Early on in their Babylonian exile, the captive Israelites might have been in a state of shock. Could this have really happened to them, God’s chosen ones? Could their magnificent temple in Jerusalem really have been destroyed, their families separated, so many of their loved ones lost on the long, hard march to a foreign land?
Then, I imagine, their shock would have turned into denial and discounting.
“Not to worry,” they would reassure one another as they huddled together in prayer. “Surely, the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God who led our ancestors out of Egypt and through the sea and the wilderness and to the promised land is even now on the way. Surely, our God will deliver us again.”
And so they waited and prayed. Prayed and waited.
But deliverance didn’t come. Their suffering dragged on. As their years in exile became decades, an entire generation died, taking with them their faith and wisdom and memories of the good old days and their sacred ways.
After a while, the exiles all but forgot who and whose they were. Jerusalem was no longer the home they longed for, but simply another foreign land. They no longer trusted God to deliver them. Many of them forgot all about the Holy One who loved them with an everlasting love. They sank ever deeper into despair and bitterness. They were too weary of waiting to hope any more—in God or in much of anything, really. Their lives had become little more than a struggle for survival. Somewhere deep down in their hearts, they knew that was no way to live, but they couldn’t see their way out of the deep darkness that had overcome them.
It was about that time that a prophet came spouting poetry of comfort and glad tidings, of a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
Who did this guy think he was? they scoffed.
But he went on, waxing poetic about a shepherd who gathers his flock in his arms, a Creator who holds the oceans in the palm of her hand, a mighty force to whom the oppressive powers are nothing more than drops in a bucket.
Have you not heard? the prophet asked them.
Do you not understand?
And something in their souls began to stir with a glimmer of recognition. It was as if someone was calling their name from very, very far away but they couldn’t quite make out what else the voice was saying.
Then there was more poetry, about princes and grasshoppers and stars, and the Holy One who made and named them all, a great Spirit whose love goes from everlasting to everlasting, whose presence is ever near.
Have you not heard? the prophet asked them again.
And then, as if he could see them shaking their heads, as if he could feel the weariness in their bones, the prophet added that this everlasting God they had forgotten about, the Creator of the ends of the earth, does not faint or grow weary. Sure, the prophet said, even the young get weary and worn out, even your oppressors get weary, but this God—your God—does not. Not at all. Not ever!
No, the prophet told them. Your God—the one you have all but forgotten—has not forgotten you. And understand this: Your God specializes in giving power to the faint and strength to the powerless.
And all who wait for this God, all those who trust in this God while they wait—shall find their strength renewed. More than that, they will mount up with wings—like eagles! They will run and run and run—and not get weary. They will walk and walk and walk—and not faint.
The prophet’s words were not magic, of course. The love of God did not lift them up with wings in that moment. But some of the weary ones did feel a fluttering of hope in their hearts. Some of them felt a smidgen of something like strength in their weary bones.
And that was enough to carry them through another day, and then another, until their Deliverer did come, until the trees of the field clapped their hands as the people sang their faith all the way home to a place they had never been.
Beloveds, it seems to me that eleven months into pandemic exile, this is a poem we need to hear. This is a reminder we need like bread. This is a promise we need to understand. This is a hope we can count on and a God we can trust.
I know many of us are weary—so weary of pandemic isolation and limitation. So long have we been living in concern and cautiousness, deprived of togetherness and touch, that some of us have almost forgotten who we are and what we are made for. So far removed are we from the gatherings and traditions that feed our hearts and souls, that we have lost our taste for the food of the Spirit. So weary are we of waiting for things to get better, so emotionally drained by watching wave after wave after wave of virus cases swamp our hopes and plans, that some of us have stopped hoping and planning. So burned out are we on Zoom and YouTube and computer screens that by the time Sunday morning rolls around, we desperately need a break. So frustrated are we by the delays and difficulties of the vaccination process that we have surrendered to resignation and are perched on the edge of despair. And so accustomed are we to masking our faces that we have grown far too comfortable masking our feelings.
We would do well to lift up our weary heads long enough to listen to the prophet. Even now, when what passes for “connection” takes so much effort and can feel so unsatisfying, we must stay firmly grounded in the Word that never changes and is forever true:
That the God who is love is with us. That the Creator of all is on our side. That the Holy One is mighty in power and tender in compassion. That no matter how weary or angry we get, no matter how far away we wander, God will never leave us. That the strengthening power of the Spirit has been given to us. That we will not be in pandemic exile forever. That, even now, God is doing a new thing. That we, too, will one day mount up on wings as eagles.
And . . . that there are no shortcuts through the wilderness. That denying our weariness and discouragement does not make things better. That the God who does not faint or grow weary seems to fully appreciate our weariness—so much so that in the crescendo of his powerful poem the prophet uses the word “weary” three times.
God knows some people die waiting—for a cure, for the vote, for equality or freedom or justice or love.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the night before he was killed, spoke of it with an eery prescience: “The question before you tonight,” he told the striking Black sanitation workers and their supporters in Memphis, Tennessee, “is not, ‘If I stop to help this [person] in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That’s the question.”
Dr. King went on to say:
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. …
“Like anybody,” he continued, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
That was more than 50 years ago now.
And still, Black people wait and work to get to that promised land where every Black life matters just as much as any other life. They have to be weary and deeply discouraged. I would understand if they were bitter and hopeless. But it is as if our Black siblings have been lifted up with wings as eagles, that God has renewed their strength again and again and again while they work and wait, wait and work for justice.
And if our Black siblings can wait and work for 400 years, surely we can wait a little longer for this pandemic to end and for our lives, our communities, our nation, and the world to move right on past “normal” toward something better than normal, something closer to the promised land that is the realm of God. The question is not what will happen to us in this situation, but what will happen to God’s beloveds if we don’t keep waiting and trusting, if we don’t allow our mighty God to carry us on just a little while longer.
Do we not know? Do we not understand?
Hold on just a little bit longer, beloveds. Our God is with us, and everything’s gonna be alright.