Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Ralph D. West, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Senior Pastor, Brookhollow Baptist Church (The Church Without Walls), Houston, TX
Lection - Isaiah 40:27-31 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v.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’?
(v.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.
(v.29) He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
(v.30) Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
(v.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.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
In many African American congregations, revival services are not held just for one night but two, three, four, or five nights, often with the same preacher. This pattern suggests that revival is ongoing and cannot be contained or limited to one moment. God wants to continually revive us and make us alive in him.
Revival II is a continuation of the renewal begun through Revival I. It focuses on Isaiah 40 again and stresses the theme of reviving our trust in God. God is not just powerful as Revival I emphasized, but Isaiah tells us that God is also merciful, because though God is the everlasting God and Creator of the ends of the earth, God “… gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (v.29). This calendar moment is about a God who mercifully, renews our strength when we are weak and about to faint. This is the God who desires to revive our trust in him—a God, not just of power, but of mercy.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Isaiah 40:27-31
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
In light of our fast-paced, work-driven, capitalistic society, divine mercy is surely what we need. Just to make ends meet, many African Americans have to work multiple jobs, and because of this burnout is possible. They are fainting, because human strength is limited. This phenomenon of burnout is written about by Michael Lauderdale who was the Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas. He spent ten years studying burnout, in which people hit the wall of finitude and run out of strength. In general, he says those who work as school teachers, full-time housewives, emergency medical workers, social workers, front-line supervisors, and white collar workers are at high risk of burnout. Jobs with high complexity, redundancy, repetitiveness, low autonomy, low status, and poor working conditions are the types where burnout is likely. The groups which are most at risk are the young, the highly educated, those at the lower and middle organizational level, and those in urban areas. Burnout can weaken humanity, and is revealed by various symptoms.
According to Lauderdale, some signs that burned out brothers and sisters display are: (1) general confusion and general complaints, that is “I just don’t feel very good” and “I don’t have any pep”; (2) a stage where people have grey faces at three in the afternoon, followed by weariness, absenteeism, and illness; and (3) a despair sets in which minimizes work, leading to depression, crying, or obsessive drinking of alcohol. Those who experience burnout are “out of gas” as they hit the wall of despair and believe that they cannot go on anymore due to lost strength.
To face a stressful life, people need to have a place where they regularly meet with the God of mercy and power. It is in these meetings that one will find divine mercy to renew his or her strength to make the journey. As I said in Revival I, it seems that where we find great power we do not often find great mercy and compassion. This is not true when it comes to God for God uses his power to empower others, not oppress them, to pick up those who are down, to strengthen the weak, heal the broken, save the dying, and buoy the burned out. Isaiah basically says “mercy there was great and grace was free.” God didn’t have to do it, that is, show mercy, but God did it and does it anyway. This is Isaiah’s second lesson—the God of all creation offers renewal to those who faithfully wait on God.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
The prophet Isaiah declares that the God of majesty and power possesses mercy and God is not selfish with it. God gives power to the faint and powerless. The God of mercy renews the strength of the weak out of compassion. First, the prophet wants us to know that God is merciful enough to give power to fainting men and women. The Lord who is the everlasting God and the almighty Creator does not faint or grow weary, and this God “… because he is merciful gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (v.29).
Israel thought that God did not see their predicament and disregarded them, but Isaiah assures them that this is not so. God doesn’t dwell aloof and remote above our little world. The word of Isaiah is that, the God who holds the oceans in his hands and measures the heavens with the span of his hand is merciful to us lowly human beings. Isaiah doesn’t say that God gives power to the people who are always successful to make them more successful. Isaiah doesn’t say that God gives more toughness to those who are already tough. No! What Isaiah says is that the God of majesty and power is so merciful that he gives strength to men and women who say “I can’t make it. I’m tired. I’m ready to give up and give in.” The weak and weary person will receive God’s strength and power not those who say “I’ll grit my teeth and clinch my fists and I’ll pull myself up by my own boot straps.” God’s mercy is for the messed up, not for those who already believe that they are mighty.
In fact, the second thing Isaiah reveals is that even the strongest among us will fall down due to life’s struggles. “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v.30). If someone says, “I can make it on my own,” Isaiah says “There is a time when we all will fall and need divine mercy to pick us up.” The Hebrew renders this verse literally, “even the choice young men will grow weary” and then it echoes “grows weary.” Some folks may think they are tough enough to make it on their own but Isaiah declares that there will come a time when we will hit a wall and burnout physically, financially or emotionally. There will come a time when we are going to faint and be weary. Even the choice young men will faint and grow weary. There are scores of people who at the highest point of opportunity just can’t get it together. In athletics, entertainment, or academics, there are choice young people who just can’t get it together, or won’t get it together because of varieties of weariness. It can happen to anybody, anywhere, at anytime. But Isaiah preaches good news. Even when choice young people grow weary, God makes a mercy-filled promise: “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” (v. 31).
God’s mercy reaches down to us to revive us so we can fly with wings like eagles. Isaiah encourages us to trust this God. The third main point which the prophet stresses is that those who wait in quiet confidence and daily trust will draw their confidence and strength from the Lord—these are Jehovah’s waiters. Isaiah tells Israel that they can exchange their weakness for God’s strength. 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 him. If you wait on the Lord, God will give replace your weakness with his strength, your emptiness with his wholeness, your burnout with his new beginning, all because of his mercy.
The prophet begins to soar when he says that when you feel like you’re grounded, and when you meet God in your grounded state, you’ll mount up with wings like an eagle. You will fly again. Some may say, “I’m not a flyer. I’m a runner.” Well, if that is the case, God can measure his mercy to suit your circumstances. Isaiah says “you will run and not grow weary.” Some may say, “Preacher, I don’t feel like running anymore.” Well, if you are a walker, Isaiah says they that wait upon the Lord shall walk and not faint. God in mercy, will give us the grace to fly, walk, or run.
Matthew Henry, after he had written a length and wordy commentary, put down his pen and said, “I have never been weary of the work but I have often been weary in it.” If you read everything he wrote, you’ll understand his comments. Old John Wesley must have been made out of iron. At eighty-two years of age he said, “I thank God I have never been weary of his work, and I have never been weary in his work.” There are some of us who get weary of God’s work and some of us who get weary in his work. Whatever the case may be, Isaiah reminds us that the God of all majesty and power is also the God of all mercy, and those who wait on the Lord—even if you are bruised, beat down, or burned out—shall renew their strength.
When we are weak, God will strengthen us. If we wait on the Lord, we can run, walk, and fly in him. We will faint and grow weary for sure but God never faints or grows weary. God has enough power to shower mercy on us in any place at anytime. God is high but stoops low with power-filled mercy.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sounds: The sighs of fainting and exhausted young people; the sound of an eagle just starting to fly; running and walking feet; and
Sights: See God giving power to the faint and powerless in the world; exhausted youth in society; an eagle flying; and people running and walking with renewed strength.