Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 40:21-31 (NRSV)
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.
25 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.
The writer of our passage from Isaiah this morning certainly had his work cut out for him. While scholars are not of one mind on the topic, the predominant view in the academic community is that multiple authors composed this book. During the last century, a type of literary theory developed out of the discovery of distinctive writing styles, grammatical choices, and historical references throughout the book of Isaiah. The theory goes that there were three primary authors who wrote sections before, during, and after the Babylonian exile.
The selection that we have read this morning is believed to come from the opening chapter of the second section. These verses are written to the deposed community that has now seen the fulfillment of all that had been foretold in chapters one through thirty-nine. Having been forcibly deported from the land into which the Lord their God had delivered their ancestors, the remnant of Israelites were left to wonder if all hope was lost. If they cried out to the Lord for deliverance, would their pleas fall upon deaf ears?
The fear of the exiled Jewish people is one that many communities continue to struggle with: “Does anyone hear our cries for help?” I’ve seen this fear echoed several times in recent days. It was echoed by students, faculty, and alumni, following the murder and suicide on campus at the University of South Carolina this past Thursday.[i] While visiting the city of Baltimore, I heard it echoed by the citizens there following a suspected gang-related shooting outside a high school basketball game on Wednesday.[ii] I’ve even heard it echoed by the inhabitants of that land once known as Babylon, as we receive the latest report on the atrocities committed under the ISIS flag. Over and over, the desperate cry is echoed: “How long, O Lord? How long?”
As these and so many other stories continually pour in, that question reverberates louder and louder: “How long, O Lord? How long?” “How long, O Lord? How long?” This cry for mercy echoes over and over until we can hear nothing else. And at times, we wonder, like those Israelites, is there anyone left to hear our cries? Will anyone come to our rescue?
But even as we wait for someone to answer our distress, the writer in Isaiah asks us a couple of questions of his own: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” In the midst of their captivity, the writer calls to people to unplug their ears and remember the story of their God…of our God.
And this emphasis on remembrance becomes even more important for us, in light of the message that we have received from the prophets in recent weeks. From the boy Samuel, we have learned of the importance of being open to experiencing the mystery of God in a world that continually calls us to look for the certainties. From Jonah, we have learned that God fervently desires to involve us in the work of love and that God will continually call us to participate in this work until we submit. And from Moses, we have learned that when we are called to serve the Lord, we must not take on this work timidly, but we must go boldly as those who have been given authority.
To these lessons, we add this morning the message from Isaiah, which calls us to always remember the Good News. Like the prophet, we are called to proclaim God’s sovereignty in the world, even as we are faced with the seemingly most desperate of situations. In fact, it is in moments precisely like these that God’s people are starving for a reminder of God’s providence—the ultimate goodness with which the Lord guides the world.
If we have heard the word, we should remember our God in the face of the evilness of this world. As we witness the power of humans to destroy our planet through careless abuse of its resources, we should remember the goodness of our God who first entrusted to us the care of the earth and all that dwell therein. As we witness the powers of this world treading upon the weak and boosting themselves on the backs of the defenseless, then we should remember the sovereignty of our God, whose reign will endure, even as all lesser powers wither. As we witness heinous violence that threatens the unity of our homes and our communities, we should remember the restoration of God, which has repeatedly mended the brokenness in our relationships with the Lord and one another.
As we hear the word and know it within our hearts, we discover that God is not hidden from us, nor does the Lord ignore the cries of God’s people. Instead, we find that God allows us to serve as the answer to our own cries. As we wait for the great day when the Lord shall institute the everlasting reign of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we who look for the coming of our Savior Christ have been empowered to continue his work. In the final words of our Old Testament lesson, we remember that it is God who “gives power to the faint” and “strengthens the powerless.” When even youth falters, perseverance in the Lord shall be rewarded. Remember: “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.”
Each time I hear these words from Isaiah 40:31, a very particular memory comes back to me. This was the theme verse for the mission trip that my youth group went on in the summer of 1999. Our travels took us to the remote fishing village of Hoonah, Alaska. The idea that God’s faithful would “mount up with wings like eagles” became much more real for us when we saw numerous bald eagles perched atop the jetty wall or gliding over the still waters of the bay. Set against the backdrop of evergreen covered hills and snow-capped mountains, it was a sight that most of us had never seen outside of a National Geographic special.
And yet, this scene of tranquility was broken as soon as we turned around. The town of Hoonah was a hodgepodge of dilapidated old buildings and trash filled streets. It reflected well the life of many of its citizens. This was a place where the rates of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, alcoholism, and suicide all far exceeded the national averages. If ever there was a place one might think God had “disregarded,” it was Hoonah.
So, you might wonder, what great task could a group of high school students from South Carolina possibly perform in order to improve the lives of these people. Well, for a part of our time, we picked up trash. As we moved slowly up one street and down another, the work hardly felt like that which would have been given by the God who strengthens the powerless. And at points, we questioned whether or not we had come all this way to toil in vain. But as we sought to understand how such a menial task could possibly be the fulfillment of God’s will, our pastor Dennis Tedder encouraged us to see ourselves through the eyes of the local people.
The people of Hoonah are, in some ways, an exiled group. They truly live separated from the rest of the world. Some of them may never even experience life apart from their little village. And as the jobs that once supported this village had moved elsewhere, the people had little left for which to hope. After all, nobody seems to care about them.
But then, as you look out your window you see one, then two, then a dozen youth slowly making their way along the street. What on earth could have driven these kids to travel thousands of miles for the experience of picking up little pieces of trash? What have they heard about Hoonah?
What we were hearing, Dennis reminded us, is that God has not forgotten Hoonah. If we, as people not of this community, could give witness to the Good News that God loved and cared for these people, perhaps they might remember God or come to know the Lord for the first time. In our service, we had the opportunity to let them hear the word: “[God] is great in strength, mighty in power!” In the tiny act of collecting refuse, we could share with them the truth that the way of Hoonah and its people was not hidden from God.
Of course, we were only there for a short while. And when the time came to leave Hoonah, we really didn’t know if we had made a lasting difference in that moment, just as we don’t know whether or not the words of Isaiah 40 might have made a difference in the moment they were first proclaimed to the Israelites. But I do know that both the prophets words and our own calls do make a lasting difference when we perform this work repeatedly so that the community cannot forget.
In the centuries since the words of Isaiah were first recorded, these verses have not only comforted the Jewish community in the midst of the Babylonian exile. They have also offered reassurance as the Romans sacked Jerusalem, as Europeans targeted the Jewish people during the Inquisition, and as Nazis sought to eradicate the entire race in the implementation of their “Final Solution.” Each time, the people have needed to hear this word again, so that they might remember that God had not abandoned them, even in the midst of the darkness that enshrouded them.
We, too, need to live as those who repeatedly hear and proclaim the Good News. As those who have been called by God into lives of discipleship and service, we must proclaim the greatness of the Lord in the face of the world’s brokenness. As we lift up God’s goodness, power, and love, people may not gain hope for themselves the first time they hear the word. But if we proclaim it over and over again, the truth that echoes in their ears will be undeniable.
So friends, “Have you heard the word?” Do you know the Good News that God is calling you to share? In a world filled with hopeless exiles, there is a longing to hear the truth that we have received! God alone has the power to redeem us! Like the prophets before us, may we speak the word that God places on our tongues, calling all to receive the strength that is offered to all who have hope in the everlasting God.
To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)
This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 08, 2015 (The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany).