Even youths will faint and be weary… but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength… they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint!
Those words from Isaiah 40 are meant to be for us a source of comfort, an encouragement to trust in the Lord as the source of our strength. At a time when many, if not most of us are not just “weary” but exhausted, longing to see family down South, waiting in hope to get back to the things we enjoy, and, to be honest, longing to see temperatures in the thirties, not the negative thirties, we might easily miss the great honesty in these words spoken by the prophet Isaiah.
As catchy as that last phrase of this morning’s lesson is – “they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” – it could easily sound like wishful thinking, or a call to try a little harder to keep running the race.
But the great hope that I see in that passage is this: it calls us to acknowledge, straight-up, that we will get weary; we absolutely will fall exhausted; no matter what, we are powerless.
Now, I know that might not sound like a great message of hope, but stick with me!
When the world tells us to be a little stronger, to hold on a little longer, to try a little harder, and to stay positive, at the end of the day, the message is to look inside yourself for the strength you need. Maybe that’s a positive message for some, but my experience pastoring people through this pandemic is that we’re all learning that we don’t have the power within ourselves to help or heal ourselves.
If you’re at a point where you’re realizing, maybe in a bigger way than ever before, that you don’t have the strength to stay positive, look on the bright side, and pull yourself through the weariness and exhaustion, you’re certainly not alone… and the good news is that this shouldn’t be news to anyone – and certainly isn’t news to God.
This passage this morning proclaims the deep, inescapable truth that we all will grow weary, that we all will fall exhausted, even the strongest. Even rulers: “scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely have they taken root, when God blows upon them and they wither”, only to be carried off like dust in the wind.
In a world that tells us to be strong and stay positive, the good news of God is the opposite: acknowledge your weakness. Don’t rely on your strength, because it won’t last. Don’t rely on your plans for tomorrow, your big plans to invest all your energy in the next promotion or the next job, or the new house, or the big plans for retirement. Don’t live for the future; be present in the moment, and wait for the Lord and his strength.
Strengthened for Service
In this morning’s Gospel we heard of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, sick in bed with a fever. Hardly a position of power or strength, and as we all have to learn when our bodies get sick, the more we try to power through an illness, the less likely we are to heal – physical illness just proves the point that we need to rest, and wait on the Lord to renew our strength.
So Peter’s mother-in-law is there in bed, and what do we see happen? Well, right off the bat, they bring it to Jesus. It’s a small detail, but one worth noticing. A few verses earlier, Jesus starts teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, and he’s attracting quite a crowd. It says his fame is growing throughout the region, and people are attracted to the way he teaches with authority. People are being healed; there’s real momentum building, to the point that the entire city wants to see Jesus for themselves. So what should happen next? There should be a big rally, or maybe a big debate for Jesus to deliver some smack-down arguments against the oppressors, right? There should be some opportunity for this growing body of supporters to be mobilized, right? Isn’t this the time to ride the wave to spread the message, right?
A fisherman’s mother-in-law has a fever. That’s what matters.
It’s remarkable; here, the first time we hear of a growing following in the Lord’s ministry, as the entire city wants to hear him, as we hear of great healings of major illnesses, of evil spirits cast out, Jesus not only takes an interest in one older lady who is sick in bed, that becomes the next focal point in the Gospel, handed down through the ages. We don’t know squat about the numerous healings of various diseases: but what matters as part of the good news to pass on to each generation is that Jesus takes notice of a poor senior laying on her bed, feeling under the weather.
And, notice too, that Peter doesn’t dip out for a minute to mix her a hot toddy or pick up a bottle of whatever fever elixir was sold in the market. She’s not feeling well, so they bring it to Jesus “at once”; not as a last resort, not once the other remedies have failed.
How often do we try to fix something ourselves, with our own strength, before we wait on the Lord’s strength? Now, of course we should use the gifts of medicine and science that God has provided, but how much time and energy to we waste trying to fix things, trying harder and harder as the situation gets worse and worse, rather than simply acknowledging that we’re powerless, that we need to trust in God?
So Jesus turns aside from the crowd, from any sensible human vision for how he should build on this momentum he’s gained, and goes to see this woman, sick in bed. He raises her up, and what does she find? This little old lady has her strength renewed! She can run and not be weary, she can walk and not faint, she can put on the kettle and pull out a few biscuits, and all of a sudden she’s the one serving Jesus! Is she doing that in her own strength? No! In the strength he provided. She’s be strengthened for service, and all to the glory of God!
And while she’s tidying up the tea and biscuits, the can of kippers, whatever it was she served, now it’s her house that plays host to the healing of the entire neighbourhood! It’s not her strength, it’s not even her action – all she did was serve dinner. But once she has learned to rely on the Lord’s strength, once she’s been strengthened for service, we become the host for God to spread that healing and strength to others. It’s absolutely amazing.
So imagine the situation – there’s this growing following from the synagogue, they took this detour to see a sick lady lying on her couch, and now the entire city is outside the door, with miraculous healings coming left and right. What’s the plan? What should we do next? How do we keep this momentum going? How should the disciples push this movement forward to bring a revolution across Israel?
I imagine the disciples are up talking, maybe even debating and arguing well into the night, debating the next steps that they should suggest to Jesus.
…but what does Jesus do?
He slips out quietly, in the middle of the night, gets away from the clammer of the city, and finds a quiet place to pray.
So often we spend our time and energy predicting the future, whether it’s a growing problem that we’re trying to solve, or it’s a victory or success that we’re hoping will bring us in the direction we want to go. But we can’t predict the future. We can’t rely on our strength or health or job or relationships or the economy or our peace, security, and prosperity from one moment to the next. And that’s the good news: we’re to acknowledge our powerlessness, and live in the moment, relying on God, who will renew our strength here and now, not to face tomorrow’s problems, but to redeem today.
…And then morning comes, I imagine Peter’s mother-in-law is up making coffee and pancakes for the guys, who are all excitedly discussing how they should manage the crowds at today’s repeat performance… and then they look around. Where’s Jesus? Where’d he go? Mark says they hunted for him, running around town, until they find him out in a deserted place, away from the crowds.
‘My Lord, my Lord, come on, everyone is looking for you! It’s going to be a great day! Look how the momentum is building, they’re coming from all over! Today’s going to be awesome! And next week, we’ll fill the arena!’
But Jesus, the Son of God, knows full well that we need to live and love in the moment; the Almighty Lord who knew our sins before we were even born, chooses, wills, to love us and reach out to us in each moment, in spite of that. The Lord Himself knows, and wants us to know the blessedness of waiting on the Lord, relying on God’s strength and provision in the moment, trusting God to provide enough for today, and to provide for tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
…and Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, ‘Thanks Peter, I know they’re searching for me. But we need to keep the main thing the main thing. We have a message to proclaim. Yes, that was a big crowd last night, but don’t get distracted; it’s time for us to move on.’
Living in the moment
We’re exhausted, we feel faint, we’re realizing just how futile it is to plan for tomorrow. The good news is that God knows. The good news is that our strength does fail. The solution isn’t to work a little harder or ‘hang in there’, it’s to acknowledge our weariness, even if it’s something small like a fever, and bring it to God at once.
And, when we can offer our weakness, our failings, our concerns to God in the moment, as we learn to wait on the Lord, He will carry us through!
…but, sometimes, before we can hand things over to God, we too need to retreat to a deserted place. Sometimes we need to escape the noise of the moment, and find a space to name those struggles and concerns.
The truth is that we’re all exhausted, our whole society is exhausted by this pandemic. That’s something we can and should admit. The other side of that, is that weariness, exhaustion, even pain and loss look different for each of us, so that retreat to a deserted place needs to allow us the opportunity to discover exactly what it is that needs to be handed over to God – you can’t hand it over to God if you can’t grasp what “it” is!
And so, as we learn to live in the moment, as we learn to wait for the Lord, I’m suggesting that we, as a church, take some time to imitate Jesus, to retreat to a deserted place and offer our present struggles to God.
I’m providing each of you with a little guide, based on an ancient practice called the Examen. It’s an old Christian practice that invites us to be mindful of our challenges, our joys, and our hopes. [DOWNLOAD GUIDE HERE]
We need to be present in the moment, and this moment is certainly one that’s teaching us to rely on God and his strength. God knows you’re weary, God knows you’re exhausted, God knows you’re unsettled and maybe a bit anxious, and frustrated with not knowing what tomorrow or next week or next month will bring. God knows, and He’s inviting you to trust in him, not tomorrow, but today, to rely on His strength in this moment.
Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.
To God be the glory, now and forevermore. Amen.
Thanks to my friends at Resurrection Anglican Church (Austin, TX) for giving permission to share the Examen exercise!