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Sun, Feb 04, 2018

Those Who Wait for the Lord

Duration:17 mins 12 secs

“Those Who Wait for the Lord”

Sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

          The progression of ideas in the last verse of the passage I just read has always seemed odd but interesting to me. The verse begins with a rather grand promise – “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (they’ll fly!) – and then adjusts it down a little: “Well, maybe they won’t fly, but they’ll run” – and then, as if even that were too high an expectation: “OK, they’ll walk, and they’ll be fine; they’ll make it.” I like this, because on most days the idea of flying like an eagle, even metaphorically, seems preposterous, while on many days, and for many people every day, just walking, putting one foot in front of the other and going on, seems like accomplishment enough.

        Whatever the most logical progression may be, all three of these promises were intended to lift the flagging spirits of the exiles of Israel as they crouched, not walking but weeping, by the rivers of Babylon over twenty-six centuries ago. They had reason to weep. They had suffered the invasion of a foreign army after months of siege and starvation; they had seen the destruction of their city and its temple; they had been force-marched through the desert to what is now Iraq. Once they got there, the psalmist says, they sank down by the banks of the river Euphrates, speechless and numb. All their songs of faith and worship had dried up inside them, withered away by loss and anger and confusion and despair.

        The exiles felt defeated, powerless, and sinful. Some of them thought they’d only gotten what they deserved, the result of decades of bad foreign policy and disregarding the laws of God; others thought they’d suffered more than was really warranted or understandable. All of them, it seems, felt helpless, incapable of changing their situation. They had come face-to-face with the hard part of being a human being: to be vulnerable, to be bewildered, to be overtaken by events. And into this situation came Isaiah’s powerful words of hope and strength, the ancient invitation to trust in God, to put their confidence in someone other than themselves, in a power greater than themselves.

        That greater power, however, was being called into question, because the truth is, God seemed to have let them down. From the exiles’ point of view, their situation meant one of three things: that God does not notice, that God does not care, or that God cannot do anything. These were the conclusions about Israel’s God the Babylonians had reached: that this Yahweh was either indifferent to Israel’s suffering or was powerless to change it. From the Babylonians’ point of view, their gods had beat Israel’s God, hands down, and many of the exiles had started to believe that, too. It seemed for all the world to them that their God had become obsolete. Whatever faith they had had, it had been knocked out of them by the awful thing that had happened to them. Isaiah knew that the greatest danger these people faced was not the Babylonians themselves but the danger of accepting the Babylonians’ value judgments as their own.

        We know that hardship can be a great destroyer of faith. It is easy to believe that the hand of God is at work when things are going well. It is harder when life starts happening to you in ways you realize you can’t fix. In our country we have many ways to protect ourselves against calamity. Our wealth and our technology take us very far – but devastating things still happen. There are still market crashes, tornadoes and hurricanes, illnesses that resist treatment, and freak accidents. In the face of these calamities, the promises Scripture makes may seem way too glib. We are willing to wait for the Lord, as the prophet advises, but sometimes it seems that God just doesn’t show up on time, and we are thrown back on ourselves. In such times, we may feel like those exiles, no longer able to sing songs to a God who seems so absent.

        The British writer Francis Spufford, who has mounted a defense of Christian faith to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other neo-atheists, has written about  his experience of the absence of God at a time when he had messed up things so miserably that he no longer made sense even to himself:

“…we say: Hello? Hello? I don’t think I can stand this any more…Hello? A little help in here, please?

And nothing happens. Almost always, nothing happens. No answering voice speaks up in the echo chamber of your skull. The morning you couldn’t face comes anyway. Night falls, and the darkness of your guilt or your sorrow or your bereavement comes round again.”

He then notes that for believers as well as unbelievers, the experience is the same: “The nothing that happens is universal…we understand the nothing differently, but not because we start from a different experience of it.” But in one respect it is different: “…for most of us who end up believing, the moment we asked and nothing happened changes in retrospect. It becomes, afterwards, part of the history of how help did after all arrive, though not in the way we were expecting it to.”[i]

        The prophet Isaiah is having one of those retrospective moments, those moments that are charged with meaning and promise only for those who see with the eyes of faith. When Isaiah announced to the exiles that help was on the way, the people of Israel had been in Babylon for fifty years. For fifty years they had been dealing with the reality of nothing happening. Those fifty years became part of the history of how help did after all arrive. The people’s own part in it -- all the prophet was asking of them -- was not to give up hope. Isaiah was there to remind them that the God who created the heavens and the earth could actually do something to change their situation. And the One who created the world and everything in it is still at work in creation, binding up the broken-hearted, strengthening the weak knees, and restoring hope.

        “Even youths will faint and be weary,” the prophet says. In other words, even the strongest human being is still a human being – we can’t “fix” the limitations of our human condition. But God’s power and mercy can comprehend all our weaknesses and struggles.

        In her wonderful memoir of her ministry in the South Bronx in the 1980s and 90s, Heidi Neumark tells the story of how her church got a desperately-needed new roof. The members of this church could not pay for a new roof – they were all poor, and many lived in truly terrible circumstances, in a neighborhood in which the sound of gunshot cracking through the air was as common as the sound of birdsong in the wealthier suburbs. The church decided to have a five-mile walk-a-thon to raise the necessary amount of $10,000. On the day of the walk they gathered at the church. The youngest walker was five years old and the oldest, Ernestina, was eighty-five and had a pacemaker. But Ernestina was still in better health than many of the others, “whose ranks included people with AIDS, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma; one had a bullet lodged in her foot from a drive-by shooting.” Several of the walkers had canes. Neumark says that when she saw the group that showed up, she no longer cared about the money; she only hoped that everyone would survive the walk. But on they walked through the streets of the South Bronx, “tramping over [the] broken bottles and empty crack vials” that littered their route. At the end, no one had been lost and they had raised $196. A few days later, the total mysteriously came to $10,196: a homebound member of another church had read about the event and made out a check.[ii]  

        That’s what God can do when we simply take a step in faith – even if our steps are hesitant, painful, and halting.

        “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”  

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

February 4, 2018

           

 

[i] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 54-56.

[ii] Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 118-121.

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