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“Have you not known?” asks the prophet. “Have you not heard? God is in charge. God doesn’t get tired or give up. God won’t let you down. God will raise you up on eagles’ wings.”
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Did you forget? Do you doubt?
The last time I preached on this poetic passage, I told you the story of a pastor friend of mine whose church had closed. I told you how she had searched years for her next call—praying and doubting and sometimes despairing—wondering, like the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, if God had all but forgotten her.
I told you how, after years of struggling and volunteering and starting to feel a call to work with the homeless, this pastor without a church ended up being exactly the right person in exactly the right place when the City of Boston closed not only the city’s largest shelter, but also its largest detox and recovery programs, leaving hundreds of vulnerable people on the streets in the middle of winter.
It was a true good-news story of someone who waited (and waited, and waited) on God, and how—eventually—her prayers were answered, her vision cleared, her strength renewed. Suddenly it was if she had been lifted up on eagles’ wings—not because of her strength or perseverance but because of God’s faithfulness, because God does not faint or grow weary, because God strengthens the weak, because God empowers the powerless.
It was the kind of feel-good story that gives us hope; it was the kind of story that makes us think—well, if it happened to that person, maybe it can happen for me, too. If God didn’t forget her, if that guy came back from rock bottom renewed and restored, maybe God will be there for me, too.
The problem is that happy-ending stories like these—and sometimes even poetic scripture passages—can lead us to put our all our faith in outcomes, on some future result. And this kind of focus can lead us to pin all our hopes on circumstances rather than in the unwavering, powerful, active, and incredibly tender God who is with us through it all.
Consider this: As much as I would like to tell you another story of another person who waited and waited on God and ultimately came through a rough patch with flying colors, I have different people, and very different situations, on my heart today.
I think of a dear friend: a brilliant researcher and successful manager, a forward-thinking leader in her field and, to top it all off, a person of great integrity, with a heart of gold. More than three years ago, office politics unfairly pushed her out of her high-powered job. More than three years later she has yet to land another job. She prays, she waits, she works and networks, and she tries to trust God—and still: nothing.
It is so not fair.
I think of our dear brother Lucio and his family: Cast by our unjust immigration system into a horrible and heartbreaking situation—forced to live apart from one another for 110 days now, not knowing how or when it will end, this stressful situation taking a toll on each one of them. And so they wait, they pray fervently, they trust God. And still they wait—and we wait with them.
Their situation is so wrong.
And what about you? What about us? How many of us are wandering in the wilderness, waiting and hoping for something good, thinking surely God has forgotten about us, wondering if God is even there? How many of us are weary and discouraged?
What about the young gymnasts who said they were being abused by their doctor—and yet for years no one took action against him? What about African Americans who, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, still watch police gun down their children and fathers, mothers and siblings, and suffer unemployment and death rates far higher than the national average? What about the hard-working poor who haven’t gotten a raise in years? What about an entire nation that is fed up with the politics of hate and disgusted with Christians who support unethical and hard-hearted politicians? What about the resisters who are tired and discouraged and wondering if their actions make any difference? What about our dear ones who are struggling with health or other challenges, who feel there is nothing worth living for any more?
How do we, as people of faith, accompany these beloved children of God on their challenging journeys? How do we walk with them through the darkness? How do we, as followers of Jesus, give power to the faint and strength to the powerless? How do we wait with those who are so tired of waiting—for better health, for jobs, for justice, for a family reunion, for community, for hope, for love? How do we love those who have all but given up on life?
Interestingly enough, the 40th chapter of Isaiah offers a few different approaches.
At the very beginning of the chapter, there is what I will call the “everything’s going to be fine” approach: We know it better from the familiar words we hear during Advent and in Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and her and tell her that the worst is over.”
Next, there is the “prepare the way of the Lord” approach: Get rid of your baggage, let go of what’s holding you back, make way for God’s blessings to come.
Third, we have the “buck up” approach: Part lecture, part poetry, part loving desperation, this approach says to the disheartened and the disgusted, the weary and the worn-out: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Why do you say, ‘God has forgotten about me’? Why do you think, ‘God doesn’t care what happens to me’? Don’t you remember all the great things God has done for you? Don’t you know how mighty God is? What is wrong with you?”
Which approach do you think is best? What do you want to hear? What would be most helpful to you in your weakest, weariest, most hopeless moments?
I will confess to having using all these approaches and more at different times—and yet, I think there are many times when none of them fits the bill. It seems to me that each of these approaches puts a certain burden on the one who is having a hard time. If they would just accept their punishment, prepare the way, get over themselves, and acknowledge God’s power, things would be fine, these approaches seem to say.
None of which, from my experience, is very helpful. None of which is very likely to actually comfort, reassure, or prepare the way for heart-opening and the renewal of strength and hope.
Our intentions are so good, our desire to be helpful so real. But sometimes at least, in the end, the best we can do for another is simply to walk beside them, to listen to them, to let them know we are waiting with them, and, perhaps, with great tenderness, to remind them of this amazing promise: That those who wait for the Lord shall, eventually, renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They will run again—and not be weary. They will walk and not faint—because our tenderhearted God will lift them up.
And then there is the Jesus approach: No lecture, no pep talk, no words of comfort, just loving, compassionate, empowering action. When Jesus heard about Peter’s sick mother-in-law, he came at once. He took her by the hand and lifted her up. That was it. He lifted her up! He restored her to her rightful place.
It was the kind of action that brought the whole city to his door—because who doesn’t want to be healed? Who doesn’t want to be lifted up?
And then in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out to pray—because who can do that kind of work on their own power? Who can lift others up who does not stay connected to the One who renews their strength?
This world, this community, our lives are filled with people who are discouraged, people who are waiting for something good, people who need lifting up. We need lifting up, too.
And let us also be among the lifters—reminding one another of God’s faithfulness; working for justice; modeling holy love; listening with all our hearts; sharing our strength; and trusting in the Love that will redeem and restore us all.