Rest and Rise in God (August 16, 2020)
Isaiah 40: 21-31
Rest and Rise in God
This week I had two funerals that I had to prepare. And one of the things that happens when I do a funeral is that I have to figure out what scripture the family of the deceased wants to read. So I’ll ask them, “What scripture do you want read? Is there a favorite scripture that the deceased had, our favorite scripture that you have that you want to make sure is in here?” And probably seven times out of ten, give or take, they ask for me to recommend some. They ultimately choose one, but usually they want me to narrow them down. So over the years I have begun to have some favorites: Isaiah 40: 28 through 31, I added to it a little bit for today’s reading; Psalm 121 (23 is also good); John 14, which I always preach on in funerals; and then Revelation 22: 1-5. I love these verses. But over the years I really have come down that Isaiah 40: 28, or even 21, through 31 are probably my favorite verses to read at a funeral. And I really wanted to sit down this week as I was preparing these funerals and try to figure out what it is that I like about these passages and what they have to teach us in these moments of pain and grief that we all experience at one time or another.
This passage really begins in verse 21, then it resets in 28. But I do like 21 through 27, in particular if I’m going to try and really dive into it. You really need the backdrop of versus 21 through 27 to understand what Isaiah is saying in these famous verses of 28 through 31. So we begin our reading today by describing God‘s power. And we describe God‘s power by looking at some of the awesome and awe inspiring things that we see all around us and recognizing the part that God plays with in those things. We begin with, “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?” In other words, look around you and think about your experiences for your entire life, do you see the sunrise and sunset? The Scripture says that “God stretches the heavens like a curtain;” have you seen the sunrise and the sunset, have you seen the stars in the sky at night? God makes those. God paints them. Do you see that ruler, the earthly ruler that you’re so afraid of, with a gigantic army? God makes him kneel with merely a word. Do you see the mountains and hills all around us? God made all of them, calls them out like an army, and knows each by name. God is that powerful.
In some more Christian terms, you might hear something like “have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not been told from the beginning that Christ died for you? That you’re forgiven, that you’re saved? Have you not heard that God is everywhere, all around you, within you at this moment? It’s the kinds of things that Isaiah is saying here. Have you not recognized that God clothes even the lilies?
And every time I see praise of God at this level in the Scriptures, I’m always inclined to ask why. Now, are you allowed to praise God with no other motive? Absolutely. And sometimes the Scriptures do exactly that, particularly in the Psalms. But what I usually find is that if it’s in the prophets it leads to something, and it usually leads to the main point. So I really want to know why are we praising God here: what is the purpose for the listener in listing all these great things about God? And here it says explicitly: Isaiah is trying to display the power of the Lord specifically, in verse 27, to encourage Israel to come to God. “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?” And then it repeats the phrase “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.”
The point of this is to show two things. Number one: it is futile to hide from God. God made the sunset, do you think you can hide from him? It is futile to hide from God. That is one major point that Isaiah is attempting to make here. But I think also that Isaiah is trying to make the point, particularly when talking about the hills and knowing the hills by name (which is the same general idea of Jesus is talking about clothing the lilies, and God who clothes even the lilies so imagine what he’s going to do for you). That is to say, not only can’t you hide from God, but you don’t need to hide from God. And I think that second point is so critical and so central to this passage. It is so important to understand in order to get what Isaiah is trying to say to the people here.
This week I came across a quote by Steed Davidson, a theologian that I read this week, and he stated, “Attention to the entirety of this lection reveals forceful theological claims aimed at convincing the wavering, the skeptic, and perhaps the apostate of the ability of God to make a difference in the current circumstances.” The second part of Isaiah begins in chapter 40, and according to many scholars it is written by Isaiah‘s spiritual descendants to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. These words are written and spoken to people who have just witnessed the power of those rulers of the earth who have come over to Judah, destroyed the temple, destroyed their city, and carried them off to a foreign land in chains. And that’s where they sit now. And I think that in that situation there might well be some who are wavering or skeptical or maybe are beginning to become apostate. And they may need convincing that God has the ability to make a difference in their circumstances.
And that’s also why I love these verses at funerals. Because often quite a few there are wavering or are skeptical that God cares about them in this moment, that God cares about them after losing their loved one. Sometimes they have watched their loved one die, maybe even after praying that God would heal their loved one, and then it didn’t happen. This verse is tailored to them. It tells them that God cares, that God is present. and God has the ability to make a difference in your life. And the reality is that we don’t just grieve and we’re not just in pain at funerals. I wonder if maybe we need to be reminded that God has the ability to make a difference in our current circumstances, here, in the midst of a global pandemic. Or when ourselves or our children have lost their job. Or maybe when we’ve had to make a painful decision to lay someone else off. And that’s why I bring it to you this week.
Having established the strength of the Lord and the power of the Lord, and showing the futility of hiding from the Lord; Isaiah goes about trying to prove that no one even needs to hide from the Lord. We are reminded that God will not weaken over time. Having established his strength, we are reminded that God does not weaken, that God does not grow weary, that God does not faint. We are reminded that humans will; that even the young will faint and be weary, that even the young will fall exhausted; but we’re told those who come to the Lord for strength, those who come to the Lord for comfort, they will receive it. They will find the ability to stand again, they will rise with wings like eagles.
And I love reading this scripture to these people at a funeral, because when I look out I see people who probably don’t know if they would be able to crawl if they had to in this moment. I look out, and I see people overcome with their emotions. Every single time I do a funeral I see someone there in this place. But I remind them in this passage that if you come to the Lord, if you trust in the Lord, if you run to God instead of trying to hide from God; that you shall crawl, and you shall walk eventually, and you shall even run, and maybe even fly. Even though it feels like you will never be happy again, no matter where you are now, come to God and God will raise you up.
God wants to embrace his children when they are upset. When we are in pain, God wants to come and comfort us. God hopes we might learn, but in the midst of our pain God only wants to come and give us a giant hug. And yet too often when we’re in those moments of pain we run away. And it takes decades to get back. Whether you’re at a funeral or not, this is a message of “don’t turn away from God, don’t run away from God,” this message is so important. And those other texts that I like to read for funerals tell a similar message. John 14, “I’ve gone to prepare a place for you. There is something at the end. I’ve thought through it,” God says. You need not worry. Psalm 23, “yay though I walk to the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. God will remain my comfort.” Psalm 121, “from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord.” Revelation 22, “at the end of the end of it all there will be a new Heaven and a new earth. There will be no pain, no hurt, no misery, for God is there.”
And ultimately, what I find is that when I am in these ruts, when I’m in these moments where I feel like I couldn’t crawl if I had to; if I can find God and get that hug what I find is my anxiety stems (it’s still there, but becomes manageable). What I find is that my heart rate goes down. What I find is that I’m given the strength to face whatever it is I’m facing at that moment. I am still in the valley of the shadow of death; like we talked about last week, I’m still in the boat on the water, but I find strength, and encouragement, and empowerment by coming to God for that hug. Come to God today. Let the process of healing begin. No matter where you are there’s always something that you can be healed from. Let’s take those first steps toward soaring on wings like Eagles. Amen.