“See, I am doing a new deed.”
So says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah in today’s 1st reading. In its original setting, this verse relates to Israel’s return from exile in Babylon at the end of the 6th c. Isaiah prophesies a new Exodus.
To understand the Old Testament we need to remember two events. The whole story turns on them. The first is the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, usually dated to the 13th c. before Christ, and the second is the return of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon, dated to the late 6th before Christ. In the mind of Scripture these are the two great deeds which proved the Lord’s love for his people. They were redemptive; rescue operations, reversals of fortune, outbreaks of unexpected grace. In the Exodus, the people were rescued from loss of existence; they were a fledgling people, new-born, and so in danger of extinction. They were like baby Moses in his wicker basket, hidden in the reeds by the edge of the Nile and rescued by a stranger. Years later, this same Moses would lead his people out of Egypt through water, and the pursuing Egyptian army would founder in the Red Sea. The rest is history. It is an epic: the covenant at the foot of Mt Sinai, the 40-year trek through the desert, the crossing of the Jordan and possession of the Promised Land. And so the ugly duckling of an obscure middle-eastern tribe would, in the times of David and Solomon, become a swan, a strong, free, independent nation in its own right, with a famous temple where the Lord himself mysteriously dwelt. The Exodus contains all: a journey to freedom and life, land and sustenance, belonging and identity, led by the Lord. Every Passover commemorates it. But then everything unravels: God’s people split into two, one large part – the northern kingdom – disappears from history, the people forget God’s work, they begin to worship false gods, the leadership fails and the warnings of prophets go unheeded. The upshot is foreign invasion, destruction of the city and the temple, loss of land and nationhood, as return to nothingness. Yet after seventy years of exile, of harps hung up on the willow-trees of Babylon, suddenly a re-creation, a return. “See, I am doing something new.” And so back to the land they go, the Temple is rebuilt, the nation reconstituted. It was a resurrection.
These are two remarkable stories. They go against the tide of history, especially the second. And on them Israel built its hopes, hopes for still more, as the Jewish people still do. And this prophetic hope of Israel has entered humanity’s collective awareness and been a leaven of freedom ever since. This is Israel’s great gift to the world.
Back to Scripture though. “See, I am doing a new deed”. For us it means Easter. After Exodus, after return from Exile, the Lord is doing a new deed, of which the earlier deeds are merely preliminary sketches, pointers; a quite new, qualitatively different deed. Easter. The Easter-deed. Reconciliation with God through the sacrifice of the Cross and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ things. These realities underpin every day, every moment of our faith-lives. They took place in history – Christ was publicly, visibly crucified – or in the case of the Resurrection left traces in history. But they go beyond it. They have broken time and history open, and our own lives and selves too. Something has happened which history is too small to hold, something our mortal lives are too short and little for, something that needs the full breath of eternity and resurrection. Easter enlarges us. Something has happened that takes us not just out of Egypt or Babylon, out of loss of land or nationhood, precious as these things are, but out of deeper losses, deeper threats. Now our life and identity, our freedom and desire to belong are secured. A newness of love, a fullness of God we had never imagined has broken in on the world. And it has power to lift us forever past every kind of oppression, and to wipe away every tear from our eyes.
“See”, says Isaiah, “look!” This Easter-deed isn’t a three-day wonder. It’s for the whole of our lives and for ever. It’s a deed “I am doing”, says the Lord, in the present tense. It’s underway. It’s unfolding. But Holy Week, the Triduum, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Day are given us so we can “see” it anew, lest we forget. If you order wine in a restaurant, the waiter will come round and pour you just some; you take it, test it and you nod, and say, “yes, this is good, I will have it.” The Liturgy is the waiter, Jesus the vintner, the wine is his newness and we – please God, we – are the ones invited to taste and see.
“See, I am doing a new deed.” Wasn’t this the experience of the woman caught in adultery? She had done her deed. It was something seriously wrong, something which made her strictly liable to death by stoning, something she hadn’t even done very well, getting caught (and where’s the man, by the way?). But suddenly Someone new was looking at her: not with lust as if she were meat in a market, not with contempt as though she were feminine trash. A new look, followed by new, unexpected words: words that separated her from her sin, absolved her and freed her. “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” She wouldn’t, she couldn’t after this. She was now out of the slavery of Egypt (sin) and back from Babylon (condemnation). More still, she was “eastered”, forgiven, inwardly resurrected. She was open to eternal life. “No need to recall the past”. “See, I am doing a new deed.”
Easter! Bring it on!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 3 April 2022