Remember not

A sermon on the fifth Sunday in Lent
Reading: Isaiah 43.16-21      

‘Do not remember the former things,
      or consider the things of old.
 See, I am doing a new thing!’ 

The 17-metre monument stands just outside the gates to the Kremlin.

In 2016 President Putin unveiled a huge statue of Vladimir just outside the Kremlin and called on Russians to unite around it.
17 metres high – that monument is deeply symbolic of all that is going on in the Ukraine.

Near the end of the first millennium Vladimir had consolidated the large territory covering modern day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus into the Kingdom of Rus.
He also converted to Christianity at this time.
Vladimir’s statue is holding the cross up high
So this became the Holy Rus Kingdom.

Its Christian centre was Kiev – today, the capital of Ukraine.

This collective memory of a past, great kingdom is the ideological driver behind President Putin’s campaign – with the support of the Moscow Orthodox Patriarch.
Putin is the new Vladimir.
Re-creating the Holy Christian Kingdom of Rus is the goal and this requires Ukraine to be forced back into the fold.
But at what appalling cost?

Attempts at reviving the past tend to repress those in the present.

In our first reading Isaiah is prophesying to a people who had lost their holy Kingdom and land. Israel was in exile. 
Isaiah reminds them of their God who in the past delivered them from slavery under foreign powers and brought them to their own land and nationhood.
The God who
    ‘makes a way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty waters,
    who extinguishes chariot and horse’ ..

That was the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea.
The God who saves and liberates his people and makes them a sign to the world.

This is what they want to hear.
Surely our God will do this again?

But the prophecy continues

‘Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.’

This is a strange contradiction.
‘Remember’ is one of the most repeated commands in the bible.
Faith is kept alive in the challenges of today by remembering those stories of past deliverance and blessing.

But remembering alone can leave us stuck, resentful and unable to move forward in a world that has changed.

It happens on a personal level. I was joining in a recent on-line discussion which include several plainly gifted and thoughtful men who had, I could imagine, achieved much in their lives. But now in retirement they are just  sound angry, resentful and complaining about everything. It’s not like it was. 

It was the world cup draw this week and I think of England’s glorious world cup win in 1966 but how remembering it has plainly burdened us ever since. Rather than inspire it has weighed down successive teams with impossible expectations.

Remember not … or something new will never be free to happen now.

I think of this country of mine in a complex place regarding our national and international identity.
It is particularly illustrated by Brexit and our complex reactive relationship with European nations … by the mantra of ‘taking back control’ and the claim to be needing national liberation.
This has complex roots in the history of this land and its former days of empire and status.

The Church too can get stuck.
Weighed down by past glories. Those fond memories of full churches everywhere … 
Those days when people knew what they believed. 
Searching now for solutions means looking back …
If we only used the services we used to
If only parish clergy visited everyone like they used to .
If only we believed in the parish system more
If only Bishops today were the real leaders and theologians like they used to be.

        … pulling out of the past – from those times when it was, apparently, all good and flourishing – the ‘answers’ to the supposed failings of today.
And it is always someone else’s fault.

We too have our monuments.
And most idols are made out of the past.

What God’s people are called to remember is the character of God in history.
But not a God who repeats things.
There is no way back.
Nor does there need to be.
For God makes things new.

Christian faith is future orientated.
We are forward looking people.
‘Follow me’ is the call of Jesus.

Faithful and wise remembering means learning well and to holding on to the things that matter.
These are what we call our traditions.

But if we only cling to the past glories and achievements, as if there is some way back – we are lost. We are stuck. And we will only complain or try to force a story on the world that is not liveable.
That is what we call traditionalism.

It has been said:
Tradition is the living faith of the dead.
Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living – stuck in past, memories, fixed in past identities and achievements.

So the call is – remember your God and the stories in history that reveal God’s ways and inspire trust and faith and hope.
Remember with gratitude what has gone before, that has been good and honourable.

But do not cling to those past events.
Hold it all on an open hand.
This may mean letting go of even our preferred ways of doing things. 
And not because they are wrong but because what it needed is changing.
That can feel hard.
We must let go and reach out ahead in trust …

So how do these words speak to us today and how do we receive them in hope and trust?

‘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?’

If God blessed, delivered, created new things then – he will do it again in our time.
But not the same way.
He makes things new.

So let us lean into God’s future
– living in trust and hope for all this world may yet become ….

God looks forward too – not back.
God is there ahead of us

He waits to greet us.

David Runcorn