a sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31
preached on February 8, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
When someone you know and love is hurting, how do you show them comfort? Do you listen carefully to their story of pain and seek to do something to respond directly, assuring them that you care for them very personally and won’t leave them until you have to? Or do you try to explain the technicalities of it all, maybe how an injury or illness triggers a response from the nervous system or how the complexity of the world has set them up for failure, leaving them with no way out but to suffer? I for one hope you aim for the former approach!
Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, though, takes something closer to the latter approach. In trying to bring comfort to the exiles of Judah, the prophet sets out to give them a sense of the larger picture and assure them that a mighty and distant God is yet present with them in strange and wonderful ways. The prophet starts out with some rhetorical questions that hardly seem like they might be able to bring comfort and hope.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
These provocative questions are designed to trigger memory of the past and reconnect the people to what they somewhere deep down know and have heard about God’s presence with them, but they are also painful reminders of the people’s forgetfulness and misunderstanding that stand at the center of their pain and sorrow.
Then the prophet turns to a description of this God that they have known and have heard but yet is very different from what many of us might expect to bring comfort. The God who comforts here is not so much a personal presence amidst pain but rather a powerful, sovereign being who acts with wonder and majesty. As commentator Walter Brueggemann puts it,
The picture of God proposed here is of a God who sits atop the vault of heaven, that is, on top of the earth, in regal splendor, so high and lifted up, so elevated and exalted, that the human inhabitants of the earth are seen only at a distance, as small as insects. (Texts for Preaching Year B)
In our day and age, this seems like a strange way to bring comfort!
Yet the prophet insists that a proper remembrance of the majesty and otherness of this God will bring greater comfort than we could ever imagine. The marks of divine comfort described here are quite different from any of our human comfort, but they are no less real. The prophet catalogs them at great length in these eleven verses. The God who comforts sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens like a curtain, spreading them like a tent to live in and giving space for God’s people to call home. The God who comforts brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing, proving that the welfare of all the people matters far more than the wealth of a few. The God who comforts intervenes when life tries to take root in other soils, reminding us that there is no life apart from this great divine presence. The God who comforts knows all of the host of heaven and earth by name and recognizes when even one of them goes missing, proving that even one of such greatness can care deeply about each and every one of us. And the God who comforts does not faint or grow weary and in fact gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless, not holding on to this majesty but seeking to share it for the good of all creation.
In our culture where direct and personal comfort is the norm and preference, imagining that the presence of such a God can bring us comfort is not always easy. I confess that I myself am dismissive of those who seek to comfort others with platitudes describing how God is present amidst pain and suffering, as I find little or no comfort when someone tells me in a time of distress that “God is in control” or that “God has a plan for you in this.” In the everyday struggles of our lives—the pain of everyday illness, the sorrow of loss in our lives, even the uncertainty of most change that we experience as our lives shift and move—we look far less for reminders of God’s great power and majesty in the grand scheme of things and far more for assurance of God’s presence with us in our time of trial.
But when the foundation of life is shaken as it had been for these exiles, reminders of God’s sovereignty and majesty would make a lot more sense, especially considering how much they seemed to have forgotten about God’s presence with them. It seems like that was the real problem here—the people had forgotten so much about God and God’s goodness, not just the ways that God brought them comfort in difficult times but the ways that God’s presence defined the world from beginning to end and brought transformation to every corner of life. They needed the prophet to remind them that God is everlasting, that God’s mind is unsearchable and yet caring, that amidst God’s complete and total otherness God created us and all things and remains ever watchful, that God’s creation did not end in the past but that God’s transformation of creation continues even now.
So what does this kind of word bring to our lives and our world today? What are we to hear and understand in the prophet’s reminders to the returning exiles? What significance can we attach to these things in our world that does not find value in the marks of divine comfort?
First, these words of Isaiah remind us that we must be people who remember. We are called to remember the gifts of God in our lives and in our world. We must remember how God’s presence matters not just for our individual lives or for our church or community or country, but for the whole world. And we must remember how we are divinely insignificant and yet deeply loved by God, for we inhabitants of the earth are like grasshoppers even as we are known and loved by name.
Beyond all this, though, Isaiah’s words can remind us of God’s great power to transform our lives and our world. God is not afraid to disrupt the order of things as it is now so as to make it better for all creation. God’s concern is far less with preserving the here and now and far more with opening up new possibilities for the powerless and hopeless of the world. And God’s power will not be used to prop up the powers and principalities that exploit this world but will instead displace them and strengthen the powerless to lead us to a new way.
And finally, Isaiah’s words help us to understand the myriad ways that God is beyond our understanding. This strange attention of an all-powerful God to those who are powerless just doesn’t make sense to our human minds. The ways that God stands so high above everything and yet remains very much present with us aren’t easy for our minds to fathom. And the incomparability of God and our experience of God to so much of our human experience makes it difficult if not impossible to do anything more than simply stand in awe.
So in the midst of such human pain and despair, the marks of divine comfort are exactly these strange and wonderful things: the memory of God’s presence and being, the power of God’s transformation, and the wonder of a God who is beyond our human understanding. From these marks of comfort, we are assured that those who wait on this God “shall renew their strength,” “mount up with wings like eagles,” “run and not be weary,” and “walk and not faint.”
These promises mean all the more in our world where forgetfulness of God’s presence is the norm, where nothing seems to really change for the better, and where human understanding seems like everything. Yet these marks of divine comfort show us that these are marks of the world that will be set aside, for God comes to us beyond our expectations and transforms us in ways that we could never imagine, opening us to a new way of thinking and believing and living that brings us a different and yet greater comfort than we could ever understand.
So may God show us these strange and wonderful marks of comfort so that we might know this comfort in our lives and our world, share it with those who need it even more than we do, and join in the transformation and new life that come from this God here and now and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.