5th Sunday after Epiphany — February 7, 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah 40 was written to console exiled Israelites, a devastated people displaced from their homeland for so long that it was only a memory.

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It seemed that they had slipped off the divine radar — that the God of Israel had abandoned them. Their despair is challenged by questions the prophet sets before them, such as: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” It is also challenged by a big-picture perspective on God’s majesty, manifest in the creation. The exile was a critical time for reflection on the God of history and creation. A sovereign God at work in sustaining of the cosmos is surely also at work in the course of history, renewing the people’s strength and empowering them in the present. Thus, Isaiah speaks powerfully of the God who from the beginning established heaven and earth, and who even now “brings princes to naught” and “strengthens the powerless.”

These words of consolation and hope are apt for our present moment. The current global health crisis surely feels like a season of exile as we grapple with social isolation and a deep sense of vulnerability. Yet, in “Vulnerability and Glory” theologian Kristine Culp makes the striking claim that vulnerability is the pivot of salvation; that is, vulnerability can be a turning point that prompts reflection on our malformationsVulnerability is not an appealing concept, given the high value we place on self-sufficiency and independence. Who wants to be vulnerable? But the realities of our present moment have imposed a new and widespread sense of vulnerability upon us that can teach us that stand-alone self-sufficiency is an illusion. Moments of vulnerability help us recognize the deep interdependency we have with one another and with God. So in important respects, the oracles from Isaiah this Sunday can speak powerfully to our present crisis. Indeed, two interrelated dimensions of this text are particularly relevant for our time: the affirmations that the creator God, who establishes the stars in the heavens and calls them by name, is also the God who empowers the faint-hearted and gives strength to the weary. So, let us consider each in turn.

First, it is striking that Isaiah takes the majestic God of creation as the springboard for addressing the vulnerability of exiled people. Arrestingly, the prophet directs their attention to the stars:  God “stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in. …  Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? [God] who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because [God] is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.” The underlying assumption here is that the God who created all things and continues to sustain them is also empowering the particularities of life in the present moment. In “Quest for the Living God,” theologian ElizabethJohnson helpfully reframes these ideas within an evolutionary context when she observes that “the Creator Spirit, as ground, sustaining power, and goal of the evolving world, acts by empowering the process from within.” God is active “in, with, and under cosmic processes. God makes the world, in other words, by empowering the world to make itself.”

Isaiah’s emphasis on the majestic God of all creation and history also stretches the imagination of weary, despairing people exiled by the might of the vast Babylonian empire — the dominant, oppressive regime in their world. Isaiah insists that they worship a God whose sovereignty is even more vast and powerful than Babylon’s, for God “makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” In other words, the God who sets the foundations of the earth can also overcome empire.

Thus, the second interrelated dimension of this Scripture is just as important: The God who hung the stars and the moon and who vanquishes the powerful is also One who comes close to give life to the weary and exhausted. As Walter Brueggemann puts it in his commentary on Isaiah, “The very God taken to be obsolete is the one who governs and gives strength, who makes it possible for life to be taken up again without the force of empire” — that is, a God who “can override the nothingness offered by imperial task masters.” Isaiah 40’s emphasis on this point is articulated with incomparable poetic beauty: God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 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.” With words such as these, Isaiah poetically affirms that God makes a way when there seems to be no way.

Ida B. Wells, journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement, lived out of this kind of faith confidence. In “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” theologian James Cone highlights this characteristic of Wells’ pioneering work in the anti-lynching movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wells awakened the conscience of the nation to the horrors of lynching, despite the fact that her work was shunned by white Christians and even some Black ministers. When asked what sustained her, she always spoke of her faith, formed and nurtured by ex-slave parents — a faith defined by the cross of Jesus and Black resistance to white supremacy. Cone narrates the story of Wells’ clandestine visit – in disguise and at risk to her life  – to 12 condemned Arkansas prisoners who had survived the massacre of nearly 300 Blacks in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919. When the prisoners insisted that “we are innocent, but all we can do is pray to the Lord and sing and time passes on,” Wells admonished them with these words: “Why don’t you pray to live and ask to be freed?  The God you serve is the God of Paul and Silas who opened the prison gates, and if you have all the faith you say you have, you ought to believe that God will open your prison doors too.”  Once they were acquitted by the Supreme Court, one of the freed prisoners told Wells’ family that after her visit, “we never talked about dying anymore, but did as she told us, and now every last one of us is” free.

For ancient exiles and contemporary ones – any who find themselves in isolated, vulnerable circumstances – Isaiah conveys profoundly good news: “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.” The sovereign God of all creation, the God who makes tyrants fall, can make a way when there seems to be no way.  Indeed, the central paradox of our faith is that life emerges from the vulnerability of fear and isolation – from the cross-shaped places of our lives – for the divine creator who has named and sustains the stars in the sky is also the God of history and of our present moment, who seeks us out in the midst of our own oppressive realities, setting us free from them and empowering us for liberation, resistance and homecoming.

The present moment is, to be sure, a time of deep interrogation and discernment of what the creator and redeemer God is calling us to be and do. As we look to the heavens and ponder the majesty of a God who established the stars and the planets, may we also discern One who comes close to each and to all to renew and empower us for lives of faithfulness in this world. May it be so.

This week:

  1. Isaiah 40 speaks to a people exiled from their homeland for so long that they despaired of the presence of God. Does our extended season of isolation, imposed by a global health crisis, give rise to a similar sense of God’s absence?
  2. Kristine Culp says that vulnerability is the pivot of salvation. What do you think this might mean with respect to our present circumstance? How might it expose and prompt reflection on malformations of our common life, providing opportunities to move in new directions?
  3. When you look to the stars and consider the majestic power of God the creator and sustainer of all that is, how might that console you and stretch the horizons of your vision during our current challenges?
  4. Consider the powerful words of Isaiah 40:29-31: “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 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.” What do these words mean to you in our current season of isolation and vulnerability?
  5. As you hear the story of Ida B. Wells, how might her courage inform and inspire us in our particular historical moment?
  6. The present moment is a time of deep discernment of what the creator and redeemer God is calling is to be and do. How would you articulate your own discernment of what that might be?