Epiphany 5, 2021 – Sermon

Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican – by Henry Friesen           February 7, 2021

Scriptures for the 5th Sunday of Epiphany:  Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147: 1-11, I Corinthians 9:16-23 and  Mark1:29-39

Sermon audio

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Questions That Push Us Toward God

            Asking the right question is one of the most incisive ways to get to the heart of any issue or problem. Your family Doctor listens to your explanation but then begins to ask pointed questions – the better the questions, the more certain her or she is about what the treatment options are. Parents can only understand their child if they ask the questions that will reveal what is really going on with their child, what is behind their discomfort, anxiousness or sadness. I suggest to you this morning that good questions will also reveal your spiritual malaise or areas where you and I have forgotten the reality of God’s presence.

            In the Garden of Eden, God asks Adam this profound question: Adam, where are you?  It is not just a geographical question, it is a deeply personal question that probes Adam to consider why he is hiding and from whom he is hiding. In the same way the first two questions at the beginning of our Old Testament Lesson are more than “information”questions; they probe our hearts in order to uncover our understanding of God. These questions are appropriate not only when we feel spiritually lethargic but also when we are in spiritual turmoil and in deep pain. The questions are these:  “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”

            These are rhetorical questions; Isaiah knows the answers and he is going to give the people (and us) those answers but the questions are there to alert us, to “poke us in the side” so that we become aware of something that we may well have forgotten. The questions push us to really hear the answers and consider their meaning. So listen to Isaiah’s answer to the questions for they offer us specific truths about God that are so important for us to hear and perhaps to hear them again as if for the first time. In answer to “have you not known? And have you not heard?” Isaiah says this:

FIRSTLYGod is above and over the world – for God the heavens are a tent that He puts up and the rulers of the world are as nothing compared to Him and His omnipotent power. Any illusions we might have about how great our world leaders are or our nation is needs to be re-examined. It is simply not the case that what we as human beings have structured, established and built with our ingenuity has the power of permanence or ultimate control. God is over all and in all: that is what we need to know and remind ourselves of.

            Isaiah then gives an example: Look up into the heavens and see the stars. “God brings out the host of them and calls them by name – none are missing.”  For those of you who love astronomy, this is an exceptionally powerful image because to you it is even clearer that God’s power is incredible and his dominion is beyond human understanding. And even if we are not astronomers, it is probably a good idea some night to go outside and contemplate what you see in the night sky and picture God as calling each one of those millions of stars and giving them a name. It is a humbling exercise and worth doing. 

SECONDLY Isaiah says that the mindset of his listeners is short sighted and inadequate:“You say:  ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.’”Or putting it another way: “God isn’t paying attention to me, He doesn’t know what is happening to me, I am in this world alone and afraid.” 

            I know, on the one hand this sounds like a “poor me” complaint but I think there are many situations in which our pain is way beyond that. I don’t think Isaiah is saying that we should never speak what we feel. Certainly there are times when we feel things very deeply for we have been so wounded and so devastated by circumstances, by situations beyond our control by illness or accidents in which we ourselves or those we love have been hurt, experienced trauma and even moved to despair. But once we have expressed our pain – and this may take some time – then we need to examine our thinking about God, our view of Him: does this view match up with the truth about God as revealed in scripture? Or as we have experienced Him in the past? 

            This week I read a memoir by Esther Wiebe, a woman who grew up as the youngest child in a conservative Mennonite family that lived for about 10 years in Bolivia. Not only was her family exposed to some cruel and harsh church leadership, they endured some horrific tragedies. When Esther was only 4 her father died in a farming accident and when she was 11 her mother and sister died as a result of an explosion and fire in their home. The hardship and displacement she experienced was very, very difficult for her. Sometime after her mother died she says: “Her absence from home had started to wear on me and now the hope that I had clung so tightly to was gone.”

            Later that year she and the 3 siblings closest to her in age were sent to Northern Alberta to be near some of her older siblings and other relatives. But the pain did not automatically decrease. As she got older the injustice of it all overwhelmed her and one day her heart cry to God resulted in a sarcastic prayer to Him:

             “Do you think I signed up for this? Do you think I volunteered? Sure! Pick me! Strip my parents and home from me. I can handle being displaced, thrown into different country with a different culture and language, all while having the rest of my family taken away.”

            It took her years of going back and forth between believing God was with her and feeling as if He was doing nothing to help her. At some point for Esther as for anyone who undergoes personal tragedy and wishes to again sense God’s presence, Isaiah’s two questions again needed to be asked: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” for they point us to re-consider both who God is and what He is like.

            When we do finally come to the place where we are open to re-examining our view of God Isaiah suggest we consider the following: 

1. First of all, God is the everlasting God and the creator of the ends of the earth. He is neither a small figure nor a pie-in-the-sky kind of super power. No, He is an awesome and mighty creator who cares for his creation and all of humankind. He is not a powerless and unconcerned bystander.

2. Secondly Isaiah says: God is not weak nor is He is about to succumb to weakness.He does not even get tired and as to His knowing about you, His understanding is unsearchable. You can’t even grasp how complete and full is God’s understanding of your situation. Let that truth sink into your heart.

– In addition, God does not succumb to weakness, He gives power to those who feel as if they are weak and ready to fall down physically or emotionally. In fact, Isaiah says, God gives strength to the powerless, to those who feel as if there is no way they can deal with their pain or their circumstances; to those who feel overwhelmed with pain and confusion and frustration: to them, God gives strength. Think about athletic and physically strong young people Isaiah suggests: as fit as they may be, they get tired and worn out and exhausted. God is not like that, He much more vibrant than they are.

            Isaiah could have gone on and cited the series of true statements about God that are included in our Psalm this morning, Psalm 147:

 – He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.

 – He lifts up the downtrodden

 – He is great and abundant in power.

 – His understanding is beyond measure

 – He takes pleasure in those who fear him and in those who hope in his steadfast love.

            All of these true things about God are important and necessary for us to ponder and reflect on. In conclusion Isaiah suggests one thing that we can do: “Wait for the Lord,” he says. The word “wait” here is different from the way we describe waiting at the doctor’s office or waiting for the bills to arrive. The Hebrew word for wait, “qavah” suggests the kind of waiting where we look for something with eager anticipation – like waiting for a dear friend or family member to arrive at our home or as a young child waits for Christmas morning. There is a certainty and an eagerness to this waiting because something very good is coming to us. There is a strong and sure hope that marks our waiting.

            When we come to the place in our personal struggle where we again catch a vision of God that is in-line with how Isaiah and the Psalmist describe Him, when we again see Him as a compassionate and understanding God and when we are open to receiving His loving embrace then it is that Isaiah’s questions point us in the right direction. It is then that we can wait with expectation and even eagerness. 

            And then? It is at that point that our strength is renewed. It is then that we rise up with wings like the eagles do and then that we can again run and not get tired, we can walk and not feel faint. What a marvellous picture of renewed strength, of a hope that is restored and a mindset that is ready once more to engage in all that makes up our lives. For then it is that the love of God, the presence of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit once again fills our hearts and minds. Amen