Opening The Old Testament
Remember to Forget: Reflections on Isaiah 43:16-21
We, just like those 6th-century B.C.E. exiles, need to hear the astonishing idea that Isaiah now pours into the despairing exilic ears. "Do not remember the former things, nor pay attention to the old things," he trumpets (Is. 43:18). What an absolutely incredible thing to say to people who have spent their lives remembering: what YHWH has done, what YHWH has given, what their ancestors have done and said. It could fairly be said that all religion is based on memory. "Do this in memory of me," we Christians intone every time we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord. How in the world can we believe any prophet who demands that we forget those things we have been asked always to remember?
And the answer is: memories can too often get in the way of the new thing of God. And just look at what those old things are, according to Isaiah. The "former things" he bids us forget are more literally "the first things." He uses the first word of the book of Genesis, rosh, whose basic meaning is "head," and by implication "first," "begin," and "start."
God Invites Us to a Different Dance
To dwell only on what YHWH has done is possibly to cloud what YHWH can and will do. And so he says, "Observe! I am doing a new thing. It sprouts now; don't you see it? I will create a road through the wilderness, a river in the desert" (Is. 43:19).
Our God is the God of the new thing. If we expect this God always to act in the ways we expect, based on our memories, based on what we have experienced before, we run the terrible risk of missing what God is about now. "Don't we see it, this new thing of God?" pleads Isaiah. And too often we must answer, "No." We are too busy doing things in the old way, the tried and true way, the familiar way, the way we know and trust.
Our wildernesses are devoid of roads; our deserts are dry. We are like those who define madness; we do the same things again and again and expect different results. But the God of Isaiah pipes a different tune; the God of Easter calls a different dance. But if we are to sing anew and dance afresh, we must remember to forget. We must expect the new work of God, be alert for the new thing of YHWH. The promise for us this Lent and Easter is "water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert to give drink to my chosen people" (Is. 43:20). And like the woman at the well in the Gospel of John, we cry, "Give me some of that water, so that I may never thirst again."
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.