Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, A+D 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Isaiah 40:21-31. Mark 1:29-39
I was going to take the week off. Not a vacation, I was going to use an old sermon, and take the week off from studying the texts and writing a sermon. As I usually do on Sunday evening, or, in this case, last Monday morning, I read through today’s texts, and I knew right away that I didn’t want to touch the Old Testament reading from Isaiah. Texts like this one, that declare the all powerful, all knowing, all in control nature of the LORD are good news, but not easy news to preach about, especially when things are rough, when days are dark.
Even harder to deal with in difficult times can be wonderful promises, like the one that concludes our Isaiah passage: But 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. Good words, but hard to take these days when we don’t seem to see many rising eagles.
I didn’t feel like tackling such a difficult topic. My pessimism carried over as I read the Epistle and Gospel, and so my next step was to look at past sermons. There I thought I found my relief, my salvation from having to wrestle with God’s Word this week, in a six year old sermon. It didn’t stink. It was actually kind of nice, and short, faithful, I thought, and not too heavy, with even a couple of gentle mother-in-law jokes thrown in. I’ll use that, I thought, and so I was done. A week of relief from wrestling with God’s Word in the midst of the ongoing sadness that still covers our community. Nobody will remember a sermon from six years ago; I’m home free.
God, however, had other plans. First a good friend called me, to see how I was doing, how I was holding up trying to serve the family of Sherry Arnold and our congregations. I didn’t want to talk about it, and so I put him off with some empty phrases: “I’m doing o.k., thanks for your concern, blah, blah, blah.” I lied. Then, while trying to change the subject, or get off the phone, I wandered into our laundry room at the parsonage, and saw this card. The Hardin girls basketball team presented one of these to all the girls on the Sidney team at a recent game, the 3rd or 4th home game in a row where very caring and kind words and deeds were shared by our rivals, just before the team introductions, beautiful expressions of concern and solidarity, which for me were becoming increasingly hard to watch.
I’m tired of thinking about it, of pondering questions without answers, of feeling sad. I’m probably no more tired of it than many of you, certainly not nearly as weary and burdened as Ron and Sharon, as Gary, as Holly and Jason and Rhonda. They cannot escape the struggle. Our community cannot escape our altered, damaged new reality. We have a long way to go, and the family will not be completely free from this sadness until they meet Sherry in heaven. The kind acts of all those girls basketball teams were at the same time sad reminders of our reality, and I, however selfish this might be, was tired of it.
So, while putting off my friend’s concerns and wandering into the laundry room to look for my hoodie, I saw on the dryer this card from the Hardin girls. As I said goodbye to my friend, I remembered Shelee telling me: “You should take a look at that card.” Well fine, I thought. I’ve escaped my friend’s concerned questions. I’ve found an acceptable sermon so I can avoid God’s Word this week. I might as well take a look at this card so I can be done with it, too. And what should I find on the back, along with promises of prayer and kind words signed by all the Hardin girls? This verse: 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.
I broke down. I had wanted to avoid it. I had wanted to avoid tears and sad thoughts and everything else, but through the readings assigned by our lectionary, words that that also ended up on the back of this card, God made it quite clear that running away from this reality is not an option, not last Monday, not this week, not this Sunday. I might as well face it, and so you, called here today to listen to me preach, are going to have to face it as well. Lord have mercy on us all.
Our passage from Isaiah chapter 40 starts out with a declaration of the greatness, the otherness, the majesty and inescapable power of the LORD God, portrayed in somewhat sarcastic contrast to the grasshopper like stature of mankind. God is great, and we are tiny. He is the Creator, the Ruler, He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. Then Isaiah goes on to the promises: He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but 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.
These words, I think, puts us in a very tough spot. On the one hand, we hear of God’s character and nature, all powerful, all knowing, and all concerned for His faithful people, promising to give strength to the weak and the faint, to lift them up on eagles’ wings. On the other hand a great evil has been done in our midst. A beloved sister has been struck down. We are weak and faint, and it is hard to see how we can be lifted up. We are tempted to give in to our anger. We are tempted to doubt God’s promises, or to doubt that we are truly His people. For if God really loves us, why would this happen?
And of course, it’s not just the crime committed against Sherry. There’s more evil, there’s always more evil than we know. We are all affected by the current crisis, which is at the same time very public and very personal, even for people who barely knew her. But this is by no means the only thing that knocks us down and leaves us angry, hurt or doubting. But most of the time we hide our problems, so we do not know the evils with which our neighbors struggle. I don’t know yours, and you don’t know mine, because we’re afraid to make them public, afraid they will only grow more powerful if we reveal them to others, afraid to let anyone know the source of our problems, which might be random, or might be a loved one who treats us badly in private, or the source of our evil might be ourselves. We are ashamed to speak of our evils, so we struggle in silence, hiding our problems, and looking the other way when the struggles of our neighbors start to show through, rarely risking to ask a real question, all too ready to be put off by a polite lie. How are you? Oh, I’m fine. Good to hear. Have a nice day. Blah, blah, blah. We lie.
So God is God, but all too often we are hurt, angry, sad, and full of doubt. But today, according to Isaiah, I’m supposed to tell you to wait for the Lord, and He will renew your strength, and you will rise up on wings like eagles.
How can I say that? How can we believe that? To be sure, believing in the greatness and goodness of God, and speaking of His promised deliverance, these are the most basic tasks of the faithful. But so often, and perhaps especially today, it is not within us even to do these simple things. Kind of like Peter’s mother-in-law. Peter was bringing Jesus the miracle worker, the new Prophet, to her house, and she couldn’t do the simple task of serving them some food and hospitality. She was sick in bed with a fever, and, if she wasn’t out of her mind from the fever, probably also sick with regret that she couldn’t do the simplest tasks of a hostess. So Jesus comes to help her. He is apparently concerned for her regular, run of the mill illness, a fever, just like He is concerned with what seem like the much greater problems of others, like the demon-possessed, the crippled, the dying. Jesus goes to Peter’s mother-in-law, and with a touch, and a word, he lifts her up.
Jesus by His concern for all kinds of problems helps us know this: the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law, and the grave illnesses of the people carried to Jesus, and the frightening demon-possession of others are all connected, and they are all a concern for Jesus, because they are all connected to the same great evil, the evil which prevents us from doing the simplest things right.
All of the maladies described in our Gospel, and all of the struggles that you face, from Sherry’s abduction to the silent evils that oppress you, to the sins within you that you cannot escape, these all flow from the same evil brought into our world by Satan. The problem is simple to describe, but impossible for us to solve, or even fully understand. And so, when we are really struggling with evil, the Lord’s words through Isaiah, about how great He is and how He will strengthen His own, these promises can seem very troubling. Where is this Almighty Lord? When will He lift me up?
Jesus is the Lord, coming to lift up the weak and the weary as on the wings of an eagle, to lift up sinners by the wings of a cross. The coming of Jesus drew out all kinds of evil, from demons to fevers to death, evil forced to show its ugly face when the Lord Jesus arrived, for He had come to deal with evil, once and for all.
When we come face to face with evil, whether publicly or privately, whether evil in the world or evil in ourselves and people we love, we cannot avoid the question of why. Why does a loving God allow evil to exist? And why does evil still happen to Christians? And why does evil still exist in God’s people, who trust in the One true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? How do we reconcile an all powerful and loving God with the ongoing reality of evil and suffering?
We cannot. We cannot reconcile these things. But God has. God has not in His wisdom given us explanations to every question we can think of. Instead, God has given us the Savior, who came not to give explanations for sin and evil, but rather He came to face sin and evil, and destroy their power. Every punishment deserved by every human sin has been suffered, by Jesus Christ crucified. Every sinner has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, which covers all sin. Every doubt in our hearts is removed when God gives us faith to know that Jesus died to save me from my sin.
And He has. Crucified, dead, and risen from the dead, Jesus Christ is our answer, our salvation, the only Savior.
And now, God sends forth His preachers, God sends forth His people, to speak this message of the Cross. To the world, it is offensive foolishness. To those who deny God, Christ crucified is foolishness. To those who cling to the idea that somehow weak, weary, fainting people like us can still work our own way to God, to them the Cross of Christ is an offense, an insult, for it says Jesus had to do it all, we had nothing to offer that met God’s standard. But to those who believe, to those who have glimpsed the power of evil, but who have also seen God in the face of Christ crucified, the message of the Cross is the very power and wisdom of God.
And so we go on, daring to wrestle with God’s Word, daring to proclaim the foolishness of the Cross, daring to preach Christ for you, the gift of forgiveness, the promise of glory, the end of evil, and the hope of every nation.
With a touch, with a word, Jesus lifts us up. From the wings of His Cross, His arms stretched out to all the world, Jesus pours out forgiveness and peace and new life, for you. By the power of the Spirit, God’s church continues to speak this Word of the Cross to people beset by evil, that they might be set free. This He did for Sherry. This He does for you. Your suffering is not without meaning, for Christ is with you in your suffering, to give you peace. And also joy. Though we have tears, there is also joy for all whom the Lord rescues from sin, joy which we find in gathering together as Christians, joy which we share with our family and friends, joy found in serving a neighbor because Jesus has served us, joy in knowing that evil is defeated, and life goes on, in Christ Jesus, forever and ever, Amen.