Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Feb 7, 2021
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Isaiah 40 paints a cosmic picture of our transcendent God sitting above what it calls the circle of the earth. This paints for me a picture of the heavens of galaxies within galaxies swirling around the Creator—who undoubtedly is intimately connected with life forms far beyond our Earth. This is a picture of sci-fi and faith partnering together in an astounding, mind-boggling transport to worlds unknown. Back on earth, it’s a lovely vision of science—without the fiction—companioning faith. The earth is a multi-dimensional circle, not a flat-land fantasy, sustaining a complex, intricately-connected, global ecosystem. This picture of Isaiah reminds me of the Traditional Teachings of Turtle Island and the Circle of Life. How incredibly refreshing it is to have a faith that walks hand in hand with scientific knowledge and Traditional Teachings that give us a respect for life and a humble acknowledgement of humans as just one small part of this vast, incomprehensible universe. As the United Church’s Song of Faith reads,
God is creative and self-giving,
in all the near and distant corners of the universe.
Nothing exists that does not find its source in God.
Our first response to God’s providence is gratitude.
We sing thanksgiving.
Finding ourselves in a world of beauty and mystery,
of living things, diverse and interdependent,
of complex patterns of growth and evolution,
of subatomic particles and cosmic swirls,
we sing of God the Creator,
the Maker and Source of all that is.
It is strangely comforting to know that we don’t know all that is; that we sit and wait with limited vision before a God who sits and watches with all-knowing vision. We don’t have to know it all—it is impossible—but there is one who does hold all things together. How can I say this when there seems to be so many things that are falling apart? My Christian faith tells me that our transcendent, limitless God is not an indifferent deity, untouchable and distant. Rather, our God is also radically present, deeply caring, suffering with us. As the Song of Faith says, “God is Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.”
Jesus is, for us, God incarnate, living the fullest of our lives, loving beyond the depth of our love, suffering to the extent of our suffering, dying as each of us will someday die. God is Emmanuel—God with us in the depths of our sorrow and in the height of our joy.
The Holy Spirit is the conduit between God Wholly Other and God Wholly Present. This is the Trinitarian dance of love, which draws us into the holy circle. Yes, there was and is and always will be suffering, struggles, doubt. God never promised to wipe away all traces of evil and suffering. Instead, God chose to honour love, which requires freedom of choice. Regardless of our faulty choices, God promises to always be with us, suffer with us, rejoice with us, love with us at all costs. I don’t understand why, but not knowing, not being able to see the whole picture gives me some relief. All I need to know is that God is walking with us, waiting, watching, and sending impulses of healing love to us through the Spirit. As Isaiah tells us, God calls each one of us by name—not one single person is missing from God’s gaze of love.
Isaiah, written long before Jesus was born and before the concept of Trinity existed, gives us a picture of God both transcendent in majesty and God gently present as our lover and guide. In verses 10 and 11, just before today’s reading, we are told that God will feed the flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in strong arms, carrying them in a warm embrace and gently leading them. This passage was written to Israeli leaders exiled in Babylon. They were a defeated, suffering people to whom the prophet wrote about hope unseen, healing awaiting. In the very midst of their suffering, Isaiah promised that God will pick them up, and strengthen them in their weariness.
There was a woman by the name of Margaret Stevenson who used to hike 10-15 miles every day in the Smokie Mountains in Tennessee. She knew every turn in the trails, every tree and plant along the way. On one of her hikes up a mountain, a younger man accompanied her. He was unable to contain his speed and eventually told her, “I’ll meet you at the top,” as he passed by. After a particularly steep climb, he stopped to catch his breath and eventually, she caught up with her well-paced walk, this time offering him words of encouragement, “Only one more mile. You can do it. See you at the top.” Sure enough, she reached the top well before he did. Shortly after, her husband died of cancer. While there were some sad moments, there were also moments of reassurance that they would see each other again at the top. Margaret’s faith gave her a steady and sure pace and she knew the meaning of Isaiah’s words:
Even youth 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 as eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
I have found time and time again that it is often those who are suffering the most who are able to see beyond vision to this timeless hope. Just the other day, I asked someone who is dealing with a progressive, terminal disease how they were doing and they replied, “I’m doing well. Life is good. I’m not hungry or homeless.” I was deeply moved. I believe that this person understands far more than I do what it means to be lifted up on eagle’s wings, to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint, to wait on God and find strength renewed. As this person’s body slowly gives way, their spirit will be strengthened and finally set free to fly on eagle’s wings.
 William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 40:21-31,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Vol. 1, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008): 317-319.