ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 4, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
RENEWED STRENGTH
Isaiah 40: 21 – 31; Psalm 33; Mark 1: 29 – 39

What are you waiting for? Is that the question running through your mind? “What are you waiting for?” is an important question. Throughout our lives we are usually waiting for something. So much so that theologian Lewis Smedes writes, “waiting is our destiny. As creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for; we wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light. We wait in fear for a happy ending that we cannot write. We wait for a ‘not yet’ that feels like a ‘not ever.” Do you relate to that statement? What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for right now, in your life? To get an essay back? For an estranged child to call? To hear the results of medical tests? To get a job? To conceive a baby? To feel better? For someone you love to turn their life around? For a miracle? For a relationship? An email? A parcel? The grim reaper? None of us likes to wait, yet we do a lot of it:

What are you like when you wait? Smedes in his statement identifies 3 common responses to waiting: powerlessness, fear, and despair. Most of us grow impatient if we’re left to wait too long. We get indignant because no matter how many times Telus says, “we know your time is important” making me wait 45 minutes tells me otherwise. It tells me I’m not valued. Waiting increases anxiety. It reminds us our influence on life is limited. Waiting can raise our worries to feverish levels of crisis. We can become frantic. We begin to obsess over our longings. We lose sleep. We become angry. And behind the anger is fear and frequently, that fear is the fear of abandonment. As Christians we may imagine abandonment of the worst kind – we join with those who “think in their heart, “God has forgotten [me], he has hidden his face, he will never see my woe.” (Psalm 10:11) The longer our wait, the more we believe God has dumped us and is indifferent to our plight.

Around 608 B.C the Kingdom of Israel was attacked by the Persians, defeated, and occupied. Most Israelites were carried back to Babylon where they were kept in exile for 70 years. Deeply humiliated and powerless to save themselves, they waited for God to deliver them, to set them free. They waited to return home. During that time generations came and went. The Israelites’ hope turned to impatience, then to anxiety, and then to despair. Doubt crept in, did God lack the power to free them or just the will? Or perhaps the God they had worshipped was uncaring; he lacked the love to intervene. Or maybe he simply didn’t exist. As anticipation became desolation, their praise turned to lament, their dreams to dust, their trust to tears. Their fidelity to the God of their ancestors waned. Feeling abandoned by God, many turned to the religion of the Babylonians, whose various gods, whom the Babylonians believed lived in the sun and stars, were responsible for different aspects of nature,.

The passage we read from Isaiah was a message of encouragement for those who were waiting. It was written to turn God’s people from bemoaning their lot to worshipping their God once again. It was meant to encourage faithful, hopeful waiting. Isaiah began by reminding the people that the God of Israel is unequalled. Compared to God, even the most powerful people are like grasshoppers: small, insignificant, limited in their life span and only able to hop a few inches at a time. There was nothing in his league with which to compare him – certainly not the deities of the Babylonians. God hadn’t been given responsibility for an aspect of creation nor was he part of creation. The God of Israel existed before all else. He created everything that is. God rules creation. He calls the stars by name. He is “great in strength and mighty in power” (Isaiah 40:26). Compared to this God, the so-called gods of Babylon, stars though they may be, couldn’t hold a light to the God of Israel. Their God was immeasurable, incomprehensible and incomparable. God has the power to deliver them. What’s more, the Creator didn’t do his thing and leave creation to its own devices, God intervenes in history. He crumbles nations and dethrones princes. He humiliates the exalted and exalts the humble. God has the will to deliver them. What’s more, God “does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless” (vs. 28 & 29). God sees them and cares for them. He has not forgotten or abandoned them. God has the love to deliver them. Isaiah encouraged the Israelites not to give up on God because God had not given up on them. If they waited, God would renew their strength. He would transform them from minute grasshoppers and give them wings like eagles. He’d give them the strength not only to endure their suffering, but to soar above it. Isaiah’s words of comfort were designed to give the people hope and faith to trust in the goodness and the unfailing nature of God – while they waited. God didn’t swoop in and solve their problems, give them their hearts’ desire or liberate them with a victorious triumph. One day he would and eventually he did. In the mean time God strengthened them while they waited.

As well as being powerful, willing and loving, God is incomprehensible. Like Israel, we too are often left waiting and wondering what God is up to and when God is going to act. The early Christians firmly believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. As time passed, they wondered what God was up to. To encourage people to not lose heart Peter wrote, “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8). You’ve heard the story about the man who asks God, “Is it true that to you one day is like a thousand years.” God says, “Yes, that’s correct”. The man asks, “Then is one penny like a million dollars to you?” God says, “Yes, I suppose”. The man then asks, “Lord, would you give me a penny?” and God responds, “Sure, come back tomorrow.” God’s timing is very different from ours, perhaps because God’s agenda is very different from ours. We’re concerned with temporal things; God is concerned with the spiritual. What God does in us while we wait is as important, if not more important, than what we are waiting for. For starters, God uses our times of waiting to build up our trust, to refine our spirits, to draw us closer to him, to help us to see beyond ourselves, to give us compassion for others, to allow us a way to bring him glory and to prepare us to live forever in his eternal presence. Paul says while we’re waiting for God to set everything right, we suffer and “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3 & 4). God is producing these qualities in us while we wait. Waiting isn’t something we do until we get what we want, waiting is part of the process of becoming the people God wants us to be.

Isaiah encouraged the Israelites to “wait for the Lord” (vs. 31). What is the quality of our waiting? I have known many people who turned their back on God because they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it. They lacked the faith to trust that whatever happens God is at work in their lives, that God’s will is wiser than theirs and that God’s timing is perfect. John Ortberg writes, “Waiting on the Lord is a confident, disciplined, expectant, active, sometimes painful clinging to God. Waiting on the Lord is the continual, daily decision to say, “God, I will trust you and I will obey you even though the circumstances of my life are not turning out the way I want them to, and they may never turn out the way I want them to. I’m betting everything on you, God, and there is no Plan B.” That’s waiting on the Lord. It’s the hardest work of hoping.” Waiting for the Lord has a very different quality than just plain waiting. To wait for the Lord is to wait with faith and expectancy, not assuming God will give us what we desire but trusting that God will never abandon us. Waiting for the Lord is a patient, peaceful rest in the God who loves us. That’s not to say waiting becomes effortless or that it doesn’t wear us down or that we’ll never have anxiety but waiting for the Lord draws us back to the well of living water where we are renewed. When Isaiah encouraged the Israelites to wait for the Lord, he didn’t promise them God would act immediately or that God would give them what they wanted. God is powerful, and his will is perfect; we are neither powerful and what we will is often off the mark. Waiting for the Lord reminds us of this and increases our humility. Our waiting for the Lord is not a form of manipulation or a fool proof formula or a magic wand. God does not promise that if wait for him, he will fulfil of our desires. In fact, waiting often breaks our will. We realize we are wholly reliant on God. In our weakness and dependency, God promises that if we wait for him, he’ll “renew our strength, we’ll mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint” (vs. 31).

Today we come to the table of the Lord, to wait for God. There our souls are nourished and our strength is renewed. We come not to have our wishes granted but to be lifted up in hope. Here we’re given the power to soar and we’re given that power so we can then serve. But before we fly, we wait because waiting is part of God’s process. As John Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”