5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2021
Old Testament - Isaiah 40:21-31
New Testament - Mark 1:20-39
In a Hurry
INTRODUCTION: The day after Christmas back in 2004, just before 8:00 am in the morning, the fault line between the Burma and Indian Plates deep in the Indian Ocean gave way resulting in a massive earthquake.
Registering just over 9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake sent waves rolling, some measuring up to 100 feet in height, toward the coastlines of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and numerous other countries. The third largest earthquake ever recorded, the faulting lasted for nearly ten minutes, triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska, and even caused the planet to vibrate nearly half an inch.
Needless to say, the damage from the waves crashing ashore, as many of you might still recall, was horrific. When the waters finally started to recede, 230,000 people were dead from 14 different countries making the Indian Ocean earthquake one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
The countless images of people being swept away by waves as others clung to anything they could find for safety resulted in a world-wide humanitarian effort.
There was, of course, the immediate impact of the earthquake requiring the delivery of basic supplies, medical care, and food and water. But then there was also the long term response. All told, over 14 billion dollars have been raised for the recovery effort.
A truly massive response for a truly massive natural disaster.
ONE: Well, long ago the people of Israel also knew about disaster. Except in their case the disastrous event wasn’t natural, but rather human - all too human.
You see, after picking a fight with the biggest bully in the neighborhood - the Babylonian Empire - the people of Israel eventually found themselves on the losing end of the backyard brawl. After all, if you’re only a 400 pound gorilla and you decide to fight with one that’s 800 pounds, well, what can you expect? Why, Israel didn’t even stand a puncher's chance.
And so the price Israel paid for such ill-advised bravado was steep. For after capturing Jerusalem, the Babylonians proceeded to lay waste to the Temple. The very heart and soul of the Israel’s faith was reduced to nothing but a smoldering pile of rubble and debris.
And then, to add insult to injury, many of the religious and political leaders of Israel were hauled away to live as exiles in the city of Babylon. Needless to say, it was a disastrous time for the people of Israel.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” goes a passage from the Bible bemoaning the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple. “Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in the days of old.”
Yes, disasters are often the result of natural phenomena. But sometimes they are also self-created, right?
TWO: So is it any wonder that Isaiah felt the need to jot down his words of promise and renewal from chapter 40?
In the midst of the sorrow and loss and doubts, Isaiah jotted down his words of hope and encouragement on parchment as a bold act of faith and trust in the face of a world that had gone horribly wrong.
“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; his understanding is unsearchable...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.”
A beloved passage of Scripture, Isaiah’s words are his way of reminding the people that even amidst the troubles and trials of life, the promises of God are trustworthy and true. It’s as if Isaiah is saying in his own way, “Hang in there. Be patient. I know it’s hard, but God will see you through. Just hold on.”
You see, people of faith often have a funny way of seeing the world. For rather than just take things for granted, rather than just accept what is present on the surface of life, people of faith have a habit of catching a deeper and (admittedly) often hidden meaning behind the events of everyday life.
So even amidst a world that frequently seems out of control, random, and capricious, people of faith trust that God is still always at work somehow making all things new. Not that God is the source or cause of the calamities of life, but rather that even in those moments God is still present and seeking to restore and salvage.
“What the Bible puts before us,” writes one man, “is not a record of a God who is always triumphantly getting his way...but a God who gets his way by patiently struggling to make himself clear to human beings, to make his love real to them, especially when they seem not to want to know.”
And so even amidst the troubles and disasters of life, people of faith can have hope.
THREE: Of course, while Isaiah’s words are surely uplifting and pastoral, I will be the first to admit they implicitly require something of us we aren’t very good at these days - patience.
Yes, Isaiah reminds us that the rulers and nations of the world, despite their apparent power, are all like ants when compared to God. And yes, Isaiah assures us that God is the One who will finally bring all things to completion, but it isn’t as if that will happen overnight, or with a simple snap of God’s fingers.
No. Turns out renewal takes time. Turns out transformation is a whole lot of work. And it turns out the road to redemption has more than a few twists and turns along the way.
There is a story about Phillip Brooks, the beloved Episcopal priest from the latter part of 1800s, who, among other things, was famous for writing the lyrics to O Little Town of Bethlehem. A man known for his genteel and quiet manner, a friend was one day surprised to see him pacing in his office like a caged lion.
“Why, Phillip,” asked the friend, “what in the world is the problem?” “The problem,” replied Brooks tersely, “is that I am in a hurry, but God is not.”
Lately, through general conversation and even from this pulpit, many of you have heard me declare, “Come hell or high water, I am going on sabbatical this summer!” After all, pushing the sabbatical that I was supposed to take last summer to this coming summer, and with all the craziness COVID has brought to our lives, I am ready.
Of course, with COVID still causing havoc both nationally and internationally, my bold proclamations about going on sabbatical might be a bit rash. What’s more, the Lily Foundation, the folks funding the grant, have now said that if I want to push the sabbatical, yet again, to the summer of 2022, well, I can do that.
So next week I’ll process with the session at its monthly meeting what to do. Take the sabbatical this summer, but most surely have to forgo my travels plans. Or, push it to next summer with the idea of being able to travel, by that point, safely. So it’s possible that I will need to wait a full two years before actually getting to go on my sabbatical.
And while such a dilemma is surely not a disaster, and I in no way think God is the reason I might need to push the sabbatical yet again, it is a kind of metaphor, I think, for any of us who travel the life of faith. For being patient when it comes to God can also be hard. Especially when it comes to that great and grand promise of God to eventually restore and renew all things. For sometimes we can be in a hurry, when God, for whatever reason, isn’t.
FOUR: Many of you will recall that the summer Olympics in 1968 were held in Mexico City.
The altitude of Mexico City, which exceeds 7,300 feet, was both a blessing and a curse. While the thin air was believed to have played a big role in record-setting efforts in events like the long jump, high jump, and pole vault, it also caused all kinds of havoc for the endurance athletes, who had a hard time adjusting to the thin air.
As you might easily imagine, the marathon turned out to be especially grueling. The real story of the marathon, however, wasn’t the altitude or even the man who finished first but rather the man who came in dead last. The gentleman's name was John Stephen Akhwari from Tanzania.
Considered a contender for a podium spot, Akhwari had taken a bad fall early in the event severely damaging his knee. But he simply refused to quit the race.
Bandaging up his knee, he pressed on eventually making it to the Olympic stadium a full hour after the first first place finisher. And as John Akhwari hobbled to the finish line and crossed it, the smattering of people still left in the stands applauded and cheered.
Afterwards a newspaper person asked Akhwari why he didn’t just drop out of the race. After all, with a badly damaged knee no one would have blamed him. Akhwari responded memorably by saying, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”
CONCLUSION: Well, waiting can be hard, for sure.
Especially when it comes to those who are running the race of faith. For who doesn’t long for that world made right, and good, and true? But just because we’re in a hurry, that doesn’t mean God is.
And yet even amidst the trials and troubles of life, we can still trust in the promises of God. We can trust that what God promises to accomplish, God, in fact, will.
For, “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; his understanding is unsearchable...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.”
And now to the One who by power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Jesus Christ to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.