09 February 2009

When Our Confidence Fades

Isaiah 40: 21-31 (Mark 1: 29-39)
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 8th February 2009

There’s a marvelous scene in the movie, Chariots Fire, when the famous Scottish missionary Olympian, Eric Liddell (1902-1945), is standing up in the pulpit of the Scots Kirk in Paris, about to preach to a packed church. It is the Sunday he was scheduled to run the 100 meters for Britain in the 1924 Olympiad, but didn’t because he wouldn’t compete on the Sabbath. Just prior to preaching, he reads these verses of Isaiah 40, starting where we did at verse twenty-one. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” The allusions to running in the closing verses of the chapter drive the point home of the kind of race one can really run and win when we remember who gives energy and strength to the runner. I will probably always associate this text with that scene. I love that moment in the movie. Maybe it’s because actor Ian Charleson reads it so beautifully. But it’s not just the text, an assortment of words, or the poetry. Somehow he takes us into the meaning and movement of the text.

It’s the closing couple of verses that we know the best, probably. We tend to read them at funerals; we find them used by Hallmark ad nauseum, see find them printed on tacky color posters with pictures of Bald eagles or athletes, the kind we might find in Christian bookstores. They are assuring, affirming, uplifting. There is something about the images and words of this majestic text and the imaginative vision of the author that seems to invite our souls to soar. Yet, the source of that soaring, that ability to thrive, to run the race when you feel like quitting is rooted in something else.

These closing verses are powerful alone, but they take on enormous energy when we read them within the context of the entire chapter, especially starting at verse twenty-one, and when we remember where and why they were written.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” These questions are more than rhetorical flourishes, but are directly addressed to the Israelites. And where are they? In captivity, in exile. These words were written to a people lost and confused, sad and depressed, unsure of what the future will bring, eager to return home, or at least to something that feels like home, feels safe, instead of being held captive by an alien race, with their alien gods, far from borders of Zion. These words were written to a people who were giving up on God; written to a people who wondered where God might be in the midst of their suffering; feeling like God had given up on them altogether; written to a people who were losing their faith.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? These are questions addressed to Israel. They’re not a test; nor is the author trying to shame them, but to get them to remember. These questions are an invitation, a call to remember their history. Go back over your lives, Israel, and remember every time that Yahweh proved faithful to you. Go back over your lives, Judah, and remember Yahweh’s faithfulness to the creation and the covenant. Remember the promises given to Abraham and how they were later realized through them. Remember the word of liberation given to Moses and how they moved from the impossible to the real on a path that went right through the Red Sea and the wilderness wasteland. If God did that then, God will do that now.

Isaiah wants them to remember that Yahweh, their God, was first known to them as the Creator, who makes something out of nothing, and brings into being things and people beyond all of our imaginings. Yahweh’s work as the Creator counters every other competing power of the Babylonian deities, counters every other competing power of lesser gods. Yahweh is the subject of the verbs in this text. Not only is creation described here, but God is doing the creating, acting, being involved in the creation, being attentive to the creation. From Isaiah’s perspective, Yahweh is the only God who has demonstrated power as creator, and therefore the other gods of Babylon merit neither obedience nor deference, because every other deity, every other god, and every other power that tries to act like God has neither authority nor power.[1]

Isaiah paints for us a majestic, powerful image of God, an image of God before whom we might feel very, very small and insignificant – like how we feel when we’re out in the country on a dark night and look up into the heavens and see all the stars and feel so tiny, knowing that you see only an exceedingly tiny fraction of what is really up there.

Before the vastness of the cosmos and this lofty image of God, it’s so easy for all of us feel lost and insignificant. It’s easy to feel invisible – so tiny in the vastness that no one even sees us or cares. How could God possible care about me? Worry about me? Who am I that God should be mindful of me (Psalm 8)? We all know that feeling. That was Israel’s complaint. That’s how they were feeling. You can see why they were losing faith, lacking confidence (meaning, literally, “without faith”). But the text reminds us Yahweh cares for the vastness of the creation and is attentive to every detail, every star, and every soul that bears God’s image. So, it’s almost with the broken heart of a parent after hearing a child say, “You don’t really care about me,” that we hear Isaiah say, “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?’” And then we hear these questions again, these rhetorical questions that move us, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

Personally-speaking, I can remember the time these verses first struck and moved through my being. “Have you not known?” This question, directed at me. Me? What do I know? But then, the question did its work. I found myself going back over my life, looking into my past and seeing all the times I felt God caring for me and my loved ones, remembering how God was indeed faithful, that God was committed to me, that God understood, and that I wasn’t alone. Have you not known? The answer, if we think about it, is yes. Yes, we have known – whether in our own lives or in the lives of the characters found throughout the pages of scripture. Yahweh doesn’t give up on creation. Yahweh doesn’t give up on you. Yahweh never abandons us nor forsakes us. Yahweh is faithful – even when we don’t feel like this is true.

Isaiah wants his people and all people to remember that God is trustworthy because God has proved to be, again and again, ever faithful to us. This doesn’t mean that with God all suffering will cease, that tough times will go away, and that we’ll live with some kind of divine, protective shield around us. This doesn’t mean that if we believe and trust in God that we’ll never be tired or weak again, because that’s not what this text is saying.

Some might read this text to say, if we believe enough in God, have enough faith, then we won’t fall exhausted or stumble. Then when believers stumble or fall exhausted, others are quick to judge – See, they didn’t have enough faith. There’s no good news in that reading; it’s the worst possible kind of news

This is what the text says. It says when we fall and stumble and grow tired, there is good news to be heard. This text speak to all of us who are tired and weary, worried and concerned, unsure about the future, frustrated with the present, wavering in faith and commitment, not exactly clear how we will surmount an overwhelming obstacle before us – like hearing the Labor Department’s disturbing unemployment figures on Friday, of facing retirement with a shrinking portfolio, or churches confronting sizable deficit budgets.

This text invites us to turn our focus away from ourselves and our circumstances, if only for a moment, and remember who we are and whose we are. Have you not known? Have you not heard? These questions wake us up, bring us back to our senses, bring us back to the truth. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary;….” Remember who God is and who we are in the image of God. Be assured and confident. “He gives power to the faint and weary, and strengthens the powerless.” Even when we cannot muster the faith to trust in God, God never gives up on us, and believes in us and the work he is achieving with us and through us.

The point couldn’t be any clearer in Yahweh sending Yeshua to us to show us, in the flesh, that God is faithful. Even in Jesus’ own ministry, at times tired, weary, stumbling, wrestling, struggling, he could do nothing apart from his time in prayer, when he reconnected with the source of his power and strength (Mark 1: 29-39).

People will grow tired and weary. People will be fearful. People will be weak, so weak they won’t know how they’re going to get the strength to face another day. People will be scared and worried. We will faint. Yes, even the youth will faint and the young shall fall exhausted. We will stumble and we will fall – hard.

“But those who wait for the LORD….”

“But for those who wait upon the LORD” – who is always faithful.

But those who lean upon the LORD – who is always faithful.

But those who trust in the LORD – who is always faithful.

When we confide in God’s power to empower us, we remember God will not desert us but provide a way through, because God always provides a way through. When we wait and trust, we will come to find our strength renewed – soaring and flying like eagles, running without weariness, walking without growing faint.

Yet, we will grow faint again and become weary again and tired again. When we do, we are asked to remember: Have you not known? We’ll discover then there’s another power, another source of strength coursing through all of us that has little to do with any of us.

None of this happens on our own, but only through our reliance upon and trust in God.

This kind of sounds like a sentiment you find in a Hallmark card. It’s so simple. But it’s true. Have we not known? Have we not heard?

[1] See Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 150-151.

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