March 13, 2016
Fifth Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
Water destroys everything in its path. From the tiny leak that rots away the bathroom floor to the 20-foot high tsunami that obliterates everything on shore, water’s power is undeniable. People evacuate cities because of flood waters. If your home’s water pipes burst, emergency plumbing crews need to be called in, even in the middle of the night. In addition, water is responsible for such massive acts of destruction like the Grand Canyon. And as anyone who has ever been lost at sea knows, water takes no prisoners. The grip of its abyss is final. Water’s destructive force makes it a suitable basis for Isaiah’s prophecy in this Sunday’s first reading. He highlights God’s absolute authority as creator by illustrating his command over the power of water.
A Glorious Past
At first, the prophet points to the past, to God’s saving acts in the Exodus generation. When the Israelites had their back to the wall and were about to be trammeled by the the Egyptian army, God “made a way in the sea,” he pulled back the waters and allowed the Israelites to tramp through to the other side dry-shod. I can’t think of this scene without remembering one of the greatest special effects of all time in Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments, which deployed what amounted to the largest Jello mold in history—thousands of gallons of gelatin-laden water poured down on either side of the “Israelites”—all without computer graphics! When the Israelites travel across the dry sea-bed, the Egyptians race after them and are swept away by the waters. This scene was so strong in the memory of Israel, that Isaiah recalls it as one of the greatest acts of God’s saving power hundreds of years after the fact. The Red Sea drama depicts God’s mighty power over water. He is the creator of all things so he has power over his creation from start to finish. He is not like one of the pagan gods who only has power over a certain realm of the created order—the sky, the sea, the underworld. Rather, the Lord reigns over all of creation.
A Future of Hope
His great saving acts of the past give us confidence in him for our future. God’s power over the waters prepares us to believe that he will have power over the future turbulence that we might confront. In fact, Isaiah jumps from the Red Sea theme to the near-future of the exile. He sees the sad desert wasteland where the people of God have been confined—away from the land of promise, they are stuck in Babylon. It seems like a permanent time of desert and dryness, but in fact, God will again exercise his power over water. In that very desert, where his people are trapped, he brings forth rivers and streams. The dry land will overflow with water. The “old” saving act of deliverance from the Egyptians will give way to a new saving act: deliverance from Babylon. The “new thing” which God is doing is his new deliverance of his people. They will come back from Babylon and enjoy the flowing water, springing up in the desert-land.
Water in the Desert
Thus God has power over water, power that he exercised to deliver his people in the past, which he will use again to deliver his people in the future. Beyond that, the water springing forth in the desert recalls the times when God provided fresh drinking water for his thirsty people in the wilderness. He makes the bitter water sweet (Exod 15:25) and brings pure water out of a desert rock (Exod 17:6). In the same way that he provided water for the ancients, now, Isaiah prophesies, “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people” (Isa 43:20 RSV). God’s saving acts will be recapitulated.
The Desert of Sin
The water promised here not only reminds us of the deliverance that God wrought in the past for the ancient Israelites, but helps us look forward to the deliverance he brings to us. While the ancient people were trapped in a literal desert, we find ourselves in the desert of sin and separation from God. The desert represents that hell-on-earth of living within the curse of sin, confined by our own selfish desires, metaphysically “stuck.” And while the Israelites needed literal water, we need something even greater, the water of spiritual renewal and regeneration. Jesus himself tells us that he provides the “living water” (John 4:10). That is, he gives us the water that flows from his side, the water of Baptism, the water of spiritual change.
Water to Drink
In order to grasp Isaiah’s message, we need to recognize that we are in a desert and in need of help. Then we can recall the great deeds of the Lord from the past—how he has great power over creation, particularly over water, and how he uses that power to deliver us from the straits we find ourselves in. Then we can look forward to the power of his deliverance, his giving us water to drink in the dry place. We know he has the power to bring forth waterfalls in the desert so that we may drink. And then we will find our purpose: to praise our Redeemer (Isa 43:21).