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With Wings of Eagles

Sermon - 2/05/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 40:21-31

We have been looking at the Psalms for the epiphany season, but I'm actually going to switch to the book of Isaiah this morning.  

Let me just setup this passage a little bit -- in the year 587 BCE (before the common era that starts with the year 0), Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.  And hence began the 70-year exile when the people of Israel dwelt in that foreign land.  At the end of that exile an unknown or unnamed prophet brought a word of hope to the people of God, most of whom had given up any hope of ever seeing their homeland.  A homeland spoken of with such glowing terms by their parents and grandparents.  Of course, that generation, by the end of the exile was pretty much all gone.  And so folk had given up hope that they would ever be able to go back to that land.

And so comes this prophet with his words of encouragement that are recorded in the second half of the book of Isaiah, and hence we commonly refer to this prophet as "2nd Isaiah".  2nd Isaiah begins with chapter 40 and those familiar words:  "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. . .".  A passage often read in the Advent season.  And the passage for this morning is the last half of that chapter.  And the last verse is one of my favorite verses:

21Have you not known? Have you not heard?
   Has it not been told you from the beginning?
   Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
   and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23who brings princes to naught,
   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
   scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
   and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25To whom then will you compare me,
   or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
   Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
   calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
   mighty in power,
   not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
   and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
   and my right is disregarded by my God’?
28Have 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;
   his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless.
30Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted;
31but 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.


Now when I picked this passage at the beginning of the year, I didn't know the Seahawks were going to be in the Super Bowl today, so don't think that I'm trying to curry divine favor upon the favored team.  But the Ducks are kind of in a slump, so we've got to have someone to root for right now.  But that's not the reason I picked the passage J.

Friday I did something--speaking of growing weary and tired--I took my son and went with some friends night skiing.  Had never done that before.  So we went night skiing at Willamette Pass.  When you're night skiing, twilight goes until 9:00, but it gets dark early in the mountains.  And it's cheaper when you're skiing in the dark!  But they have lights on the main run.  So we're up there, riding up the ski lift, looking outside of the ski resort that is fairly well lit, and looking out into the darkness of the night.  And imagining what that would be like to be out there in that darkness, where it's just totally pitch black, and to be by yourself.  And to be 13 years old.  Imagine what that was like.

And you know of course I'm referring to the story of Bryan Cross, and many of you know the Cross family.  Nancy Cross is the daughter of the McCauley's, long-time members of this church (now deceased), her sister Ruth McCauley still active in the church and an avid skier so typically not here during winter season.  Bryan also plays on the same soccer team as my son.  So when I saw that story in the paper Monday morning that a Bryan Cross had been lost on Mt. Hood, I immediately checked our records to see if that's the same Bryan Cross who called, and yes, that's our Bryan.  Tried to find out what we could do, and several phone calls back and forth and we actually had a carload of people set and ready to go to join in the search effort.  Then we got the word that a helicopter had spotted Bryan and a snow cat was getting him to bring him in.

It attracted national news -- Good Morning America and the Today show both wanted to interview Bryan live.  I don't know if it was the prospect of having to do a T.V. interview at 5:00 a.m. or if it was the fact that he was simply tired of talking to news reporters and T.V. crews by that time, but he said "Mom, do I have to?"  She said "No, you don't".  So Bryan went back and he was a normal kid again and was done with his brief 15 minutes of fame that he did not seek and did not wish to have.

But something really interesting in this story, that I've learned from Nancy.  As you can imagine, this was quite an experience upon such a young, impressionable person.  It will be something that will be with him the rest of his life, no doubt.  After he made it home, once the reality began to sink in of what he had done and the danger he was in, he began having nightmares.  Dreamt of falling in a river and drowning (he fell in a creek when he was trying to get out of the wilderness area).  Dreamt of being buried in snow -- of course this was one of the great fears of the searchers.  But on Sunday night, the night that he spent out there alone in the wilderness huddled underneath a tree (the only shelter he could find), he slept.  And what did he dream?  He dreamt of skiing down ski runs and winning the race (he was disqualified for the race he was there to participate in).  He dreamt of skiing in powder snow in total bliss.  He said it was a euphoric feeling of these incredible dreams he was having out there in the wilderness by himself.  It's one of those things that makes you stop and go "huh?"  

And then I read again this passage.  "Have you not known, have you not heard?  The Lord is everlasting God, he does not faint or grow weary.  He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  Even youth 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".

Maybe it's human psyche that does that for us, in times of crisis, that survival instinct that kicks in, to think positive and be hopeful.  Maybe it's God at work in us, to help us to keep up our hope.  Or maybe our psyche is the way that God works in and through us.  I don't know.  All I know is that this 13 year-old boy survived that night through the wilderness, with no appreciable harm.

Not all such stories end on such a happy note, of course.  Another teenager intentionally sleeping out on the same night near a ski resort was killed by a snow plow that same weekend.  A ferry sank somewhere in the Red Sea and 700 people are lost, drowned presumably.  The miner's trapped in a West Virginia coal mine suffocate and die.  When tragedy strikes close to home, the same question that was asked by those exiles 2,500 years ago is the question we ask:  "Does God notice?  Does God care?"  And there's probably been a time in most of our lives when we've probably asked that ourselves.

And the natural response is to think because God hasn't performed a miracle for me to save me out of this crisis, that God must not care or God doesn't know what is happening.  Pastorally speaking, the first response to such a cry of anguish is not to refuse it, not to deny it, not to diminish it -- "oh, no, of course God cares".  The first response, described so well by Rabbi Harold Kushner, is when a good friend comes to you and says their marriage of 20 years is dissolving and they cry out "what have I done to deserve this?", do you immediately begin to list for them the 10 things that they did wrong in their marriage?  No, that's not what you do, is it?  You comfort them, as Isaiah 40 begins:  "Comfort, comfort my people, speak tenderly to them".  That's the response that we are to have.

But when that question of "why me?" is no longer a cry of anguish and is instead a part of that genuine search for the presence of God in our lives, words of comfort and assurance no longer satisfy.  We need something more.  And so to this question of doubt -- where is God when we need God most? -- the prophet responds:  "Have you not known?  Do you not know your own story?  Have you not heard?  Do you not know that it is God who made this world?"  

We search for an easy fix to our problem.  I'm just looking for a way to fix my car, and the prophet responds with the creator of the universe.  It's a little bit of an overkill.  It's like the story of the young seminarian who was sent out to preach in the country church, and arrived there at the appointed time, and there was only 1 parishioner.  Not sure what to do, he asked him "Should we hold the service?"  And the man said, "I'm a rancher, young man, and when I got out to feed the cows with my load of hay and only 1 cow appears, well of course I feed the cow".  The student thought, well those are wise words, so began the service.  Led the hymns.  Led the prayers.  Sang every verse of every hymn.  Preached the whole sermon.  Got to the benediction, concluded the service, went out to shake the hand of his single parishioner (who's eyes by then had glazed over), and said "Well, what do you think?"  He replied:  "Young man, when I said that I feed the cow, I didn't say that I dump on him the whole load!".

But you see, the prophet here is dumping on us the whole load.  The people are just looking for an answer to a simple question and he's talking about the creator of the universe, this great and powerful God to whom we are but mere insects.  And to add to our insignificance, the prophet goes on to say "If you take all the rulers of the world, and you add them all up, you get 1/2 of nothing.  They're little more than a field of grass under a withering sun".  And so we might think by comparison, who are we?  We're not even a blade of grass in that field.  We're not even a flea on the grass.  Remember that old song -- there's a bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea?  We're not even a speck on the wing on the fly on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea.  So who are we?  So we might think.  But we'd be wrong.

For we forget that the God we worship established a nation out of slaves in Egypt, a forgotten people.  The God we worship took a shepherd boy and made him the greatest king the nation had ever known.  The God we worship is the one who brought the exiles home.  We forget the Christ we follow said 'let the children -- the children! -- come to me'.  'The first shall be last, the last shall be first'.  We forget the Christ we follow ministered to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the outcasts, the forgotten of society.  

And so too, God's prophet, once he has made the case for God as the creator of all, who knows the name of every star in the sky, also knows you by name.  This great God is a personal God.  

For those that are willing to trust in this God, the unfainting God gives strength.  The tireless God gives power to those who grow tired and weary.

So what does it mean to trust, what does it mean to 'wait' on the Lord?  Elaine Pagels, the author of the book Beyond Belief, discusses what we can learn from the early Christian communities, in those first couple centuries before the canon of the New Testament was formed.  Many of those [early] texts did not make it into our Bible, the texts that they left behind.  Some of them were even declared heretical by later church councils.  She says what we see in those stories of those early Christian communities is not a testimony to a certain set of beliefs about Jesus or God, you have to believe X, Y, and Z in order to be saved.  No, instead she says, from the beginning what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.  Unlike the other Gods of the society of the time, which required devotion and sacrifice, Jews and Christians believed that their God, who created humankind, actually loved the human race, and evoked love in return.

Such convictions became the practical basis of a radical new social structure.  Think about the significance of a society that was very hierarchical to come into a community where you were all brothers and sisters, equal in the Lord.  And all found within the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection a story that gave them hope at a time when such hope was a precious commodity.  And so Pagels writes:  "Within decades of his death, the story of Jesus became for his followers what the Exodus story had become for many generations of Jews.  Not simply a narrative of past events, but a story through which they could interpret their own struggles, their victories, their sufferings, and their hopes.  And so from these early Christian communities we learn that faith is much more than belief.  Faith is the trust that enables us to commit ourselves to what we hope and love.  To wait upon the Lord is not then to wait passively for good things to happen for us, it is rather to commit ourselves to the way of God, to that way of hope and love."

As Judy and I were returning from Germany in 1981, we met Ana and Todd Gobledale, at the general Assembly of our church, who were on their way to South Africa to serve as missionaries.  The tales they have to tell of those last years under apartheid, and then the beginning years under the new government led by Nelson Mandela, are really quite remarkable.  They write of the extreme hardships and the remarkable perseverance of the members of the black township where they served.  Ana shares the story of one family in particular and her attempts to help in some concrete way after many futile efforts, and a last desperate attempt to try to connect a member of the family with someone who might be able to provide them with income.  And so she writes:  "These guys are losers, I think to myself.  The smell of wood smoke from the fire is pungent and acrid.  My eyes water as I sit down to escape the cloud that hangs at shoulder level in the mud hut.  The curved wall is lined with wooden spoons and platters on display from the local handicraft buyer.  I fidget anxiously, awaiting the verdict.  My eyes, now clear, are fastened on the carved platter being turned over in Baba Thala's hands for appraisal.  But my mind is thinking over the string of failures I have seen the Aquansi family face.  First there was Gogo, a Grandma Aquansi.  Without a pension for 10 years because her deformed right thumb would not yield a fingerprint.  After a 2-year struggle we finally got her through the bureaucratic tangle.  She died days after receiving her first pension check.  Then there's Jabu, the eldest son, who should be the hope of the family.  But Jabu was blinded by disease as a young man.  And then there's Nigendi, an 8 year-old grandson, deaf and handicapped by cerebral palsy.  The rehabilitation center refuses to enroll him because he is deaf.  The school for the deaf refuses to enroll him because of his paralysis.  And then there is Alfred.  In his early 30s, the younger son, the last hope for the family.  Searching for permanent work over the years, he has traveled the circuit from Durban to Johannesburg.  He squats now, crouched beside the fire.  Furrows of futility crease his face.  The same futility that seems displayed in the cracks of the mud floor, where ants have pushed their way through and are making their nest, only to be swept out each morning.  The same futility of the silence:  no chickens crackling, no goats bleating, no bees drowning in fruit trees.  Nothing.  These guys are losers, I think to myself again.  Why did I ever bring Baba Thala here?  But Baba Thala stops fingering the wooden articles and looking at Alfred announces:  "Aquansi, your work is beautiful.  The spoons are the best I've seen.  The traditional burnt pattern is bold and sharp."  His eyes hold respect for Alfred.  "Let's talk -- you are the factory, and I am the wholesaler.  Not let's see your tools".  I can hardly believe my ears.  Mentally, I had given up on this family.  Alfred was the last hope and I had hardened myself for yet another disappointment.  These words of praise and promise have taken me by surprise.  Alfred the loser has become Alfred the artist.  The futility of the previous moment dissolves.  Alfred displays his carving knife, its handle broken and taped, the blade looking as though it was pressed in a waffle iron.  His battered drill looks almost useless with its broken point.  "Use some of today's earnings to buy new tools", Baba Thala smiles.  "I'm paying you twice the price you asked for.  I try to pay fair".  I walk home in a state of amazement.  These losers are winners.  While my hope had died, they persevered in trust and faith that the future is theirs too.  I realized that I must trust in something greater than any process.  Greater than the people involved in the process.  Even greater that the hoped-for outcome."

Have you not known, have you not heard?  The Lord is everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary.  He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  Even youth will faint and be weary and 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.

Praise be to God.


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