by Chad McKenna
How many times in the last few weeks have you talked about weather with someone and they said, “You know, this right now is my favorite time of year! I love the melting snow, the slush and mud and puddles, and the cold days that seem to last far beyond the official start of spring. It's just so beautiful, and I want it to last forever!”
A friend of mine who is a teacher posted on Facebook that even her second-grade students were groaning when the snow started falling last week. We are tired of this winter, and we want out. And on the last day of class before a week-long break, I'm sure many of us are thinking the same thing about this semester. We want out.
This is a place we often find ourselves in, isn't it? This story of escaping into something better has been told time and time again throughout history. I'm pretty sure this is the basis for every Disney movie. “There must be more than this provincial life.” “I wish I could be part of your world.” “I want to be a real boy.”
“When I turn 18, I am so out of here!” “I could leave this wretched life behind if only I had more money or power or strength.” “Who will come and free us from the bondage of slavery?”
In the Isaiah text we've been hearing since Sunday, Isaiah recalls the way in which the ancient Israelites were released from slavery. They wanted out, and God sent Moses to set them free. Isaiah recalls the way in the sea, and the armies and chariots of Pharaoh that pursued the Israelites, only to be quenched like a wick. Talk about your grand exits! Yet, Isaiah immediately turns and says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”
Isaiah was writing to the Judeans in their Babylonian exile. Decades earlier, they had been forced from their home in Jerusalem, and they yearned to go back. They wanted out, and so they told stories to one another of the last time God freed them from captivity. But Isaiah tells them it's going to be different this time. “God is about to do a new thing.” But how?
Some scholars believe that when this was written, Cyrus of Persia was already invading Babylon, and that the Judeans were anticipating their release from captivity once he defeated the Babylonian armies. This is the Cyrus whom they called their anointed one, a messiah, sent by God to deliver them by force. If Isaiah is, in fact, alluding to Cyrus when he mentions the chariots and horses, he's comparing the ancient Exodus story with what's unfolding before them. But, then he throws that comparison away and tells the people of God that the actions of Cyrus are not causing history to repeat itself.
The Judaeans are getting a way out, and this time it would be different. Instead of being pursued into the desert, instead of wandering aimlessly for 40 years, with little water and terrible food, God is about to do something new. This won't even be the trek Abraham took when he first left these lands for Canaan by going around the desert. This is a direct beeline from Babylon to the ruins of Jerusalem through the barren wilderness. In the words of one scholar, “this is a procession led by God who acts in the events of history [to lead the Judeans] from political bondage to the rebuilding of community.” God is about to make a way for the Judeans - a procession from exile through wilderness waterspouts and rivers into a new Jerusalem.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And I'm not just referring to the wilderness journey we've been talking about these past five weeks of Lent. Exile is all around us. The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released an interactive map of all the food deserts in our country. A quick look at Chicago on this map bears an unsettling image of poverty and scarcity in our city, where God's children yearn for a way out.
All of us have found ourselves in exile. We have been pulled away from peace in our community, ripped from healthy relationships with one another, and made unable to bring our true and honest selves out into the open. We want out.
Bob Dylan and his contemporaries often told this exile story through the voice of the prisoner. In a 1967 song, Dylan sings,
They say everything can be replaced
Yet every distance is not near.
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here.
I see my light come shining
from the west unto the east
Any day now, Any day now
I shall be released.
In our exiled lives, we yearn for release. Like prisoners, we struggle to look toward the future as we dwell on thoughts of the past. It was in this struggle that those who followed Jesus anticipated his entry into Jerusalem. As John tells the story, the night before Jesus took a ride on a donkey, he went to dinner with his friends in Bethany. And there, as Jesus sat next to the man he raised from the dead, Mary anointed him. Jesus, anointed like Cyrus, was about to bring release to God's children, and the sense of this wafted over his followers. Yet, release would not come by force, nor would it come from an earthly king. Jesus, anointed for his burial, is about to do something new. In the week ahead, he will ride a donkey into Jerusalem as shouts of praise turn to shouts of crucify when the people decide they'd rather have release in their own, old ways.
There's some indication in the prophets that some of the Judeans in exile were quite happy with their lives in Babylon. They'd listened to Jeremiah's words when he told them to build houses and plant gardens, and they'd done quite well for themselves. How often do we find comfort in exile that we'd rather stay there instead of joining in the restoration of God's people? How often does our society hold the faint possibility of wealth for some in higher esteem than the abolition of hunger for all? How often does our society say it would rather cling to its collection of weapons, remembering the time in which war brought the sense of freedom – when those same weapons have forced our children into an exile of suffering? When there is water on the wilderness road, why do we chose to stay in the old, dusty places that dry us to our very bones? Do we not want out?
God is doing something new. In this new thing, Jesus makes a way in the wilderness. His sweet-smelling feet, newly anointed, will walk the road through the wilderness of our world to the restoration of a New Jerusalem and ultimate release from every place of exile. Creation is about to be turned upside down as water flows in the desert, and even jackals and ostriches honor God on the road to new life.
Outside, the earth is already hinting at the new life to come. Daffodils and crocuses peek up from their slumber. Every now and then, you may hear the song of a bird whistling in anticipation. Our anointed one is creating a direct beeline from exile to New Jerusalem – from death to new life. Our God is calling us to journey through the water to restore the ruins of God's holy land, where all of God's people find peace, where relationships find reconciliation, where invisible souls are made visible, and where the poor are lifted up.
Our God is about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth.
How can you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:16-21, John 12:1-8