37:22). The second word yesiymon can be translated “wasteland,” and is where David retreated with his outlaw fighters when persecuted by King Saul (1 Sam 23:19, 24; 26:1, 3). They can symbolize places of desolation, marginalization, exclusion, and failure.
God himself is making a way into these places, which in our setting certainly include prisons, trap houses, homeless encampments—but also nursing homes, and the very minds and hearts of people struggling with illness, addictions, loneliness, depression, confusion and any chronic mental health disorder. Now it is springing up. Will you not be aware of it?
“The beasts of the field will glorify me,” says the Lord. “The jackals and the ostriches.” Jackals evoke howling mournfully in waste places and deserted sites.
Ostriches are unclean birds, considered detestable (Lev 11:13-19), symbolic of loneliness and desolation.
Both appear together associated with lament and grief (Micah 1:8; Job 30:28-29), dwelling among the ruins or wilderness (Is 34:13; Jer 50:39).
God makes a path to them right where they are, bringing living water- as Jesus does to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:10). “To give drink to my chosen people” is most certainly a high priority. We are right now feeling called to part of this most holy mission— the new thing in these desolate times.
Who might be the human equivalents of jackals and ostriches in your community—God’s chosen people?
I think of one of our community members who recently relapsed, who we’ve pursued by phone to no avail. A few weeks ago he pulled up in his car in our Tierra Nueva parking lot to listen to our service, sweating and distraught as he was coming down off of heroin. I came to his car window and prayed for him. The next day he went into detox and is now back in treatment. Yesterday he showed up at Tierra Nueva on his bike full of joy. He is excited about the possibility of being one of our worship leaders.
I think of a woman we’ve pursued for 25+ years who showed up yesterday at Tierra Nueva with her grandchildren, wanting a copy of my book Reading the Bible with the Damned, since she’s in it. She’s been an outlier from our ministry due to her own choices, and years in federal prison for running drugs across the Mexican border. But yesterday she returned. She told me she’s $250K bail and expects to have to do some time soon, and wanted prayer.
We all need to come to see ourselves afresh as beloved servants of God, chosen and empowered by the Spirit to advance beautiful Jesus movement in the wastelands of our world. Our current focus at Tierra Nueva is to mobilize our faith community to bring living water to God’s chosen ones, which in our setting are people affected by immigration, incarceration and addiction.
“The people whom I formed for myself will declare my praise” God says, declaring a future not yet present… which we are leaning into now.
Consider joining us for Heidi Basely’s upcoming Trauma Workshop. Don’t forget to check out my recent book Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit and series of Guerrilla Bible studies.