Sunday, February 05, 2012

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Central United Church – 5 February 2012 – Michael Kooiman

Isaiah 40
21Have 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? 22It 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; 23who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but 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.

The only real value of football is teaching people Roman numerals.

I have come to understand that there is some kind of championship happening today. And while I don’t follow sports, I do tune in if there is some sort of religious angle to the event. And before I join every other (male?) preacher in North America and discuss Tim Tebow, I ask your pardon for only being interested in yacht racing, and beg that you do not cast me as hopelessly elitist in saying so.

Somehow I missed out on sports. Mount Albert is well-known in East Gwillimbury and beyond for amateur athletics. Instead of a town fair we have “Sports Day.” People are physically active, if only in walking up and down the hill. And children learn at a young age that either you uphold the local athletic tradition or become clergy and leave town.

Now even people who pretend not to be elitist know about Tim Tebow. He will not be playing in Superbowl XLVI (46 for you non-Romans), but not for lack of trying. He is famous for bringing his love of Jesus to the sport, for his trademark prayer stance, and for being the target of gentle or outright mocking.

Now, if you are visiting this planet for the first time today, let me tell you a thing or two about Americans. They love Jesus, football, and tailgating, but not necessarily in that order. There are high school stadiums in Texas larger than some occupied by professional teams. And if football is religion in America, then Tim Tebow is the lead pastor, with all the glory and all the grief that comes with such a position.

Appropriate to today, Tim Tebow is a fan of our scripture lesson, and has been known to apply “Isaiah 40:31” within his “eye black,” that is the smudges of black stuff that football players like to apply under the eyes. According to the Christian Science Monitor, who devoted an article to Tim Tebow’s eye black, Isaiah 40 is not in his top five favourite passages, but he has been known to use it. I wish I as making all this up, but am not.

So you’re a member of the opposing team, you are somewhere on the line of scrimmage, and you look up and see Isaiah 40:31 under Tim’s eye and you say to yourself: “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.” Welcome to America.

On one hand, it is easy to be dismissive. While God loves Tim Tebow, I am certain that God loves his opponents equally, and will therefore not favour “The Mile High Messiah” in any sort of match as meaningless as professional sports. Theologians spotted this problem centuries ago: when two Christian armies go to war, both praying to God for victory, God stays out of it.

On the other hand, it seems that Tim Tebow is not actively praying for victory. Back in December he allowed the broadcaster to record his prayers before the game, and he prayed for protection for himself and the other players in the game, and (naturally) for the strength to honour Jesus. Now I kind of love the guy. What’s happening to me?


Just on Thursday I told Barbara that for the humble congregation to truly understand Isaiah 40.21-31, they needed to hear it in a British accent. She usually doesn’t fall for flattery, so maybe she was just being kind to me. Before she agreed, however, she did ask two important questions: Are there any difficult words in Hebrew, and what’s the passage about? I could truthfully say ‘no’ to the first, and to the second I simply said, ‘God is big and we are small.”

God is big and we are small. Just hold that thought for a moment or two as we look at Isaiah 40.

For the musically inclined, you might think to Handel, and the words “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Isaiah 40 is a bridge, a moment in the narrative when God switches from judgment to mercy. The exile will soon end, God is promising, along with the blessing of return:

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

If we were to summarize Isaiah then, we might simply say ‘disobedience-exile, forgiveness-return.’ It is really as simple as that, with the people suffering the consequences of their waywardness and finally experiencing God’s mercy. Simple, yet extraordinary, and always happening in the context of our smallness and God’s bigness:

21Have 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? 22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.

Maybe you experience some discomfort in being compared to an insect. Maybe you have yet to get in touch with your inner grasshopper? Maybe the whole idea that God is big and we are small is somehow disconcerting, and to this I say ‘embrace you smallness.’

Consider the Book of Job. Chapter after chapter Job and his so-called ‘comforters’ debate the role of God in Job’s suffering, the extent to which it is earned by this seemingly upright man. His comforters cling to the internal logic of the wisdom system, that the good proper and the wicked fail, and say simply ‘confess’ and your torment will end. But Job is upright, and cannot confess to crimes he did not commit, and the dialogue continues back and forth and back and forth until even God has had enough and speaks from the whirlwind:

2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

I think Job could have legitimately told God there was not need for sarcasm just then. But God is clearly annoyed. The grasshoppers have spend a couple dozen chapters looking up from amid the vegetation to wax philosophical about the world they can barely see. As bugs are to humans, we are to God. We are small and God is big and our job is to chew and hop and ponder and understand that we will never understand.

Over a century ago, when spending summer nights at his presidential retreat on Long Island, Teddy Roosevelt would spend long evenings with this close friend Charles Beebe, and they would discuss the boundaries of human knowledge in an age of science and new discoveries. Nearing the end of the evening, it is said, they would step out in to the night and look up, up to the multitude of stars in the sky. One would inevitable take his finger and trace an imaginary line down from Polaris, through the W of the Cassiopeia constellation, and rest upon our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda. Noting that it contains a billion stars (we now know that it tops out at over a trillion) one would say to the other: “Do you think that we are small enough. Perhaps we should stop for the night.”

If the question is “do you think we are small enough,” then I fear that the answer is frequently “small—we are not small. We have circled the globe and split the atom, walked on the moon and returned. We are not small, we are masters of the earth.”

And herein lies the problem with human living. God wants us to to be great in our smallness and we want to be great in our greatness. We want to see all things and know all things and conquer all things and never admit what God set out for us as early as Genesis 3: “You are dust and to the dust you shall return.” God made us grasshoppers and dust on the one hand, and little less than angels on the other hand, but we are satisfied with neither, choosing instead to claim equality with God as the only fitting response when so self-satisfied as humans seem.

In many ways football is an apt metaphor for all that I am trying to say today. While God is doing all the hard work of forgiving and strengthening and understanding and holding us in humanness, we engage in play. We play at sports and we play at relating to others and we play at making our little patch of grass a better patch of grass but in the end we are still playful insects, imagining something beyond the grass but never able to fully comprehend. And for this we are loved, and tended, and always forgiven. Amen.


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