4 February 2018

"A Holy Paradox" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
February 4, 2018
Scripture:  Isaiah 40:21-31 (with brief reference to Mark 1:29-39)

Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds me of one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  The first panel is all black except for Calvin and a bunch of pinprick stars; and Calvin is looking up at the night sky.  In the second panel, Calvin shouts up at the sky, “I’m significant!”  The third panel is back to Calvin looking up at the sky and the stars.  And then in the final panel, he says quietly to himself, “Screamed the dust speck.”

When we contemplate the “otherness” of God, or when we contemplate the immensity of God’s creation – the size, the variety, the ever-increasing universe – it is very easy to feel insignificant.

Isaiah captures this feeling well and he uses some very vivid images and language to describe it.  He describes God sitting above the earth and all of creation, and we are crawling across the surface of the earth like grasshoppers.  He describes God stretching out the heavens – that whole night sky that Calvin was looking up at – like it is nothing more than a curtain, or a tent that covers the earth.  And he describes a God who is so all-knowing that each one of the billions and billions of stars that Calvin was looking up at is known by name.

Next to all of this, we are pretty insignificant.

This middle part of the book of Isaiah was written for a people who felt as though they had been abandoned or forgotten by God.  We can hear their lament in verse 27 of today’s reading – right there in the middle.  They were complaining, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

These words were written for a people living in exile.  We are now several centuries after Moses had led them out of slavery and in to the land that God had promised to their ancestors.  The people had lived in the land for many generations, but they were a tiny nation surrounded by great empires.  First, the northern part of the land was taken over by the Assyrian empire, and later the whole land was taken over by the Babylonian empire.  The capital city, Jerusalem, had been destroyed; along with the temple, which was not only the place where they worshipped God, but it was also the place where God lived.  And when the city and the country were destroyed, all of the leaders and many of the people were carried away from the land that God had given to them, to exile in Babylon.

They truly felt abandoned by God.  They had lost their homes, they had lost their land.  God was so far gone from them that God no longer had a home among them.

But this is where Isaiah offers them a word of comfort, a word of hope.  Isaiah reminds the people that God is so much bigger, so much more powerful, so much more God-like, than they could ever imagine.  God is bigger than the home they had built for God in the temple.  God is bigger than Jerusalem or the land that they had been given.  God is bigger even than the night sky and all of the stars that fill it.  God is even bigger and more powerful than the Babylonian empire and army that had carried them away into exile.  God is bigger than all of their problems.

Which is all very well to say, but this can become a bit of an intellectual exercise when times are tough.  When we feel abandoned by God, it’s all very well to say, or to have someone else say to us, “God is bigger than all of our problems,” but that doesn’t really help with the feeling of being cut off or abandoned.

It is so easy to feel abandoned by God when we run into difficulties in our lives.  For me, the time when I felt this abandonment most acutely was in a time of grief – I felt abandoned by the person who had died, but at the same time I felt as though God had abandoned me too.

We talked last week about those voices that we carry around with us – the voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t smart enough, that we aren’t pretty enough.  Where is God when these voices seem to be controlling our lives?

Then there are fears and anxieties that we carry around with us every day.  I heard a story this week about a couple of 12-year-old boys whose biggest fear is that a nuclear war between the US and North Korea is going to destroy the rest of the planet.  Combine these nuclear fears with climate change and economic instability, and there is an atmosphere of fear that seems to be pervading our daily lives.  Where is God in all of this mess that we’ve made of the world?  I really wouldn’t blame God for abandoning us for the mess that we’ve made of things.

But the good news is that the reading doesn’t begin and end with the enormousness and otherness and power of God.  The tone shifts towards the end, and Isaiah reminds his listeners that not only is God the holy creator of the universe, of everything that we can see and everything that we can’t see; but God is also very present with us.  As Isaiah says, God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless, so that 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.

We are to wait for God, but this waiting is not passively sitting back, doing nothing, and waiting for God to zap the circumstances that are troubling us with a lightning bolt.  Instead, this is to be active waiting.  The prophet Jeremiah told the people, as they were heading into exile in Babylon that they weren’t to sit back and wallow in their despair.  Instead they were to build lives for themselves in exile, they were to figure out how to worship God in a foreign land, and they were to prepare for the time when they would return home.

The thing about God’s timing is that it isn’t our timing.  When we are waiting for God’s timing, maybe the waiting will be so fast that we will have to hold on to our hats, on the scale of God creating the whole universe in seven days; but maybe the waiting will be long, like the people waiting for more than a full generation in exile before they could return home.  And as we wait for God, we are to prepare ourselves for what God is going to do next.  But whatever happens, we know that God is with us, and whatever God has planned is worth waiting for!

A paradox is where two things that seem to be opposite of each other can both be true at the same time, and with God we have a holy paradox.  God is totally holy, totally other, totally powerful, the creator of the universe.  And at the same time, God is fully present with us, and cares for each one of us.  Not only are the billions of stars numbered and known by name, but each one of the billions of people on earth are known to God and known by name.  It’s not an either-or question – God is either all-powerful or ever-present; instead it’s a both-and situation – God is both all-powerful and ever-present.

We see this in the gospel reading from Mark too.  God cares so much for us, even in our insignificance compared to God, even though we are like grasshoppers crawling along the earth compared to God – God cares so much for us, that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  God became a grasshopper too!

And in the person of Jesus, God demonstrates love and concern and caring for each person that he met.  In our reading from Mark, Jesus heals the crowds of people who were brought to him – Mark doesn’t tell us how many people were healed that evening, only that he cured many who were sick with various diseases.  And Jesus also healed Simon’s mother-in-law.  One person who had been in bed with a fever.  We don’t know how long she had been sick.  Maybe she too felt as though God had abandoned her.  But Jesus shows care for her.  He doesn’t heal her from the next room or from outside of the house – instead he comes to her bedside, he touches her, he helps her up, and all of a sudden the fever is gone.  I can only assume that Jesus showed the same level of care and concern for each and every person who was brought to him.

And so here is that wonderful, joyful, amazing, ridiculous paradox.  That the God who is so far away and remote, powerful beyond anything that we can imagine, cares for each one of us, knows us, and calls us by name.  And so even though we might feel that God is far away, God will not, can not ever abandon us, but is closer to us than our very breath.

In a few minutes, we are going to be moving towards the communion table to celebrate the Eucharist.  Each time when we gather at the table, we give thanks to God, remembering that God has been faithful in every generation; and therefore we can trust God to be faithful in every generation to come.

So even when we feel no bigger than a speck of dust, like Calvin felt staring up at the night sky; even when we feel as though God is so far away, so remote, so “other”; remember this holy paradox, this both-and.  The God who created the heavens and the earth knows you by name, is always with you, and will never leave you.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            we thank you because you are you.
We thank you for your goodness and your power,
            for all of your creation;
and we thank you for being always with us,
            closer to us than our very breath.
Help us to have the confidence to know
            that you will never leave us
            and that you are always with us.
Surround us with your love,
            and strengthen our faith,
                        so that we can wait for you.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the embodiment of your love.

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