Let the mystery be (February 4, 2024)

There is so much we will never know. Isaiah asks us to embrace the mystery and trust God anyway, writes Brendan McLean.

Outlook Standard Lesson for February 4, 2024
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 40:25-31

In the mid-2010s, there was a television show that aired for three seasons on HBO called “The Leftovers.” The show’s premise is simple: On October 14, 2011, 2% of the world’s population (around 140 million people) suddenly and inexplicably disappeared in an event called the “Sudden Departure.” The show focuses on a cast of “leftover” characters in smaller towns three years after the “Sudden Departure” and how the event has affected all of them.

Some characters struggle to reconcile losing their entire family in the event while others didn’t lose anyone. Yet, everyone is traumatized and looking for ways to cope (some healthy and some not so healthy) with what has happened. It’s not a show I would recommend binging … all the sorrow, suffering and grieving are weighty. However, such an authentic, earnest and beautiful look at people trying to make sense of something they can’t ever fully understand also contains some life-affirming stuff. In the wake of a world-shaking unexpected event, people learn new ways to build community, open their hearts to love and find different, compelling motivations to keep on living.

I thought of the “Leftovers” as I read today’s Scripture, Isaiah 40. This passage is a declaration spoken to people living in a country threatened by the rise of the Assyrian empire. The prophet’s audience feels deserted, overlooked and “leftover” by God.

Additionally, Isaiah has just told Hezekiah, the king of Judah, that Babylon will conquer their country and “all that is in your house and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left … some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away” (Isaiah 39:5-8). Bad things are on the way for Isaiah’s people, things that certainly won’t help ease their isolated and fearful state. The prophet even acknowledges the real pain and isolation of his people: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).

And yet, Isaiah’s message is ultimately one of hope at the heart of suffering. He reminds his people of the sovereignty of God with poetic, rhetorical questions that point to God’s power. God has measured the waters of the sea in God’s own hand and weighed the mountains and the hills (v. 12). God is everlasting and is the Creator of the earth (v. 28). Isaiah then moves to the personal, intimate care that God gives to individuals in their struggles and suffering, affirming that God gives power to those who are weary and exhausted and strengthens those without any power (v. 29). This knowledge that the prophet tells his audience of God leads to the conclusion that, since God is and has done all of these things, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength … they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Isaiah is asking his people to trust — something that my mother always says is easy to lose and hard to build. In acknowledging his audience’s feelings while also naming God’s almighty and incredible power, the prophet understands this double-sided aspect of trust. Amid the turmoil of their world, it is very easy for God’s people to lose trust in how God is at work in the world. The hard work of building and keeping trust in God lies in embracing the mystery of why bad things happen and accepting that explanations for why the world is broken may be impossible to find. We can embrace and accept these things because, as Isaiah reminds us, we know that God has created the entirety of the world and that God also cares and walks beside us in divine solidarity.

In Iris DeMent’s song “Let the Mystery Be” (the opening theme song for “The Leftovers’” second season and series finale), she sings, “But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me, I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” In letting the mystery be, we also accept that God is actively at work in our lives, loving each of us in ways we might not even be aware of yet.

Questions for reflection

  1. What are some ways you have seen God at work in the harder, tougher times of your life?
  2. How have you learned to cope with the things that you don’t understand?
  3. How does trusting in God turn us toward people we witness in the world who are suffering, sorrowing or oppressed?

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