Have You Not Known
| Isaiah 40:21-31
||Sun, February 9, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|We open Isaiah today and find ourselves in the middle of a poem. You can hear its cadences: “Have you not known, have you not heard, has it not been told you ... have you not understood“. This is urgent, even desperate speech. The poem begins with resounding confidence: “Comfort, comfort my people .... speak tenderly ... get up to a high mountain, herald of good tidings ... he will feed his flock ... he will gather his lambs.” But now this change of tone. Now this sound of concern, even panic: “You know this, you’ve heard it for a lifetime, its been preached over and over, don’t you see?” Isaiah is a frustrated preacher. And the congregation looks at him, bewildered. Their collected faces asking “Known what? Heard what? Told what?”
“It is YHWH who sits above the circle of the earth ... who stretches out the heavens like a curtain”. This all sounds so predictable on a Sunday morning. What is the big news about this? That God is God? That YHWH is the creator of the universe? This is no surprise to a people who begin worship with songs that sing “O God, beyond all praising we worship you today”. But then the poet pushes the limits of credulity: “Who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” The poem pushes inevitably to this daring truth: “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely are they sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth.” Scarcely are who planted? Princes. Rulers of the earth. Kings. Dictators. Presidents. Corporate Potentates. Bullies. Scarcely planted, scarcely sown, scarcely taken root “they shrivel when God blows upon them and like flecks of chaff, they’re gone with the wind” (as translated in ‘The Message” by Eugene Peterson). The text is determined to make this daring connection. It insists that the God who sits above is not disconnected from history. The powers that seem so massive to us are “as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isaiah 40:17). And this is not only Isaiah’s testimony. Notice that the voice changes, that Isaiah steps back from describing YHWH. Now YHWH speaks directly, pointing to the skies and to the astrological charting of ancient Babylon, a culture convinced of the powers of the stars to control human destiny: “So - who is like me? Who holds a candle to me?” says The Holy. “Look at the night skies ... Who marches this army of stars out each night, counts them off, calls each by name .... and never overlooks a single one?” (‘The Message’). This is a daring poem. It dares those who hear it to imagine that YHWH has greater power than all nation states and multi-national corporations combined. It portrays a universe in which YHWH is stronger than any so-called inevitable destiny or apparently unavoidable fate.
Reading this together in a class of preachers, I heard an honest voice muse: “Well, given the situation the world is in right now, wouldn’t that be nice.” Wouldn’t it be nice if YHWH was on hand, blowing creatively over the chaos once again. Blowing - did you notice - a creative breath of destruction! Breathing new life by ending the old ways of princes and rulers of the earth. We like to imagine that it can be otherwise, that the creative breath of God can build up without tearing down. But the poem insists that YHWH overwhelms puny human projects like nations and dominations in every sphere of life. And, quietly, we mutter: “Wouldn’t that be nice”. But the text is more provocative than we dare. It doesn’t just mutter. It complains. Isaiah hears the complaint of Jacob, that is, of the people Israel: “My way is hid from the LORD, my cause is ignored by my God” (from ‘The Tanakh’). This is an amazing statement in the middle of this poetry. It is amazing because it dares such provocative honesty. Isaiah has spoken eloquently about YHWH’s power that is beyond all our comprehension. His poetic sermon is now nearly at an end. To which the congregation says: “We don’t see it. No sign of God. Hidden from us. Ignoring us. God is absent, not present.” The text does not say that some people within Israel are complaining. It does not say that some members of the congregation can not see God, while others can. No. The text says that all of Israel, the whole church, is in a season of exile not only from its home but also from its God. Even its priests and scribes and rabbis, even its theologians and elders and pastors do not see evidence of YHWH’s presence in the world of nations and corporations. They do not see God in evidence in families that are under the influence of troubling forces and worrying habits. This is daring testimony. It is the troubling truth that lies at the core of this poem. The whole poem drives towards this risky truth-telling. In spite of YHWH’s splendour and power, the people of YHWH are in a season of such trouble and a world of such chaos that they have lost touch with YHWH. The communication has been broken. They are somehow hidden from God, they sense that God can no longer be bothered with them ... and if not with them, then not with the world either.
The poet does not silence their complaint. Isaiah knows that this is the truth of exile. Exile is all about losing touch with home. To live in exile as the people of YHWH is to live out of touch with God. This is a hard thing for the church to name, since the church is intended to be the place where people come to meet the Holy. Too many churches imagine that it is better to pretend rather than to tell the truth. Lacking the presence of the LORD too many churches get busy constructing little tinker-toy programs that propose to get us to God, to make the Holy accessible. In the process, God’s almighty power shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until God is left only to uplift the spirits of individuals. This is the only arena in which such a church can imagine that God has power. Geopolitics is no longer God’s realm. Nor is the world of economics or of consumer culture. Those powerful arenas are left in human hands for, as they like to say, “God has no hands but ours.”
But Isaiah will have nothing to do with this neutralizing of YHWH’s strength. He knows that God has power far beyond our puny, if gifted, hands. Isaiah returns to the refrain: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Now the emphasis is different. Now the picture is of God’s energy and vitality: “YHWH does not faint or grow weary ... gives power to the faint ... strengthens the powerless.” We have been cautious about using the language of “Almighty God”. We remember how it has been abused by the powerful to dominate the weak. But notice how needful we are of the good news of God’s power when we find ourselves aligned with all who cannot manage to get out from under oppresive forces and fearful ways. Even the strongest among us - even vibrant youths and the energetic young - “will faint and be weary, will fall exhausted.” Listen to the text pushing forward. It is looking ahead, beyond this season of exile and absence. Seeing into tomorrow. It announces that the future of the church and of the world is not in its children. Yes. That’s what it says. It says, do not burden your children and your youth with such impossible expectations. Our children and youth are not the hope of the future of the church or of the world. Even they will faint and be weary and will fall exhausted under the burden of the powers that crush the new ways of life that we long to live.
Now the text makes its most amazing claim. Now the poet announces that “those who wait for YHWH” shall be made new. Four times the poem says ‘shall’: “shall renew, shall mount up, shall run, shall walk”. This is a promise of what is coming. The translations of this ancient poem struggle to find the language to capture an odd Hebrew figure of speech. It says something about the season when eagles molt, when their old feathers fall away and new feathers grow in, when the eagle’s flight is renewed. Those who wait upon YHWH “shall discover youthful strength and renewed wings, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Strong. Vital. Walking. Running. Moving. Vigorous. Thriving. Energetic. This is God’s intention for Israel, for the church, for the world of God’s passionate care. It is a future that a fatigued church and an exhausted world cannot fathom.
We find ourselves pondering this peculiar promise. “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength”. Really? Those who wait? Our language is thin here, it cannot hold the poem’s vision. We struggle to name the discipline of holy waiting without limiting it to the dictionary definition that reads: “to wait is to remain inactive.” ‘Those who remain inactive for the LORD?’ No! The Jewish translation into English replaces “wait” with “trust”. “Those who trust in the LORD”. Another opts for the word “hope”. “Those who hope in the LORD.” Spanish speakers in our midst remind us of this when they say “esperare”. It means both “to wait” and “to hope”. The heart of this poem - and the heart of our faith - is trust in God’s promises to Israel and to the church, to the earth and to its creatures. This radical hope is precisely what gives great strength to act in expectation of God’s mighty acts of utterly new beginnings. Despair - lack of “esperare” - is the absence of hope. To be in despair is to be unable to wait. To be in despair is to be weakened, fatigued, exhausted, unable to get up and to get going. Despair is the chronic disease of the church that we know and of the world that we know. Yet we are brought together by the good news that is a remedy to despair. We gather to practice hope-filled trust in the God who promises to come into the synagogue and into the church and into the world with unexpected energy and resolve. We recognize this God. We have watched chaos triumph on Good Friday. We have endured a long Holy Saturday of absence. And we have heard the startling testimony of the women announcing the impossible on Easter Sunday. Now, in the midst of our expectant waiting, hoping, trusting we watch and listen for the witness of those who meet the Holy Stranger - the Risen One - and who burst in with news that God’s promises are true and that there is a new future and that the new future is at hand and that the new future is God’s. Amen.