In the season of Epiphany, that brief season between Christmas and Lent, we hear the stories that reveal to us the greatness and power of God. The first reading from the book of Isaiah abounds with majestic language pointing to God as the source of unimaginable energy, of God who brought creation into being and sustains all life.
I read again - Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
As I read this beautiful poetry over and over I felt the power of those images as never before. Challenging questions are hurled at us and we are reminded to never take the greatness of God for granted. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?
We say we know the power of God, but is it only a dry, lifeless concept in our minds? We've heard countless times that God is great from scripture readings and the hymns we sing, but do we recognize it everyday, everywhere in the world around us? Sometimes the words become so familiar we are unmoved by their power. Isaiah seems to know this is true, so he is determined to set forth phrases that explode in our minds, images that leap out at us.
Our children were three, seven and 9 years of age when we moved into our newly built three bedroom, two and a half bath, two story home. With all that unfamiliar space if I was out of sight for only a short while one of them would call out, "Mama, where are you? "I can't find you!"
In today's scripture the prophet Isaiah reports a similar situation between God and his people. It was not a good time for the Israelites. They have witnessed the crumbling of the Babylonian empire that dragged them into exile and destroyed their country. They are discouraged, homesick, doubting God's presence or power, lost, alone and abandoned. How could God allow these tragedies in their lives? Where is God?
Into this discouragement of the returning exiles Isaiah brings a portrait of God as the source of all Power, all energy, spiritual energy and physical energy. He hurls those challenging questions: "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? And then he answers them.
"It is God who sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. It is God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain. God spreads the heavens like a tent to live in."
Are we to be offended by God comparing the inhabitants of the earth, that's us, to the likes of grasshoppers? Farmers dread the invasion of hordes of those pesky insects into their fields, devouring acres of produce. On the other hand this insect comes in a variety of bright colors and actually has five eyes giving them the ability to see everything around them in a great panorama. They can leap twenty times farther than their own body length. For a human that would mean forty yards (more or less). Wouldn't an athlete love to be able to do that on the football field or basketball court? So Isaiah may use a grasshopper as a metaphor for a very small creature in relation to other living creatures but one endowed with certain admirable gifts.
We might miss the importance of the tent image, one might expect a massive temple more suitable for the dwelling place of God yet temples can be destroyed. Remember the Israelites were sheltered in tents during the wilderness wandering, portable dwelling places for a nomadic people. For God the heavens are no more than a tent, a place where God can rest before even greater journeying. A tent for God to be anywhere, everywhere, not a fixed space in any particular place.
Isaiah wants the people to understand that God is greater than human structures. Rulers and princes eventually fail and pass away. Only God is God. God is above and beyond all earthly powers. We desperately need to hear these words as we are living today in economic and cultural systems much greater than anyone in Isaiah's day could imagine. We are still experiencing the effects of a financial system ruled by selfishness and greed.
Isaiah confronts the complaints of the Israelites. "Why do you say, "my right is disregarded by my God." The people faced grim conditions as they journeyed back to find their ruined city waiting for them to rebuild. Despair is understandable. "Where is God in this mess?"
"The Lord is an everlasting God," Isaiah reminds them. "The Lord is the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless."
Listen again to God's promise in these life-giving words as they come down through time to us. "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 move now from the metaphors of grasshoppers and eagle wings, from the glorious words of a mighty and all powerful ever present God to God in human flesh, God in the trenches with feet on the ground. God incarnate in Jesus his Son. In him we see the humble One in dusty sandals, face to face, touching and healing with human hands.
Jesus and his disciples have left the synagogue, they enter the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon's mother-in-law was in bed, ill with a fever and they told him about her. He went to her, took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her and she felt well enough to prepare a meal for them. In the evening they began bringing all who were sick or possessed by demons. In a short time the whole city was gathered at the door. He healed many who were sick with all sorts of diseases and casts out many demons. Jesus power is clear. Yet even for Jesus this ministry is costly and he is weary. Before daylight he gets up and goes to a deserted place to pray, he needed time to find some solitude in order to turn to the source of his human energy. Soon he's ready to move on to neighboring towns for this is what he was called to do to proclaim the Good News throughout Galilee and the whole world.
Jesus words address his clear sense of purpose and mission unfolding in the stories from Mark's Gospel. He was able to do what he was given to do by the power invested in him from God the Father.
Most of the exiles did return to their homeland, rebuilding continued for many years and finally a second Temple was completed. The power of God working in faithful people is a force for good, yesterday, today and tomorrow. So often we need to sort through the ruble to find it.
How has a small church like Mark's been able to sustain its mission and ministry? Through the power of prayer and the grace of God this community has been supported for over one hundred years.
Do we grow weary? Of course we do! We're human like the Israelites living in a foreign land, like Jesus when the needs of the sick become overwhelming. The immediate question for us as we plan for Pancake Day is, will there be enough people to work through the day?
Well, on Thursday evening Nancy Reiter Simms called and said there were four people available to come from St. Timothy's and assist us through the afternoon. Bless her heart.
As usual the weekly issue of Time Magazine was in our mailbox yesterday morning. On the cover was a close up of US Attorney Preet Bharara. In very large print across his face it read, "This Man is Busting Wall Street", subtitled below, "Prosecutor Preet Bharara collars the masters of the meltdown." God is very good.
Now, regarding the big football game this afternoon, Super Bowl XLVI. I plan to watch most of the game, especially the commercials. I sort of favor the Patriots and I will pray that no one is carried off the field on a stretcher. AMEN