Isaiah 40: 21-31 & Mark 1: 29-39
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany/ 5th February 2012
We all go through difficult seasons in our lives, times when we feel weighed down, weary, and scared. For some, it's a relatively short season. For others, it's long and feels endless. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, we know these are demanding times. As a congregation we have experienced considerable loss this past year, we said good-bye to dear saints and friends. Every week we offer intercessory prayer for members and family and friends of this congregation who need peace, support, healing, some evidence of God’s love. Step out beyond the congregation, to family and friends, a wider community, a wider world, and listen – to the voices of people who can’t find work, who can’t provide food for their children, who cannot afford medical care and treatment. Listen to the voices of people who question their value or worth, of people whose innocence has been betrayed, of people who have lost the ability to believe and trust – anyone, themselves, others, God; and the voices that are more difficult to hear, the voices of people who suffer silently, whose sorrow and sadness overwhelm them and wear them down.
These are demanding times. I hear this a lot. So many are weary. Weary of wars and rumors of more war. Weary of party politics and warring sound bites and monotonous monologues of hollow promises. Weary that the Ravens are not in the Super Bowl today. Weary of email and text messages and more email and weary of hearing about Snooki’s latest escapades on “Jersey Shore.”
Add to all of this, in all seriousness, that fact that we are living through one of the most significant moments in 500 years, since the Reformation. We are beginning to see it as an axial period, a turning period of enormous, turbulent change – socially, culturally, morally, politically. Everything is in flux, including faith, Christianity, and the especially the Church. Phylis Trickle describes the present upheaval facing Christianity and the Church as “The Great Emergence.” Something new is emerging. We have to realize this, acknowledge this, wake up to the fact that we are in a new day and it’s a day, it won’t last long before the next change comes along.
Just after the First World War, in 1919, William Butler Yeats (1869-1939), penned these verses to capture something of what he felt, weary of war and destruction and loss in a world that had come completely unhinged, whirling around like a gyroscope forming an empty vortex:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
The biblical word for this feeling of disorientation, this season of loss and confusion and sadness, a time when even God appears silent or absent, is exile: to be away from home, to be banished to a foreign land or territory. We think of the Israelites in Egypt, that was exile. We think of the Israelites in Babylon, in exile, away from home in Jerusalem and Judah. However, exile can also serve as a metaphor for any feeling or situation in which we feel lost and confused, far from what feels like home, far from the way things used to be, when we are forced to leave the familiar and venture into the unknown. It can also be used to describe those moments in our lives when we are far away from God as home, when we question and doubt, when we enter into the dark night of the soul, feeling utterly alone in what seems like an impersonal universe that is cold, dark, and expanding.
Into the silence, into the darkness, comes a word. Into the absence, confusion and weariness comes another voice, soft, yet strong and profound. Not my words, which are fleeting, offered and then blown to the wind, in time forgotten, unknown, but a different word. Can you hear it? Can you feel it resonate through our flesh and bones? “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Isaiah asked. That’s what Isaiah asked Israel to consider. And where does he pose these questions? In their exile, in Babylon, to a people weary and lost in exile, far from home. His prophetic words here have a way of calling them home – not back to Judah (that will come in time) – but first to a more permanent home, calling them back to the truth, that right there at that moment even though they might be far from Jerusalem they are already home, home in the everlasting arms of a God who promised never to leave them or forsake them.
This is why Isaiah is so perplexed and asks, how can you say God doesn’t exist? How can you say God doesn’t care? How can you say God overlooks you, doesn’t see you? How can you say God has forgotten you? “Have you not known?” Isaiah asks. “Have you not heard?” And his question is rhetorical. Have you not known? – of course you do. I know you know. Have you not heard? – of course you have. I know you have. I know you know the truth. Many of you do. Okay – maybe you don’t know, maybe you haven’t heard, maybe your life-experience in exile has never exposed you to the faithfulness of God, maybe your life-experience has never allowed to you feel and trust and know the amazing grace of God, maybe you think God doesn’t know your name.
So, let me proclaim this word yet again. Know this. Hear this. Feel this. Allow these words to wash over you: “Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Yahweh does not faint or grow weary; Yahweh’s understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, 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.”
How? How does this happen? When? “Wait,” says the text. But this is more than empty waiting. It’s not like Samuel Beckett’s (1906-1989) absurdist play “Waiting for Godot,” in which two men, Vladimir and Estragon wait on a street corner for someone named Godot, whom they really don’t know, who never shows up. Estragon gives into the absence and eventually says, “Nothing to be done.”
That’s not the kind of waiting Isaiah is talking about here. It’s not an open-ended waiting; it’s not wait and see. It’s far more hopeful than that. It’s really closer to wait, as in wait in, here, stop, trust, rest in, rest into – maybe even fall into, lean into the arms of God. It means letting go and then leaning, falling into a presence, a force, a strength, a power that’s underneath, deeper than our resources, deeper than our strength or will or wisdom or reason.
Wait. Trust. Rest. Lean. Fall. That’s the way out of exile. The way home calls us to wait, trust, rest, lean, fall into the deep, abiding, faithful presence of God, trust and rest in God’s goodness and compassion and love. This way of being, of waiting is true all the time, but especially true in times of exile, in seasons of weariness, when we feel exhausted and faint, and are at the breaking point. Notice that we’re not told here to “toughen up,” we’re not told to “pull yourself together,” we’re not given the ridiculous dictum “God helps those who helps themselves,” we’re not told to find strength within our own resources or to “pull yourself up by our own bootstraps.” No – instead “wait” is God’s word to us given in the midst of weary times, when we are forced to realize and acknowledge our personal insufficiency, our inadequacies, our weaknesses, when we confess that we are not strong enough. We are called to yield to Someone greater.
When I was a boy, I had a large poster on the wall of my bedroom. I “won” it in church school. It was an award for perfect attendance. It was a sketch of a large, strong, confident lion, sitting with two young cubs resting in his arms. Off to the side of the lion were words from Isaiah 30:15, “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” I drew a lot of comfort and assurance from that verse, especially during a period of considerable loss and pain in my life. I remember looking at it as if it was a word spoken directly and only for me. We find this same theme at work throughout Isaiah – yielding, trusting, confiding, returning. It’s how Isaiah understands “being saved,” found less in what one believes than in resting into the safe arms of God. The memory of the poster returned to me this week. Since then, there have been plenty of times when I applied that verse, the majority of the time forgetting it. But it seems to me now, perhaps more than before, all the more profound for the wisdom and truth contained here.
It’s also there in the way we see Jesus moving through the world. Yes, full, busy days of healing, preaching, serving. But look how he gets up early in the morning to go to a secluded place to pray. This doesn’t mean we all have to get up early to pray, which wouldn’t be good news if you’re not a morning person. This is good news, however: Jesus prayed. Now it’s probably not wise to guess what Jesus’ prayer life was like. I might be going out on a limb here, but I’m pretty confident that his prayer wasn’t a sanctified “wish-list,” full of petitions of what he wanted God to do for him. What do you imagine it was like? I imagine that it was probably full of silence, of deep listening, of dwelling, of resting, of falling into the depths of his being, down to the sure and solid rock-like strength of God animating his life.
When we wait for the LORD, wait in the LORD, trust, rest, fall into the LORD, we will discover – I promise – that that’s the source of our strength, that’s the source of our life, and when we are trusting and resting and dwelling in God’s presence, especially in deep prayer, we will discover that something – Someone – is there lifting us up, like the wind that carries the wings of an eagle, or the energy, stamina, and drive of a long-distance runner, or the steady confidence of someone who walks sure-footed on the road that leads to home.
 The term axial age or period (Ger. Achsenzeit, "axis time") was first used by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) in Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History), to characterize the period from 800 to 200 BC in India, China, and the Occident. Today, it is generally used to describe a pivotal, revolutionary moment in human history.
 See her book with the same title, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008).
 William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920).