Epiphany 5 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 7th February 2021

Have Courage and Wait
Isaiah 40:21–31
Mark 1:29–39

What does it mean to say that “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength” when we are in the middle of a pandemic? I’m guessing that many of us come to worship today wearied and worn out by lockdown, by our not so splendid isolation, by the stress of homeschooling, by the amount of time spent in meetings on Zoom. Us weary folk might well be drawn to those words of encouragement from Isaiah, hugging them to ourselves like a hot water bottle on a sharp, cold February night. The prophet’s lines certainly warm us down through the centuries and, though they were written to a very different context to ours, they have much to tell us.

Isaiah was writing to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, the exiles who had been told to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it. We have heard from his words to this group a few times over the past several months. Every time we do so, it is tempting to make a straightforward analogy between their exile and our situation — exiled from our friends and family, from our workplaces, from our community of faith, from the Eucharist.

Yes, there are some parallels, but we should take care not to push them too far. We have not been violently uprooted and our culture destroyed by an invader; we have been ordered to stay at home and our culture put on hold because of a virus. We do not face a dangerous journey to a ruined city but an uncertain wait to find out what the future will hold and how we might, as the slogan goes, build back better.

Despite these profound differences, we share with the exiles the experience of weariness. We share with them the trepidation about rebuilding. Will we have the stamina to wait? Will we have the energy to reconstruct?

“Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength”. These lines of hope come at the culmination of one of Isaiah’s greatest passages of poetry. It’s a poem that begins by calling its hearers to remember what they know of God, what they have heard from the very beginning. In vivid imagery, the prophet paints a picture of God the Creator:

  • the one who sits above the firmament keeping at bay the waters of chaos (verse 22a);
  • the one who protects and provides, creating a home for all creatures (verse 22b);
  • the one who has ultimate command over government and has power even over nothingness (verse 23);
  • the one who calls the stars by name (verse 26), also perhaps alluding to God’s calling Israel by name.

This much might seem obvious, so why does the prophet do it? Because Israel has lost its memory of God’s care. In the midst of their trauma, they have forgotten how God cares. It’s hardly surprising that the people, wrenched from their homeland, complain “My way is hidden from the Lord” (verse 27) but it wasn’t. Isaiah confronts them with all these images of God’s continuing care and consideration, not the divine deliverance of the past, calling them to remember not just what God has done or does but who God is.

What Isaiah doesn’t say is that we will never grow weary. There is a way of speaking these verses that might imply that, if you’re exhausted, you’re not waiting for God. That is not the case. Isaiah tells us that God “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless” and renews strength. You don’t need your strength renewed if you haven’t grown faint and weary or fallen exhausted.

For all that we could read exasperation into the prophet’s “Have you not known”, it seems to me that, instead of burning with condemnation, this poem bursts with God’s compassion for a weary people, battered by events. This is a promise of renewal, not a judgment. It’s a promise that the Creator will recreate the people. It’s a promise not that everything will go smoothly for them — after all, they knew fine well it hadn’t — but that God will restore them after their trauma. It’s a promise that, if you are worn out and weakened, God is waiting to revive you, like someone waiting with water for a marathon runner.

Like the exiles, we are a weary people, battered by events and in need of renewal. The promised restoration, we are told, will come not to those who busy themselves with religious activity but to “those who wait for the Lord”. That’s something of a challenge to our goal-oriented, active, impatient society. It demands patience and calm in the midst of the confusion and pain. It asks us to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. It brings us back to last week’s Gospel, to Simeon and Anna waiting in the temple for the Messiah, and it coaxes us to wait with passion for our restoration.

What does renewal of strength mean for us in our lockdown state? What does it mean to wait for the Lord? Like many people, I battle tiredness and lockdown lethargy, weariness with the restrictions and the stress of juggling homeschooling with work. But I find myself sustained each day in the quiet space of prayer, whether that’s the formal structure of morning and evening prayer with others or simply sitting silently in the presence of God by myself. When I go to God drained and anxious, I find myself given the energy and peace to start putting one foot in front of the other again.

It takes trust to do this. It takes the courage of our conviction that God is with us. As the psalmist says, “Wait for the Lord; have courage and wait” (Ps 27:14). This isn’t about laying more obligations on us. It is simply a call to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives, building our capacity to be still and encounter the Holy Spirit working in us. It is about turning up, coming as we are not as we think we ought to be, and allowing God to renew and refresh us again and again and again. For the Lord “does not faint or grow weary” and does not run out of energy to refresh, renew and restore us.

We get a picture of restoration in the Gospel reading as Jesus brings healing to Peter’s mother-in-law and the sick people of Capernaum. Moreover, we begin to see what restoration is about.

Perhaps the most telling point in this passage is Mark’s note that, once she was healed — once her strength was renewed and restored — Peter’s mother-in-law “began to serve them”. Although we could see in this incident a simple reinforcement of gender roles, but Mark’s writing is very much about economy, so the fact that he notes this action should cause us to reflect more deeply. The word used here for “serve” is the one from which we get the word “deacon”. The Gospel is holding Peter’s mother-in-law up as a picture of what renewal is about, of how we should respond.

First, it’s about relationship. The healing was grounded in and grew out of relationship and trust. Peter and Andrew trusted Jesus and knew what he could do. The healing also inspired relationship, for Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t just sit back and ignore Jesus but served him. Healing and renewal are meant to bring us into closer relationship with God, to deepen our trust in God, and to bring us closer to one another.

Secondly, our renewal and healing are not solely for our own sakes but should move us to respond in service to others. This service needn’t be anything flashy, spectacular or out of the ordinary. After all, on one level, Peter’s mother-in-law was simply feeding her family and their friends. What could be more everyday? But, rendered to Jesus in response to her healing, this simple act becomes a holy act of loving service — an act of worship, even. This exemplifies for us the complete renewal of life, inside and out, that Jesus came to bring. Likewise, our daily actions and our interactions with others can and should be imbued with the love of Christ, becoming something holy and precious to God even as we deal with the slops of the food and the dirt of the dishes.

This renewal, this transformation of life, is part of God’s recreation, God’s new creation. Ultimately, Isaiah and Mark are saying the same thing: God will not abandon us, God has not abandoned us; God has come to us and will restore us.

Have courage and wait. And, in the midst of the mess and trauma, your strength will be renewed, your life will be transformed and you yourself will become an agent of God’s new creation.

 

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