Credited to Us | 2nd in Lent

Romans 4:13-25

13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have. 19 Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. 20 He didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith in God’s promise, but he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. (CEB)

Credited to Us

My health insurance’s wellness program is pretty cool. We use Virgin Pulse, and it gives rewards based on physical activity and participation in features of the program. I wear my FitBit Blaze, which tracks my steps, active minutes, stairs, heartrate, and even sleep. All that information goes into the cloud and gets recorded by the Virgin Pulse website. I earn a certain number of points based on how many steps I’ve taken, and how many active minutes I’ve had in my day. I can record meals and healthy snacks. They have health coaches who call me and talk me through setting goals for physical activity and give me encouragement. I can even challenge friends of mine who are also in the Virgin Pulse program. I get points for all it.

All those points add up on my account, and I can earn small cash rewards based on the number I’ve earned. I usually dump mine into an Amazon gift card to help feed my book-reading habit, which my daughter appreciates because she gets to read the books, too. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to earn rewards for my healthy activity. But I wouldn’t earn anything if it weren’t for the wellness program that offered them. They have faith my ability to work toward better health, and that makes me want to work for it even more. Besides, I’ve already got my Amazon Wish List ready with my next book orders.

In the same way, our faith is a gift to us from God. It may be credited to us as righteousness, but faith isn’t something we have apart from God’s gracious gift. God offers faith to us as our response to God.

Paul’s writings are some of the more difficult to put into a sermon because you often have to look at his full argument, instead of pieces of it, and understand the context from whish he’s writing. It’s difficult to take a single text and preach about it because the preceding and following verses are also part of Paul’s argument as a whole. And, with this text, we need to include the reading about Abraham from Genesis 17 if we’re going to understand it.

Abraham is the key to understanding Paul’s argument here. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abraham represents something important. But it’s different for each of the three Abrahamic faith traditions. For Jews, Abraham is the literal father of the nation. Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham. For Muslims, Abraham is the example of a model Muslim—one who submits to the will of God. For Christians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the “father of many nations” is fulfilled in the faith of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now, here’s a little background. Back in the year 49, Emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. As a result of that decree, Priscila and Aquila had emigrated from Rome to Corinth, which is where Paul first met them on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-2). When the Jews were expelled, the Gentile Christians in Rome likely rose in prominence.

Less than a decade later, during the winter of the year 57 or 58 while he was staying in Corinth on his Third Missionary Journey, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Church. By then, the ban of Jews in Rome had been lifted, and Priscila and Aquila had moved back. We know that because Paul sent his greetings to them in verse 16:3. When these Jewish Christians returned, it probably caused some ethnic discord between the Gentile and Jewish Christian congregations.

Remember that the earliest communities of the church often had Jewish and Gentile congregations who worshipped separately. It was a struggle for some, especially the Jewish Christians, to fully accept their Gentile sisters and brothers in Christ as such. Some Jewish Christians even argued that Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, because Christianity was a Jewish thing. The main thrust of Paul’s argument here is ethnicity, and he’s trying to show both groups that they’re actually equals through faith.

Earlier in Romans, Paul argues two main points. First, he argues that everyone knows the law, including Gentiles, because we can clearly see and understand God through the things God has made (c.f. 1:20). Yet, everyone rejects God instead of honoring God. Second, he argues that no one follows the Law, even the Jews who might boast of possessing it (c.f. 2:23). It seems like he’s painted himself into a corner with his argument when he concludes, “It follows that no human being will be treated as righteous in his presence by doing what the Law says, because the knowledge of sin comes through the Law” (Romans 3:20 CEB). In fact, he uses a list of Psalms in verses 3:10-18 to add to his point that no one is righteous.

At this point, we almost want to toss up our hands and throw in the towel, thinking, Well, who can win? And that starts the next phase of Paul’s argument. We can’t win. But God can. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, BUT all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24 CEB).

Then, we get to chapter four, and our text for the day, where Paul introduces Abraham as his primary example of righteousness, not because Abraham followed the Law, but because Abraham had faith in God and believed in God’s promises. It’s important to note that, in Greek, faith and believe (or had faith in) share the same root: πίστις and πιστεύω (pistis and pisteuo). So when Paul is talking about faith as a noun, or believed as a verb he’s talking about the same thing, though the words are different in English. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham was reckoned as righteous, not because he followed the Law, but because he believed God’s promises.

Only God can create faith in those who have faith. Righteousness is credited to those who believe, not because it’s something they earn through having faith, but because it’s accounted to them by God as a something God freely gives. Adherence to the Law depends upon human choice and agency. We choose to either obey or disobey the Law. In that sense, if the Law makes us righteous, we would essentially be making ourselves righteous by obeying the Law. But, Paul argues that the Law doesn’t make us righteous. The Law is educational, and serves to show us that we aren’t righteous. And, faith comes before obedience. The gift of faith to us is God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s agency. God makes us righteous because of our faith, we can’t make ourselves righteous by following a list of DO’s and DON’Ts.

For Paul, the timeline of Abraham’s life is important. Abraham’s belief in God’s promises, for which God reckoned him as righteous, came before circumcision as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17:10. So, it wasn’t any act of covenant or Law that made Abraham righteous. According to Scripture, itself, it was Abraham’s faith in God back in chapter 15 that made him righteous.

Paul also argues that God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of MANY nations, not merely the father of one nation. Jews thought of their birthright as Abraham’s direct descendants as an advantage, but Paul argued that it wasn’t really an advantage. John the Baptist made a similar argument when people were coming to him for baptism. He said, And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones” (Matthew 3:9 CEB). He went on to argue that what mattered was the fruit we produce. How we live matters to God.

It’s all people who have faith, Jews and Gentiles together that fulfills the promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. God is able to bring forth life from what is dead (Abraham was nearly a hundred years old when he got Sarah pregnant) and from that which is barren (Sarah was also around ninety years old when she finally got pregnant). In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God again brought forth life from death.

Now, we can wonder about Paul’s words in in verses 19-21. He says Abraham’s faith never wavered, he didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith, but believed God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations even when it seemed impossible for him to have children. But we know Abraham’s story. We know that he fell on his face, laughing when God qualified the promise to mean that Abraham’s son would be with his wife, Sarah (c.f. Genesis 17:17). We know that, before that episode, Abraham got worried and he and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah had him get Hagar pregnant, which didn’t work out well for Sarah (c.f. Genesis 16:2-4). So, in one sense, it seems that Paul views Abraham through some rose-colored glasses.

But, it might be that Paul says these things about Abraham’s faith because Abraham really did have faith and believe in God’s promises. If Paul sees Abraham’s faith as unwavering, it’s not because Abraham never had doubts, it’s not because he never tried to take matters into his own hands. It’s because, in Abraham’s story as a whole, he really did have an unwavering faith. When Abraham was about seventy-five years old, he left the security of his home, his family, and his community because God told him to. (So much for kicking back and enjoying retirement, right?). He journeyed through the land in stages despite the dangers. He was even prepared to sacrifice his own son, and all the hopes of God’s promises that were attached to him, because he had faith that God would accomplish the promises despite his son’s death.

The reason Paul can say that Abraham’s faith never wavered is because, when God called, Abraham put it all on the line and trusted God. As messy as things got at times, Abraham had faith in God, and he lived that faith out completely. Abraham was convinced that God could and would do what God promised. That belief, that trust, that faith, is why God accounted Abraham as righteous.

And there’s one last thing. Paul wrote, “But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us” (Romans 4:23-25 CEB).

Muslims view Abraham as a model Muslim. Long before that, Paul used Abraham to describe a model Christian and to show us that, no matter who we are or what our genealogy is, faith puts us in a right relationship with God. The good news that Paul preached was that those who have faith in God, whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, are made righteous through that faith. We can believe that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give us life, too.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to this kind of unwavering faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we’ll never have doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ll never try to take matters into our own hands. But it does mean that when God calls, we lay it all on the line and step out in faith. It means that we have permission to go out in boldness, even if we don’t know exactly what it will mean or where God’s call will lead. But we can trust that, when God calls and we follow in faith, our faithfulness becomes a blessing to others, and God credits our faith as righteousness.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Transfiguration | Last after Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead. (CEB)

Transfiguration

Human beings have a fascination with power. The entire comic book industry, and a lot of movies and books, are about people who have powers. Star Wars is about Jedi and Sith who have the power to manipulate the Force.

On the DC side of comics: Wonder Woman has super strength, she can fly, she has indestructible bracers and a lasso of truth. Vixen has her ancient Tantu Totem that lets her harness the powers of animal spirits. Batman has his wealth, his tech gadgets, and his fearlessness. The Legends of Tomorrow have a variety of skills, abilities, and cool technology. The Flash has his superspeed. Green Arrow has his fighting skills and perfect accuracy with the bow. Superman has his array of powers thanks to our yellow Sun. And Supergirl has everything Superman has, and I watched her beat him in a straight-up fight on the CW.

In the Marvel world of comics: Black Panther has his super senses, strength, speed, agility, stamina, and healing abilities, plus Wakanda’s advanced technology. The X-Men (and Women!) have all kinds of powers and abilities based on their x-gene mutations. Captain America has his serum-induced strength and self-healing. Iron Man has his wealth, tech, and an awesome suit full of weapons that lets him fly and make things explode. Spiderman has his web-slingers and spider abilities.

We can find worlds full of magical powers in books and movies: the Harry Potter series, the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, The Waterfire Saga, and The Lord of the Rings series. And when it comes to computer games, my favorite class is the Elementalist, which uses earth, water, air, and fire magic to blow bad people and monsters to pieces.

But our human fascination with power isn’t limited to fiction and imagination. Our president wants to spend a few million of our tax dollars to put on a grand military parade to show off our military might, as if we need to put it on display. He certainly wouldn’t be the first president or world leader to do so. Lots of modern nations do them. The Roman Empire liked their military parades, too. For some reason, leaders of nations like to flex their muscles and display their elegant tail feathers to show everyone else how big and tough they are.

Jesus had some pretty cool powers, too. He could heal people who were sick. He raised a few people from death. And this Transfiguration thing, that was God’s power on display for all the world to see, right? All of a sudden, everyone knew that Jesus had the power of God in the palm of his hand, and he was the new guy to be afraid of…

Except, that wasn’t how it went.

Jesus didn’t put his power on display the way nations and leaders of nations like to do. He only took three of his disciples with him as witnesses to the event. In fact, as Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain, he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from death.

When we put the Transfiguration in context with what Jesus had just taught his disciples in chapter 8, and with the rest of what happened in the Gospel of Mark, we see a completely different picture of power, and a different picture of purpose for those who would follow Jesus Christ. It’s chapter 8 where Jesus tells the crowds that any who want to come after him must take up their cross and follow him (c.f. Mark 8:34). While it’s never explained what cross-bearing looks like for the rest of us, it’s the story that follows and the example of Jesus that teaches us what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The Transfiguration becomes the first important lesson of cross-bearing. It shows us that power is not something we pursue or wield so much as something we expose. Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth is what provoked the powers to make their oppressive, murderous response by killing Jesus. The powers of this world rule by fear, greed, and falsehood. They use violence, hatred, and despair to turn people against each other and distort everything we’re meant to be as human beings who are created in God’s image.

Jesus wasn’t the first prophet to die by exposing the corruption of earthly powers. He stands in a long line of prophets who were persecuted and murdered by the political and religious establishment for daring to speak the truth about their misuse of power and fraudulent, unethical operations.

Jesus came so that he could be the anointed-one who would be rejected and murdered by the corrupt powers that rule through fear, backhandedness, and violence. Several times throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll be killed and raised from the dead (c.f. 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).

At the same time, the disciples had their minds set on earthly things that didn’t allow them to see God’s reign on earth as anything more than human powers, such as the restoration of Israel as an independent kingdom. You might recall that, when Jesus told the disciples that he would “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (Mark 8:31), Peter’s response was to take hold of Jesus firmly, as if Jesus were a child, to scold and “correct” him.

Peter couldn’t see beyond the things of earth, which is why Jesus turned and corrected Peter in front of the other disciples by saying, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33). The disciples were thinking about power, but in the same twisted way that we humans are so fascinated with it. They intended to make Jesus-the-Messiah into a hero of their nation, the savior of the earthly kingdom they desired. And, they would ride the coattails of their hero to fulfill their own this-worldly ambitions.

James and John even asked Jesus to let one of them sit at his right hand, and the other at his left, which angered the other disciples because the request got in the way of their ambitions. There could only be one right-hand-man, and one left-hand-man, but there were twelve disciples all vying for Jesus’ favor, and they acted and argued as rivals (c.f. Mark 10:35-45). Really, the other ten were mad that they didn’t have the boldness to ask that favor of Jesus before James and John did. They were thinking earthly things. Their minds and actions were stuck on a horizontal plane.

One scholar even suggested that, for Jesus’ first disciples, resurrection was more of a scandal than crucifixion. Death was something they could understand. Lives ended all the time. But resurrection? The glory of God? Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that that was downright scary stuff. Notice that every time the disciples are confronted with God’s glory—Jesus walking on the water (6:50), the Transfiguration (9:6), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the women at the tomb (16:8)—the word used to describe what the disciples felt is terror. This isn’t the kind of fear that a person can heroically overcome, but the kind of terror that incapacitates and turns the bravest among us into a useless blubbering heap.

These glimpses of glory remind us that there’s more to the story of Jesus than human ambition and earthly power. The fact that Jesus didn’t use that power to his own gain tells us that followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom should live and act differently from the world. In Philippians 2, Paul’s hymn says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.” (Phil. 2:6-7a CEB). Paul also tells us to have the same mindset (c.f. Philippians 2:5).

That’s why Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John not to talk about the Transfiguration they had witnessed until after Jesus had risen from the dead, until after he had exposed the corrupt earthly powers for what they were. Then, the disciples could talk about the display of power and glory they had seen at the Transfiguration. But even then, sharing what they had witnessed wasn’t a way for the disciples to seize earthly power or prestige. Instead, it encouraged the followers of Jesus to take up their cross and follow Christ, and live in a way that will inevitably provoke the powers against us by insisting on the values of Jesus.

Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, and he told us that, if we want to come after him, we have to take up our cross and follow. Taking up our cross means we die to ourselves. We set aside our earthly ambition and desire for power and live for others as Jesus did. It also means that our love as Christian people is not a passive thing. We don’t get to keep our distance and love others from afar.

It’s almost hard to believe that earthly powers would act so violently against love, nonviolence, acts of mercy, and acceptance of those the world rejects. But the values of Jesus, which are the values of God’s kingdom, end up exposing the corruption earthly powers.

Nothing exposes the hatred and viciousness of earthly power like people working on behalf of refugees or undocumented immigrants and demanding that the world recognize them as human beings worthy of our love, compassion, and direct assistance. Nothing exposes the injustice of earthly power like someone working on behalf of people the world would happily sweep under the rug: the poor, incarcerated, homeless. Legality is defined by the powers, and Christians have long recognized that what is legal is not always what is right, just, loving, or good.

Jesus ate with sinners to show them and the establishment that he was their friend, that he accepted them, and that he loved them. Those actions exposed the fact that the establishment had rejected and ostracized people.

As a glimpse of God’s glory, the Transfiguration reminds us that God is bringing a new world into being. The ways and values of this new world stand in stark contrast to the ways and values of the earthly powers. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to set aside the games of domination and exploitation that earthly powers like to play. And, we have to set aside the violence, hatred, greed, and deception that such powers use to win those games.

The voice of God which came from the cloud told the disciples to listen to Jesus. Are we listening?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Everlasting God | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon– its inhabitants are like locusts– stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. 25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one.

26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (CEB)

Everlasting God

You’ve probably heard this text before. This section of Isaiah 40 is commonly used at funerals. It’s depiction of God’s power over all things is meant to offer comfort to those of us who’ve lost a loved one. Its poetry beautifully balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—God’s powerful otherness and God’s intimate nearness. But it isn’t an easy text. While the imagery of God’s power and tirelessness can give hope to some, it can generate skepticism in those who either live in the midst of violence, poverty, hopelessness, or exploitation, or in those who witness such things. After all, if God is so powerful, why does God allow all this horrible stuff to happen? At the same time, if God is so loving and close to us, how can God allow all this horrible stuff to happen?

Those very questions were likely on the minds of the original hearers of Isaiah’s poem. Isaiah chapters 40-55 is called Second Isaiah because it was likely written in the 6th century B.C.E. toward the end of Babylonian control and the rise of the Persian Empire. The first 39 chapters mostly deal with 8th century life before the exile when Assyria was the power broker in the region. Those earlier chapters foreshadowed the exile to Babylon. These chapters, beginning with Isaiah 40, tell of the end of the power that carried Judah’s elite into exile over the course of at least three separate deportations.

Verse 27 gives us the thoughts of the people: My way is hidden from the LORD; my God ignores my predicament” (CEB). The people were in exile for fifty to sixty years, depending on when they had been deported. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Babylon. The people tried to maintain their Jewish identity, but it wasn’t always easy. They had suffered captivity for a long time and they probably wondered if God cared or, even if God did care, could God do anything about it? Was the God of Israel powerful enough to help?

Isaiah’s answer is a sweeping poem of monotheistic faith. There is only one God, Isaiah insists, and that is Israel’s God who made all of creation. The prophet begins with rhetorical questions that point to the beginnings of both creation and the human race. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?” (Isaiah 40:21 CEB).

These questions sound similar in tone to God’s questioning of Job, when the Lord said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” (Job 38:4-11 CEB).

The questions Isaiah asks act like a gentle reprimand for those captives who have forgotten who their God is. They’re for those whose skepticism or cynicism has grown to the point that they no longer trust that God cares about them or is able to act. These amnesiacs who’ve forgotten God’s identity and the skeptics who’ve dismissed the Lord’s power and care should have known! They had surely heard the stories of Israel’s past. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and set them in a new land. God established prophets, priests, judges, and kings to order the lives of the people. God had taken care of them in the past when they were no people, and the Lord built them into a community and a kingdom who were God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the captives that God inhabits earth’s horizon—God encompasses everything—the Lord is the one who stretched out the skies for us to live under. God is that big! God is that powerful! Everything belongs to the Lord who made everything! Isaiah reminds the people that they know this. They’ve heard the stories of their people.

Then again, maybe it was those very stories that made the people a little cynical. Maybe the Jewish captives had grown impatient and frustrated. After all, their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years before God acted. Maybe they didn’t want to wait that long. Maybe they thought God had given up on their generation. Maybe they thought God wouldn’t do anything for the people who were alive now. What’s the point of staying faithful and standing firm in their beliefs about God if God won’t bother acting for another few hundred years? Sure, the day of liberation would be great for their progeny, but not so great for them. If God waited a long time, their bodies would already be in the ground in a foreign land. So, maybe we can understand why some of them wondered about the point of faithfulness.

Isaiah seems to suggest that the point is both God’s transcendence, immanence, and the people’s identity as God’s people.

If we were to examine the text closely as a piece of literature, we’d notice that all the verbs belong to the Lord, and everything else are objects of the Lord’s verbs. When the verbs are positive, they point to objects that are features of creation. When the verbs are negative, they point to objects that are nullified. Isaiah reminds the people that God is greater than the so-called powers among the nations. Princes and kings come and go, but the Lord outlasts them all. More than that, God has the power to make dignitaries useless and judges into nothing. They’re present for a short time, but God can unmake the most powerful king on earth in a breath.

With the Persian-Achaemenid King Cyrus threatening the power of the Babylonian Empire, it seemed as though God was about to bring the empire that had carried off God’s people to its knees. Isaiah offers hope to the exiles who may well have lost a good deal of it, if not all. Indeed, by chapter 45, the prophet identifies King Cyrus as the Lord’s messiah, not anyone among the Jews. The prophet insists that a reversal is coming.

The poetry of verses 21-24 echoes the power reversals of Hannah’s Song, which was the thanksgiving prayer of a once-barren woman who had been mercilessly mocked by the other wife of her husband who had many sons and daughters. After Hannah had weaned her son, Samuel, she presented him to the priest, Eli, to live as a nazirite to God. When she gave her son up, she prayed a song of victory and reversal:

“The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The LORD! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! The LORD! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the LORD; he set the world on top of them!” (1 Sam. 2:4-8 CEB).

Isaiah insists the people should have known that God’s power overwhelms everything else. The monotheism of verses 25-26 brings God’s transcendence and immanence together. There is no comparison to the Holy One of Israel. God can bring out the whole host of heaven, yet God knows each one of them by name. God’s power makes God’s nearness possible.

So, when the people imagine that their way is hidden from the Lord, and that God is ignoring their predicament, Isaiah asks his questions again, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (Isaiah 40:28a-b, CEB). And he reminds the exiles who their God is: a tireless creator whose work of creation is not a once-and-done deal. God refreshes and revives, lifts up and makes the flightless soar the skies.

Still, understanding God’s ways won’t likely happen in an instant. (Be wary of those who say otherwise). Whatever hardship we’re facing, it won’t likely be resolved instantaneously either. Finding the gumption to persist through hardship is tough when we’re relying on our own strength. It wears us out.

Isaiah essentially leaves us with an either-or. Either we’ll be tired, weary, and stumbling—yes, even the young who are so full of energy!—or we’ll wait for the Lord, who will renew our strength so that we can run without weariness, and walk without tiring.

The difference has to do with who we are and how we bear the trouble we face. If we turn away from the Lord in times of trouble, we aren’t going to last very long. The years in exile had caused some of the exiles to forget, and they were tired. Understandably so. They’d live in the hardship of captivity for decades. I’d probably get tired, too. But Isaiah reminds us that there’s another way: a way of reliance upon the God who made heaven and earth, and who knows each of us by name.

Hannah prayed for years and endured incessant ridicule before she finally got the child she wanted. But I think it was her faithfulness, her prayers, and her reliance upon God that saw her through those years of barrenness. Whatever exile we’re facing, whatever hardship in life, or trial of faith, we need to remember that God hasn’t left us alone. God is transcendent and powerful beyond imagination, but God is also small enough, close enough, near enough to know us, to love us, to feel each beat of our heart and shuddered breath, and to hear each prayer that falls from our lips. When we remember that the God of the universe is sitting right beside us, surrounding us, and filling us, that’s when we fly.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher