There’s something ancient and eternal here. We are always tempted to modernize the message of the church—to speak in the most fashionable jargon of the philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, or “with it” youth on the streets.
But Isaiah, chapters 40-55, makes it most plain that the essential core task of the church is to proclaim good news to the world that God’s rule is the ultimate truth of our lives, and that it is ineluctable, inevitable, irresistible.
This section if Isaiah is dramatically shaped by a series of rhetorical questions such as “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” The biblical scholar, Joseph Blenkensopp, (commentary on Isaiah, chapters 40-55, p. 190) has pointed out that such questions can serve a purpose like an attorney’s in a courtroom, pinning a witness in a corner. But here the purpose is compassionate and not hostile. It is aimed at people living among the ruins of Jerusalem and Judea, trying to put their lives back together after a war of annihilation, and an exile bent on erasing them as a people. Each of these people are secretly saying to themselves, “The Lord is blind to my pitiable condition. And God doesn’t care that I, and all my people, are being treated unjustly.”
The prophet is addressing those who have come back from Babylon to live in broken Judea. But the prophet sees Zion as the soul—the spiritual beating heart of this people. The prophet blows the battle bugle to rouse this super-character of Zion to action: Tell the world it is not so. Your present distress is not the end, but prelude. The present forces of oppression that seem so dominant, will be blown away.
And, in our lesson of Isaiah 40:21-31, the chief image is that of the contrast of old age and youth; and the message is one I and my age cohort in the church, desperately need. We are persistently reminded that as we are over 65, and we are most vulnerable to Covid-19. We can see on the evening news gray-haired people just like us, dying alone in ICU units. And we are also weary longing for yesteryear when our government met big problems with big solutions, from the World War to the GI Bill to the Interstate Highway System to Voting Rights to Medicare. All we see now is the canyons between political parties, between rich and poor, and between truth and propaganda getting wider and wider.
It seems God is blind. It seems at times as though we old folk, like Jesus on the cross in Mark 15, have been abandoned. It seems we are of the old world of newspapers, letters in the mail, phone calls, and a nice slow pace; and the youth of today are swallowing up our reality with instant everything. Game Stop shares will go up and down in a blinding fury, but everybody knows they will soon bottom out and take us all with them.
There is an old joke that goes, “Everything you eat can kill you if you live long enough.” Another like it is “The road of glory leads but to the grave, but so do all the other roads.” The older we get the more these jokes haunt us. And the cruelest joke, and the cruelest reality is that, as Isaiah says, “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” There is just one road, and it is a long, hard one. Our knees wear out. Our fingers swell. Our vision blurs and our veins clog up. And, if it isn’t Covid, it will be something else.
But Isaiah, the prophet, rouses Zion to announce the good news that things are not what they appear to be. God has not abandoned us old folk to arthritis and Coronavirus. Instead he is here to give us wings like eagles, and to renew us so that we can run faster than in our dim memories or pleasant dreams. All we have to do is wait.
But waiting is not the same as sitting. It is not a spectator sport. The Hebrew word translated “wait” has its origin in the word for a taut rope. If they had springs in Isaiah’s time, this word for “wait” would have brought a compressed spring to mind. This is waiting with a purpose, and with a target. It is eager expectation. It is joyful anticipation. When I think of this kind of waiting I think of one of my border collie sheepdogs, like Betty. With sheep out on the far horizon I bring her out and call her to my side. She is taut like a rope or a spring. She may even quiver with excitement as she aims her whole self on a beautiful arc that will take her to just the right spot on the other side of the sheep—just the right spot to begin the welcome work of bringing them to my feet.
Us old folk need this kind of purposeful, targeted, anticipatory waiting on God. We should be waiting on God, not waiting to die. And not wringing our hands waiting impatiently to be vaccinated—hoping to jump to the head of the line. The only way we will avoid simply disappearing in sad weariness as we surrender to Covid is to set our sights on the rule of God that has come near—to be about the business of Zion, telling the world the good news that God is still in charge. If we wait on this God who cares for us all, we won’t worry about seeing others get their shots ahead of us. We will rejoice that we can be among others as one who serves.
There is no modern, digital, algorhithmic substitute for sharing the good news that God’s rule is at hand. We just have to proclaim it. This is our purpose. And Isaiah gives us wonderful words for it:
21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25 To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but 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.
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