February 5, 2012

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? It is God who sits above the circle of the earth… who stretches out the heavens like a curtain… who makes the rulers of the earth as nothing… Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

The prophet Isaiah addresses these questions to the People of Israel in exile in Babylon. The people are complaining, you see, that God has disregarded them, that God has forgotten them. I can understand their complaint. Really, I can. They’re tired. They’re exhausted, actually. And after all the challenges and trials they have endured, after waiting so long for some kind of help,  who can blame them for getting a little bit frustrated with God?

Why are we still living in this God-forsaken place? Why are our enemies still triumphing over us again and again? We thought we were supposed to be your chosen people! Why is this misery just going on and on with no relief in sight?

Those are questions that many of us have asked ourselves, or asked of God over the years. In the midst of unrelenting physical pain, from the depths of a deep depression, or out of the exhaustion of constant care-giving, we’ve wondered where God is to be found, or why God doesn’t seem to be helping us out of our struggles.

Even our churches may find ourselves asking these questions. We’re tired too. We’ve been working so hard to maintain a ministry. We’ve been spending so much time, and giving so many resources to build a mission. And yet we may not see the results. We notice our congregations dwindling, and many of them closing. We worry about our children and whether they will hear the good news and respond to it in faith. We’ve been trying so hard for so many years, and we’re really starting to wonder if God has disregarded us, if God has forgotten us.

When the prophet asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” he knows the answer to the question. Of course they know that God is the creator of all that is. Of course they know that God is more powerful that the rulers of the world. Of course they know that God has numbered all the stars and calls them each by name. They know that God does not faint or grow weary.

Those being addressed by the prophet’s speech are not being shown something new, or something on the far horizon of what they might have thought about God. The speech intends to drive home matters about God that Israel already knows, but has forgotten.

In his reflection on this text, William J. Carl III suggests that both the Israelites and we are theological amnesiacs. Theological amnesia is the kind of problem that causes us to fall apart every time crisis comes. Like the exiles in Babylon, we wonder if God has gone off and left us altogether. We forget who we are as Christians. We forget what we believe and why we believe it. We feel lost and alone.

Of course, theological amnesia doesn’t only strike when we are in crisis. In fact, it is especially troubling when life is going well. How easily we forget God when everything is on track in our lives! We forget that God loves us and wants the best for us. We forget to praise and thank God for the blessings we receive every day.

And what happens when we forget the God who is Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Friend?  The moment we confront trouble, we collapse with anxiety and stress. We think that we have to handle the crisis all on our own. We forget that God is with us and that God loves us.

William Carl suggests that Isaiah is trying to cure the world’s amnesia. His appeal is not to something unknown or insufficiently grasped, but precisely to something Israel has known and heard and been shown from eternity, from the very foundation of the heavens and the earth.

Sometimes when I’m working on a sermon I start to feel like I never have anything new to say. “I’ve preached this before! I feel like I’m always preaching the same message over and over again. They’ve got to be getting tired of all this repetition!” Even if it’s a new text, a biblical text that I’ve never preached on before, I realize that the message, at its core, is the same thing over and over.

But maybe that’s the point. I’m not preaching something new that you’ve never heard before. After all, many of you have so many more years of faith and discipleship, bible study and reflection than I do. How can I possibly come up with something that is new for you?

Rather, like Isaiah, my task is simply to remind you of something that you may have forgotten, to remind you of something that you already know, of something that you have heard before, of something that has been told to you from the beginning of your life of faith.

It goes something like this: There is a God, and God is the Maker of all that is. God made the world and everything in it, and God made it all good. God made you as well, and you were especially made in God’s image, to share the goodness and the love and potential for loving relationship that is God’s very nature.

At times, God’s people have turned away from God, refusing to trust and obey. At times, we continue to turn away and we rebel against the way of life that God has called us to live. In years past, God sent prophets like Isaiah to call us back to God’s way. And then, in the fullness of time, out of God’s great love for the world, God sent God’s only Son to be one of us, to redeem us and heal our brokenness.

In Jesus, born of Mary, God’s Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. He lived as one of us, knowing joy and sorrow. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, opened blind eyes, broke bread with outcasts and sinners, and proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor and needy. Dying on the cross, he gave himself for the life of the world. Rising from the grave, he won for us victory over death. Seated at the right hand of God, he leads us to eternal life.

I know… this is nothing new. You’ve heard this all before. But there are times when we forget, aren’t there? Sometimes when everything is going so well, and we’re starting to think that we can do almost anything on our own. Sometimes when everything is falling apart, and it seems like nothing can help with our desperate situation.

Let’s not give each other a hard time for forgetting God. Instead, let’s take every opportunity we have to remind each other. Worship is a good way to be reminded. So is caring for one another, serving, and helping one another in the name of Christ, doing the things that Jesus did. And if we can be brave enough to share our faith with the people around us, we’ll not only remind them that God is present and active, but we’ll also remind ourselves as well.

The prophet Isaiah reminded God’s people Israel of what they already knew. And what they knew was a specific account of how the world was made, how God chose a people, and how God was and is God. One commentator points out that the possession and good stewardship of this knowledge is what it means for Israel to be God’s elect people in the first place.

The fact that we have known, and heard, and been told the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is an amazing gift. And it’s a gift that we can’t lose by giving it away.

We can follow the example of the Apostle Paul who heard the gospel and felt an obligation to spend his life proclaiming it to others, whoever those others might be, and whatever it might cost him to do so.

We can follow the example of Simon’s mother-in-law, who was healed by Jesus, and responded by getting up and serving the people around her.

We can follow the example of Jesus, who though he had worked so hard already, and though he was feeling so tired, went to God for help and strength, and then continued the ministry that he was called to do, proclaiming the message in word and deed.

May God give us power when we are faint, and strength when we are powerless, so that no matter what challenges we may face, we will never forget God’s presence or God’s love for us.

“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.” Amen.