Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 4, 2018

2018.02.04 “The Uplifting Power of Faith” – Isaiah 40: 21 – 31

Central United Methodist Church
The Uplifting Power of Faith
Isaiah 40: 21 – 31
Pastor David L. Haley
February 4th, 2018

Eagle

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.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
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.” – Isaiah 40: 28 – 31

This has been one of those weeks where I began to worry whether I would come up with a sermon. While some might cheer such news – like hearing school has been dismissed due to snow – I’m sorry to disappoint you; eventually I did.

The reason is, writing a sermon requires focus, and lately I have been so concerned over the State of our Country, I have found it hard to focus. The legendary investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, who helped uncover the Watergate scandal in the 1970s that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, who wrote two classic best-sellers, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, (and a Republican, BTW) says that what is happening now is worse than what happened with Nixon in the ‘70’s, it’s more like what happened with Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50’s. Either the institutions of constitutional democracy will hold – and be upheld – or we will start down the road toward autocracy.

If you’ve been stressed out by this also, know that we are not alone. According to a report issued by the American Psychological Association last November, nearly two-thirds (63%) reported that the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, more than the perennial stressors like money (62%) and work (61%) Even more notable is that 59% said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember, a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For many of us, it presents a dilemma between keeping up with the news and staying informed, and what that is going to do to us, which is increase our stress. As the report stated, “With 24-hour news networks and conversations with friends, family and other connections on social media, it’s hard to avoid the constant stream of stress around issues of national concern. These can range from mild, thought-provoking discussions to outright, intense bickering, and over the long term, conflict like this may have an impact on health.” Indeed, it has. (APA Stress in AmericaSurvey: US at ‘Lowest Point We Can Remember;’ Future of Nation Most Commonly Reported Source of Stress, the American Psychological Association, November 1, 2017
http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/lowest-point.aspx )

What to do? When we are anxious, discouraged, even depressed, for some of us, it may necessitate taking a break from the news, in order to reconnect with the people and habits that renew us, which keep us calm, civil, and sane. For most of us, it also includes turning to the resources of our faith to raise us up from whatever pit into which we have fallen, which is what we do today.

Through the centuries, through difficult times, God’s people have always found encouragement, faith, and hope in the Scriptures. Few Scriptures in the Bible do this so well as today’s reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, chapter 40.
Isaiah chapter 40 is one of the great chapters of the Bible, the beginning of what is known as 2nd Isaiah. While 1st Isaiah (chapters 1 – 39) sounds a message of judgment, 2nd Isaiah offers a message of comfort and encouragement.

The context is this: around 587 B.C., after having their homeland, Judah, and their capital, Jerusalem, destroyed, God’s people are taken off into exile in Babylon. Finally, after 70 years, they are allowed to return.

As you might imagine, the entire episode, spanning generations, was not a pleasant experience. They were forced from the homes, scattered as the temple was laid waste, becoming refugees from their homeland, like many today. In exile, they wept beside the rivers of Babylon, longing for Jerusalem. Even when they returned, they felt faint and powerless, even the young felt weary and exhausted. Their faith suffered: as they wondered whether God had forgotten them, saying, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

In our sufferings, in our misery, amidst the scandals of our time, we forget who God is, who God has always been. We forget that God – the Creator of the Universe – is immortal, while we – on the other hand – are mortal, like grasshoppers, like grass, which is here one day and gone the next, as Isaiah said. When we mistake either our oppressors or even our elected leaders as sovereigns, Isaiah reminds us that in time, it is the Lord who brings princes to naught, who makes the rulers of the earth as nothing: “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when God blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (vv. 23-24)

Through Isaiah’s words, we stand before a tapestry of good news that reiterates how those who are exhausted, faint, powerless, or weary, renew their strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run without growing weary, walk without fainting. We are renewed and inspired by the thought of the Eternal One, who not only sits above the circle of the earth, but gathers up the lambs, calls us by name, who never grows weary of renewing God’s people, generation by generation, through all the ages and stages of our lives, through whatever crises may come.

Seventeen years ago, on that first Sunday after 9/11, it was to Isaiah 40 that I turned that morning, for a word of hope. It was a larger and different congregation than I had addressed only a Sunday before, because in the week’s course of events, we had all been changed; I can still remember the look of shock and fear in people’s eyes. It was from Isaiah 40 that I preached, and “The Power of Your Love” that we sang: “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.”

Even further back, in 1981, the movie “Chariots of Fire” came out. It told a story from even earlier in the century about a runner, Eric Liddell, a devout Scots Christian who ran for the glory of God.

Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902, the son of Scots missionaries. While he had many gifts, one of his greatest was that he was the fastest runner in Scotland, nicknamed the “Flying Scotsman.” After years of training and preparation, he was chosen to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Several months before the games, he learned that the heat for his best event – the 100 meter race – was on Sunday, and according to his Christian conviction of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, refused to run. Instead, he trained for a longer event, the 400 meter, which was to be on a Thursday. He ran the race and won gold, setting a European record that lasted 12 years.

Instead of resting on his laurels or capitalizing upon his fame, the following year, in 1925, like his parents before him, Eric Liddell returned to China as a missionary. In 1941, due to Japanese aggression, life in China became so dangerous that the British government advised British nationals to leave. His wife Florence and the children left for Canada to stay with her family while Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station which served the poor. Eventually, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell returned to Tianjin, where he was interned in an internment camp along with 2,000 other men, women, and children.

​In the early 80s’, when I was studying at the University of Chicago, I had as a teacher, the theologian Langdon Gilkey. Gilkey had also been interned in those camps, and he wrote a book about it, Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. In his book, Gilkey said of Liddell:

“Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

Eric died in the camp of an inoperable brain tumor on February 21, 1945, five months before the camp’s liberation. All of Scotland mourned his death, as the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. He was laid to rest, in Weifang, Shandong, in the country he loved so much. In 1991 the University of Edinburgh erected a memorial headstone, with a simple inscription from Isaiah 40:31: “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.”

One of my favorite scenes from Chariots of Fire takes us back a century, when Liddell – as played by Scots actor Ian Charleson – reads Isaiah 40 in church, just as we do today, juxtaposed over the scenes of his fellow runners. [Watch here].

God’s people have gotten through before, and whatever happens, we will get through again, uplifted by our faith in a just and loving God. Amen.

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