I don’t know if you ever noticed, but every member of our family wears corrective eye wear of some sort – either glasses or contact lenses. Over the course of the last several weeks, we have received reminder post cards for our annual eye exams. You’re familiar with those reminders, yes? My kids look forward to their eye exams, because it usually means a new pair of glasses. Thankfully, eye glasses are high fashion these days.
When I was a little girl, however, that was not the case! I hated wearing glasses. Kids made fun of me and called me “four eyes.” They slid down my nose in the summertime when I got sweaty. My parents made me wear a strap to play basketball and volleyball. I was not a pretty girl, and those dumb glasses certainly didn’t help. Adjusting to life with glasses was difficult, but I had to wear them to see. Without them, I saw very little.
Leading up to and during adolescence, my vision changed rapidly, requiring adjustment to my prescription lenses and frequent visits to the optometrist. For a couple years, my lenses were being replaced every few months to keep up with my changing eyesight. This required me to pay attention to my vision, to be ever-vigilant about seeing.
Thankfully, in my twenties my prescription stabilized. I resumed a yearly eye exam like a normal person. In my thirties, I slid out of that routine and grew a bit complacent as my vision remained the same for many years. When I went for an exam at forty, the optometrist asked if I had any difficulty reading. “No change!” – I was emphatic.
Last year I began to notice major eye fatigue in spite of seeing just fine, mind you, so I brought it up at my exam. The optometrist asked my age (of all things!), then proceeded with the check-up.
He put my prescription in his machine and pointed down to the eye chart. “See. This is what you’ve been seeing for the last many years.” he said.
No problem! I could see the chart.
Then, he placed a card with the tiniest letters I’ve never seen (I bet you couldn’t see them either!) just a few inches from my eyes and adjusted his machine once more. “Now, see!” he said.
It was clear and sharp, even the tiniest letters. My mouth may or may not have fallen open in disbelief.
“See? Can you see?” he said. “This is what your reading vision can be with new bifocal lenses. Perhaps your eyes are tired because you cannot see.”
Huh. My eyes had been working so hard to continue seeing through old lenses that they were dried out and exhausted. I had grown accustomed to my limited vision, so comfortable in fact, that I could not imagine the possibility of clearer sight. Not only did my limited vision keep me from aspiring to see more clearly, but it also stole the joy I derived from being a reader and writer. I had been avoiding the reading and writing, which I love and which are a large part of my call because I had tired eyes. I needed new sight; there was no way around it. As difficult as it was for me to admit and accept, bifocals were the answer. To be my very best me and to make my unique contribution to the world, I had to be able to see.
See – it’s a little word with huge implications. It can simply refer to sight, as in “look.” It can draw our attention, as in “behold.” It can ask us to understand, as in “perceive or recognize.”
American Baptist Women have charted a three-year course to explore all the ways in which they might be called to “see” – themselves, the world, and the Triune God. Today in our short time together, I’d like us to consider “see” in the same three ways my optometrist evaluated my vision.
See. See! See?
But first, our Scripture. We will see and hear it through multiple translations.
The Word of the Lord from Isaiah 42:9…
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them. (NRSV)
The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
but I’m declaring new things.
Before they even appear,
I tell you about them. (CEB)
“But forget all that—
it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? (NLT)
Don’t remember the prior things;
don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? (CEB)
The prophet has issued Israel a passionate reminder for a vision exam. Through Isaiah, God repeatedly calls the people to see – with their eyes, their hearts, their minds. Remember, if you will, that the people of Israel have been carried off to Babylon; they are captives living in exile under the rule of a foreign king. The older generation had been dragged away from their homes and from the religious ritual of Jerusalem’s temple. They lost their symbols, their land, and their temple. The people don’t know what to do, so they lament, mourn, and grieve for their past. This is a people in despair who believe that they’ve been forgotten, forsaken, and abandoned by God. The younger generation has been born and raised in Babylon; they have no national memory except for what their elders share. The youngers are comfortably entrenched in this world; they’ve seen no evidence of God’s presence. They are skeptical, no less abandoned by God than their parents and grandparents.
In response to their forsakenness, Isaiah brings a word from the Lord. It is indeed a word of hope in the end, but first it calls the people to account.
See. Look. Isaiah says to ancient Israel. The former things have come to pass. God fulfilled the promise to Abraham. God delivered you from Egypt and led you through the wilderness. God raised up judges and granted your request for a king. God has preserved you in exile. You have quite literally “seen it all.” But in these days in this strange place, God is preparing to do a new thing. See.
See! Behold! Isaiah says to ancient Israel. God is even now, while you live outside your homeland amid foreign customs and other religious traditions, doing a new thing. God has already begun a new work, declaring something never seen before. But, here’s the key to seeing it: you can’t see what’s new looking through the lens of ancient history. The past is past, over and done. You must leave it behind. See!
See? Don’t you get it? Isaiah says to ancient Israel. God’s new thing sprouts up right in front of you. It has even already begun. God is at work in Babylon, preparing to deliver and set you free. A foreign culture and strange customs do not diminish God’s power to renew and redeem. God is still God. God is the creator and maker of all things, the Living God. See?
God’s charge to ancient Israel and likewise to us is not unlike the optometrist’s charge to me. We can insist on seeing ourselves, each other, our church, our community, and our world the way we’ve always seen: risking the strain, fatigue, and lack of clarity that comes from looking through old lenses. Or, we can embrace a new way of seeing.
In Israel’s case, God brought deliverance through King Cyrus of Persia who conquered the Babylonians. I’m certain the people of Israel never dreamed that rescue from one foreign ruler would come through another foreign king. That was a new idea for them. As unexpected, unpredictable, and unimaginable as that was, it was God’s plan.
I wonder if we aren’t a lot like ancient Israel. This church, the Gage Park Baptist community of faith, has probably seen it all. We were founded in 1949 during the height of American Christianity. We were on the western edge of a growing capital city in a new residential neighborhood. We were the new thing, and we were doing new things.
Consider for a moment some of the things that this church has “seen” through the years. Are there any significant events that stick out in your mind? Now think about faithful lay leaders and pastors. Who comes to mind?
Thank you for sharing those significant events and leaders.
Now, hear Isaiah’s blunt admonition to Israel. “Forget the former things.” “Leave the past in the past.” I imagine they didn’t want to hear those words anymore than I wanted to be told I needed bifocals. But they were necessary.
We should consider the possibility that God also speaks to us, saying “Forget the former things, and leave the past in the past.” We will never reach the generations that come after us with the gospel of joy if all we do is lament for a world and a church that no longer exist. We can not pass along living faith in the living God to the generations that follow us if all we do is mourn the death of our traditions. We will never communicate Christ’s peace that passes understanding if we are continually waging war against change. Our world is desperate- not for stories of a glorious past- but for the reality of a hopeful future.
Remember, there is still a word of hope for Israel. “Behold! I am about to do a new thing.” I imagine they were uneasy, just as I was anxious about the bifocals. I was so stubborn, in fact, that I didn’t fill my prescription for a couple weeks. I Didn’t want to wear them, and I complained about them as I adjusted. The new glasses required me to let go of my old vision to which I’d grown accustomed and embrace a new way of seeing.
We should consider the possibility that God also speaks to us, saying “Behold! I am about to do a new thing.” That promise probably makes some of us nervous. Changing the way we see and do is difficult. It is much easier to view life through our old, comfortable lenses even if they render our vision unclear and leave us exhausted from all the effort.
But Isaiah was emphatic. God was already working on a new thing. The people just had to look for it and then recognize it.
I wonder what God might be calling us to see and recognize. We should consider that God is at work even now in places and through people that we never could have expected, predicted, or imagined. Israel did not expect deliverance to come through a foreign king, but that was God’s new thing for them. Likewise, God’s new thing for us might be just as unimaginable.
God wants us to see and recognize the new works of God within us and around us, so it must not be a secret. It just requires us to put on our new lenses and to really look at ourselves and our world.
Think about all that you are seeing on the news or in the paper or on the internet – both locally and globally. What are you seeing? As you think about what you’ve seen, consider the persons and places… where hope is lost; where violence is rampant; where war is commonplace; where hunger and thirst are real; where disease goes untreated; where education is limited; where dignity is absent; where joy is nowhere to be found. All those people, situations, and needs are opportunities to participate in God’s new redemptive work. We must be willing to move with God into a future that not only redeems us but also sets free a world captive to sin and self.
Today’s word is a reminder that God makes all things new. Our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof of that. If we’re willing to see (if we’re willing to put on our bifocals), God will continue to reveal newness in our lives and newness in the lives of all we touch with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.