A Future Shaped by God
by Sue Haslehurst
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
- Isaiah 43:18-19a
Are these verses telling us that God calls us to forget the past, to put the past year behind us as though it hadn’t happened, and to set our faces towards the future, starting with a clean sheet and turning over a new leaf?
I don’t think it’s quite that straightforward. In fact God, via the prophet, seems to be sending some rather mixed messages.
In the chapter from which these verses are taken, God also reminds Israel of events from their shared history with God to underline that they were created and redeemed by God. And no sooner have we heard the call not to remember the former things than God seems to go on to complain at how useless Israel has been - in the past - at fulfilling even the few undemanding religious observances asked of them. The passage goes on to say that God is the one who blots out Israel’s transgressions and does not remember their sins, but seconds later God is apparently reminding Israel of their past failures and their long track record of rebellion against God. And indeed just a few chapters later in Isaiah 46:9, we find God saying exactly the opposite of the verses I’m focusing on:
Remember the former things, those of long ago:
I am God and there is no other;
I am God and there is none like me.
So what are we to make of this? What was God saying through the book of Isaiah and what might that mean for us as we leave the past year behind and embark on the journey of the coming year?
Walter Brueggemann - a favourite author on the shelves of both the bookshop and the library at the London Mennonite Centre http://www.menno.org.uk - suggests three main strands in Old Testament prophecy: lawsuit/accusation, appeal for repentance and promise (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp635-643). Our passage in Isaiah 43 clearly offers promise. But God’s promise, says Brueggemann, does not cancel out the accusations over Israel’s sin (or, we might add, offer an alternative to repentance and obedience) “but… opens for Israel yet another season in its life with [God]”. This is a message the Jews in exile need to hear. Whereas in the heyday of the monarchy (this point comes from Brueggemann too) Israel’s main temptation was pride and thinking that they could stand up to or outwit aggressive superpowers without God, in exile their main temptation is to despair, to think that the future will be more of the same.
And this is, I think, where the call not to dwell on the past fits in. The past cannot be changed and its lessons and consequences may have continuing significance. But ultimately it’s not the past that will define and shape the future but God. Already God is doing a new thing and challenges Israel to look more closely and to see where that is already beginning.
So this passage is, in my view, not so much about turning over a new leaf or having a clean sheet but about imagining a future in which the vitality and freshness and creativity of God can transform even the most desperate of situations, and about living in hope for a future that is not more of the same but is God’s new thing.
(According to Brueggemann p639, the promises “provide the materials out of which Israel can reimagine its life in Yahwistic categories”.)
It is not the past that is lord of the future but God. The coming year will not be definitively and irredeemably shaped by the past year, which for some of us may have been marked by struggle, doubt, darkness and tragedy, but will ultimately be shaped by our God.