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Life Between Two Rivers

(a sermon for February 21, 2021, the 1st Sunday in Lent, based on Genesis 2:15-17, 25-3:15, 22-24 and Matthew 4:1-11)

And so now the journey begins…

As you well know, I have long been fond of referring to the season of Lent as a journey; but the question is, what do I actually mean by that? Well, let me just say it’s a good question, and I can give you a couple of answers to that: first off, since in these next six weeks leading up to the celebration of Easter we in the church spend time recalling the events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the season of Lent serves as a reminder of the actual physical journey Jesus made to Jerusalem and to all that awaited him there; from triumphal entry to betrayal and denial, mocking and scourging, and then suffering and death. So this Lenten journey of which we speak is most definitely the journey of our Lord, but it’s also our journey as well: for as I am also fond of saying, you and I cannot truly come to the joy of Easter’s resurrection without having first experienced in some fashion the agony of Good Friday’s crucifixion; taking up our own crosses as we follow Jesus unto the cross of Golgotha. Obviously, for you and me it’s not a physical journey, but it is a journey of the spirit, a pilgrimage of faith and remembrance of how Jesus, our Savior, has already taken that journey for us; an all-important affirmation that he carried all of our sin and our weakness upon his own shoulders even unto death, and did so willingly and in infinite love. In the words of the late orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, ours is a journey of “rediscovery of what we were made through our own death and [our] resurrection in our baptism in Jesus Christ.”

In other words, this is a journey centered on re-identifying and revitalizing our identity with Jesus Christ… one day, one week, one step at a time. Schmemann described it this way: “As we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see – far, far away – the destination. It is the joy of Easter; it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, this foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright, and our efforts [along the way] a ‘spiritual spring.’ The night might be hard, dark and long,” Schmemann concluded, “but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.”

Now, I speak about all this today because it occurs to me that many of the scriptural themes we address along the way of our journey through this “spiritual spring” are, for lack of a better word, kind of “heavy,” and represent a rather sudden shift of emphasis. I mean, up till now in this Christian year, in and through the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany we’ve been building on scriptural themes of light bursting forth into the darkness of this world; divine promises of unending hope and even joy breaking into our lives amidst the very real challenges of these strange, uncertain days in which we dwell. I have to say that for me as a preacher – and I hope for you as a listener – there’s a spiritual vitality about all of this that cannot help but resonate in our hearts. But now, seemingly all of a sudden, the season of Epiphany comes to a close and the season of Lent begins; and what’s the first thing we encounter in our reading of scripture; what’s the inaugural spiritual truth awaiting us along these first few steps of our Lenten journey?

Original Sin! That’s right; the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise… oh, and also, if that weren’t enough, there’s also that little matter of temptation to sin, as described in the story of Jesus’ 40 days spent in the wilderness!

I know… it all sort of ruins the mood, doesn’t it… not exactly the most uplifting of sermon topics, either!

But you see… in those two stories lay an essential truth… the truth that this is who we are. And if we’re going to talk about sin and redemption; if we’re going to make this journey to the cross and even begin to understand the reasons that Jesus went to that cross to die; if we’re truly to burst forth with our alleluias on Easter, then it’s going to need to start with the simple and yet all-too-difficult acknowledgment that we are the sinners for whom Jesus died.  Without that very basic confession, all the epiphanies that have been revealed to us in Christmas light are meaningless, and the Easter hymns of victory that we’ll sing six Sundays from today cannot help but ring hollow.

Granted, it’s not easy to hear that familiar story of the “fall” of Adam and Eve and recognize ourselves as the ones who have fallen; much easier and more convenient to hear this story in the context of the Genesis creation story and to think of it merely as the beginning of a longer biblical narrative about the relationship between God and God’s people. But what we have in that text is a very close to home example of people who are given the opportunity and every possible resource to live in faithful covenant with God, and yet turn away from God at the earliest opportunity; and moreover, do so again, and again and again. And if we’re being honest, that happens more often than we are willing to admit to ourselves! Bottom line, we don’t like to picture ourselves as people who try, quite often automatically and unknowingly, to live by our own rule; as if God had no real hold on our lives.

And yet, there we all are.

Likewise, it’s more than a little uncomfortable hearing of Jesus’ strength against the same kinds of temptation that you and I may well suspect, deep down, that if it’d been us, we’d been unable to resist. After all, what were the temptations that the devil set before Jesus?  Actually, when you break it down, it comes down to the basic temptations of human life: first, it was sustenance; represented as bread in the face of hunger. Second, it was acceptance: by jumping from the top of the temple and having angels lift him up in the sight of all the people, the result would be that immediately Jesus would be known to all as the true Messiah; and isn’t that what so many of us yearn for, the feeling of being recognized and accepted and loved?  And then third, it was power: power personified in the tempter’s offer of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”  Sustenance, acceptance and power: three different ways that the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness; three major temptations of our own lives!

Now, I should point out here that on the face of it, those three things don’t sound all that sinful; after all, sustenance keeps us strong, acceptance brings us love, and power, properly yielded, protects us.  But when sustenance becomes avarice, acceptance becomes self-adoration and power breeds corruption; well, then we’re back at the Garden of Eden and the original sin of desiring to be more like God than… God!  That’s what the tempter was tempting; but what we read in Matthew’s version of this gospel story is that Jesus – fully God and yet, fully human – chose not to sin. 

Oh, that we could say the same… but once again, there we are.

As I said before, this is not an easy truth to confront!  I’m reminded here of a seminary classmate who was serving as a student pastor of a small congregation out in the backwoods of Maine. In fact, Neil had only been at this church for a few weeks when Lent began and the scripture readings for that particular Sunday were the same ones we’re looking at today.  And I’ll never forget it; a bunch of us were in the cafeteria doing a “post-portem” of sorts on our sermons that Sunday, and Neil confessed that it was one of the most difficult times he’d yet experienced as a preacher.  “I just kept looking out into that congregation and all those sweet, elderly ladies who were smiling back at me; all these pillars of the church who were always so very kind to me, who regularly made me casseroles and baked cookies for me… and here I was, standing in the pulpit and preaching this sermon where I was supposed to look squarely in the eyes if all these women and tell them that they’re all nothing but sinners!” 

And we all nodded our heads, because we’d all had pretty much the same experience!  Hey, I’m having the same experience right now, and I can’t even see you!

But that’s who we are… and, needless to say, that’s who I am as well. 

The fact is, beloved, I AM A SINNER.  God help me, I am a sinner! And understand me when I say to you that you all are sinners as well.  Trust me, I don’t like saying it about you anymore than I want to say it about me; but that’s who we are. It’s simply a truth of our human existence, permeated into our common experience since the time of humanity’s fall from grace.  Recognizing this truth in ourselves is akin to walking on a journey of darkness and despair; but here’s the thing: remember what we were saying earlier about this journey being one of “bright sadness?” About looking to the horizon and sensing a “mysterious and radiant dawn?”  That’s the other part of this spiritual truth that we encounter on the journey: the effect of limitless grace of divine love on human life: our life, yours and mine. Yes; speaking biblically and theologically we do have an identity with “the fallen Adam” in our bondage to sin, but also have an identity with Christ: Christ, who is the new Adam; Christ, who is the one who overcomes sin and leads us to become a new creation; Christ who brings redemption and sets us forth on a new life in which sin has no power over us, a new life in which God’s mercy, forgiveness and love informs us and guides us along every fresh step of the way.

And the incredibly wonderous thing about all of this is that in Christ, if we stumble as before (and we will stumble, make no mistake: it’s like what I tell our kids during children’s sermons:  you’re good sometimes and you’re bad sometimes. And you try real hard to be good, but at the end of the day you’re gonna be… good sometimes and bad sometimes!), and we will stumble, but now, you see, instead of our spiraling endlessly down to hopelessness and death, here’s Jesus to willingly take the burden of that sin off of our shoulders, carrying it as his own! It’s a gift of divine salvation given us upon the cross nearly two millenia ago, and yet it’s still happening even now: it’s given every time we lay the burden of our sin before the Lord. Yes, we are each and all sinners, but by grace we are saved and set forth again on a pilgrimage of life and living.

  What does that mean for us as we start out on another Lenten journey, to say nothing of the journey of life?  I love what the late Lawrence Hull Stookey wrote in response to this: he spoke of life as “a pilgrimage that we need not fear… You [and I],” he writes, “walk in the land between the river of Eden and the river of the eternal city of God.  Once [we] are headed in the right direction, there is no cause for ultimate anxiety.  And, if along the way, [we] are caught without an umbrella in a sudden shower, even then… particularly then, [we] remember [our] baptism in Christ, and [are] thankful!”

Friends, in these days of Lent as in all of life, we dwell in this land between those two rivers: our movement of our lives involves moving from the one river (where exists self-centeredness, sin and isolation) to the other (which runs clear and cool with fulfillment, faith and the very embodiment of God’s vision and intention for us. Along the way, we stumble and fall; we quite often take one step back for every two along (if we don’t end up totally losing ground!); and we’ll stall from time to time, or find ourselves obsessively running in circles. It’s a long way to go, and the journey is arduous at best.

But the glory of our faith as Christians, beloved, is that we do not make this journey alone, but ever and always in fellowship with Christ. We just keep walking, with Christ’s help, even amidst the “bright sadness,” and eventually… and certainly… we arrive at the banks of the river of the city of God, experiencing the wonder the wonder and the glory of that promised kingdom.

And so let us begin the journey again, assured that our destination is well worth the effort.

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2021 in Jesus, Lent, Old Testament, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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The True Measure of Love

(a sermon for February 14, 2021, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 13)

Let me just cut to the chase here:  it’s all about LOVE.

And understand, I’m not speaking merely of our text for this morning; I’m referring to life, the universe, everything: it’s all about love; specifically, love as God gives it and intends for it to be given.  In the words of Edward Marquart, “From the moment you are born until the moment you die; [in] every second and every minute and every hour and every day and every month and every year and every decade, the purpose of life is God giving you and me the time to learn how to love, as God loves… that’s what [life] is all about.  That is what it has always been about.”

And to this, I say, absolutely!  The only problem is that we don’t always seem to live up to that purpose!  I’m reminded of a story I once heard about the late Earl Weaver, who for many years was manager of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and who was notorious for going nose to nose with any umpire he happened to disagree with. Whenever he’d have, shall we say, a “difference of opinion” regarding a call, he’d run out of the dugout, charge into the umpire’s face and literally scream at him, “Are you going to get any better, or is this it?” 

Well, where life and love are concerned, I have to admit that oftentimes these days I want to ask the same question!  These are days that it is so easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer lack of love existing on just about every level of society, including, at times, our dealings with one another. Sadly, there just seems to be this dominant culture today that revels in finding new and creative ways to promote hatred – ten minutes on social media is all it takes to figure that out (!) – so yes, sometimes you’ve got to wonder, “Are we going to get any better at this thing called love, or is this it?”

I would submit to you, friends, is that what is needed most urgently in our world and in our lives today – more than knowledge, more than achievement, more than a unity of opinion, political and otherwise – is love: but understand, not love as pop culture would likely define it; nor love as Tina Turner used to sing, as “a second-hand emotion;” and, I’m very sorry to say on this St. Valentine’s Day, not love in a purely romantic sense, either.  What we need is love as God intends it, as scripture defines it, and as Jesus himself embodies it:  as “a more excellent way” of life.  I am convinced, friends, that nothing will distinguish us as God’s own people and as followers of Jesus Christ any more clearly than a real commitment to love: loving more radically, more earnestly, and more deeply.  But the question is, what does that mean for us and how do we start; how do you and I as people of faith truly improve our “love life,” as it were?

Actually, there are a lot of answers to be found in this morning’s reading, one of the most familiar, beloved and oft-used passages of the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 13. Now, I’ve always said that if there was a top ten list of wedding readings, this one would most certainly be “number one with a bullet,” and for good reason: there are few places in scripture that set forth the true measure of love more succinctly and eloquently than in 1 Corinthians 13; that said, however, it should also be noted that it’s also quite possibly one of the more misunderstood passages in the Bible! 

You see, 1 Corinthians 13 actually has very little to do with weddings, and it really doesn’t address marriage per se.  Interestingly enough, these words were in fact addressed to a bunch of church people in the midst of conflict!  The Corinthians were a bitterly divided and feuding group of new Christians: they were divided over issues of leadership, over the relative importance of spiritual gifts, and over priorities in ministry and the practice of faith. And as you might imagine, each faction tended to be more than a little smug and self-righteous as to the correctness of their particular point of view, which did nothing at all to help the situation!  So these familiar passages that we traditionally and appropriately take as an affirmation of love and marriage were in reality part of a larger plea to the Christians at Corinth to simply get along!  But for that to happen, says Paul, what’s required is a “more excellent way.”  

Actually, as I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve had this strange random memory of… “Fizzies.” Do you remember Fizzies?  I don’t even know if you can still get them today, but if like me you’re “of a certain age,” you might remember these because for a while they were quite popular: what Fizzies were were these little tablets, sort of like Alka-Seltzers without the medicine. You dropped two tablets into a glass of water, and when the tablets dissolved, what you ended up with was a fruit-flavored carbonated beverage (Kool Aid with bubbles, basically!).  Nothing much, I know; but when you’re a little kid, this was about the neatest thing in the world!

Well, what I remember about that was that I’m maybe in the 5th or 6th grade and I was going with my parents out of town to this big state science fair competition.  My Dad was a high school math and science teacher, you see, and he and my mother had been charged with chaperoning a couple of teen-aged girls from the school who’d qualified to go this science fair, and I got to come along.  But for some reason that totally escapes me now, the biggest thing I remember about that trip is that these two girls not only had a package of Fizzies in their possession, but they’d offered me a glass!   Now, remember I’m just a kid, and the mere fact that these high school girls were paying me any kind of attention at all was pretty cool in and of itself; but that they were going to share their Fizzies (!) with me was about as good as it gets!   However, what I also remember is that when I finally got a chance to take a drink of that wonderful, fabled elixir… it was the worst tasting stuff that I’d ever drank!  It was horribly bitter and I know my face immediately wrenched into a sour expression; which, of course, was incredibly funny to the high school girls and everybody else in the room!  The problem, of course, was that there was something missing from the Fizzies mix, which, of course, was sweetness!   Fizzies needed sweetness in a fairly significant amount in order to taste good, and the one ingredient that was missing for that to happen was sugar!

Well, that’s the place that love holds in a life of faith!  Love isthe more excellent way,” it’s what Paul was saying needed to be present if the believers in Corinth were ever to become a unified and fully realized church, and, friends, it’s still the key ingredient for you and I to fully live out of the faith we espouse and as true disciples of Jesus Christ.

So… it turns out that 1 Corinthians 13 is much more than a warm and fuzzy recitation on the ideals of love: it is no less than a manifesto of a true Christian life lived with love! The late theologian Elizabeth Achtemeyer once wrote that the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is the kind of love that is “closer to hard-eyed realism than simpering sentimentality.”   It’s love that is to be invested directly into what we do and how we do it; it’s love that sets a personal guideline for being at our best and serves as an anchor to steady us when we’re at our worst; and it’s what provides the proper motivation and fuel for everything else in our lives.

That’s what comes through very clearly in the first three verses of this passage.  You know the words: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  In other words, without love at the heart of it, anything we say, even the most eloquent of words, is at best ineffective.  “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  Or, to put it another way, we can know everything there is to know; we can have all the best ideas to affect the greatest change, but without love accompanying those ideas, all that knowledge is ultimately incomplete.  And “if I give way all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  It’s true: you and I can give abundantly for any number of reasons; we might be wonderful stewards of our resources and be benefactors of the highest order to the point of supreme self-sacrifice; but none of it counts unless it’s done in love.  Without love motivating the gift, what we give is insignificant!

What Paul says to the Corinthians in the midst of their own conflicts is also true for the challenges we face in the task of living.  Simply put, great things can happen in this life and in our living, but without love being there in good measure, anything we accomplish ends up being inadequate to the task at hand.  In the same manner of those woe begotten, sugar-deprived Fizzies, without love the flavor of what we do and what we claim in faith from sweet to bitter.

What you and I so often forget, friends, is that as a matter of faith love is not an emotion; it is a practice that serves as a test of our faith in a world that often rejects love at every turn.  The true measure of love is to be found in its connectedness to a higher good; love is meant to be the touchstone of our attitudes and actions as God’s people: therefore, “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”  For us to sing that “they’ll know that we are Christians by our love” is not simply wishful thinking or worse, misguided idealism; it is no less than our edict as followers of Jesus Christ.  For love, simply put, is answering the command of Christ by the following of his example; love is seeing everyone and everything through the lens of Jesus Christ, and then living our lives accordingly. 

And it is what, in the end, makes all the difference.

Brian Wren, a composer of beautiful hymns and other music for Christian worship actually said this wonderfully in an article about congregational singing published a few years back in The Christian Century.  Wren said, “It’s possible to sing without believing a word of what you say, but if you believe in what you’re singing, then body, mind, and spirit come together.”  Friends, I get that… there are moments when I’m singing with the guitar, or else with the choir or in a congregation that there’s this palpable feeling of… well, power… when the words and music we’re singing come together as something real… and something true.  I mean, speaking personally, there are a whole lot of times I’m just trying to get the notes and the chords and the words all in the right order (!)… but then there are the moments I’m singing it like I believe it, because I do!  And when that happens, I suspect you folks also know the difference!

Well, that’s exactly what happens when LOVE is at the center of what all we seek to do to be as Christians and as the church.  Yes, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”   But that love finds its measure in how we bear, believe, hope and endure; the depth of our faith is truly equivalent to the lasting quality of our love for Christ and one another!

I don’t need to tell you that we live in an era where Christians are viewed with more than a little skepticism, so the old adage of practicing what we preach, especially as it involves love, becomes paramount.  But when in our lives we choose to lead with things like kindness, and forbearance, and openness, and acceptance, and generosity, and so much more… then we set the example that others will see – and, we pray – be moved to emulate; and that, dear friends, is how we change the world for the better. Maybe not right away, of course, but eventually… as Paul also says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I only see in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 

Like I said before, it’s all about LOVE – love as God in Christ gives it and intends for it to be given.  May it be said of us today and every day that whatever we say and do was clearly said and done in love; and that you and I were the very embodiment of how faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is LOVE.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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Grasshoppers and Eagles

(a sermon for February 7, 2021, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 40:21-31)

Well, here we are… already (!)… one full week into February 2021, the second month of that much-hoped-for and long-anticipated year to follow the infamous year of 2020!  Of course, any illusion we might have had that by arbitrarily flipping a page on the calendar life might return to some sort of normal was quickly shuttled by news of continued political upheaval, variant viruses and the ongoing concerns surrounding the pandemic; actually, in that regard, one of my favorite quotes about this “new” year comes from David Lose, who said, “I know… the large problems that erupted, deepened, or were magnified in 2020 are too complex to change so quickly. But,” Lose goes on to say, “nevertheless, if 2021 were a product I’d recently purchased, I’d be inclined to send it back after my ‘30-day free trial.’”

Oh, well; as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and to be fair, it hasn’t always been completely horrible!  But like it or not, these strange, unprecedented days are continuing on in 2021 and it falls to you and me to simply move forward as faithfully as we can.  That said, however – and the reason I’m bringing it up this morning – is that over the past few weeks the thing I’ve been hearing over and over again from the people around me – family members, friends and many of you – is that you’re “over” this; that whatever hope and resilience you’ve mustered over these past 11 (!) months of masks, social distancing and travel bans has long since dissipated, and what you’re left with are all these feelings of exhaustion, discouragement, and in some instances, even depression.  And friends, I get that: I mean, it’s bad enough it’s still the dead of winter and the groundhog saw his shadow this week, thus guaranteeing another six weeks of winter; the very notion that this pandemic “life” and everything  that goes along with it will likely last into spring (and perhaps beyond) tends to make one feel a bit helpless if not hopeless… like you’re a mere pawn in the midst of worldly ways and means, or to use the analogy of our text for this morning from Isaiah, simply “inhabitants” of the world who are “like grasshoppers.”

That’s right, I said it… we’re like grasshoppers! Tiny, little pesky green-headed leaf hoppers more akin to being prey than predator; insects far more likely to be scattered, eaten up or trampled underfoot than they are to have any kind of lasting purpose on this earth.  Even in Aesop’s fable, it’s the grasshopper who’s portrayed as lazy and unproductive, forced to beg the smarter, harder working ants for wintertime food and shelter, and if you’ve ever seen the Pixar movie, A Bug’s Life, the grasshoppers there don’t even bother to ask; they just torment the ants like they were a bunch of street thugs!  Basically, on any kind of evolutionary scale or food chain you’d care to mention, grasshoppers simply don’t amount to much of anything at all… which makes it all the more unsettling and disturbing, really, that when Isaiah wants to compare you and me to the God “who sits above the circle of the earth,” of all the creatures he could choose, it’s the grasshopper he uses as an example!

The 40th chapter of Isaiah, from which our reading today is drawn, is one of the most beautifully poetic passages of the Old Testament.  It starts out with verses we read together back during the season of Advent: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” (v. 1) and it ends with those incredible words of triumph we just shared, how “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength [and] mount up with wings like eagles.”  It’s a chapter that begins with the sure and certain promise of hope and ends with the assurance of power that can only come from God.  Truly, it’s among the most beloved and often quoted pieces of scripture that we have; and yet, in-between those two verses this chapter also contains a bit of a reality check for you and I who living in this world:  and not only that you and I end up amounting to little more than the lowly grasshopper, but also that overall, “people are grass” (v. 7) that withers away, or like flowers that inevitably fade.  

All in all, it does seem kind of demeaning, does it not, to think that the God who created us in his own image would so quickly and easily deign to describe us in such a way!  As pastor and commentator the Rev. Douglas Bratt has written, “We, after all, like to think of ourselves as far greater than little green critters.” But then again, Bratt goes on to say, “Sooner or later, we all feel like grasshoppers — especially when we compare ourselves to the Lord of heaven and earth.  God is, after all, the creator of everything that is made.  In fact, when we compare anything God made to its Creator, even the greatest things are tiny.”  Combine that truth with some historical context – that this was originally addressed to God’s people living in Babylonian exile, far from home, far from their people, far from everything they knew to be true about their lives and their faith – then the whole analogy of being little more than grasshoppers in the cosmic scheme of things doesn’t seem all that far off!  Did you notice, by the way, as we read this passage today that even “princes… [or] the rulers of the earth” cannot escape this comparison?  They are nothing, we’re told: “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,” or as The Message goes on to say, “Like flecks of chaff, they’re gone with the wind.”  Sounds to me like Isaiah’s saying that the powers that be in this world are shallow at best!  Maybe, maybe not; but to quote Douglas Bratt one more time, “Compared to God, even our most talented leaders are like dry dandelion seeds that even a mild windstorm can scatter.”

The point is that given all of that, it’s no wonder that as our 2021 world keeps on spinning like crazy you and I end up feeling just exactly like grasshoppers, here today, so easily gone tomorrow, and so completely out of the seat of control; to the point where, like Israel before us, in the midst of our own ongoing struggles we wonder aloud if “God has lost track of [us], and doesn’t care what happens to [us].” (The Message, again)

Like I said before, it’s exhausting. 

So that’s why it’s very good news indeed that where our God is concerned, it is not our size or our stature that matters at all.  That is the overarching theme of this text and its great proclamation; in fact, I love how Isaiah, not once but twice, leads into this: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Have you not heard from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth…? Have you not heard?”  The Lord, who is the Creator of all we can see or imagine, who doesn’t tire, “who doesn’t pause to catch his breath [and] who knows everything, inside and out:” this is the God who “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.”  Indeed, those who wait upon – or more to the point of the original Hebrew, who trust – in 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.”  No, we might not compare to God in any way, shape or form… but in the way, what God gives to each one of us by his love, his care and his protection is… incomparable.

Now, as I said before, this passage is true poetry, not only in the eloquent or lyrical sense but also in its structure; and this actually brings up an interesting point.  Hebrew poetry is often written in three-line sequences, with each line building on the emphasis of the one before. In other words, the last line ends up more important or powerful than the one in the middle, and that one more important than the first.  So, with that in mind, here’s how this poem from Isaiah ends: First, “they (that is, those who wait for the Lord) shall mount up with wings like eagles…” second, “they shall run and not be weary…” and finally, “they shall walk and not faint.”   Do you see what’s happening there?  If you or I had been writing that poem, we’d been apt to build up those verses to the point of soaring with the eagles: first to walk, then run, then fly!  But that’s not how this proclamation of God’s love and care goes:  what we have here, the pinnacle moment of this poem and the peak of divine blessing, is simply to be able to walk without falling down!

I’ll admit, when you’re feeling that exhausted that kind of response doesn’t seem quite as great than what it would be able to fly way up high in the sky, as it were.  But maybe that’s not always what we need: as Melissa Bane Sevier has written, “Sometimes, no matter how much we long to soar like an eagle, all we can do is barely manage to put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again. Maybe that is the pinnacle. That the very best thing is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.”

We see this time and time in scripture, we’ve borne witness to how this unfolds “from age to age the same,” and in these days when our confused situations, both personal and corporate, just seem to become more and more convoluted we’re seeing it revealed once again: that “God hears the cries of his people and empowers them:  in exhaustion, in oppression, and in other moments of greatest need,” and that “God not only protects the people with his wings, he bestows on them wings of their own,” (Christopher Hayes, Fuller Seminary) so that we will walk and not faint, run and not be weary, and eventually and finally and triumphantly… fly like an eagle!

Interestingly enough, this week Lisa and I have been watching a live online “Eagle Cam” based in Southwest Florida and featuring a mother eagle named Harriet and her two chicks in the nest, along with the father eagle who is nearby and regularly bringing food to his young; including, it should be noted, an entire rabbit carcass that the dad fed directly to his young, piece by piece… and you thought your kids ate a lot!  It’s fascinating – nature at its most natural – and I would urge you to go online and check it out (it can be seen here: https://youtu.be/hTfbB02IRLQ ), but I also have to say that these videos are most decidedly… normal.  By that I mean as opposed to what you might see in a Hollywood movie, for instance, or even a Disney nature film, what you see here is what you’d hope to see anywhere: parents taking care of their children, making sure they have enough to eat, protecting them from the attacks of other birds (apparently there was an owl going after those eaglets last night!), and working always to keep them safe to live and to grow and, eventually, to be strong enough to fly on their own.

It seems to me that that serves as a pretty good parable for how God cares for you and me, beloved, and one that we would do well to remember in these days when we feel tired and fed up with the stresses and problems of this life and relegated to the unenviable role of grasshopper.  No, perhaps the issues that confront us do not go away as quickly or as easily as we’d hope, and maybe there are moments we feel in imminent danger of being “squashed like a bug,” as it were; but here’s the good news:  God gives us the strength to deal with whatever comes.  If we will rely on him, God will help us so we can walk and not faint, run and not be weary, and yes… to “mount up with wings like eagles.”  It’ll happen… if only we’ll “wait upon the Lord.”

So, as the song goes, “teach us, Lord, teach us Lord… to wait.”

Thanks be to God. 

Amen and AMEN!

© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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