October 26th, 2014

When you feel abandoned by God, Isaiah urges you to remember.

Isaiah 40:26-31

October 26, 2014

Too weary to believe

I really wanted to preach today, even though I knew I would be tired this weekend.  Most of you know and Linda and I just returned Friday morning from a 12-day trip to the Holy Land with 25 others.  It was a bit of a challenge yesterday trying to focus my energy and concentration on writing a sermon when my body was saying, “Take a nap.”  It wasn’t just jet lag.  We’ve been on the run for 12 days in a row.  And honestly, as much as Linda and I loved our group, Linda and I were ready for what we call “introvert time.”

It seemed appropriate to be struggling for alertness while pondering one of Isaiah’s memorable, frameable, singable one-liners:  “Those who wait on the LORD will renew their strength.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint.”

Every step of this pilgrimage provided opportunity to learn what it means to wait on the Lord.  On the first leg of our trip, a short hop on a commuter plane from Charlotte to Newark, NJ, about 30 minutes into the flight we heard a very loud noise followed by an unnerving rattle.  One of the two engines in our plane had blown, and we had to make an emergency landing in Richmond, Virginia.

Most of the experiences connecting us with Isaiah’s words were of the vicarious kind.  We found ourselves in the wilderness where the children of Israel looked for water, gathered manna, and craved meat.  We visited the valley where David met Goliath as he taunted the Israelite army and mocked their God.  We saw the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked the Father to let the cup pass.  We passed through the sobering exhibits of the Holocaust museum remembering the hopelessness of Jewish people who first lost jobs and businesses, then freedom and families, then hope and life itself.  We stood in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem where Jews still pray passionately and wait for Messiah to come.

The book of Isaiah has at least two distinct parts, with chapter 40 the dividing line.  The first half of the book addresses obstinate people and nations – the Chosen People included but not limited to them.  Isaiah warns them of judgment to come.  In the second half judgment has fallen.  The city has been razed and burned, and Isaiah speaks to those who wonder if there is any hope.

“Don’t give up,” Isaiah insists in so many different ways.  More directly, “Don’t give up on God.”  All of us initially hold on to hope, but after a while we tire of hoping things will be any different – that the world will live in peace and justice and freedom, that our family members will be well in body and soul, that wrong will fail and right prevail, that we will win your battles against the addictions that can destroy us, that us will survive your current trials and emerge stronger.  Isaiah says, “Do NOT give up.”

When have you said, or at least thought, the words Isaiah puts in the mouths of the struggling exiles in Babylon:  “My way is hidden from the LORD; my causes is disregarded by my God” (v. 27)?  It’s one thing to face tough times; it’s quite another to be so tired and weary that you even stop thinking God knows or cares.

If that’s not you right now, it’s likely to be you in the future.  Remember you are not alone.  You are not the first person to wonder where God is when you need him most, nor will you be the last.  Perhaps what you learn as you endure this trial will help someone else not to give up on God. What Isaiah urges us to do when we feel abandoned by God is to remember.  Grab yourself by the shirt collar.  Renew your strength as you remember.

Remember Who (v. 27-28)

The questions of v. 27 are rhetorical, maybe even sarcastic.  “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?”  Isaiah goes on to remind you of what you already know about God – that he is “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”  Further, he says in verse 28, “He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” Isaiah is repeating the themes and even the words of this entire chapter.

Isaiah’s answer when we complain about God is to remember Who we are complaining about.  Have we forgotten his eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience?  There’s no moment in time he is out of control, no place in the universe he does not fill, no need he cannot fill.

Of course, that is precisely the crisis of faith for us, isn’t it?  If God is all that we say he is, where is he during our times of loss?

One of the profound aspects of this trip to Israel was how the stories we preserve and tell shape our faith. One of the stories that has shaped modern Israel is what happened on top of a desert mesa called Masada in AD 73.  The Roman army had already ransacked Jerusalem and dismantled the temple as Jesus had predicted.  One thousand Jewish zealots and family members had holed up inside the desert fortress out of reach of even the most powerful army.  If the Romans couldn’t intimidate them into surrender, they would have to build a siege ramp unprecedented in size.  This they did, but the night before they rammed their way into the fortress after months of preparation, the Jews committed mass suicide.  They believed this was the only alternative to certain death for their men, abuse of their women, and slavery for their children.

This is the second time I’ve heard that story – three years ago from a tour guide who was a secular Jew and this time from a religiously Jewish guide.  In both cases, it was told as a story of great courage, as a story to inspire Jewish people to choose death over defeat.  The story is told to their young people, all of whom must serve two or three years in the military, to inspire them in the noble cause of defending freedom.

This time I tried to gently push back to the story, because it raises for me some ethical issues about when suicide is a moral choice.  But it was clear that for our tour guide there was no other way to tell or understand that story than as a model of national courage.  We too have our national stories that we tell and retell to inspire and encourage.

The Masada story is very unlike most of the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  God is noticeably absent as the main character.  In the Bible, the Jewish people sometimes win and sometimes lose, but they always tell the story with God not only in the story, but God as The Story.  When we understand our stories as times when we had to take matters into our own hands because God didn’t show up, we forget to remember Who the story is really about.

I certainly understand that the people trapped on Masada felt pressed into an unthinkable moral decision, and I can’t say what I would or wouldn’t have done in their situation.  But I hope I will always recall the stories Hebrew people preserved and recorded in their Bible – of slaves in Egypt, of conquering armies in Canaan, of a man named Job who suffered without cause or explanation, of judges and kings, of both prosperity and devastation in Jerusalem and in Babylon.  In every one of those stories, there is always the God factor as the primary factor even when his ways are unfathomable.  Isaiah says when you need strength, remember Who gives it.

Remember Why (v. 29)

Isaiah not only wants us to remember Who, but remember why.  He continues in verse 29, “(The LORD) gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.”

It is not for me to say why a specific trial comes into a person’s life – why we lose a job or lose a battle or lose a loved one or lose a set of keys when we’re in a hurry.  But on a larger scale, I can tell you that the Bible is quite clear why we face trials in general.  We face them because the worst thing that can happen to our souls is self-sufficiency.  When we don’t have any felt needs, our pride takes over.

The word “weary” in Isaiah 40:29 describes the absence of inner resources.  It can describe physical weariness – a person who hasn’t had enough to eat or drink. It can also describe emotional weariness – someone who has no fight left.  It’s the person who is so weak that if he or she is to go on, someone else will have to help.  Weariness is dependence.  The word “weak” in the NIV is literally “no might.”  In other words, it’s the absence of resources – of virility, of vigor, of wealth.  The person who is “weak” is vulnerable because of age or illness or poverty.

Why does God let us become “weary” or “weak”?  Listen again to what Isaiah says in verse 29:  “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power to the weak.”  The reason why we become vulnerable is so that he can help us.  He can’t help us when we’re trying to do it on our own.  Well, I guess he can – and sometimes even does.  But he knows how quickly we destroy ourselves when we try to do things ourselves.

We spent the first three days of our Israel pilgrimage in the wilderness.  When Linda and I went to Israel with a different group three years ago, we saw desert – but only the Judean desert south of Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea.  This time we went further south – about 100 miles further south – deep into the Negev, almost to the Red Sea.

We learned that the Hebrew language has several different words for wilderness, from midbar, which is survivable, to yeshimon, where there is no life and no water.  We reflected on the children of Israel wandering in the desert, being forced to depend fully on God.  Tim Boyd encouraged us not to fight the wilderness but to move toward it.  “God wants to transform our lives by the gift of the wilderness,” he said.  “The wilderness teaches us humility.”  Tim then sent the group out looking for little pieces of bread that had been scattered on the ground.  There’s nothing quite like eating off the ground to teach you humility.

The whole tour was designed to start in the desert before we went north into the fertile lands of Galilee, which the Bible calls “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  You’re not ready, spiritually speaking, for Galilee, until you’ve experienced the Negev.

That’s the remember why of Isaiah 40:29.  The wilderness isn’t optional, nor is it something you’re done with once you have experienced it.   We resist our times of desperate need, because we prefer to handle life on our own.  But it’s never a bad thing to need God.  We think we crave a trouble-free life, and we pray as if it’s God’s responsibility to remove the wilderness – that if he truly is a good and loving God, we should not have to face need.

Isaiah says, “No.  God wants to give you his strength and his power, but he gives strength to the weary and power to the weak.”  The true craving of your soul is for intimacy with him, an intimacy that only happens to the extent we are fully dependent on him, needing him, crying out to him for what only he can do.  Remember why.

Remember How (vv. 30-31)

This brings us to verses 30-31, which are the best known part of this brief passage:  “Even youths grow tired and weary (the same words that appeared in verse 28), and young men stumble and fall, 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 faint.”

What grabs my attention immediately is at the beginning of verse 31, when the New International Version says, “Those who hope in the LORD….”  I memorized this verse in the King James Version, which says “Those who wait for the LORD….”  I suppose either is a good translation, and the various translations seem split.  The Hebrew word comes from a root that originally meant to twist or stretch, as in a strand of rope or the threads of a spider’s web that are pulled.  It’s about the tension of tautness.  Will the thread break or stretch?

Either “hope” or “wait” is fine as a translation, but I like the idea of waiting on the Lord.  It’s an active passivity.  When there is a situation outside my control, I choose not to do the thing that reflects an impulsive desire to manage or change the outcome.  I choose to let go of results.  It doesn’t mean that I do nothing – I do what’s in my power to do.  Instead, I release my need to fix it, especially to fix it now.  When I do, I discover an amazing renewal of strength that replaces weariness with trust.

The image of a soaring eagle is the one that captures the artistic imagination of a painter or photographer or song writer in Isaiah 40:31.  Eagles fly high, where they can get a panoramic view of their environment, both their predators and their prey.  They can see better than chickens whose wings are not good for much except barbecue sauce.

Some of my favorite pictures in Israel were the panoramic shots.  The “pano” setting on my iPhone allows me to move the camera while the shutter stays open, capturing 180o or more of the landscape.  There were so many places where the limitation of one screen was a bit frustrating.  You’re standing on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the entire Sea of Galilee, but it won’t all fit in one frame.  Or you’re standing in the Elah Valley surrounded by the shefela, the low Judean hills – and you know that on one side stood Saul and his army facing the Philistines on the opposing hill.  Or you’re standing on the Mount of Olives or Mount Zion with a great panoramic view of the entire city.  But it won’t all fit on one screen.  Thus the “pano,” which still doesn’t do the scene justice, but at least it’s closer.

Remember how to gain perspective on the trials of life?  You soar on wings like an eagle when you remember how God sees time and space and trials.  There’s a wider angle lens, there’s a panoramic overlook of a vast landscape of which my trial in my moment in my little corner of the world is such a small part.  The eagle’s legendary confidence is connected to its ability to see the big picture.  Even if I can’t see the panoramic view myself, I trust that God can.  That’s what I do to remember how I can regain strength.

Wings like ostriches

Most of us don’t feel like eagles, do we?  Several years ago, our daughter Cara wrote a beautiful essay based on this passage. It’s too long to read in its entirety, but let me share with you part of the essay she titled, “Flying High on Wings Like Ostriches.”

Cara had just finished running over three miles on a treadmill, which was quite an accomplishment for her since, in her words, “I hate running.”  She was reflecting on the lessons of doing something you hate.  She also recalled a moment when she was three and her Daddy asked her to do something – something I don’t recall, but it doesn’t matter.  Cara put her three-year-old hands on her hips and said, “I will do what I want.”  I said, “What did you say?”  Sheepishly she retracted and rephrased her answer, “I will do whatever you say.”  Pondering those experiences, Cara wrote these words:

Earlier today it occurred to me that I’ve begun to love running because it’s my time. I’m rarely interrupted on the treadmill. Running is an indirectly direct outlet for me to experience what I don’t understand, like power to persevere, run the race with endurance, fly high with wings like eagles, keep my eyes focused on the price…experience grace and renewed strength as I reach the end of my strength.

Running is an opportunity for me to process what I can’t always process with words, like conversations, needs, frustrations, failures, anger…shattered dreams. Since running is uncomfortable for me, it’s a chance to listen and to respond. I don’t know about you, but I ALWAYS hear the Lord better in times of pain because I’m so desperately aware of my need for Him.

Ostriches can’t fly. Neither can I. But I can listen as the pain lowers the walls around my heart and I can respond by choosing to move…step by step. I may have to pull back my pace, I may have to walk for a bit, I may need a friend to encourage me, but the reward is sweet. I lose the weight of unnecessary burdens, I lose the distractions of life and I gain the freedom of knowing it’s by not by my effort that I gain, but by His grace. I gain endurance, character, peace, strength, community, focus, hope and humility. For all I’m not and for all I can’t…I always step off that treadmill knowing I’m His. Every step in my strength, from my will, is just a step for me.

Every step past what I think I can do or past what I want to do is a clear picture of Isaiah 40:31: “But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”

My mom sent me a text message after a somewhat intense conversation we’d had a few weeks ago that read, “At times I may have thought that you were my wild child…but you are definitely my wise child or rather woman!” I can’t go so far as to agree that at 25 I am wise, but I am enjoying experiencing the Lord turn my willful “I do what I want!” into a joyfully submissive, “I’ll do whatever you say.” In my weariness, I am strengthened. In my weakness, He is glorified….what a deeply humbling privilege.


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