This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2021.
The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
February 7, 2021 EDFW
Epiphany 5B Isaiah 40:21-31
The 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah is one of my most cherished chapters in the entire Bible. It begins with the well-known words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says the Lord.” We know these words not only from scripture but also from music. If you are part of the Episcopal tradition, you’ve likely sung hymn number 67 every Advent.
“Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace thus saith our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrows load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them,
tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.”
Even George Frideric Handel used these verses in the first part of his Messiah oratorio.
How could you not love this hymn? This chapter? This entire section known as Second Isaiah?
Isaiah chapters 40-55 address tired and weary Judeans who have lived in exile for a couple of generations now. They have the opportunity to return home to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. But the thing is – Their “home” doesn’t exist anymore – in Jerusalem the temple has been demolished. Their houses are in ruins. They are depressed; they’re apathetic and hopeless. They struggle to imagine a new future in their old home.
We hear them question Isaiah.
“Why should we go back?
How do we know God is still with us after decades of exile?
Could we ever live freely again? Could we ever live with hope?
Second Isaiah speaks directly to these exiled Israelites. The prophet urges them to live in hope, he offers encouragement to go home. He describes the peace awaiting them once they arrive.
We hear Isaiah saying the words we likely know from John the Baptizer, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah’s calling for a desert highway to be built for their return…but the people – even the young people — doubt they have the strength to make the journey. Today we hear the words, “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.”
They are in a dark place.
And what started as a gentle, pastoral response, ‘Comfort o comfort my people’ has turned into pleading insistent questions, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?”
Isaiah implores the Israelites to look back on their history with God as a chosen people, think about what initially drew you into relationship with God. And knowing how impossible it can be to think creatively in the midst of depression, Isaiah paints a picture for them of their loving, powerful, sovereign God. He describes God’s creative power that will make this prophetic vision a reality.
Isaiah describes a God who sits above the “circle of the earth.” There is no deity in Babylon that could possibly be God’s equal. Political and military authorities might seem powerful, yet God is sovereign over them as well. The Babylonians who exert power over the captive Israelites are no match for God. They are like plants that a strong wind could blow over. Isaiah says that God need not even touch the political leaders to defeat them; God must simply blow upon them and they wither. God stands alone. There is no match on heaven or on earth.
And yet – as powerful as God is, God is equally as loving. God will provide the energy needed to bring the people home. God offers strength to every person whose despair has left them exhausted, allowing them to “run, not be weary … to walk and not faint.”
The exiles might be tired, weary, powerless and faint, but is God is not.
Can you imagine a future in which you are not weary?
In which we can be in crowded places like churches or restaurants or airplanes and not feel anxious or scared?
I didn’t realize how deeply I craved Isaiah chapter 40 until this week. I read beginning with verse one and then just kept going through chapter 55. I felt as if I sank into these words. I am so tired…even though I’m sleeping enough. I’m so weary…even though I am praying enough. There are days when I’ve been crippled with anxiety…even though I am sure enough of God’s love and faithfulness.
I feel mentally and emotionally weary. How long, O Lord, will this continue? How long must I wait to lay hands upon the sick members of my church family and pray for their healing? How long must we wait to share the peace of the God through hugs and handshakes? How long before businesses open and thrive once again? How long, O Lord?
I find signs of hope and grace all the time, and yet there are those days in which I’m reminded how little control I have over the future. I feel displaced from friends, from my extended family, and my church family. Almost, like an exile in a faraway land.
Are you feeling the same exhaustion?
I invite you to hear the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah. “They 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.”
They who wait upon the Lord.
Well, we’re good at waiting. Those of us in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth have been waiting a decade for resolution in a lawsuit, only to be told last week that we must wait a bit more for a decision.
We’ve been waiting to return to our church buildings for 11 months and it appears there’s more to endure.
We’re called to continue waiting, but continue waiting on the Lord. This waiting is an act of faith, it’s to hope and expect that God will do for the exiles what God did for creation. God will give life where there was none at all.
Isaiah tells us, “God is great in strength, mighty in power…” God’s strength and power are poured out for God’s people in love. Always in love. God fulfills this promise for the Hebrew exiles, strengthening them to walk along the wilderness highway back home, then strengthening them yet again for the rebuilding of the nation.
So right now as we wait upon God, I have hope that God is taking our weariness and offering us divine strength.
Where will we go with this divine strength?
We want to return to normalcy. We want to return home.
Isaiah encourages the displaced Israelites to go back to Jerusalem – but really, Isaiah encourages them to follow God to some place new. In chapter 43 verses 18 and 19, God tells the exiles, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”
They may go home, but everything will be different. They won’t be going back, they’ll be moving forward into God’s new thing, God’s new creation.
We as the church won’t be going back to how things were. We can’t. Too much has changed since our churches left their buildings in March of 2020. The pandemic. The economic crises. The changes in national politics. The public unveiling of violent white Christian nationalism.
We as the church can’t go “back” to anything.
Like the exiled Israelites, we can only go forward, moving into God’s new creation.
I don’t know what it will look like, but the chapters of Second Isaiah calls us to reflect upon God’s creative power. To trust that God intrinsically knows us and our deepest needs. That God can provide us with a highway in the most desolate of deserts, and the strength to walk, and even run along it.
When we return to our buildings, we will not be going back to how things were. We will be equipped with God’s strength to embody God’s truth and love to the world around us. This means publicly striving for justice and peace. This means publicly respecting the dignity of all people. This means challenging all forces of evil and oppression. And contributing to the shaping of a new future.