Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 7, 2019
Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
We are all familiar with some of the “hard sayings” of Jesus: if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, or anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. And we also know the “easy” or “comforting” sayings of Jesus: Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and humble of heart: and you will find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. But this saying at the end of today’s Gospel doesn’t seem to fit into those categories. Because at first glance, they are incredible comforting! “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” But then you start thinking, and the more you think the harder this saying is! “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” It’s a two edged sword.
We’ve all been there! Going to confession, confessing the same sins over and over. Or we go in and confess something that has been weighing on us for a while and we finally get it off of our chest. But the most difficult are those things that we know are wrong, that we know we need change, but we just don’t know how.
I was talking with one of our high school kids this week, and I asked him if he misses school at St. Margaret Mary and spending so much time with his class. And his words were very insightful. He said, “You know, at the beginning I didn’t think I would miss it. But now I kinda do. I just underestimated how much easier it is to stick with what you know than it is to do something new. You just kind of miss how things were.” And that’s it precisely! It is so much easier to go back to what we know, to stick with what we know, than it is to keep moving forward, to venture into the unknown. But this is precisely what we have to do in our relationship with our Lord.
This first reading we have from Isaiah is one of the most important in the whole book of Isaiah—or maybe it’s just one of my favorites. The readings starts off by describing the event of the Red Sea, when the Lord parted the waters and then the Egyptians followed behind but were then covered over by the waters, “snuffed out and quenched like a wick,” Isaiah says. And this is classic Jewish Scripture and religion: recalling the events of the past. Which makes it so strange when Isaiah, right after recalling the great triumph of the Lord at the Red Sea (one of Israel’s great memories), Isaiah follows this up by saying, “Thus says the Lord…Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not” (Isaiah 43:18).
Now, Isaiah was not a popular guy, much like all of the prophets. And so when he said this, when he told the Jews this, told them “not” to remember the events of the past, they must have looked at him like, “What? Are you serious?” They would have gotten upset! Everything they have is about preserving the ancient traditions! Everything that they are is intimately bound up in these stories and traditions! And Isaiah is telling them to forget it? That goes against who they are to the core. A lot of us have experienced this. It’s that experience of seeing your younger siblings get away with way more than you ever did—because you expect the customs and laws from your youth to be applied in the same way to your younger siblings. It’s the experience of discomfort when things are about to change and you said, “But we’ve always done it this way!” It’s what that high school kid shared, it is “much easier…to stick with what you know than it is to do something new. You just kind of miss how things were.”
But as we hear Isaiah continue: “Thus says the Lord…See, I am doing something new!…do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). The Lord is doing something new. All of our preconceived ideas, all of our stories that we draw from, all of our laws—there is something new! The ideology that we have been operating out of will not work anymore!
What Isaiah was proposing was ludicrous. And this example hopefully helps us understand. When you go into a library, how are the books categorized? Usually by genre or topic (fiction, non-fiction, history), and then sorted by subject or alphabetical by author, right? And we all think that is fairly obvious. Ok, what if you walked in and found that books were organized by the number of vowels on the first page of the book? Or by the number of pages? Or by the number of letter “E’s” on the 34th page? Ludicrous. Exactly. That’s how ludicrous it sounds when Isaiah starts prophesying that the Lord is “doing something new.”
Ok, back to the woman caught in adultery. In this woman’s case, “moving forward” had never been an option! “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” is a great thing to say but it defies all categories! It is something new. Completely new, completely unexpected. In her position, getting caught in adultery, the solution was simple: you’re dead. What was she supposed to do? This was a ludicrous thing to say. If you walked into the library and found the books organized by number of “E’s” on page 34, where would you begin?
How often is this our own situation when we’re caught-up in our own sins and bad habits and situations? We get so used to some of our sins that we don’t even realize that we do them. Or we have been doing something for so long we don’t know how to do anything else. It is “much easier…to stick with what you know than it is to do something new.” I tell people this in confession a lot, “One of the hardest parts of confession is confessing your sins, because you are finally admitting to yourself that you know what you did was wrong and you know that you need to change. But even harder than that is walking out the door and knowing how to change.” Again, we’ve all been there: confess our sins and we fall right back into it.
But look: the Lord is doing something new! Do you not perceive it? It is hard to perceive, because often it happens in ways that are so unexpected and unforeseeable that we don’t realize what has happened until much later. The Lord is alive and at work in our lives, constantly at work! He is not just a memory of the past. No, he is still at work. But in order to get caught up in that great flow, we have to jump in the river and stop standing by the river trying to catch it as it rushes by, trying to hold it and control it. No, the Lord is doing something new. It is so much easier to go back to what we know, to stick with what we know, than it is to keep moving forward, to venture into the unknown. But this is precisely what we have to do in our relationship with our Lord. He forgives us over and over and over again, never condemns us, always hoping that we’ll take him up on his offer to “sin no more” and embrace the newness of life, the fullness of life that comes when we live our life with complete and total abandonment to the flow of life he has prepared for us.