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MARCH 17, 2013: FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

One of the advantages of reading Deutero-Isaiah in Hebrew is noticing how often he uses participles in place of finite verbs. There's a big difference between saying, "I came here today," and saying "Coming here today." In the former, the act of coming is in the past; in the latter, it continues.

The unnamed prophet responsible for chapters 40-55 of Isaiah is active during the Babylonian Exile, a time when most Jews presumed Yahweh's glory days were in the past. By the time Deutero-Isaiah comes on the scene in the late 530s BCE, they'd been captive for over 50 years. Few believed they'd ever see Jerusalem again.

Though the prophet constantly uses Exodus imagery in his oracles, his audience reminds him that that saving event happened 700 years before. It was something they read about in their history books, not something pertaining to their present predicament.

Convinced his fellow-Jews are wrong, the prophet reminds them that what Yahweh did, Yahweh continues to do. That's why he starts today's pericope with participles: "Opening a way in the sea ... leading out chariots ..." God's still doing what God once did. Yahweh's freeing Yahweh's people in Babylon just as Yahweh once freed them in Egypt.

But then, if someone missed his participial point, the prophet hits the theological nail on the head: "Remember not the events of the past," Yahweh commands, "the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" Though Yahweh continually saves, Yahweh doesn't like repeats. God's saving us today in ways no one would have thought possible 700 years before.

Deutero-Isaiah would have agreed with one of Marshall McCluhan's most famous quotes: "We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror." We're experts on the salvific past, not the salvific present.

It's against this background that we also should hear Paul's comment to the Philippian community, "Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus." There's always something new for the Apostle to experience, something no one has yet experienced. Faith is never the "same old same old."

Why? According to Paul, we're always on the road to achieving a better and deeper life; the more we achieve, the more we're given the insight and power to achieve. "It is not that I have already taken hold of it," he writes, "or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus." The quest to become another Christ never ends.

Today's gospel passage warns us not to be distracted in that quest by focusing on other people's sinfulness. Though experts in John's gospel remind us that this well-known narrative wasn't originally part of the Fourth Gospel - that's why it's relegated to the footnotes in most modern translations - it still conveys a basic Christian message. We've got enough of our own sins to worry about without bringing up anyone else's sins. "Let the one among you," Jesus proclaims, "who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her!"

We have enough to occupy all our time between now and eternity just surfacing and zeroing in on how we're responding to God working in our daily lives. If we insist on becoming experts on God's glories, it should only be because we're anxious to discover those same glories in the present. Biblical faith demands we become experts in theological participles.