Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 02/04/2018

The first lesson today ended with “They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” The hymn of the day that we’ll sing in a few minutes is “On Eagle’s Wings.” Is it just a coincidence or are these signs that the Eagles are going to win the Super Bowl today?

Because of the hymn the image of eagle’s wings is familiar, maybe also because of the Chariots of Fire movie from back in the 80’s in which one of the characters reads this poetry from Isaiah. Because of these words at the end of the chapter and “Comfort, comfort my people” from the beginning of the chapter, words recognizable from Handel’s Messiah, chapter 40 of Isaiah is at least relatively well known even among those who may not be real familiar with the Bible.

The poetic words of Isaiah 40 are of interest in and of themselves just for their literary value as this part of Isaiah has some of the most beautiful writing in the whole Bible. Knowing more about when and why this and the following chapters were written adds even more to their meaning, helping to clarify what’s going on in the divine/human relationship that is described here. Chapter 40 is the beginning of what is known as Second Isaiah which makes up chapters 40 to 55. Chapter 40 comes right after chapter 39, no surprise there, but there is a long pause between chapters 39 and 40, a pause of about 150 years.

Chapter 39 ends with the prophet of First Isaiah announcing the word of the Lord to King Hezekiah, the king of the southern kingdom of Judah; at that point you had Israel to the north and Judah to the south with the two kingdoms having similar but separate histories. The word spoken to Hezekiah wasn’t a hopeful word. It was a word that said the people of Judah would be taken away to Babylon as exiles and this at a time when Babylon wasn’t even on the radar as a threat. The words didn’t sound very credible, nothing to get too worried about. But that was the word of the Lord and at that point the prophet went silent; there were no more words from the Lord to be spoken for a long time.

During the silence, a lot happens. There were good kings and bad kings but most significantly there was the rise of Babylon as the superpower in the region, replacing Assyria as the dominant force. With the rise of Babylon came the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple, the end of the Davidic dynasty and…the deportation, the exile of the best and the brightest to Babylon as the prophet had said.

Keep in mind that exile wasn’t slavery, it was dislocation, being separated from all that was familiar, geographically, culturally, socially and religiously. Some people accommodated and tried to fit in as best they could, making the best of a bad situation, figuring we can’t do anything about it so we might as well go along. But for others it was cause for despair, despair especially reflected in the book of Lamentations and perhaps most notably in Psalm 137 that begins “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept” and ends with a call for vengeance on their captors and their children. It’s one of those psalms that never shows up in the Sunday lectionary.

It was a situation seemingly without hope, seemingly without possibility and it seemed that way for a long time, that 150 year pause after chapter 39. But then, when all seemed lost, the silence was broken; the word of the Lord came to a new prophet who announced, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that she has served her term, her penalty is paid.”

Chapters 1-39 had been about judgment on the people for not following the way of the Lord; in chapter 40 the theme shifts to deliverance and a return home by the grace of God. This is gospel, it’s good news; it’s why this part of Isaiah is sometimes called the fifth gospel. This good news says that their God, the Lord is still in charge and the world is changed by the presence of the Lord. After a long pause, there is hope, there are new possibilities.

After a long pause though, the Lord knows there have to be skeptics, there have to be questions and through the imagination of the prophet the Lord anticipates those questions and reasserts his authority against the claims of any other god which leads us into today’s part of chapter 40. In these verses, the people are reminded that their God, the Lord is the creator of all that is, the God to whom all earthly authority must answer. He stretches out the heavens and spreads them like a tent; princes are brought to naught and rulers are made as nothing, blown away like a withered plant.

Following that reminder, the tables are then turned on those who would ask questions: “To whom will you compare me, who is my equal? Why do you say, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by God?” It’s a reminder that despite apparent absence, despite the long pause, their God, the Lord has been present and in control all along. It’s a reminder that leads into those poetic verses that end the chapter, concluding with, “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.” It’s an overwhelmingly positive response that makes an overwhelmingly confident assertion concerning the power of the Lord.

After the long pause, after the silence, in the midst of exile, being strangers in a strange land it’s easy to understand the people thinking that the Lord didn’t care, or…didn’t notice, or…was just unable to do anything. To counter that, the prophet makes the connection to creation, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” It’s a reminder that creation isn’t a “one and done” event for the Lord but that it continues. The Lord is still involved, not worn out or exhausted but attentive to the needs of the faint and the powerless.

The final verses then set up an either/or for the people to consider. They can be faint and weary, even the young who are full of energy; they can be faint and weary, despairing of the situation in which they find themselves, or…they can hope and wait for the Lord who will give them strength to rise above present circumstances and fly like eagles, to run and to walk and not become weary.

That’s the choice that this divinely inspired prophet/poet presents out of the silence of the long pause. It was the choice and it still is the choice. During the long pause of the exile, the people had become theological amnesiacs. They had forgotten the stories that defined who they were. They’d forgotten the creation story that placed the Lord at the center as the creator. They’d forgotten the story of the Exodus and delivery from slavery in Egypt a story that again placed the Lord at the center, in control against political powers that seemed like they would last forever. Having forgotten those stories they were faint and weary, resigned to things as they were, thinking that their God had wandered off and forgotten them…

…until Isaiah gives them this theological slap in the face and with that their reality was changed. They trusted the word and deliverance happened. It’s a text that should have the same effect on us. We’re not exiles like the people of Judah and Jerusalem at the time of Isaiah; but up against the political and economic and social powers of this world it’s easy for us to feel like we’re at their mercy and can’t do anything about it so, like those who accommodated to life in Babylon, we might as well just go along.

Like those in Babylon, it’s also easy to feel like God doesn’t care, doesn’t notice or even worse, does notice but can’t do anything about it. With that theological slap in the face though, we have the same choice as the people in Isaiah’s time. We can wallow in despair and resignation caused by the voices out there that make everything a crisis and sponsor conflict and division, or…we can choose to live by a different vision, a vision of a different reality that sees the world being transformed by the presence of God. Rather than focusing on the doom and gloom of the 24 hour news cycle, we can look for the signs, however limited, of God’s renewing energy that is about hope and new possibilities.

As Christians, this is who we are so we fight against theological amnesia that causes us to forget that our core story is the story of Jesus. It’s a story of love and forgiveness, a story of compassion, a story of hope and new life when hope seems lost. Through word and sacrament in worship we are joined to his life and his vision; as we leave, in faith and by faith we do what we can to live out that vision and make it known. With Jesus we mount up with wings like eagles and we see the world differently and what we see is a world ruled by the presence of God.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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