7 February 2021 – Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“… 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.” ~Isaiah 40:31

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“Yes, life is hard; and we shouldn’t pretend like it isn’t.  Yes, God is good; and we should never forget His goodness.”  This is what Bob Lepine reminded his listeners on a podcast from FamilyLife Today last week.  Dave Wilson, on the same podcast, pointed out, though, that “the difficulty comes when it’s hard to remember God’s goodness in the middle of life’s hardness” (FLT, 1.27.21).  Paul knew that same challenge, as he wrote to the Corinthians, “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8).

A woman who desperately wanted to have a baby was told by her doctor that she would not be able to have a biological child.  We are told that God is able to close and open doors, but why would God close this door?  What should she do?  Is this God’s will? In Genesis, Sarah was barren until she was ninety years old.  Abraham and Sarah had children from the slave women because Sarah could not have a child.  Yet, the Lord came to them and told them that Sarah would finally bear a son.  Sarah laughed at this.  She did not believe.  Yet, it happened (Genesis 18:13-14).  What should we say to a person who feels unbearably crushed, who may feel like God has abandoned them?  It is not a time to preach; it is a time to mourn the loss with her.  Show her that God still cares for her and still loves her.  Tell her that we have been taught of God’s goodness from a young age for a reason; we need confidence in God’s providence especially in times like these.  We need confidence that God is good.  No matter how bad things seem to be going right now, the story of your life is not over.  Pastor John Piper noted that he would tell someone in this time, “I don’t know what God has for you, but I know it’s good” (FLT, 1.27.21).  If you have followed God and aim to continue to seek out God’s grace, it will be good.  The prophet Jeremiah reassured the people of God’s good words: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

A year ago, I was working on my last semester of seminary.  I had done church internships during my time there and I was looking forward to graduating and working through the ordination process.  I envisioned that I would graduate, work for a final summer at the camp I have loved, and focus on the paper, perhaps becoming ordained in late 2020.  When I heard back from the Committee on Ministry of the New Haven Association that I would need more UCC experience for nine months before I could even move forward in the process, I was dismayed.  I felt that it delayed something that I was capable of doing now.  I would have to work under another pastor for nine months when I really just wanted to get out there and start doing ministry without worrying about whether I was doing what I was assigned to do by my supervisor.  I came to accept this, though, and began to set it up, only to have it postponed indefinitely when March and April came along.  On top of that, nearly everything else I cared about was cancelled too.  I had always tried my best to keep accelerating my path and doing whatever I could to get to where I knew I was called to be, yet now I felt helpless.  I felt unbearably crushed.  In that moment, it is difficult to remind myself that God is good.  But then, someone reminds me of Job, praying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).  If Job can remember God’s goodness in the middle of life’s hardness, I have to try too.  And at the time, I did not know what was to come, but I could be confident that it would be something good.  It may require a lot of waiting before it comes, but it will be something good.

Isaiah prophesizes good in the face of suffering to the Israelites who have been in exile.  Isaiah 40 begins a new section of Isaiah.  In fact, there is a gap of an unknown quantity of years between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40 which separates the prophecy of the exile happening and the exile in progress, yet proclaiming hope.  The people of Israel – God’s people – found themselves in a land far away from the land that they had always known, and which they wanted to be in.  An entire generation lived in Babylon so that only those who were very old even remembered what the Promised Land looked like.  You might say that they were unbearably crushed to be in their situation, feeling as though God was not with them, but had abandoned them.  This is not an uncommon feeling in today’s world either.  Despite all of the hardship that they are likely facing, the prophet Isaiah stands up and says, “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”?” (40:27) He continues, “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” (Isaiah 40:28).  In other words, God is still God.  This is why you have learned from a young age who God is.  God is good, all the time, even when life is hard.  He knows that the people fall exhausted.  He knows that the people are tired.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 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” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  We have heard.  We have known.  God is good.

Some of you are still waiting.  Some of you who may be hearing this think, “Yeah, that’s easy for you to say.  You have a stable job at such a young age.  You may have been discouraged, but it’s worked out for you now.  It hasn’t for me.”  And I understand that.  The people probably responded in a similar way when Isaiah told them these words.  But if this is not true, if we cannot hold onto God’s providence (God’s goodness and eternal protective care), what else do we have?  If we take away the goodness of God, we are taking away the very thing that is meant to help us to survive and thrive (Pastor John Piper, The Size of Our God).

No one likes to wait.  In an age where we can get instant answers from little computers in our pockets, we want answers from God just as fast.  But we do not always get them.  We may get angry at God because we do not get them.  Yet, how can we be angry with God when God is the one who helped us get to where we are now in the first place?  Pastor John Piper suggests that we should not tell God, “I am angry with you,” for who are we to question God’s actions or judgement?  Instead, we should tell God, “This hurts.  I do not understand why you are doing this, God.  I do not know how I can live on like this.  This is the most painful moment I have had to face in my life” (Pastor John Piper, The Size of Our God).  What this does is acknowledge that we need God, and that we know that we have to come to God for our source of comfort and strength.  We may not understand why we have to wait or even exactly what we are waiting for, but we know that we have to come to God while we do.  We come to God when we are broken.  We come to God when it hurts most.  We come to God because we have nowhere else to go, and we know that God has promised good things.

We may not know what is to come in the future, but we know that, ultimately, God has promised good things.  We may have to wait for them, and we may struggle as we do, but our faith in God’s goodness is what we need to survive and thrive.  As we turn to God, faint and weary as we are, if we tell God what we feel, and wait on God, God will renew us.

Last week, we talked about how our faith is tested in a cosmic struggle, when we are given doubts, fears, and worries to separate us from the goodness of God.  We do not have to be separated, though.  When we are discouraged, or in the middle of a trial, we can pray as the Psalmist: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:5).  We are eager for what is to come.  We are tired and weary.  We need refreshment.  Yet, even as we are forced to wait, we remain confident that God is good, and that God hears us, even if we do not know why God allows trials in our lives or evil in the world, and even if we do not know why we have to fight against our doubts, fears, and worries.  We are forced to turn to the one thing that can keep us going, and that is our hope in God.  We cannot live without hope that something better is to come.

Isaiah 40:31 has been my favorite Bible verse for years, after it was read at my Eagle Scout ceremony in 2011.  I have had a reason to relate to the strength of the eagle especially since Scouts.  Six years ago today, I preached my first full-length sermon on this text.  It has remained an inspiration to me to this day because I know that I must continue to hope for good things to come, and that it involves waiting on God.  If we give up waiting on God, what else is there to wait on?  We would lose all hope of anything ever getting better.  I understand that you are shocked at the violence in the world, the tragedies that we face, and the suffering that we must endure.  I am too.  And that is all the more reason to look to God, to wait on God, and to hope for strength to get us through.  Much of this is not God’s will.  What God does want is for us to turn to God no matter what.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13).

When Paul told the Corinthians how much he had suffered, he noted that he learned to rely on God through it all: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).  Our own strength is not enough.  How do we know that God is good?  Because we know what the end of this story is.  Jesus told us.  We do not know what God has in store for us, exactly, for this knowledge is “unsearchable” (Is. 40:28).  But we are not hidden from God (Is. 40:27).  Jesus told us what is to come: “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31).  For this, we live and wait, confident in the goodness of God, and blessed with God’s strength to uphold us.  Never lose this, or stop waiting or hoping, or you will lose the very strength that keeps you together.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 40:21-31
40:21 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?
40:22 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;
40:23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
40:24 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.
40:25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
40:26 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.
40:27 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”?
40:28 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.
40:29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
40:30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
40:31 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.

Mark 1:29-39
1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
1:30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.
1:31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
1:32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
1:33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
1:34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
1:35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
1:36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.
1:37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
1:38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
1:39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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