Strength renewed

by Steve Elde

This sermon was originally given for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2021, at First Covenant Church in Seattle, Washington.

TEXTS: Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

A leader defines reality. A leader doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. A leader doesn’t tell us lies. A leader defines reality. Such were the Hebrew prophets. Sometimes they spoke a direct word that felt like a punch to the guts. It knocked the wind out of you. Left you gasping for breath. They warned. They scolded. They pleaded. They shook Israel out of its complacency. But they also shook Israel out of its despair. A despair learned in exile.

Exile can last a lifetime. Israel’s exile lasted two or three lifetimes. It wore them down and it wore them out. Exile became normal. It became familiar. When you’re stuck in exile, you learn to accommodate. You lower your expectations. You accept the unthinkable as thinkable. In exile, you do what you can to survive. You live day to day. Sometimes you live in denial, sometimes you give up hope completely. Time slows down and stops. And you forget things. Spend enough time in exile and you begin to forget who you are. Without reminders, without ritual, without stories told over and over again, sacred memory fades over time. In Psalm 137 the psalmist declares, “Jerusalem, if I ever forget you, may I lose my right hand; let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth!”

Our text from Second Isaiah is a word of hope to those long in despair, those who have forgotten who they are, forgotten to whom they belong. God defines reality for those in exile. “Have you not known?” the Lord asks. “Have you not heard?” “Has it not been told to you from the beginning?” “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Four questions, one after the other. All asked in the negative: “Have you not…?” “Has it not….?” Each question brings the exiles back to reality. Each question reminds them who they are, to whom they belong. “Remember!” “For God’s sake, remember!” the Lord reminds them. “These princes and rulers of the earth, who hold you captive, are nothing to me. They have no real power. They’re nothing but little grasshoppers. I blow on them and they dry up and are swept away. Yes, they carried you off into exile, but they are nothing compared to me.” “Reach deep. Remember who you are. Remember who I am.”

“Look up into the night sky,” the Lord tells the exiles. “Look at the stars. Who created these?” It is reminiscent of the questions the Lord asks of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you understand. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavens shouted for joy? Have you commanded the morning, put the dawn into its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and shake the wicked out of it?” “Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked into the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Have you seen the gates of deep darkness? ....Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? …Declare, if you know all this.” Job is dumbstruck.

The same can be said for these exiles. The Lord asks, “Why, O Jacob, do you say, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord?’ Why do you say, ‘The Lord has forgotten me, the Lord has ignored me?’” “Who gave you these crazy ideas?” God brings them back to reality. The “not” questions are repeated to drive it home. “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?” The Lord here sounds exasperated. “Am I talking to myself?” “How many times do I have to say this?” After all the questions, comes reality: “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. The Lord does not faint or grow weary; his ways are unfathomable, beyond your understanding. But know this, the Lord who does not faint or grow weary will not let you faint and grow weary. This Lord brings strength and power to the faint-hearted. Even the young will become tired and will faint. But when you fall down, when you faint, when you are discouraged and exhausted, remember that the Lord has not forgotten you, remember that the Lord will never leave you.” “Those who wait for the Lord,” Isaiah tells the exiles, “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.” The word here translated “wait” is more than just waiting — it is eagerly looking. It is looking and finding, in the midst of exhaustion and discouragement, hope against the odds. It is discovering God’s reality midst the harsh, deadening realities of exile. It is remembering things forgotten, remembering and recovering what was never really lost. “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?”

When we are in exile, we are torn loose from what is familiar and comfortable and predictable. For the past year we have been in a pandemic exile. At last count, 462,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19. We have been exiled from each other, exiled from church, exiled from restaurants, exiled from stores, and exiled from school. Want to know what exile is? Talk to parents who have been teaching their kids at home for months, while holding onto their jobs; talk to the people who have lost their jobs because the company they work for has put them on unpaid leave, or has closed its doors; talk to people who are using community food banks for the first time in their lives because they can’t afford to buy groceries; talk to those who have lost someone they love who are still waiting for a funeral, their grief deferred; talk to grandparents exiled from their grandchildren. We have all been in exile from normal. Masked and insulated and isolated. Living and working virtually.

On top of all this, we have increasingly been in exile from the truth. Lies and reckless conspiracy theories have spread across social media, reality has been called fake news, and lies have become the norm for some. We are exiled by hostility and political rage and hatred. As we watched violent mobs storm the United States Capitol in January, we wondered how we got so far from home and we wondered if we will ever get back home. When cruelty becomes normal we are in exile. When we demonize those with whom we disagree, we are in exile. And the long exile of racism still holds all of us hostage. The Black Lives Matter protests are a cry from exile. We can no longer pretend we are not part of this. Have we forgotten who we were created to be? “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?” In Isaiah 40, those questions come to people who have lost hope. But they also come to those who are ready to accommodate, to make normal things that are not normal, things that should never be normal. They come to those who close their eyes and look away, to those who listen to their own worst instincts. We can be exiled by fear, by anger, by indifference and selfishness. When these become normal, God help us. Then it is time to turn around.

Isaiah speaks to a people beaten and battered. “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?” Listen! God has not given up on you. God has not abandoned you to a new normal of disappointment and fear. The Lord shall renew your strength, shall lift you up as on the wings of eagles, and you shall run and not be weary. You will be delivered from exile.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote many years ago, in a time when human beings were carried into exile and exterminated while people looked the other way. “A great loneliness has come over our time,” he said, “a loneliness that is found only where god-forsakenness reigns…But [there is a longing] that a time will nonetheless come again when God dwells among people, when God lets himself be found.” In the midst of it all, Bonhoeffer says, are these words: “I am with you.” “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?” Do not give up. Do not accept god-forsakenness as the new normal. God has not and will not forsake us. God comes looking for us with love and hope and mercy and justice and forgiveness. This is the new normal of what Jesus called the kingdom of God, the presence of God in us and among us, through which all that was thought to be irretrievably lost is found, what is broken is made whole, and our strength is renewed. We are God’s hope against the odds of exile. In us and through us, a new reality is breaking through the old. Teresa of Avila described it this way: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. You are his body.”

In Christ, you and I live into the reality of the merciful God described by the psalmist, who heals the brokenhearted and lifts up the downtrodden. In our gospel text from Mark, Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons. In every act and every word Jesus redefines reality. He brings a new reality to the realm, to the exile, of evil and death. Freedom and hope take their place. In Christ, God walked into our exile and led the way out through death and resurrection. That is our path. Soon we will begin the journey through Lent to Easter. We will journey with Jesus toward the cross, through suffering and death to resurrection. In Luke’s gospel, the risen Christ encounters a couple of disciples, downcast and discouraged, walking on the road toward Emmaus. They are lost in grief. “What are you talking about?” he asks them. They tell him. Jesus could well have answered them, “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?” Jesus defines a new reality as they walk together. But it only becomes clear to them when he breaks bread with them at the table. “Their eyes were opened,” Luke says, “and they recognized him.” Their exile, in that moment, was over.

Today we come to the table. In the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup, Christ enters into our exile. He defines reality with his presence. In him our strength is renewed. Amen.