Wednesday, February 8, 2012

5th Sunday in Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31
21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. 25 "To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One. 26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. 27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God"? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.


 “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?’ asks the prophet, meaning that the people to whom he is asking the questions probably do not know, do not hear.  And if what is at stake is God’s activity in the world, in their lives, then it is probably fair to suggest that,  no they did not understand, and how could they?  They had long been carted off to Babylon from their homeland, watching all the monuments that made them who they were destroyed.  What was more, they, the people, had to come to deal with the fact that this deportation, this exile in a foreign land, far away from all that was loveable and familiar, this had everything to do with them and with their God.  This was no random event, no rolling of the dice of history; instead, there was meaning, purpose to this.  And it was the result of a break-down in relation between them and their God, and what was more, it was their fault, and it was now theirs to suffer God’s anger. They had wandered, they had strayed and now they knew God as only a faded memory, something once real but now heart-breakingly distant, something conjured up by its absence. 
“Do you not know, have you heard?” And though you and I have not been exiled in Babylon, I think we can appreciate the questions, for the ways in which God will be described, these feel very distant from our realities, indeed.  In a culture wherein we slavishly worship the idol youth, the prophet reminds us that our time is indeed limited; we have the life span of grasshoppers it is said, our time here but a drop in the bucket.   In a world in which we have resigned ourselves to believing that super-PAC money will elect our leaders, the prophet speaks of a God who outlasts the pretensions of the ruling class, and in a world where we have come to believe that we are masters of our destinies, the whole world open to our manipulation and efforts, the prophet speaks of a God who alone is able to create the complexities and beauty of life.   
And to be sure, we  hear these words of the prophet as a threat, about this there is no doubt.  If we wish to protect our illusions of control, our unrelenting belief in our love and efforts, if we continue in our stubborn refusal of God, pretending as though we can live without him, without his mercy and forgiveness, we will, like that nation of Israel before us, run up against these words as though they were brick wall.  “To whom will you compare me?  Or who is my equal?”  asks God, and this is the very definition of a rhetorical question.  For the point is precisely that God has no equal, no one to whom God might be compared.  Not money, not status, not political affiliation, not privilege, not knowledge, not technology, none of these can be compared to God, though you would not know that from watching the way we live, as we run after these other things in a futile hope that they will protect us.   And when we make these other things our highest good which, when left to our devices, we cannot help but do, we experience this exile as our own.  We suffer God’s refusal of our projects, and we rightly sense God to be a threat, as one who will not tolerate all the ways we minimize our pains and our sin but will constantly call us to account in the midst of these exiles.
 “Do you not know, have you not heard?”  But there is yet another way the prophet will explain God’s action.  Yes, we must be reminded daily that God alone is worthy of our deepest trust and worship, that God alone is eternal, but that is not all that God wishes for us.  For right as Israel is at most despairing point, right when it believes that God has entirely forgotten about it, leaving the nation to rot in foreign lands, the word of promise thunders forth: God will not grow tire and weary of achieving his divine purposes, which means that God will continue to love, to forgive, to redeem even as we struggle and falter.  When human energy, human faith has long since given out, when the burdens of work or family life have simply become too much for us to bear, when life is nothing but a burden to be endured and joy seems a distant land,  then and there God is present, a fount of every blessing, ready to renew us in our weakness and comfort us in our fear.  And this divine strength, this love that flows from everlasting, this is timeless; it is not subject to decay in the ways of this old world.  And it is this faithfulness of God’s that marks the divide between God and human things.  For our idols will always let us down. They will corrode and fade in the way of the way of things created.   Yes, when our youth has seeped out of us, when our bodies betray us, when the stock-market has battered our portfolios or when our political causes or candidates again disappoint us, God’s strength and renewal is ever-present, a perpetual spring evening.  And God promises this to you, not just in your joy and strength, but perhaps especially in your sorrow, your weakness and your vulnerability.  Because in these most wondrous words of the prophet: “not one of them is missing” you are ensured of a love that will never leave you.  As the poet writes, “only one who loves can remember so well.”   Not one of you is missing to this God.  Even and especially when we feel as though God’s goodness has abandoned us, that God has somehow left alone in troubles, in our struggles, it is right at this moment that God’s mercy is most gut-punchingly real.  For even as we suffer in exile, knowing nothing but pain, sorrow and boredom, when we are haunted in the night by the question: “is this really all life is about?”  it is then that God’s love breaks us wide open;  when we are brought low by despair or fear or greed, it is then that God’s love resurrects us and places us as on eagles’ wings. 
So, then, dear people, you have been joined to that first crowd to whom Jesus ministered.  We have been brought with all demons and our sicknesses, our hopes, our joys, our fears, our worries, we have been brought with all of that to the divine door.  We have been brought to Christ crucified, knowing that he has conquered our sin, our death and even the forces of hell and evil themselves.  And this one who has conquered all things, this one who has won for you the victory over death, he will never forsake; he wears in his flesh the promise that the weak will be given strength and the mourning will be comforted.  In Christ, our sin has been overcome, our fear defeated and our strength renewed.  For he comes among as one who will heal all illness and free us from all decay.  Yes we grow tire and yes we grow weary, but even in that weariness,  not one of you has been forgotten by this God who cares from everlasting to everlasting.  “Do you not know, have you not heard?”  Oh, we do not know as well as we should, but even that will not keep this Christ from getting to us.  In Jesus’ name, amen.    

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