God Makes a Way
In the section of Isaiah to which today’s passage belongs, chapters 40-55, the overriding concern—both of the prophet and of God's people—is their exile in Babylon. They had lost everything: their land, their homes, their livelihood, their families; and, to some extent, they felt they had lost God as well. This crisis had raised the most serious of theological questions: Where was God in the midst of this great disaster? Why had God allowed this to happen? What kind of a future did the chosen people of God have now? In other words, God's faithfulness, God's goodness, God's omnipotence—God's very identity—were at stake for the Hebrew people, as they questioned whether God had gone back on the promises to be with them always.
The words of God recorded in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah were spoken to desperate people in a desperate situation. The message given to them begins with the opening verse of Isaiah 40: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God." From this verse, we know that Isaiah's message to God's people will be a word of encouragement, a word of consolation, and, most importantly, a word of hope.
The situation in which the Hebrew people found themselves is a timeless one, not because all of us today understand the experience of exile—though some of us do—but rather because we all have experienced tragedy, either directly or indirectly. We know how loss, shame, and grief swirl around us and cloud our vision, preventing us from seeing anything but darkness and despair. Sudden deaths, broken relationships, bad decisions, cruelties of others, and cruelties of our own—all these things linger about us and hinder our ability both to see the future and to move into it. What's more, they also raise for us the most serious of theological questions. They cause us to doubt the promises we’ve received in Jesus Christ: divine forgiveness, new life, and the love of God.
This section of Isaiah 43 begins with a reference to God’s identity as one “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” Bodies of water serve as both barriers and conveyances of life. In an era of bridges and airplanes, when we can easily drive or fly over bodies of water, it’s easy for us to forget the power the images had for earlier ages. In the ancient world such images were central to the core stories of the Hebrew people. In verses 16 and 17, the prophet who is speaking for God employs the image of the sea as a barrier. Later on he uses the image of rivers as conveyors of life.
The reference to God as one "who makes a way in the sea" reminds the listener of the intervention of God to allow the Israelite slaves to cross the barrier of the Red Sea. This very same God then closed the water around the forces of Pharaoh: "they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.”  The story of the escape from slavery through the sea, told in Exodus 14, became an essential part of the identity of both the Israelites and of their God. The God of Israel is the God who makes a pathway through the barriers to freedom, whether they are constructed by Pharaoh or are natural formations like the Red Sea.
What are those barriers, human creations or features of the natural landscape, that stand in the way – your way, my way, our way – of following God's lead toward freedom? How do we as a congregation listen to the call of God away from whatever would enslave us, whether that is prosperity or poverty, success or failure, growth or decline? What could it mean for us that we follow the God who specializes in making a pathway through whatever barriers would stand in the way of the freedom of the people of God?
In the next verse of Isaiah 43, the prophet makes an unusual turn. God instructs the listeners, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”  This is very unusual, because every time the Israelites forgot their history, terrible things happened. They worshipped other gods and neglected widows and orphans. Usually, the prophets encouraged their listeners to remember the one who brought them out of Egypt. In fact, didn’t God just remind them of that fact? Why in the world would God, who keeps reminding the children of Israel of that miraculous escape through the sea, now say that such recollection is not important?
The answer comes in the verse that follows. God is "about to do a new thing," and because of that, the imagery shifts from water as a barrier to water as a conveyor of life. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  The prophet is asking the listeners to experience the reversal that God is initiating for the sake of all creation, but the implication is that those who should be listening and responding are not. "Do you not perceive it?" the listeners are asked.
This question of perception connects well with the story we heard from the gospel of John.  In the story of the anointing at Bethany, Mary appears to understand – or at least is beginning to understand – the new thing that God is doing among God's people. Judas and probably other guests at the table continue to see the world in its older form. Jesus reminds the disciples that the poor were here yesterday (alas!) and the poor will be here tomorrow (alas!). There will always be the opportunity to serve the poor – in fact, it’s a requirement for those who want to follow Gods ways – but right now, right here, God is doing a new thing. That new thing is the incarnation, proclamation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Mary does right to leave aside the old ways for now and serve the new.
Do we perceive it? Are we prepared for the reversal that God is about to perform? Or will we, like the children of Israel, proclaim that we had it better when we were slaves?
Most of us have heard the phrase, "We've never done it that way before." Most of us have probably said it at one time or another. These words, “We’ve never done it that way before,” are sometimes called the seven last words of the church. They’re evidence that we do not perceive the new thing that God is doing. Are we so comfortable in our present self-understanding that we’re unable to perceive what God is doing in our midst? Do we see the difference between remembering the God who leads us to freedom and clinging to past practices that continue to enslave us?
God is once again going to provide a pathway, this time through the wilderness. What wildernesses are in our lives and in our congregation now? How are our challenges different than ones we faced in the past? What new thing is springing up?
God's new thing will spring forth like rivers that water the desert. Water will once again be a source of life, rather than a barrier. There will be water to drink, to irrigate fields, and to water livestock. The prophet speaks of a God who will cut a path through the water when it gets in the way of the divine call to freedom. God will also use water as a pathway through the wilderness of the world toward the new thing that is God's yearning for a beloved, imperfect people.
The rivers of water are not intended for humans alone, but for the jackals and the ostriches as well.  These are not common creatures, so we might infer that these streams of waters are intended for even the most dangerous and outlandish of God's creatures. We are even told that these wild creatures will honor God for the water that is provided to preserve their lives. The prophet emphasizes that humans could take a lesson from such beasts.
The chosen of God are offered this way and this source of life for the same reason as the wild beasts. The goal of freedom and new life is to offer praise to the God who provided freedom and life in the first place. What God has done before, God will do again, but not in the same way. Hold on, trust in the Lord, and keep faith. What God has in store is as miraculous and satisfying as water in the wilderness.
These chapters in Isaiah, and particularly these verses in chapter 43, continue to resonate with God's people almost three thousand years after they were written, because we too often find ourselves in need of a good word from the Lord; because we too find ourselves in crisis moments, wondering how God will be revealed and come to us.
As was the case for the Israelites in exile, our faith, our relationship with God is at stake. Can we still believe in a good God when awful things have happened to us and around us? Can we still trust that God will be faithful, even when God seems absent? Can we hope that God is still at work in our lives, creating a future for us where no future seems possible?
Isaiah assures the Israelites and us that the answer to these questions is “yes.” He restores the people's faith in their God and encourages them to believe and hope beyond what they can see, beyond what they can envision for themselves. Because, in fact, these verses are a testimony to the identity of the one true God, the Lord of heaven and earth.
Here in this passage in particular, Isaiah shows us that God is a God of the future—and not just any future, but a future full of hope and promise. God is the one who brings hope out of desperation, day out of night, and joy out of mourning. God makes a way where there is no way, and God leads us into a bright future that we are able neither to see nor to create for ourselves.
My friend and colleague, Joanna Harader, writes a blog called Spacious Faith. One entry, reprinted in the February issue of The Mennonite, demonstrates how God can make a way and provide hope in the midst of difficult circumstances, even when the outcome is not what we want it to be. This is what she wrote:
In February 2013, when my dad went into the hospital, I was overwhelmed by the intense, unbearable hope that my dad be made well. At first, this was hope for a diagnosis. I thought that if we could just name his disease, the doctors could make Dad better. I was wrong.
When I got what I wanted, I didn’t want it after all, because the diagnosis was aggressive killer-cell leukemia/lymphoma. It was a death sentence. And my deepest hope was for my dad to not die, for him to not be in the hospital with oxygen flowing into his nose through tubes, barely able to talk, having to call in a nurse to help every time he had to urinate.
If you have ever hoped for something impossible, you know how it feels. It’s like your soul is banging itself against a brick wall, and the wall doesn’t give. And your soul won’t stop. Every time it flings itself, it just hurts worse because it’s already so battered and bruised.
Despair—that’s probably what you’d call it—the shadow side of hope, when hope slams you into a wall of impossibility and grief. My tendency is to save myself from despair by moderating hope, by trying not to want anything too much. This is not a way to live life to the fullest, but it can work in staving off despair—until it doesn’t.
We fall in love. We get sick. We watch someone we love waste away. And the hope sparks and burns into despair. Then what?
In my dad’s hospice room, there was moment when he didn’t have the energy to speak, when his breathing was labored, hollow, when we knew the disease was poisoning his whole body, when his children, wife, and grandchildren were gathered around him and the “Hallelujah Chorus” was playing. There was a moment when my deep hope shifted and I desired for him his release from that broken, breaking body.
A shift in hope. To hope for something we don’t really want—something painful in its goodness, heart-wrenching in its holiness. Is that a form of grace?
Yes, Joanna, that is a form of grace, a way that God made for you.
How has God provided each of us and our congregation with a gracious way through the wilderness of our world? How will we respond?
Isaiah shows us the importance of moving forward, continuing to live life, as a sign of trust in God—trust that God is leading even though we don’t know where, and trust that God will create something new and will give life, even in the wasteland. 
Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Isaiah 43:16, New Revised Standard Version.
 Isaiah 43:17, New Revised Standard Version.
 Isaiah 43:18, New Revised Standard Version.
 Isaiah 43:19, New Revised Standard Version.
 John 12:1-8.
 Isaiah 43:20-21, New Revised Standard Version.
 Joanna Harader, “The Transformation of Hope,” The Mennonite, February 2019, pp. 20-21.
 “Worship Resources, Lent-Easter 2019,” Leader: Winter 2018-19, MennoMedia, p. 46.