Follow, Carry the Cross

“Follow, Carry the Cross”

Mark 8-34 take up your cross, print

Mark 8:31-38 (8:34) – February 25, 2018

When you imagine children at play, what do you think of? Children in a schoolyard, out at recess or out at lunch break? I am not sure what children play now, but when I was in school, school children played all kinds of games. Besides hopscotch and jumping rope, there were games of Red Rover Red Rover, Mother May I?, Duck Duck Goose, and Simon Says. And, Follow the Leader in the playground among the play equipment.

When we compare children’s games today with the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel reading, we are looking at two very different things. When Jesus said, “Follow Me!” He was not talking about a fun thing like a children’s game. He spoke about something quite serious.

The background of these words is critically important for us to understand exactly what Jesus was getting at. What was the history, the backstory? Here we are at the center of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had healed, taught, cast out demons, and performed other signs of power, but often in secret. And, people had questioned who this upstart Rabbi was, but with little answer.  Up until this time, Mark had only mentioned the term “the Christ” once, in the opening verse at the very beginning of the book, until here in today’s reading, in Chapter 8.

Just before this scripture reading today, the Rabbi Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do other people say I am?” Great question! We are familiar with the responses. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or another prophet, but you and I know better. We know different. We know the end of the story. The thing is, these disciples do not.

Jesus has been asking the disciples to follow Him ever since the first chapter of Mark. When He called James and John, Simon and Andrew, Levi and all the rest, Jesus said simply, “Follow Me!” And, they did! They left everything, in fact. Commentator Matt Skinner said “Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.” [1] Which is exactly what many people did.

Today, we are following Jesus step by step on His journey to Jerusalem and the Cross during the next weeks, throughout Lent. Similar to these early followers of the Rabbi Jesus, we are taking this following thing one step at a time. We focus on one facet of the journey each Sunday. This Sunday we look at what Jesus said about taking up the cross when we follow Him. What on earth does that mean?

Here we can see that Jesus knew where He was going, and what He was going to do. Others probably did not, and even would call Jesus crazy or somehow deluded. “What do You mean, Jesus? How can You say that?”

Didn’t Peter just say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen One of God? I suspect the disciples were thinking, what kind of mixed messages are coming from Jesus now?

Jesus not only mentioned that the disciples ought to follow Him, but He also wanted them to take up their cross. Jesus even made some mention of a person being willing to give up their life. The only comparison I can figure is that of police officers and firefighters. They “make the decision to put themselves in danger, risking their lives to save another person.  They measure their lives not by length, but by depth and quality.” [2] That sounds very similar to the sort of thing Jesus said in our reading today.

There is a problem. I can hear some people today saying, “Wait a minute, Jesus! I didn’t know that following You meant the possibility of giving up my life! I didn’t know that there was such danger and risk involved in being a Christian.”

Except, giving up one’s life was what the apostle Paul talked about over and over again in his letters to the churches in the New Testament. And, that’s what Jesus starts telling His disciples quite plainly, starting in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to Jesus: “If any of you want to come with Me,” He told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow Me. 35 For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for Me and for the gospel, you will save it. 36 Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!”

What is more, Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Him He—Jesus—was wrong, and for trying to keep Jesus from walking the journey to Jerusalem and the Cross. Preventing Jesus from facing the Passion and sure death. At this point, Peter did not understand the full meaning of Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ. Plus, I suspect Peter and the other disciples were not clear on what taking up their own cross and following Jesus meant, either. But, they would find out, in the months and years to come.

Yes, sometimes it is difficult to follow Jesus. And, who in their right mind would want to shoulder the difficult burden of carrying a cross?

When we consider police officers or firefighters and what challenges they face on a regular basis, sometimes we call them heroes. Yet, Jesus calls all of His followers to face any number of difficulties and challenges, too. Except, not quite like running into a burning building or running down perpetrators, but still just as challenging.

Imagine someone you know, or someone you’re related to, bearing different crosses during their life. Crosses can be burdens we carry, difficulties we face. Some crosses involve physical pain and suffering. Other crosses can be financial, relational, or mental. What are the problems you or your family are dealing with today? Last month? Next year?

This might be the cross Jesus calls for us to bear, whether dealing with a devastating disease, accident, handicap, or disability. (Seen or unseen.) On the positive side, taking up our cross might assist us as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Lutheran pastor Edward Markquart reminds us:

-To take up our cross daily means to be open and flexible to God’s plan.

-To take up our cross daily means to focus on God daily.

-To take up our cross daily means that we can fail. That is, we do not do it.

-To take up our cross daily means to try to be loving every day.

-To take up our cross daily means to go the extra mile to do our jobs in life well.

-To take up our cross daily means to work on my relationship with my relatives and with people I do not like. [3]

Like I told the children earlier, we need to live like Jesus. We have to love God every day and love the people around us even when it gets hard. Yes, Jesus tells us clearly what it is like to follow Him. It is simple, yes. But easy, not necessarily so. May we pray for the grace, strength and perseverance to continue to follow Jesus, and to take up our own crosses.

And at the end of our lives, when we stand before Christ, what does the apostle Paul say? In Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son—will he not also freely give us all things?” Praise God, we are indeed accepted by the Messiah Jesus. We are loved by our Beloved, Jesus Christ. Amen, and amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383  Matt Skinner

[2] https://sacredstory.org/2012/02/29/jesus-faces-death-taking-up-the-cross/

“Jesus Faces Death: Taking Up the Cross,” Mother Anne Emry, Sacred Story, 2012.

[3] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_peter_the_stumbling_blockGA.htm

“Peter: The Stumbling Block and the Way of the Cross,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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Follow, Into the Wilderness

“Follow, Into the Wilderness”

Mark 1-16 Jesus, wildreness, animals

Mark 1:9-15 (1:12) – February 18, 2018

This past week, on Wednesday, our country was transfixed and horrified to hear of yet another mass shooting. This time, in a high school, in a more affluent town north of Fort Lauderdale. These students, these adults had absolutely no idea that anything like this shooting could possibly happen. Not there. Not to them. And, not on Valentine’s Day.

I wonder how many of those families who are even now preparing to bury their loved ones feel like they are lost in the wilderness? Grieving, angry, fearful, at a total loss. Not even able to process the horrific events that happened in so short a time on Wednesday afternoon. What kind of messages are the ministers in that community of Parkland, Florida preaching this morning? This first Sunday of Lent?

Our Gospel lesson from Mark this morning begins with Jesus getting baptized in the Jordan by His cousin, John the Baptist. The heavens open, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon Jesus. A voice from heaven is heard saying, “You are my Son. With You I am well pleased.”

This is the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and we find it right at the beginning of chapter 1 in Mark’s Gospel. And, immediately—one of Mark’s favorite words—immediately after the baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. Alone. All by Himself.

Imagine, being in the wilderness all alone. I am not sure whether a lot of people today could survive adequately in the wilderness, especially if they grew up in an urban area like Chicago. Perhaps Jesus was especially hardy. We are not told much else, except that He was out there for forty days, and at some point in this period, Jesus was tempted by Satan, the adversary.

Except—I’d like to focus on the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness for forty days.

Have you ever felt like you have been in the wilderness? Wandering there for forty days? Or, for even longer? Have you gone through experiences of lengthy unemployment or under-employment? What about times of sickness, and chronic health difficulties? Periods where there have been a whole series of illnesses and deaths of your loved ones and family members?

What about internal difficulties? Approximately one in four Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness or mental difficulty like depression, anxiety, or some sort of compulsion, if not the more severe kinds of affliction like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. That’s a lot of people. And, those people often feel like they are all alone. All by themselves. These people are in a great deal of internal pain.

These times of sadness, anxiety, fearfulness, even downright despair sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. These are truly times of wandering in the wilderness. 

Let us go back to the families and friends of the people who were shot at Douglas High School in Florida, just five days ago. Here we have a whole community suddenly plunged into the wilderness. How on earth can they possibly cope? How can they find any way to hope for a better day or develop any kind of a positive outlook?

We are not going to leave these dear folks wandering in the wilderness forever. I will return to them and their dire predicament in just a few minutes. I want us to refocus on Jesus. Yes, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism. However, like my favorite commentator David Lose, it struck me that it is the Holy Spirit “that drives Jesus into the wilderness, that place of challenge and struggle and purification and testing and temptation.” [1]

Yes, we believe Jesus willingly withdrew into the wilderness for a time. But, what about other people, like those dear ones in Florida? Overwhelmingly, people do not willingly choose sickness or loss or deprivation, chronic pain, mental illness, or despair. And, what about us, wandering in the wilderness?

How are all of these people supposed to handle things when everything seems to be falling apart? With repeated, multiple losses, or chronic difficulties, or financial reversals? The list can go on and on. Some folks never get back on their feet, either physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually.

When I was in my twenties, I had two small children. My former husband and I were in desperate straits. Even with college degrees, we could not find jobs. Even crummy jobs. Both of us had work for short periods of time, and then one or the other would get laid off, or the company would relocate out of state, or the position would close. No health insurance, for years. We were hitting the pavement, going to employment agencies, doing just about everything we could, for years. And, if it wasn’t for the long-term generosity of our mothers and families, we could possibly have been kicked out of our apartment and living in a car.

I know very well what it is like to do wilderness wandering. Struggling all alone. Seemingly, all by myself.

As David Lose says, “Truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply make a suggestion.[2]

As Dr. Lose tries to make absolutely clear, God does not maliciously cause us misery or suffering. God does not desire that for beloved children—which we all are!

Notice, the Holy Spirit is not the one who tempts Jesus. Instead, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter and Sustainer who remains with Jesus throughout His time in the wilderness. Just so, the Holy Spirit can be with all of us through our wilderness wanderings. Indeed, God can be at work both for us and through us during our wilderness wanderings and difficult times. [3]

Sometimes, it is not easy. Sometimes, years ago, I would cry out to God, “Where are you? Do you even care about me, at all?” This is one of the hardest times of all, when folks are tempted to totally give up hope. Some struggles—physical, emotional, financial, mental or spiritual—are so difficult to bear. And, what if you have several of these struggles at the same time? On top of each other?

I want to give people a warning. I am absolutely not advocating that anyone stay in a dangerous or abusive situation. If there is danger of any kind, or any sort of abusive behavior or language coming your way, please get out. Please call someone, call or text me. Or, tell someone you trust.

All the same, God can be right next to us through extended difficult times. Again and again, I have heard testimonies about Jesus sitting right by a person’s side, all the time they went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer. Or, Jesus sitting with a person while they were having treatment for debilitating depression. And, perhaps we can “look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask, “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period. What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” [4]

Yes, our thoughts and prayers are with these dear ones in Florida, mourning the loss of their loved ones. Yes, we can come alongside of people going through wilderness wandering of many types. And, yes. God is there, too. As Comforter, Sustainer. As the Spirit was with Jesus in the wilderness, so the Spirit will be with us, too.

Thank God for heavenly mercies. Jesus promises never to leave us nor forsake us. Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/02/lent-1-b-wilderness-faith/

“Wilderness Faith,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

When We Fast

“When We Fast”

Matt 6-16 when you fast, script

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (6:16) – February 14, 2018

The church season of Lent is a season of penitence, a forty-day period of time where we contemplate our inner selves, our sins, our shortcomings, and our position before God. But, it’s not all about us. Not by a long shot.

This Ash Wednesday service tonight is—similarly—a contemplative time where we are called to repentance. This day is the beginning of Lent. In our service we make a special effort to show God that we are sorry for our sins. We approach God through special prayers and readings of repentance, and through the visible sign of the cross of ashes.

When I was growing up on the northwest side of Chicago, our family was the only family on our block with children who attended Chicago public schools. All of the other families were Catholic, and all of the other children attended St. Ferdinand’s Catholic school. I remember them getting ash crosses on their heads. I did not. I was not Catholic.

Our Gospel reading tonight comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about how we approach God. There are good ways to approach God, and not-so-good ways. Jesus talks about charity, prayer, and fasting. Good ways to do all of these things, and not-so-good ways.

Let’s focus on the third way Jesus talked about. Fasting. Not a particularly fashionable thing to do today. (Unless you need to do it for health reasons, in which case I absolutely agree with the medical professionals. I fully support them.)

People would fast to show sorrow for sin and repentance, as well as their humility before God. Years ago, centuries ago, fasting was almost a badge of honor among religious people. What was up with this? Why so much attention paid to fasting?

Those super-spiritual super heroes of Judaism, the Pharisees, practically turned fasting into performance art. They were particularly skilled at it. They even advocated fasting twice a week—on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They recommended looking tired and hungry and even dumping ashes on yourself, on the days you were fasting. That way, everyone would know you were fasting. Also, the fasting process had tight guidelines and rules on “how-to-fast.”  (That way, you could earn extra brownie points with the Lord, too!)

What is the matter with this kind of fasting? Is this the best kind of approach to God? Can we really please God if we go about it in such a rigidly controlled manner?

What did Jesus say? Reading from Matthew 6, “And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full.”

I suspect Jesus would not be particularly happy with the way the Pharisees fasted. Sure, the way they treated the outward body portrayed the inner way they were trying to follow God, but in such a hypocritical fashion.

Since we are beginning Lent today, many Christians all over the world commit themselves to fasting in some way, or deny themselves some food, drink or activity during these forty days. It’s meant to remember Jesus and His withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days to prepare Himself for His public ministry. Other people read a Lenten devotional. Or, some follow various Lenten calendars or Lenten task lists to try to follow God more closely.

I remember when I was a child, the other children—Catholic schoolchildren—would give up something for Lent. Chocolate or cakes and cookies would often be selected, as would soda. A few jokesters would suggest they were giving up homework for Lent, but that would quickly be frowned upon by both the religious sisters and by their parents.

The other children would sometimes boast about what difficulties they were having, “giving up” something for Lent. Today, there is even a term for it: “humble-brag.”

Is this what Jesus wants us to do, in order to follow Him more closely? No! Other people were (and are) not to know that we are fasting! This is a way that Jesus suggests to follow God more nearly.

We have many options to follow Jesus during Lent. We can follow a daily Lenten prayer and bible reading. We can meditate and pray every day.

What are we as a congregation going to do, on Sundays in Lent? I have a small Jesus-figure, and I’ll be featuring it in the children’s sermons in the weeks ahead. I will use this figure as a visual aid, helping the children understand Jesus and His journey to the cross. Plus, we will follow Jesus all around the sanctuary.

We can all strive to love God more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly, as we journey with Jesus through Lent. Amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Transfigured? Frightened!

“Transfigured? Frightened!”

Mark 9:6 (9:6-7) – February 11, 2018

Jesus Transfiguration Georgian relief Luke 9

Transformations can be quite a surprise. For example, when a run-down house gets a top-to-bottom rehab job over weeks or months, the house can be really transformed. Or, when someone is diligent over time with diet and exercise, and loses a lot of weight, they can be really transformed, as well. People can be surprised and impressed when they see the stunning changes that happen, gradually. These kinds of transformative changes can take a while.

The type of stunning change that happened in our Gospel reading today did not take weeks or months. Instead, our Gospel writer Mark talks about the transformation happening suddenly. Or, to use one of Mark’s favorite words: immediately.

We need to set the scene. Just previous to this reading, in Mark chapter 8 Jesus asks His disciples who others say that He is, followed by who the disciples think He is. Peter makes the great statement “You are the Messiah.” It is then that Jesus predicts His death. He starts to tell His disciples that He will have to suffer, be rejected and die, and then rise after three days. All of which must have been difficult to understand for the disciples.

I can relate to the followers of Jesus. Jesus was a charismatic leader, and many people listened to Him, and even followed Him. However, some of the things Jesus said were clear out of their experience. Even with all of the biblical revelation, evidence and commentary that we have nowadays, some of the statements of Jesus are still a challenge for us to understand, today. I can relate to the disciples’ confusion and puzzlement!  

A few days after the confession of Peter and all this big stuff happening, Jesus decides to go for a day trip, up on the top of a mountain. He asks only three of His disciples to come with him: Peter, James and John. After they reach the mountaintop, Jesus suddenly is changed. Transformed. Or, as the Gospels tell us, Jesus is transfigured. This is a state of God’s heavenly glory, suddenly appearing all around Jesus, making His clothing whiter than anyone has ever seen. If that is not enough, the glorified Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah.

Can you see the picture? Imagine a huge, bright spotlight shining on Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Plus, there are more small spotlights all around, and the background surrounding them is all backlit. Except—the people of Jesus’s time have never even heard of electricity. All of this super-white light and super-white clothing is supernatural. Of heavenly origin.

I am reminded of the heavenly glory that surrounded Moses on top of Mount Sinai. Moses was no stranger to heavenly whiteness and brightness. He was in the presence of the Lord God Almighty for many days. And, Elijah—going up to heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses? That must have been a heavenly experience of light and glory, too. Much less being in heaven, in God’s presence for centuries at that point.

Moses and Elijah were the premier representatives of the Jewish people, of the Jewish law code and the voice of the prophets. Revered by millions of Jews since their time. And, on top of that, they were in the presence of the suddenly-glorified Lord Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that mere humans Peter, James and John were all shaking in their shoes?

I discovered a fictionalized conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah, from that mountaintop that Mark tells us about. This conversation comes from Pastor Joyce, written in 2003, from a commentary website I visit on occasion. Listen to this conversation:

Elijah: Look at these stubborn and fearful people. How do you get these children to honor God?

“Moses: And how do you teach them to love each other? God knows I tried. I brought God’s law down from the mountain top. It is very clear. The simple commandments tell them how to love and honor God and how to live together in mutual love and respect.

But right after I told them how to live, they began complaining about God and began to worship false idols. The law told them not to betray or disrespect others. Yet, the powerful continued to grasp for more wealth and power. Foolish people they thought that would give them security. But for these things they have to oppress the weak. Then the fighting starts. It can lead to killing.

“Elijah: Well, I warned them. I told King Ahab and the people not to worship false idols. I challenged 450 prophets of Baal and they died on the mountain top. But today, people still worship the idols they create: power, material possessions, and the comfort they bring. But they do not receive satisfaction from them. NO! How do we teach people to find the real thing — joy in relationships with God and with each other?

“Jesus: God sent you, Moses, to give the law.  God sent you, Elijah, and other prophets to warn the people of how they are harming themselves. Now God has sent ME… I will live among these rebellious people for a while. I will love them and I will die for them. These men you see before you, and those who follow them, will carry on my work of reconciliation to God and humankind.

“Moses: These men? Look, they are dumbstruck. They are frail. They are confused.

“Elijah: Good joke, Jesus. Now… tell us your real plan.

“Jesus: I have no other plan.

“Elijah: But how will they find the wisdom and the strength?

“Jesus: Ahhh… I will be with them.” [1]

Did everyone hear? Jesus promised to be with the disciples, a number of times. Not only with the disciples, but with all of His friends and followers.

It’s true that Peter—good, old foot-in-mouth Peter—made some sort of confused and excited offer to build three little booths or mini-altars there, on top of the mountain. Yes, with our 20/20 retrospect, we can laugh at Peter’s fumbling and falling all over himself. But, wouldn’t we be in the same boat? What if there were a heavenly visitation right here, right now? Boom! Cue the bright lights! The glorified Jesus, here in our midst, here at St. Luke’s Church!

The thing is, Jesus could have stayed there, on that mountaintop, with Peter, James and John. Relatively safe, and the mountaintop could have become a pilgrimage site, renowned throughout the world. But, no. Jesus knew He had to walk the way of the Cross. He knew we, His followers and friends, had to come down from that mountaintop, too.

The disciples did not just slink away and hide. No, they went out after the Resurrection and Ascension and after Pentecost, and they turned the world upside down with the Good News of the risen Lord Jesus. It was not all sweetness and light for the disciples, or for the other followers of Jesus. No, many of them had a very difficult time. Yet, Jesus was with them.

Today, we don’t permanently live on the mountaintop, either. Yes, we often walk through the dark valleys. Yes, there is sorrow and pain in our lives. As David Lose says, the nitty-gritty details of misunderstanding, squabbling, disbelieving disciples. Religious and political quarrels of the day. Jealousies and rivalries both petty and gigantic. Into the poverty and pain that are part and parcel of all of our lives. [2] Yet—Jesus is right by our sides, too. Yes, in the good times, and yes, in the not-so-good, even sorrowful times, too.

Do you hear? Jesus will be with us, in good times and bad. We can take comfort in that. We can celebrate. Praise God. We are not left alone and friendless. What a friend we have in Jesus, indeed. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1563

“He Came Down,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Not Grow Tired or Weary

“Not Grow Tired or Weary”

Isa 40-28 the Lord, mountain

Isaiah 40:21-31 (40:28) – February 4, 2018

Today, February 4, 2018, marks a great extravaganza of sport, of enjoyment, of food and drink and parties and advertising and lots of other things that encompass entertainment. Today is the evening of the Super Bowl, that year-end blow-out, where American football celebrates the best it has to offer. And then some.  This game has become a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people will tune in and watch the festivities, worldwide.

The elite athletes who play in this game are among the small percentage of people in the United States who are in really peak physical condition. It does not matter about when or where such professional athletes are playing professional sports, vast audiences worldwide watch in admiration as these strong athletes compete. Huge crowds watch to see who will be victorious, which team will be the most mighty and powerful.

This was a similar occurrence in the days of the first century, too. The Apostle Paul talks about elite athletes involved in professional sports in his time–except, more blood-thirsty, where people received public accolades and their equivalent of Super Bowl and other championship rings.

This was definitely not the situation in the time of our Scripture passage from Isaiah 40, I am sorry to say. The nation of Israel is in exile. The last thing they are thinking of is competing in sports. In fact, the conquering nation of Babylon has demonstrated its might and its power over the defeated nation of Israel, since they transported a large portion of the people of Israel into exile, into towns of Babylon and into labor camps, too.

If we were to look at this war between Israel and Babylon as one huge competition, Team Israel would be really smacked down. Sure, it was a bloody competition, but the Babylon team ended up on top. They were the winners, and they took lots and lots of treasure and precious things from Israel for their “championship” prizes. Along with lots and lots of the best and brightest people in Israel as their captives.

The direct analogy breaks down at this point, but let’s take a closer look at the predicament of Team Israel. In exile. Discouraged, dismayed, away from “home” for decades. Away so long that the next generation of Israelites have grown up in Babylon and only have long-distance memories to fall back on. In the cosmic order of things, defeated Team Israel must really feel like grasshoppers, like verse 22 tells us.

Today, with this fierce American culture of competition, one-up-man-ship, dog-eat-dog and better-than, many people feel like grasshoppers, too. Few of us can claim to be professional athletes or elite soldiers, either. So many are made to feel less-than or inferior. Not good enough, not fast enough, not skilled enough, not popular enough.

As one of the commentators, Doug Bratt, says of our modern-day predicament, “Maybe it’s the other students at school who mock them.  Or perhaps loneliness or even advancing age makes people feel like grasshoppers.  We may feel like grasshoppers when we trudge into our workplace or try to raise a difficult child.  Or perhaps reports from their investment or pension funds make people feel like grasshoppers.” [1]

 We can feel defeated even before we begin to try, before we make the attempt to put ourselves forward and compete. Lord, what gives? How come? Why me? What’s the use? I may as well pull the covers over my head and stay in bed.

However, most everyone would agree with the statements from Isaiah chapter 40 about the Lord, the everlasting God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. The Lord is greater than all of us, here on the earth. The Lord is even greater than the kingdom of Babylon or the Roman Empire. The Lord is greater and more powerful than all the armies of all the empires of all time, put together.

Just as a comparison, a few verses earlier in this chapter, in verse 12, the prophet says “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of God’s hand, or with the breadth of God’s hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?” Just to let you all know, according to Isaiah 40, the universe can be measured in the span of God’s hand.

It’s figurative and poetic language, but this language gives us some idea of how huge and mighty and powerful our God really is.

Even the most elite Olympic athlete and the most powerful professional soldier has their down times. Even the best of the best grows weary and gets tired. It happens to the best of us, as well as to the rest of us.

Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic medal winning runner who was made famous again by the movie Chariots of Fire, was one of these elite Olympic athletes. Yes, athletes from all over the world, through the ages, have been at the top of their game and the best of the best.

I suspect Eric Liddell and the other men on the British running team grew tired and weary, from time to time. And, those who hear and proclaim Isaiah 40 today also know what it means to be weak.  Even children and young adults, as the prophet reminds us, sometimes “grow tired and weary.”  Even Olympic athletes and elite soldiers pccasionally stumble and fall.  So, at no matter what point of life in which we find ourselves, whether or not we always realize it, all of us very much need God’s help. [2] No matter what, no matter who, we all need God’s helping hand. Maybe more often than sometimes.

In Isaiah 40, we find that Israel is told that they can exchange their weakness for God’s strength. Commentator Ralph West tells us in Hebrew, it actually says they can “exchange their strength.”  “God can give strength without His strength being diminished at all. God can give power without His power being lessened, if you wait on God.  If you wait on the Lord, God will give replace your weakness with God’s strength, your emptiness with His wholeness, your burnout with His new beginning, all because of God’s mercy.” [3]

Do you hear? Do you understand? God’s provision is not just for the best and the brightest. God’s power and strength is not just for the one percent at the top of the heap. God’s mercy is for everyone, young and old. We all can exchange our weakness and weariness for God’s strength, for God’s mighty power.

“God doesn’t always take away our problems.  Yet God gives us the strength to deal with them.  God helps vulnerable people like us so that we can run and not tire out.” [4] Having a mighty, powerful God like this on our side is worth a whole lot more than any Super Bowl ring, any day of the week. Amen, and amen!

 

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Commentary and illustration idea, Isaiah 40:21-31, Doug Bratt, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[2] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Commentary and illustration idea, Isaiah 40:21-31, Doug Bratt, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[3] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=100

Commentary, Isaiah 40:27-31, Ralph D. West, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

[4] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-5b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Commentary and illustration idea, Isaiah 40:21-31, Doug Bratt, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)