(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.