27 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’?
28 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.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 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.
When I was in seminary at Erskine, every student took a preaching class in which we were graded on writing and delivering sermons, and writing and leading worship services, and one requirement was that you periodically lead the assembled faculty and student body in worship. Afterward, the faculty would critique your performance, so to speak. Well, I did this and I used Isaiah 40:31 as a call to worship. Afterward, one professor proceeded to lay into me for choosing that verse. He said it is not a call to worship. It does not call us to turn our thoughts away from the things of the moment to the things of God, and so forth. Well, generally I did not argue with professors. I wanted to get an “A” in the class, you see; so in general I said things like, “O wise one, I appreciate the pearls of wisdom that drip from your mouth.” I am joking, but you get the idea. But that day, the professor kind of ticked me off because this happens to be one of my favorite verses in all of the Bible. So I defended myself. I said Isaiah 40:31 is a promise from God, and as we receive God’s promise, we turn to the lord in worship. So we argued about this rather obscure point for a minute or two. I did not realize until later that the faculty deliberately needled students during that forum after worship to see how they would react. The professor probably had a good laugh about it later on in the faculty lounge, but I have my revenge this morning because, as you can see, I have chosen Isaiah 40:31 as our call to worship today.
Let us look at this verse in context. Chapters 40-55 in the book of Isaiah are sometimes called “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah.” This section centers historically on the Babylonian captivity of Judea and the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. The dominant theological theme is the sovereignty of God. Is God actually in charge of what happens in the world? Nations rise and fall. The Babylonians conquer Israel and are in turn conquered by Persia. In our own time, the Soviet Union rises out of the ashes of WWI to become a world power and then, a generation later, disintegrates. Is God in charge of all this? One person gets cancer, another does not.
I met a man in Fort Lauderdale whose daughter worked in the WTC in NYC, but on that morning of 9/11/01, everything went wrong for her. She was frustrated and angry. She missed her regular commuter train into the city. She was not there when the terrorists attacked. Was God in charge of that?
So you can see that the question Isaiah is asking is just as important today as it was to previous generations. Surprisingly, this question was the subject of letters to the editor of the Rock Hill Herald just a couple of weeks ago. I will not use names, but you can look this up online if you like. Initially, a lady wrote a letter bewailing the outcome of the recent presidential election and saying that we all should turn back to God. Another lady then wrote in reply that God is in charge of everything, hence the presidential election must be according to God’s will. Then a preacher got involved he wrote that not everything that happens is according to the will of God, and implied that the presidential election was not in God’s will. Obviously, he was not an Obama supporter. Then finally another lady writes and reiterates the previous point that God is really in charge and nothing can happen outside God’s will. I love that kind of stuff. My father used to say that letters to the editor are “funnier than the funny paper.” He was pretty much right. I started to send in my own letter but what would be the point? There is no logic involved here. We are talking about a matter of faith. What do you believe about God? Or, put it this way, do you believe in a God worth believing in? If God is not in charge, why worship him at all? If human beings are in charge of what happens, then we should call ourselves Humanists and worship ourselves.
The question that Isaiah confronted was much the same. Israel had suffered a series of catastrophes extending over several hundred years. The Assyrians invaded and destroyed the ten northern tribes and reduced Israel to the single tribe of Judah. Then the Babylonians finished the job, destroyed Judah, destroyed, Jerusalem, destroyed the temple. Most Israelites believed that God literally dwelt in the temple in Jerusalem. What do you say to them when there is no more temple and no more Jerusalem? People were saying God does not rule history. God is not worth worshipping.
Isaiah responds that their God is too small. A God centered on Jerusalem is too little. A God centered on Israel is too little. Let us modernize that. A God centered on a political party is too little. A God centered on the USA is too little. In chapter 40:15, Isaiah says, “the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance,” compared to God. Again, v17, “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” Did you hear that, all our human stuff, all our great national goings on, are trivia compared God. Our problem is that we are consumed with our human affairs, and we think God must be also. We think that God is just another human being, a superhuman perhaps but pretty much a good old boy, just like us. But we read in v22, God “sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers” God stretched “out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:” God is not like us. God is a different order of being. In v28, Isaiah says, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?” And we cannot understand him at all. We do not comprehend God. We cannot draw a little circle around God and say God is this and God is that. We cannot put god into our boxes and say God is in favor of old English-speaking White guys. The sin of Israel was that they blasphemed God by trying to confine him to the temple and to Israel. The sin of Americans is that we sometimes try to confine God to the USA. Some would like to confine him just to South Carolina. Isaiah says that little God is not worth worshipping at all. The prophet turns us instead to the everlasting God, the creator of the universe.
And Isaiah has some promises for people who worship this God. V29, God gives “power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.” This real God, this God who is actually in charge of things will help his people. He will empower the fainthearted, he will strengthen the powerless. After the final destruction of Jerusalem, the people of Israel must have felt totally abandoned, totally powerless. Isaiah says the kind of God you believed in failed you, because that God was too small, but the real God will empower you to live vibrant and fulfilled lives.
The Israelites had been totally defeated. The energy to live had been sucked right out of them. Isaiah is talking about a new way of living. We live in this creation through the power, the energy of the creator. For example, we read in Acts 17:28, “For in him [that is, in God] we live, and move, and have our being.” The only way to live is in God, in God’s power and love, and living that way fills us with a divine energy, or you might call it a spiritual power.
It is springtime. Friday, March 20, was officially the first day of spring. We all sense how at this time of the year the earth is being renewed, the cycle of life is beginning again, and we sense also a real power in the surging forth of life. Isaiah reminds us that contact with God gives us that same real power. Divine energy flows through our being renewing us and empowering us to live as God has always intended us to live.
Most people try to get by without this divine energy. That is why they live such halfway, halfhearted, feeble, desultory lives. They are struggling along, trying to get by. They are unhappy. They know something is wrong. They know that the way they are living is messed up. They ask, “Is this all there is? Surely life ought to be more than this.”
Isaiah says, It is more. Life is more in God. Yes, you can kind of live without God. You can stagger along and stumble around, but it is not much of a life. To really live, you need to be energized by the power of God. This power is like a vast reservoir of energy that we can tap into. We can be on the receiving end of an uninterruptible flow of spiritual energy. As Isaiah says in v31,
“but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,”
those who put their trust in God. those who commit themselves to God shall be constantly renewed and strengthened.
“They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”
As I said earlier, I love that verse. I am not the only one. In his book, The Power of Positive Thinking [1952, Ballentine Books] Norman Vincent Peale tells the story of Frank Hiller (chapter 3, page 40). Frank “Dutch” Hiller pitched in the major leagues back in the late forties and early fifties. Peale said that Hiller once pitched a game where the temperature was well over 100 degrees. During the course of the afternoon, he lost more than five pounds and his energy sagged ever lower, but Hiller had a secret weapon. He simply repeated a verse from the OT, this verse. He would be out there on the pitcher’s mound dripping sweat, trying to slip a curve ball past a batter, reciting over and over,
“they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”
Hiller said that reciting this verse gave him a renewal of strength so that he was able to keep on going no matter what. Peale writes, Hiller “explained the technique by saying, ‘I passed a powerful energy–producing thought through my mind’” (p40). Well this verse is certain “a powerful energy-producing thought.” The movement of the verse pushes you upward. You are mounting up on wings, getting ready to take off, flying off like an eagle. This is just what we need when we feel down and out.
It is a strange fact that how we think we feel affects how we feel. This is a scientific frontier. There is a lot we do not know about how the mind effects the body, but there is no question that it does. If you are doing something, it does not matter what, some job, and your mind loses interest, you are bored. In your boredom, you begin to think that you are tired, because you want to quit. Then you really feel tired and you must quit.
Understand I am not talking about any kind of hypocrisy or insincerity. If you become convinced that you are tired, then you are tired. On the other hand, when we are really interested in something, we are so excited about it that we don’t even notice the passage of time. The first thing we know it is mid-afternoon and we missed lunch, and we don’t even care because we are so charged up with energy and enthusiasm. The difference between the two states I just describe is mostly in the mind not the body.
And faith has a function here. What our faith does, if it is a faith in a real God who is really in charge of the world, is to supply the right kind of thoughts to our minds to charge us with the energy we need for living. Faith gives us attitudes that produce energy, and the energy rolls into our bodies and pumps us up and keeps us going. Isaiah 40:31 summarizes this basic faith attitude.
Have you ever seen an eagle flying across a blue sky? It is one of the most beautiful things in this world. It symbolizes freedom. We all wish we could fly away from our earthly troubles like an eagle. The prophet says, you can. Believe in God. That is the secret. Really believe in the real God, and God will fill you with the energy and power to overcome every difficulty.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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