Epiphany 5B – February 4, 2018

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. Isaiah 40: 31
So, are we ready for some football? Well, not quite yet. Although looking around the Church today a visitor, especially a Patriots’ fan, might not feel very welcomed. There’s green on the altar, pulpit, lectern, and around the necks of the pastors. Know it’s the liturgical color of Epiphany, following a tradition that goes back to the 12th century, it’s green for a season of growth in faith. Next, what about that first reading from Isaiah where we hear that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, mounting up with wings like eagles? It’s one of 33 times eagles are mentioned in the Bible but was not specifically chosen for this day. It was assigned by a group of scholars who put together the Revised Common Lectionary, over 25 years ago. It’s the scripture being heard by Protestant Christians all over the world. Although, not by Roman Catholics in Boston, who instead hear the mournful words of Job 7, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope.” I think all of this is serendipitous – I love that word – it means a pleasant coincidence, a happy chance – and on this day when a 58-year exile from Super Bowl Glory could end for our hometown team, most appropriate.
There’s more going on in our first reading from Isaiah than serendipity. Almost forty years earlier, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, burned down the temple, terminated the dynasty and then deported the brightest and the best of the Jews to exile in Babylon. There according to the psalm, “by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept when they remembered Zion, their homeland.” (Psalm 137). It was a terrible time when God’s people thought they were doomed. But it was also a time of determined resistance. When they no longer had a temple in which to worship their God, they became people of the book. When their children were in danger of forgetting who and whose they were, the rabbis, the teachers, set up synagogues, schools where the faith of their ancestors was passed to the next generation. When the Babylonian’s warrior god Marduk seemed to have won, they remember Yahweh, the Creating God who made heaven and earth, called it good and said that human beings, were very good. For three generations these exiles waited, while back home in Jerusalem the city laid in ruins.
Only when the Prophet Isaiah speaks words of comfort and announces the exile is about to end, they’re not sure they can trust this good news. So, with a series of questions: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you? Have you not understood? Isaiah challenges their fear reminding them that the Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. The prophet invites them to image their life beyond the Babylonian system and to boldly prepare for new possibilities.
Imagining new possibilities can be hard to do. Last fall, I saw this struggle played out during Confirmation with our 9th grade young men and their guide Rob McMahon. Just about every week, during the time of sharing highs and lows, one of the young men said he was worried about the Eagles. Rob, who grew up in Upper Darby where they bleed Eagle green, always counseled, “Don’t worry about them, they’ll be fine. Besides they’re not worrying about you.” I suspect Rob has lived through too many disappointments so he knows life is more than being a fan. As a wise rabbi, he’s passing faith onto the next generation, so that these young men will learn to wait for more than a Super Bowl victory, no matter how wonderful that is, but to wait for the Lord.
Waiting for the Lord can seem passive, but it’s not. It is expecting, looking for, hoping and trusting God is with us. When all else fails, it’s discovering we remain God’s beloved ones. I learned this the hard way. I loved the image of mounting up on wings like eagles and so I chose it for the first reading at my ordination. When I began ministry at St. Bartholomew’s in Trenton visions of my own glory filled my head and I set about seeking to change the church and neighborhood. About nine months into it, Bill, the council president, came to me and said, “Pastor, when are you going to go on vacation?” I gave him the dates. He said, “Good. We’re tired. We all need a break.” This great saint of the Church was gently letting me know that in my youthful enthusiasm, I had forgotten to “wait for the Lord.” My vision would prove inadequate and drain our energy, while God’s vision shared in community renewed our strength. What I learned and continue to re-learn, is that in waiting, giving up control, and trusting God, we are given strength.
On Sunday, December 17th, exactly one week after Carson Wentz’s injury in the game against the Rams, the young men of the Ninth Grade gave voice to an existential crisis. What would happen now? At that point they doubted Nick Foles was up to the task. But beyond that, they’d seen a Facebook posting where Carson said he believes the Lord has a plan. Their question, “Was it God’s plan that Carson was hurt?” Answer, “Not God’s plan, perhaps the Ram’s offensive coordinator’s plan to slow him down.” So, what’s God’s plan? That God would use it to teach Carson, help him grow and leave him stronger. God is with Carson. And God is with them even when everything seems to be going wrong. God is with them bringing them out of despair into hope, shame into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, death into life.
While Isaiah promises that our strength will be renewed, he also tells us it may not be in the way we expect. We may mount up with wings like eagles, or run and not be weary, or walk and not faint. In Biblical Hebrew, three-line sequences like this one grow in emphasis from the first to the third. In other words, the last line is more important to the author than the middle, and the middle is more important than the first. In this case Isaiah’s ordering is just the opposite of what we would expect. Surely flying like an eagle should be the pinnacle, not walking without falling down. But the truth is, sometimes, no matter how much we long to soar like an eagle, all we can do is barely manage to put one foot in front of each other. As people of faith that’s when we beat ourselves up: “I know I should be stronger,” we say. But in the upside-down world of God’s new reality, walking without fainting is the pinnacle. St. Paul says God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, claiming, “When I am weak, I am strong.” Only when we are at our weakest do we fully realize that strength doesn’t come from ourselves. It is God’s gift to us for we remain dependent on God. Whether we soar, run or just barely walk, we do so because God accompanies us. And when we forget this we can really screw things up.
God gives us strength so we can fulfill the purpose for which we were created: to love God with all our heart and strength and might, and our neighbor as ourselves. Ironically, when are weak and powerless we plead with God to renew our strength. But once our strength is renewed, we easily forget God’s role and think we did it all ourselves. From there it’s a dangerously short hop to looking at neighbors in need and thinking we’re not responsible for them. They should get their lives together, like we did! This exact opposite of the new reality of community grounded in justice, love and mercy God is working to build.
That’s why it is so important that we come together here, every week, to remember. “Have you not known?” our liturgy asks, “That you are in bondage to sin and cannot free yourselves?” “Have you not heard,” this community confesses, “that Jesus lived, died and rose again to do what you cannot do for yourself, and that his spirit goes with you everywhere? That’s why you can endure the worst life can throw at you and stand with and for your neighbors, because God renews our strength.
God gives us the assurance that we matter and will never be forsaken or abandon. And that we must not forsake or abandon one another. All of us will, at some point, fall powerless and exhausted. But God will not leave us there. God will renew our strength and we will mount up with wings like eagles. Now, we’re ready for some football! Amen.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville