Food for Thought-Meet the Bipolar God of Lent (Isaiah 43:16-28)




I am never happy when the given Biblical (lectionary) text gives us four fifths of the story.  In doing so, reader is given an incomplete picture of God.  Nowhere is this more common than in prophetic readings which bracket the final steps of our Lenten journey toward Palm Sunday.  If there is a time when we need the fullest and most complete picture of God it is now.  The rainbows and sunshine of God’s new, new thing are comforting. However, there are troublesome aspects to the Good News that Christians love to ignore.  The contradictory, thought provoking passages which make God appear bipolar at best and downright mean at worst demand our attention.

Like the truth of a semi-literate carpenter riding a donkey in an awkward parade of mumbled Hosannas, we need to confront the reality of what we’re seeing.  The Jesus movement may not end in the political and economic victory we once hoped. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to read the end of that story.  What if the church decided it was simply too difficult for the God fearing people of United Methodism to read about the ignominious end of Jesus?  What would this say of our ecclesiastic leaders?  What would this say of God?  It would say we believe in nothing.  Our image of Jesus would be a lie.   It would mean fear governs how we read the Bible and lead our church.  Does fear, despite our pronouncements to the contrary, make more of our decisions than we realize?

The bad news (as opposed to the Good News) is that fear has surfaced in an all too brief reading from Isaiah 43.  These are beautiful, poetic words I often read at funerals.  This is poetry.  Poetry moves me and has the ability to encapsulate emotion, thought, and feeling unlike all other forms of literature.  The writer of Isaiah was one of the greatest Hebrew poets who ever lived. He writes:

16 Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
   a path in the mighty waters, 
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 
18 Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
19 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert. 
20 The wild animals will honor me,
   the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, 
21   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:16-21)

Who wouldn’t find inspiration and comfort in such beautiful verses? I am particularly moved by verse 18 and following, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing.”  Talk about good news!  Then we go on to hear those famous verses which John the Baptizer quoted when announcing Jesus’ imminent arrival prior to his Baptism.

For me, it always comes back to the 18th verse.  I’ve remembered it at many points in my life.  God says to Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it’s happening, do you not perceive it?”

Countless times I’ve looked around for God’s new, new thing.  That was until I read beyond the 21st verse, the lectionary’s suggestion for the fifth Sunday in Lent.  It seems God had more to say about new things, old things, expectations, and waiting.

Here’s where the 22nd verse begins:

22 Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
   but you have been weary of me, O Israel! 
23 You have not brought me your sheep for burnt-offerings,
   or honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
   or wearied you with frankincense. 
24 You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
   or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
   you have wearied me with your iniquities. 

What?  Who flipped the bi-polar God switch?  What did I do wrong all of a sudden?  I am truly sorry.  I thought we were fine.  Just an inch of text earlier, a second of time before, God loves me and is doing a new thing and encouraging me to recognize the overwhelming newness all about me.  An instant later, God is throwing “old” stuff back up in my face, things I’ve been given permission by God to forget.  I don’t like passive aggressive behavior in anyone, especially the God I’ve dedicated my life to serving.  More of the old things are brought up while God lectures me about how much he didn’t require of me.  This isn’t nice at all.  This isn’t new, hopeful, or happy.  This hurts me.  This is painful. Again, why is God so passive aggressive toward someone who loves him? How do we flip the switch and go back to the nice God in the lectionary selection?  We can’t.  The nice God, the mean God, and the bipolar God are one in the same.

God tells me I didn’t bring him candy (sweet cane) with money.  I didn’t bring candy and money.  God is not a bully on Halloween demanding my candy.  Or is he?  I didn’t know I had to bring candy with money.  No one told me this in Sunday School.  I thought we were talking about new things and new life and the Good News.  Now I’m being yelled at for not bringing candy with money to an ancient Semitic deity who appears to hate me.   How do I make this nonsense stop? I do not like being verbally abused.   I really don’t admire this ugly side to God.  I wish God would make up God’s mind and decided what God wants from me, humanity, and everyone else in the solar system.   I can’t pay the apportionment with candy.  I know the mission minded, goatee wearing crowd; they will need to talk with God about God’s people skills. This divine emotional ranting won’t win anyone over to anything; no matter how cool your drum set is.

Why can’t I preach pre-packaged sermon series like all the other preachers?  Life would be so much easier.  This is what I get for reading beyond the lectionary assignments.  They really know what they’re talking about when they call they Bible a dangerous book.  I met the bipolar God.  All I wanted to do was write a sermon.  What next? Should I let the people in charge picking these texts think for me?  Do I want to see the story they choose for me to see?  No, because eventually that would mean skipping Palm Sunday, Good Friday and going straight to Easter.  I’m not willing play that game.