Sermon Sunday, February 19, 2012

Isaiah 43:18-25

“Staying Fresh By Forgiving Frequently”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  120219SermonPodcast

Freshness.  It’s an illusive concept.  The human race has spent much of its life trying to figure out a way to keep things fresh.  Food mainly.  From how to store crops so they will last through the winter to how to keep meat for longer than a day or two, many brain cells have been sacrificed to solve this dilemma.  Great modern inventions like refrigeration and processes like vacuum packing and freeze-drying have moved us forward in the attempt to keep things fresh.  But there has been no greater achievement in human history than this: Tupperware.  Who knew that with a simple “burp” of a plastic container that freshness could be insured?

Yes, great energy has been devoted to finding a way to keep the important things in our life fresh – from food to clothes to that “new car smell.”  Great fortunes have been made by those who have succeeded in doing so, and great tragedies have resulted when others have failed at this endeavor.  “Freshness” may sound like a word from a television commercial jingle, but it is a serious and vital requirement for life.


And if that didn’t sound ominous enough, what is even more critical to the advancement of human life as we know it is to not only keep our food fresh, but to keep our thinking fresh.  And did I mention it is infinitely harder to keep our ideas, thoughts, and perspectives fresh than it is to keep a juicy t-bone steak or a succulent acorn squash fresh?  Well, it is.  Significantly harder.


And the prophet Isaiah, in the quintessential scripture text on freshness, reminds us so: “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?”  (43:18-19).  Isaiah 43, the chapter from whence this verse it taken, is part of what is called “Second Isaiah.”  It is termed such (there are actually three sections of the book of Isaiah) because the perspectives of this prophet change according to the situation of the people, in this case, the nation of Israel


A quick Bible Study is in order:

First Isaiah’s tone is harsh and condemnatory because he is confronting a complacent nation that had become comfortable in its rote religious practices and enchanted with the ways of the world, which were not God’s ways.  Second Isaiah, the section today’s text is in, is to a nation that has been decimated by its adversary, Babylon, and whose key leaders and thinkers have been carted off into exile to a foreign land.  From the first words of Isaiah 40 “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry that she has served her term,” this prophet recognizes the pain of exile and the despair of the people both at home in occupied territory and living lives far from their homeland.  Third Isaiah, then, is a word to the peoples after Babylon has been conquered and a benevolent Cyrus of Persia sends the Israelites back to their homes.


But here, in the middle, God-Through-Isaiah calls the people to fresh thinking and a renewed perspective.  It says something that Isaiah, in the midst of words of comfort and solace (“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”) takes a moment to both commend the people to take a fresh view on things, and to chastise them a bit for their reluctance to do so.

But isn’t that the way it has to be with us human beings?  Don’t we resist any suggestion that our thinking might be wrong or our perspectives out of whack when things are going fine and dandy?  Isn’t it sad that it oftentimes takes a tragedy or cataclysm in life to get us humble enough to receive the word that we may have to try a different way, think a new thought, follow a fresh path?


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It’s easy advice to give, but a hard pill to swallow.  Even if one is down on her luck, hearing that you need to look at life differently is either a “Duh!!!” moment or a “You’ve got to be kidding me???” instance.  But, assuming that you can recognize you need to get a fresh perspective, the devil is in the details.  How?  How does one “retool” the brain to think creatively and imagine freely.


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Then we get to the really hard and harsh lecture from Isaiah: “But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. I, I am [the One] who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (24b-25)


As I worked on this text this past week I had a bit of an “Aha!” moment.  My first line of thinking, and exegesis, explored the idea that the best way to keep a fresh perspective on life is to live lives of constant and profound forgiveness.  As God has forgiven us, so we must forgive ourselves and one another.


I do still believe that an attitude of forgiveness provides a strong foundation for free and creative thinking.  As long as we are bound by the grievances and hurts of the past, we will never be able to move forward in a hopeful and positive way.  Likewise, our hearts and minds will never be loose enough, relaxed enough, open enough to envision “new things” and perceive the fresh approaches to which God is calling us if they are filled with or hardened by unresolved violations and unexpressed resentments.


Yet having said that, I saw something more.  Rather than seeing in Isaiah’s words a reprimand or a reproach, I saw Isaiah simply stating fact.  When you could have brought me offerings, when you could have honored me, when you might have otherwise “bought me sweet cane with money” or “satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices,” you instead burdened me with your sins, wearied me with your iniquities.”  I was taken by the inclusion of “sweet cane”—sugar cane – in the list of offerings.  Who knew God had a sweet tooth?!


And that allowed me to imagine, what if, rather than seeing this text as a harsh, demanding God angry that the people did not bow low enough or cough up sufficient enough offerings, instead is all about a yearning, hoping, waiting God eagerly anticipating the good gifts of the children of God to be brought to the divine table?


Appreciative Inquiry Ideas

And this reminded me of something we’ve talked about before in this congregation, but which has not been explored fully: Appreciative Inquiry.  Appreciative Inquiry is a way of thinking about the world, a way of talking about ourselves, a way of interacting with one another which begins, first

David Cooperrider

and foremost, with a search for the best in people, our organizations, and the world around us.  Appreciative Inquiry, which was most fully explored right here in our own Cleveland by a professor at Case Western Reserve University (David Cooperrider), involves inviting folks to discover what gives them life and when are our communities and organizations most alive, most effective, and most constructive.  It invites folks to imagine, dream, and discover.


Appreciative Inquiry departs from the traditional way we analyze life.  Rather than doing a “cost/benefit” analysis, or making a list of “pros/cons” or “strengths/weaknesses,” it

seeks, fundamentally, to [enable people to] talk about..  past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper corporate spirit or soul– and visions of valued and possible futures. (1)


Do you understand what I am saying to you?  This is the “sweet cane” for which God’s sweet tooth is hankering!  God wants our best not our worst!  God wants us to bring our hopes, dreams, visions not our fear, failures, and pet peeves.


I believe that Isaiah, speaking to a people who have just experienced life from the best of times to the worst of times, reminds the people that every moment is an opportunity for fresh ways of thinking and new perspectives on life.  Not only an “opportunity,” but a requirement… to survive.  And the best way to keep life fresh and new is to not obsess about the negative, fixate on what is broken, become preoccupied with what is bad, but to “lay at the altar” of God the good things of life, naming those areas where success has been had and offering to God those moment we are faithful, fair and effective.


Isaiah 55 sings,

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (55:1-2)


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It is no coincidence in my mind that this text comes up in the lectionary during the month we are celebrating our congregation’s 170th Anniversary.  In a month where we are remembering the former things and we are considering the things of old, we are instructed, in no uncertain terms, that GOD is about to do a new thing – here at Franklin Circle Christian Church and in each and every one of our lives; NOW it springs forth, and we are called to perceive it.


This is the hardest thing for churches to do.  The tendency for any organization, but churches in particular, is to not just remember former things, but to dwell on them.  Rather than just considering the things of old, churches are inclined to obsess on them.  Go to almost any Official Church Board meeting in almost any church in the land, and the agenda items almost always include (either consciously or unconsciously) past grievances and former hurts.  Rarely are we able to lay at the altar of God in an Official Church Board meeting “sweet cane” or “the fat of our sacrifices.”


But if this congregation is to survive… and I say that knowing that we have been enjoying a period of success and faithfulness… if we are to survive for another year, much less another 170 years, we are going to have to stop laying our burdens at the altar of our God and wearying the divine with our sins.  We simply must find a way to talk about and learn from our achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper [communal] spirit or soul– and name and plan for visions of valued and possible futures.


If we are going to keep this community fresh, we are going to need more than a really big Tupperware bowl.  We are also going to need more than turf wars, personality spats, and nostalgic thinking.  The only way to keep this church fresh, and ourselves fresh with it, is to hear God’s voice saying “I am [the One] who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”  If God can do that, we most certainly can, too!




(1) Excerpt from A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney found online at:




Well, Isaiah recommends a few things.  It’s hard to hear Isaiah’s advice, because it is wrapped up in a short tirade about the failures of the people.  But that approach is actually part of the solution.  Let me tell you why.


The first thing Isaiah says, after declaring God is about to do a “new thing,” is to let the folks know that this “new thing” is so obvious, so apparent, so understandable that even the animals recognize it.  Even the deserts and rivers recognize it.  “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 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, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (19b-21) Kind of reminds one of when Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air..” and “consider the lilies of the field…”  All of creation honors God’s new perspective!


But then, Isaiah begins the scolding: “You did not call upon me…”  “You have been weary of me…”  “You have not honored me with your sacrifices…”  Now, let me remind you that this dressing-down comes after the people have been both comfortable (read that “fat and sassy”) and devastated (read that “broken”).  This rebuke, that “you did not call upon me” goes for both the times that we are happy-go-lucky and don’t think God has anything to do with it, as much as it goes for those down-on-our-luck times when we believe God has forsaken us.


One of the most important things that brings a fresh perspective is going to God… in good times as well as bad.  Prayer, humility, service and sacrifice to God are not only appropriate when our blessings are flowing like rivers but also when our wells have dried up.  And turning to God is on target at all the times in between: trickle, flow, rushing alike.  Recognizing that there is something, someone bigger than the best of our times and greater than the worst of our times allows us a viewpoint which is open, relaxed, and inquisitive.  Ephesians 6:18 reminds us, “Pray at all times with every kind of spiritual prayer, keeping alert and persistent as you pray…” (J. B. Phillips)



Auntie Mame tried to teach Patrick that, in the musical and movie, Mame.

Open a new window,

Open a new door,

Travel a new highway,

That’s never been tried before;

Before you find you’re a dull fellow,

Punching the same clock,

Walking the same tight rope

As everyone on the block.

The fellow you ought to be is three dimensional,

Soaking up life down to your toes…



Likewise, in Micah 6:6-8 we are reminded of that which God truly desires in our worship:

6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?