Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Are you tired? Stressed? Overworked? Fatigued? Anxious? Feeling overwhelmed? If you are, you’re in good company. The people who first heard Isaiah’s prophetic vision, these majestic, soaring, hopeful words which we know as Isaiah 40, were a people in exile. The Israelites were in Babylon, enslaved by an alien empire, far from home, living among alien gods and traditions. They were a people who questioned God’s existence, doubted God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness. They felt confused and lost. In fact, they even wondered whether God was the one who had done the losing, for at least, they knew where they were—in exile. Where was God? Isaiah asks, “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?’” (Is. 40:27). In other words, the people are saying, thinking, God doesn’t see us. God has forgotten us. God doesn’t care.
The prophetic utterance that begins here in Isaiah 40, and continues through chapter 55—what scholars call Second Isaiah—was written to the Israelites while they were in exile. Second Isaiah marks a radical shift in Israel’s consciousness of God, and the prophet wants the people to hear this new Word that was given to him. He wants them to know what he knows to be true. He calls them to remember, to recollect, to recall what they had forgotten about the true nature of God: “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” (Is. 40:21)? God is not like your false idols, the small gods of the Babylonians, all the things that you create and then invest with power and authority to give you comfort, assuage your anxiety, forget your pain, alleviate your suffering, your fear, your stress, to protect you. No, the God of Abraham and Sarah (and the God of Jesus Christ) is not like that. “To whom then will you compare me or who is my equal? says the Holy One” (Is. 40:25).
Yahweh is unlike any other god. For, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” You—you in exile, you who are tired and confused, you who are exhausted, you who wonder where God is, wonder what God is doing, you who are weary and faint and wonder if you can take one more step—you! “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not grow faint or grow weary. God’s understanding is unsearchable. Yahweh gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 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” (Is. 40:28-31).
Are you tired? Stressed? Overworked? Anxious? Feeling overwhelmed? You’re in good company—because so were the people Jesus ministered to in the Galilee. And Jesus was tired, too. In Mark 1, we find the Israelites oppressed by another empire; this time it’s not Babylon, but Rome. They’re in exile in their home territory. And we know that Roman oppression in the Galilee was particularly brutal. Take some time and read the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel, track the plot and activity of the Gospel, and you’ll notice just how much work Jesus does in a day. In Mark 1:21, we have Jesus on the Sabbath in Capernaum: he taught in the synagogue, he performed an exorcism (during worship!) on a man with an unclean spirit who challenged his authority and his intention. As soon as Jesus left the synagogue, he went to the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, so Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up into health. And then we’re told, that same evening, all who were sick or possessed with demons were brought to Jesus. The entire town came to look on. “And he cured many,” Mark tells us, note not all, “who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mk. 1:32-34).
Jesus is proclaiming and enacting his divine authority over the forces oppressing the people and making them sick. In these stories of healing, including the exorcisms, we essentially have Jesus taking on the system, which is what it means to proclaim the “kingdom of God,”—taking on and judging and undermining the social, political, even religious systems that oppress and dehumanize God’s people and wear us down and make us sick and tired and hopeless. So, if that’s how you feel, sick by the system, you’re in good company.
And it all got too much, even for Jesus. The next morning, we’re told, in deepest darkness, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, to pray (Mk. 1:35).
If we hold together the Isaiah and Mark texts, we see that they share one common theme: God—and God alone—is the source of renewal in our lives. Isaiah calls the people away from their false idols and alien gods, back to God, to trust God, God’s faithfulness, to hope in God, and when they do they will find their lives renewed, they will soar, and run, and walk. And even though Scripture uses antiquated language such as “idols,” don’t think for a minute that we don’t have idols today that we worship and adore and give power to over our lives, as if they were gods. These gods are not going to give us what we need. They are not going to renew us and restore us and give us hope. We need to return, again and again, to the source of our renewal.
That’s why it’s significant to see that Jesus—even Jesus—needed time to be renewed. He had to pull himself away from the crowd, from the collective, from the people making heavy demands upon him. He needed to be alone, in the dark, with God, in prayer. In fact, this is the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry, especially in Mark’s Gospel: work is followed by prayer, which then allows him to get back to work. We need prayer, all of us—and lots of it, all kinds of prayer (spoken or silent, in community or alone)—in order to do the work that is set before us. I sometimes hear folks say, why should I pray, God already knows how I feel or what I need? Jesus certainly never had that excuse. Obviously, prayer was crucial, necessary for him. How much more for all of us? I’m reminded of what Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) once said about prayer, “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes the pray-er,” that is, changes the one who prays. When we pray, with heart, with intention, pray in love, when we wrestle with God in prayer (with or without words), when we simply enter into the silence and seek to dwell in God’s presence, we are changed.
And, you know, prayer is a pretty good remedy against the sin of idolatry, because in prayer we remember who we and whose we are, we remember that God is God, and that we aren’t. And then in acknowledging our powerlessness, our weakness, our inadequacies, our shortcomings, our regrets, our fears, our anxieties, and our hopes, we throw ourselves upon the power and goodness of God, we “wait” on the Lord. We lean into God’s presence, into God, we fall into “the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27), which are always there waiting to hold us, to strengthen and renew us, so that we, like Jesus, “shall mount with wings like eagles,” running and not weary, walking and not faint, committed to the work set before us.
For, eventually, we will be found. “Everyone is searching for you.” And without complaining, Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message [of God’s good news] there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38). Let us go on. “And Jesus went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mk. 1:39). Let us go on.