Note: The following is the transcript from my sermon at Fernwood Baptist Church yesterday. It's not exactly what I said because I went off-book from time-to-time, but this is the gist of it.
The first time I ever went for a run was somewhere around the age of two. I had seen my dad go for a run in our neighborhood many times and decided one day that I would do the same. So I went out the front door and went for a run. I was only missing for a short period of time. My folks found me down the street. So running has been a part of my story from the beginning. I love running. I realize that it’s not for everyone, but for me it is a good physical, mental, and spiritual exercise. When I run, I feel more like myself.
I ran cross country and track in high school and continued to run into college. Eventually, around the time we were expecting our first son, I decided that I was going to run a marathon. One of the more entertaining aspects of a marathon, which I realize is an odd thing to say, are the signs that spectators hold up. Now many people have signs to encourage their friends and loved ones running in the race. You see a lot of “Go Mom!” signs. But other people get a little more creative with their encouragement. I have seen posters that say, "Great Job, Random Guy," "May the Course Be With You," or "Worst. Parade. Ever." And it never failed that I would see a sign that said "They will run and not grow weary - Isaiah 40:31."
There is a scene in my favorite movie, the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, in which that verse, part of our Old Testament passage for today, features prominently. This is a spoiler, but Chariots of Fire is a 34 years old movie so you really should have seen it by now. One of the main characters Eric Liddell, drops out of the 100 meter final of the 1924 Paris Olympic Games because it is being raced on a Sunday which goes against his religious convictions. While various track heats are being run at the Olympic Stadium, Liddell preaches at a local church from the Isaiah 40 text.
The director of the movie juxtaposes the words from scripture with scenes of Liddell’s teammates running their races. I have always thought of Isaiah 40 as this incredibly inspirational and triumphant passage. But the juxtaposition in Chariots of Fire doesn’t line up with that vision. We do not witness larger-than-life Olympic heroes experiencing the thrill of victory. Rather we see some of the athletes falling down. We see them fail. We see them lose. Anguish and defeat are stretched across their faces as Liddell reminds us that even youths stumble and fall. The direction of the scene frames Isaiah’s promise as one directed not towards the triumphant but to the losers, to the ones who try and fail, to the ones who cannot go any further.
There is something in running called “hitting the wall.” From a scientific standpoint, it’s when the glycogen in your muscles is totally depleted. This results in your energy being completely sapped. In addition to fatigue, you feel dizziness and in some extreme cases, individuals have hallucinated. Anyone who has run long distances is familiar with The Wall. It has almost a mythic quality; like it is some ancient road beast of yore that will tear you limb from limb.
The very first time I ran a marathon, my goal was to beat four and a half hours, which isn’t an exceptionally impressive time. We could probably tell a member of the Todd family to go run 26.2 miles right now in what they’re wearing and they’d beat that time. But four and a half hours felt like a safe time for me not to die. I also picked it because I thought the slower pace would mean that I could conquer The Wall when it came. I had heard stories about the wall, but I was not going to fall victim. I trained. I got little energy gels that I could take throughout the race to prevent my level from going down. I was prepared for my showdown with The Wall. I was going to bust through that sucker like the Kool-Aid Man.
But I was wrong. The Wall claimed me as a victim like it has so many before me. It didn’t happen all at once. For me, it felt like it does when you know something’s wrong with your car, but can’t quite place what it is until it’s too late. Something felt amiss like a rattling I couldn’t identify. Then my legs somehow felt both noodle-y and like they were made of lead. And then things just fall apart. I became dizzy. I wasn’t sure if I could go any further. I wasn’t sure if I could even walk any further. It was totally demoralizing.
Hitting the wall or finding oneself in a place where they unsure of whether they can continue is built into the DNA of Isaiah 40:21-31. It is fairly well agreed upon that the Book of Isaiah does not have a single author. It is a Book of Isaiahs. As such, Isaiah 40-55 is believed to have been written by a prophet that scholars call Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah. By the way, complete digression, but if any of you know someone who is expecting a child, just float the idea of naming that person’s son Deutero-Isaiah. I even have a list of nicknames for you. You could call the kid Isaiah, D. I., Deut, Deuty. Just keep it in mind. Back to the prophet of this passage, not much is known about Deutero-Isaiah. We don’t know the prophet’s name, social class, or even their gender. But most scholars believe that Second Isaiah lived among the exiles in Babylon.
I don’t want to assume that you know what I’m talking about. So briefly, in the early sixth century BCE the nation of Babylon attacked the nation of Judah and over the course of many years carried many people off into exile. All of this culminated with the Babylonians ransacking and destroying the Temple. This event was utterly devastating to the Hebrew people. Their homes were taken from them and they were hauled off to a foreign land. The Temple was the spiritual, cultural, political center of their world and, even more, was considered the dwelling place of God. And it was completely destroyed.
These events called everything into question. Had God abandoned them? Did God hate them now? Or was Yahweh not strong enough to hold back the pantheon of Babylonian gods? What was to become of them as a people? Should they just assimilate and become like their conquerors? Or if they were to hold on to their faith, what were they to do when the Temple, the locus around which that faith revolved, was gone? All of this is critical to understanding the context in which this passage was written because if there was ever a time when the people of Israel felt like they had hit the wall, it was during the Babylonian exile.
The context of Isaiah 40:21-31 is a dark place. A place where there seems to be little hope. That is a place with which you and I probably familiar. Now I want to be careful here because I do not want to equate the Babylonian exile with the trials we face as present day, fairly well off citizens of 21st Century America. Yet we at least have a grasp on the kinds of questions and doubts that these women and men would have faced.
If we are honest with ourselves, which we should be especially in church, there are times when we feel like God is far away or maybe not there at all. There are times when we feel like we have nothing left. These moments can happen in one fell swoop. It can be a dramatic loss or event that transforms into a crisis of faith. Or it can be gradual: small moments that chip away at you, that tire you out, and wear you down. You can tell something is off, but can’t put your finger on it. It’s the breakdown of hitting the wall. As William Butler Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
I’m going to be honest with you. I’m tired this morning. I’m physically tired because EA and I have spent numerous nights this week staying up with our oldest son Jim as he has been sick. But I’m also exhausted spiritually in a lot of ways. I’ll give you a recent example. Earlier this week at a prayer breakfast, President Obama spoke in condemnation of those who commit violence in the name of religion. Pointing out that this is not just a problem of one religion, he mentioned that Christians have done terrible things in the name of Jesus. People were up in arms about the comment. How dare he say that Christians have done horrible things? We’re not like “them.”
But the reality is we have done horrible things, we do horrible things, we will do horrible things all in the name of Christ. We are broken people and we sometimes mess up the most beautiful things including our faith. But in spite of that reality, there is sometimes so much grandstanding and arrogance within the church that refuses to admit fault and it’s within every corner. We have a hard time apologizing for mistakes. Or we assert that was just a problem in the past. We turn a blind eye to those moments when we hurt people. And that exhausts me. I don’t see Jesus in those actions. Yet at the same time, I can’t write off these people who are up in arms over the statement. They too are Christians and there are actions in my life that do not resemble Jesus.
But I just get tired sometimes of living in that tension. I have tried to follow God as best I can for years and years and the grind of it sometimes just wears me down. I say none of this for your pity, but just as an example that I, as a person living thousands of years after Second Isaiah, need this message too. There are times when I hit the wall with God.
And that is where Second Isaiah found his original audience. They are not sure if they can go on. They don’t know what to believe anymore. They don’t know who to be anymore. They don’t know who to trust. And so the prophet tries to bring his people back to their heart. Paul D. Hanson calls this passage an argument with doubt and you can see that as Second Isaiah tries to pull the people past their uncertainty. The prophet tries resuscitate the flagging hope of God’s people and the energy behind his words demonstrate that he knows it is an uphill battle.
His initial argument comes in two parts. Part one: God is great. That seems obvious. Well of course, God is great. God is God. But we have to remember that in this day and time, there were gods and goddesses galore. Even though Israel believed in one God, they were in a cultural context where many gods was the assumption. And within that context, all evidence pointed towards Yahweh being anything other than great. When one nation so thoroughly annihilated another as Babylon had done, it was believed that the victorious nation’s gods had proven themselves greater than the defeated deity. Second Isaiah’s people would have honestly wondered if Yahweh had lost. And what’s the point of worshipping a weak God like that?
But Second Isaiah says: No, God is not weak. God sits above the earth. Everything is like a grasshopper to God. This is the One who stretches out the heavens. The One who could decimate the most powerful forces on earth with just a breath. Nothing in all of creation—not the so-called gods of Babylon, not any king , not any dictator, not any militia or army, nor anything else—could defeat the Creator of All Things. God is great. God is massive. God is powerful. God does not grow weary. God is bigger than anything we could ever conceive. It is important that we do not lose sight of God’s greatness.
Yet if Second Isaiah’s argument stopped there, I suspect it would be precious little comfort to his people. So Yahweh is powerful and mighty? Great. What does that do for us here in exile? Has God ditched us for someone else? Because we are in the middle of this mess and we feel completely powerless. That is why the second part of Second Isaiah’s point is so critical. This inconceivably powerful God looks out for the powerless. This God gives strength to those who feel like they can’t go on. For those who wait upon the Lord—in other words, those who wait in patience and with hope, those who trust—God will help them conquer the Walls that life throws at them.
Those are the two parts of that bring me hope in difficult circumstances. Both sides are needed. If God is powerful but does not look out for those who are weak, then God just works in the same way that the rest of the world works. The powerful win and the powerless have little hope. If God is with the weak, but is not powerful then God's presence is comforting but God can do little to save the powerless. Yes, God is bigger and more powerful than I can imagine, but God cares and even loves those who are weak, poor, and powerless. And that God will lift up the heads of those who hurt.
Which brings us to the most famous part of this passage, the part about soaring on wings like eagles. It almost seems like Second Isaiah gets this last part backwards. You would expect his images to escalate: They walk and not faint, run and not grow weary, they shall soar on wings like eagles. And that’s probably because we think that the point is we are supposed to soar on wings like eagles. We feel guilty if we’re not running the pace we want to run. We feel like failures if we are not always super-Christians.
Soaring on wings like eagles is not the point. The point is to trust in God and keep moving forward. If you are doing wonderfully in your walk with God, then great. God will help you soar on wings like eagles. If you are able to run, God will help you not to grow weary. But if all you can do is hobble through pain, doubts, and questions, God is there to make sure you do not faint. God is there for each of us. Second Isaiah knew that his people needed to be reminded of that truth. When people hit the wall, they need those reminders to carry on.
I need reminders to keep going in the races I run. There is no way that I would have completed any marathon without that kind of reminder, that kind encouragement. It came in many different forms and it needs to in order to help one push forward when he or she does not want to. For me, it has come in the form of those random signs along the course. It has come in the form of cheers from strangers and smiles from the people handing out Gatorade at aid stations. It has come from fellow runners like the tutu-wearing mother from Great Britain who ran the last mile of my first marathon with me.
It has come from people I have never met nor seen. Like those who compose the music that I listen to in my headphones from the Rocky theme to Florence and the Machine telling me to run fast for my mother, father, children, sisters, and brothers to The Killers imploring that if I could, I just needed to hold on. It has come from those I know best. Like my wife’s endless encouragement as I trained and as she and other members of my family chased me along marathon courses. And when I finally beat four and a half hours in my third marathon attempt, my encouragement came in part from my dad, the one who got me into running in the first place, jumping in and running alongside me. Running is seen as an individual race, but there is no way that I could have done it without many, many people encouraging me and reminding me why I do what I do.
If that is true in a recreational activity that lasts but part of a single day, how much more is it true in our lives when the stakes are higher than a finisher’s medal and free banana? The Hebrew people needed Second Isaiah’s reminder to push through, to trust God in all circumstances; especially when all hope seemed lost. We all need to be reminded that God will give strength to the weak because we all have small and big moments in which we hit the wall. We need that encouragement to wait upon God. It’s a lifeline.
And we need to be that encouragement for others when we can. Because we are a part of a community, we need to remind one another to hold on to God, to trust in the One who does not grow tired or weary even when we do. As we run this race, we must cheer each other on. We need to be signs that encourage one another to keep going. We need to jump in and run alongside those who have hit the wall.
There is a famous scene in Chariots of Fire in which Eric Liddell is talking to his sister about his pursuit of running. She doesn't understand why he does not live solely as a minister and abandon the sport. Liddell says that God made him fast and that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure. It is my belief that God made us to point others to the One who does not grow tired and weary. God made us to encourage one another when our brothers and sisters hit the wall. And when we do that, when we remind each other to wait upon the Lord, we will feel God’s pleasure.