Monday, February 27, 2006

to walk and not faint (isaiah 40)

The fortieth chapter marks a turning point in the great book of the Prophet Isaiah. The first thirty-nine chapters are filled with warnings, advice, critique, instruction, and judgment. There is the call of Isaiah, and the yearning for a Messiah. At times the word of the prophet is like a sharp edged sword: You have made a covenant with death, Isaiah says to the people; therefore there will be no wine, no singing. There will be punishment. Isaiah spoke to the southern kingdom of Israel. The north had already fallen to Assyria. The people in the south lived in relative complacency and security, and they said, to themselves: “we have Jerusalem…nothing can happen to us…God will watch over us.”

The students of Isaiah carried his prophecy forward, and in our chapter we have their word, God’s word, about what did indeed happen. Jerusalem fell. The temple was destroyed. The people were carried off to Babylon, in exile. Chapter Forty is a word to people who have already suffered the consequences of their actions.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins (40.2).

The people are weary and exhausted. The word of the prophet comes to encourage, and any encouragement must spring from who this God is and what this God is up to. Isaiah 40. 21-31, is to me, one of the most moving passages in the Bible. This scripture is often read in memorial services here at Providence. This is not accidental, but quite intentional. We think of those who are sitting in the congregation, especially those who are seated right down below the pulpit, a casket often placed in the middle, in front of the altar. This is not a time for warning, advice, critique, instruction, judgment, although I have been to my share of memorial services where those words somehow crept in there. This is also not a time for wine, for festive singing. The gathered, family and friends, have been through the exile of loss, lives created have ended, and the suffering is as raw as an exposed nerve. We are weary and exhausted.

The word of the prophet, twenty-six centuries old now, penetrates our suffering, our exhaustion, our weariness: Have you not known? Have you not heard? God is above us, awesome in power, beyond comparison. He brings princes and rulers to nothing. While we live for a brief time, he is before time and beyond time, the alpha and the omega.

And then the prophet asks: Look up at the sky? Who are you going to compare this God to? Everything that you see in the sky? These are not gods, like your captors think. The sun is not a god, the moon is not a god. Our God created these things. He brings them into the heavens and numbers them, and calls them good. God is above us, awesome in power, beyond comparison.

We have had a cultural debate over the past few months about something called “intelligent design”. I spent a lot of time in the lab sciences in college, and have always had a deep respect for people who labor in the sciences, and for the medicine that is undergirded by the research of scientists. I am not troubled by the idea of a God who creates all things (that is the mystery part), and I am also not troubled by the sequence of events that many might describe as evolution (that is the science part). I can appreciate both why it all happened and how it all happened.

Mostly I am grateful that it did all happen. I probably do lean more to the side of mystery, and as life goes on I am less troubled by the perplexity and more appreciative of the majesty of the ordered universe. I have stood on the edge of a mountain, or put my feet into the waters along the coast and had an experience that was not so different from the prophet’s:

Lift up your eyes to the heavens. Who created all of these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name, Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

The prophet, again and again, asks and answers the question that is probably somewhere in our minds. What is behind all of that order, all of that power, all of that majesty? But then the prophet goes deeper. Does this awesome God know us? Does this awesome God care about us? Have you not known? Have you not heard? It’s almost like a parent saying, “haven’t we gone over all of this before?” 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…He gives power and strength.

We older folks tire easily, that is understood, but even those in the prime of life will faint and be weary and fall exhausted….and then the climax, the majestic mountain peak of the prophecy that is Isaiah 40: Those who wait on 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.

Those who wait on the Lord. What does it mean to wait on the Lord? I imagine many of us, most of us are waiting for something to happen in our lives. I visited a friend in the hospital this week. She was waiting to go home! I met with couples yesterday morning, each waiting for the big day of their weddings! I talked with a young person in our church on Wednesday evening, waiting to hear about a college acceptance. And a woman two weeks ago, at church, stopped by to say that she was waiting to hear about a job interview.

We wait for many different reasons. Some are waiting to learn about a medical test result. Some are waiting for a prodigal child to come home. Some are waiting for a different season in life. And maybe…some are waiting for this sermon to end!

We know about waiting. I remember times of waiting in my own life. Waiting to hear if I had made the basketball team. Waiting to find out if I had been accepted into college or seminary. Waiting to get married. Waiting for the birth of our first child. I remember times of waiting, knowing that I would be coming to a pastoral assignment in Greensboro or Winston-Salem or Charlotte. You might be recalling a time of waiting in your own life.

To wait on the Lord is a particular kind of waiting. Some translations of the Bible have the word as hope. Those who hope in the Lord. It is a kind of hopeful waiting, an expectant waiting, not a passive resignation, not as the song had it, “whatever will be, will be”. One of the clearest New Testament echoes of this passage is found in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Do you remember Matthew 7.7: Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will. Knock and the door will be opened for you.

The literal meaning of this teaching of Jesus is to keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. What does it mean to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking? Sometimes we can learn from the saints who have gone before us. I came across this diary entry of a man named George Muller, who was a missionary, philanthropist and translator of the Bible. He writes:

In November 1844, I began to pray for the conversion of five individuals. I prayed every day without a single intermission, whether sick or in health, on the land, on the sea, and whatever the pressure of my engagements might be. Eighteen months elapsed before the first of the five was converted. I thanked God and prayed on for the others. Five years elapsed and then the second was converted. I thanked God for the second and prayed on for the other three. Day by day, I continued to pray for them, and six years passed before the third was converted. I thanked God for the three, and went on praying for the other two. These two remain unconverted.

George Muller prayed for these two for thirty-six more years. They were sons of one of his close friends, and they still had not become Christians. In that year he wrote again in his diary, “they are not converted yet, but they will be.” In 1897, fifty-two years after Muller had begun to pray for them daily, they were finally converted, but after Muller had died! (Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation With God)

Jesus says, keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. That is what it means to wait on the Lord. And when we wait on the Lord, there is a promise: Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. We will take on the character of God, who keeps on asking about us, who keeps on seeking after us, who keeps on knocking on our doors, calling us into a companionship with Christ and a vocation in the world.

The knowledge of God helps us to keep going. When you have lost everything, only the knowledge of God helps you to keep going. When you have witnessed the death of someone you love, only the knowledge of God helps you to keep going. When you have given all that you can give, and you are bone weary, only the knowledge of God will help you to keep going.

That is hoping in the Lord. And somehow, when we wait, with hope, God shows up, and God undergirds us, like the wind beneath our wings. Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary. They will walk and not faint.

I don’t often recommend books to people who are in the midst of crisis. The Psalms are there, of course. Most self-help literature is actually pretty bad. But there is a small classic that, if asked, I mention to people. It is entitled The Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, and was written in 1974. I heard the author, John Claypool, speak to student conference when I was in college. Claypool himself died this past year. The book was occasioned by the illness---leukemia—and death of his daughter Laura Lue, a second grader who played the violin and danced in ballet recitals. It is a brief but powerful book, a collection of four messages: one from Romans 8—nothing can separate us from the love of God, entitled “The Basis of our Hope”; one based on the story of the call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, entitled “Life is a Gift”; one based on the book of Job, entitled “Learning How To Handle Grief”, and one based on this scripture, Isaiah 40, entitled “Strength Not To Faint”.

After a nine-month remission, Claypool’s daughter had experienced a relapse on Easter morning. He reflects on the last verse, verse 31, of our scripture.

To mount up with wings like eagles is the ecstasy of the Christian life. The exuberance, the joy, the soaring. It is the chancel choir singing the descant to “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

To run and not be weary is the activity of the Christian life. Staying with the good works that help others, and, a by-product, that feed and nourish us. It is the day of service, in a couple of weeks now.

But finally, to walk and not faint. In his book, Claypool wonders about the sequence of this last verse in Isaiah 40. Why doesn’t it begin with walking, and then move to running, and then climax with flying with the eagles? Isn’t this the way we usually think about life, about progress, about moving forward?

Maybe so, but there is something true about the reverse, and there is wisdom in the way the prophet says it. There are times when we take flight with the eagles---there is a place for ecstasy and exuberance. And there are times when we run without weariness---there is a place for activity and achievement.

But sometimes it is enough to walk, and not faint. And when we walk, we see the tracks of a fellow struggler, the God who journeys beside us, who carries the cross, who raises us into a new life, and we know that we are not alone! To walk and not faint. Sometimes it is a miracle to keep walking, it is a testimony, to ourselves and to others, that we are not ultimately broken, but that we are being healed, we are coming home, we are living by hope.


Blogger Barefoot Guy said...

I love George Muller!
His stuff has impacted me in such a deep way, I don’t think I even understand it. I have read most of his books and have been so encouraged by his personal walk with Jesus. He was something special.

I am a musician and GM has inspired many of my songs. I would be honored if you would check out my music on my site. All my music is free for download. Anyway, I just thought that I’d share.

“All my music is free for download.”

10:51 AM  

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