Isaiah 40:21-31 Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert 1 February 2015
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening, We are trying to listen and follow and trust.
In the last few sermons, we’ve been thinking about what it means to be called by God. Samuel was called to listen. The fishermen were called to follow. We’ve been thinking about how to listen and how to fulfill our calling by doing whatever we do – for people. But what about those dark times when it seems like you’ve done your part and God seems far away? What about those seasons of life when you’ve prayed hard for something and you begin to wonder if God has forgotten you? Those are the challenging times of waiting….waiting.
In those times the Bible and our forebears in the faith give us two faithful alternatives. First of all, we can complain to God. The psalms are full of lament. There’s a whole book called Lamentations. We can pour out all our grief and know that God hears us and cares. And secondly, the message of scripture and of the saints who have gone before us is that God is worthy of our trust, even when circumstances make us doubt either God’s goodness or God’s power.
So today’s word from Isaiah is one of encouragement for the tough times. It is not making light of suffering, but is reminding us of the hope we have in the character, the nature of God who is worthy of our trust.
21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; 23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (NRSV)
“We are theological amnesiacs. When life deals us blows, it is easy to forget that God really is still God. Theological amnesia is the kind of problem thatcauses us to fall apart every time crisis comes. Some of us whine. Others of us worry in desperate silence. Like the returning exiles, we wonder whether God hasn’t gone off and left us altogether. The real problem is that we have forgotten who we are. There is a kind of theological identity crisis in the church today. We do not know who we are as Christians anymore. We do not remember what we believe or why we believe it. No wonder we feel lost and alone. No wonder we have no idea how to talk with the world about our faith. “ (WILLIAM CARL, III, Feasting on the Word)
Theological amnesia is even worse when life goes well. How easily we forget God when everything is smooth sailing! We forget God’s love. We forget to praise and thank God for all our blessings. This was Israel’s perennial problem. No wonder prophets like Isaiah kept reminding Israel who God was and is. What happens when we forget the God who is Creator and Sustainer, Redeemer and Friend? The moment we confront trouble we collapse with anxiety and stress. Too many people are “stressed out” these days because of their lack of trust in God. This text brings a word of hope and challenge. Remember what you have known. Remember what you have heard. Remember that God is God, and we are people, without the ability to comprehend as God does.
For the exiles, captivity in Babylon was a painful reality (in varying degrees). They were forced from their homes, scattered as the temple was laid to waste, and became refugees from the very land that held promise. They are a people who longed for Jerusalem and wept by the rivers of Babylon (Ps. 137:1); they are
the faint and powerless and even observe their youths grow weary and fall exhausted (Isa. 40:29–30). The refugee Israelites express their grief this way: My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God” (v. 27). They could have concluded that the gods of Babylon were stronger than their God or that God really does not exist at all. But their conclusion is that they are simply “disregarded” by the One who sits above the circle of the earth.
But Isaiah protests by announcing that the Lord God who sits above the circle of the earth is, at the very same time, the Shepherd who gently claims, gathers, and carries us, as Isaiah 40:10-11 claims. When Isaiah challenges us to lift up our eyes on high, we see that the One who is Wholly Other is also the One who numbers and names us all because, in God’s sovereignty, not one thing in creation can go missing or lost. In the utter absorption, the blindness of our own suffering, we can forget who God is. God’s transcendence (beyond us) and immanence (near us) are the word of hope for all who believe their situation is beyond God’s sight or interest.
Isaiah speaks of running without growing weary, walking without fainting, of mounting with wings like eagles to gain strength. Think about the view of the eagle from up high. It is perspective-gaining. From up there, you can look down on the path and see where you are. This walking and running is about energy for the journey of faith, a recognition that this journey is just the preparation for the longer journey of joy with the Lord. But we have this necessary prep time – which involves the training we’d rather avoid. We must learn to exercise our faith muscles. But that happens only when we are waiting for the Lord. And we do not like to wait. Grieving, struggling, finding our way through the challenges, the losses, the agonies of life takes time, takes lots of waiting and trusting that life will get better, or that we will deal with it better. Isaiah challenges us to remember when we are waiting that there are other witnesses to the goodness of power of God – that our present circumstances do not tell the whole story of God, and that our own perspective is limited by the fact that we are not God and cannot see as God sees. Only when we truly grasp God’s power and our powerlessness does this word of hope emerge.
The issue we are getting at here is the centuries-old problem of theodicy, the problem of defending both the goodness and the power of God in the face of an world filled with pain and suffering. The question goes like this: If God is good and all-powerful, then why does evil persist? Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Is another way it is has been expressed.
But maturing Christians are called to a bright sadness, which can hold the pain of the world, with a deep faith in God’s goodness. If you have seen people who are aging and even approaching death well, then you know what I am talking about. Steve Haynor, President of Columbia Seminary, seemed to be in touch with this, as he died yesterday of pancreatic cancer at age 66. It seemed he had what St John of the Cross called, luminous darkness. By that I mean he could hold suffering and joy in the same container.
We are called to hope for more than we can see. Sometimes it is hard to see the good that comes from suffering, except on the other side, when we recognize that in our weakness, we grew, we knew what really mattered, we felt the love of friends and family and noticed the presence of God more often. We have a God who suffers with us, while remaining beyond us, and never forgets us. Though we sometimes feel abandoned, we never are.
It is okay to complain to God, but not endlessly. We must recognize with Job and with Isaiah, that God’s understanding is “unsearchable,” Isaiah tells us (v. 28); we will never fully understand how God works in the world, why suffering continues and evil reigns in so many places.
And God’s understanding is not likely to be revealed to us instantaneously. Learning to trust God in the tough times is just that – tough. Just as building muscle requires the tearing of muscle in order to build it up, so the building of trust requires hardship. Like the age-old trust exercise in youth groups – until you’re falling backwards blindfolded, you will not know what it feels like to be caught or rescued. Resilient trust is built over time.
We come to know how God works through years of living with God and God’s people. Years of listening, following, and trusting lead us to the place of hope and faith, even in difficult times.
How are the McIlwains holding up under the pressure of Don’s brain cancer diagnosis? They are leaning into the faith and hope they have developed through years of worship. Same with Burkholders, Blasers, MacQueens and others of you who have had a difficult time lately.
The purpose of worship is to keep reminding us of these truths which help us to trust God and give us space to complain to God. When one of us is weeping, mired down in grief or despair, the others of us are called to provide that space where complaint can be heard. This is the purpose of Stephen Ministry, to give a hurting person a caregiver, who spends an hour each week to the voice of struggle, of lament, of grief. But a good Stephen Minister also brings a word of hope and challenge like Isaiah from at the right time. “No, God has not forgotten you. God still loves you.” In the ministry of caregiving, we all are called to listen well and long and sympathetically to the complaints of those who suffer, but we are also called to carefully and sensitively articulate the faith which gives us hope, when all lessor hopes have failed us. “Yes, despite this circumstance, we believe God is still powerful and good, and until you can believe that, let the church believe it for you. “ It’s like the grieving woman who could not sing hymns after her great loss, but as she keep pushing herself out of the house to worship with her congregation, the messages of hope were sung for her, by the faithful around her, until she got her own voice of faith back, until she could believe again, until she could walk through life again without fainting.
God of our life, through all the circling years, we trust in you, we wait for you. We know you are near.