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Faith begins with memory

Thomas J Parlette

“Faith begins with memory”

Isaiah 40: 21-31

2/4/18

First off, I offer my apologies this morning.

If you came to church today to hear something from the Bible to build up your self-esteem, you are probably disappointed right now.

If you were looking for some scripture to bolster your sense of self-worth, I’m sorry, this passage might not be right for you.

This is a text which might make you feel, well… let’s say “insignificant.”

In this morning’s text from Isaiah, it’s as if the prophet takes us out on a balcony looking out over a valley filled with God’s creation, and then lets us know exactly where we stand in the grand scheme of things.

Just to pick out a few examples…

We are like grasshoppers…, or ants, as The Message translates this passage.

Princes, rulers, Presidents and Kings, they are as nothing…

The Lord blows on them, and they wither, gone with the wind…

Like I said, kinda makes you feel a little… insignificant.

But Isaiah has a reason for this, he has a noble purpose in mind with these words.

These are the opening chapters of what is known as Second Isaiah. These words were originally addressed to the Israelites living in Babylon, against their will, as exiles. They had been forced from their homes when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was laid to waste. They were taken away as prisoners to Babylon. They were a people who longed to return to Jerusalem, rebuild their temple. But for the time being, all they can do is sing sad songs by the rivers in Babylon. These refugees are the faint and powerless Isaiah refers to. These are the ones who see their youth grow weary and fall exhausted. In this state of affairs, they come to the conclusion that “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” In other words, God has forgotten us. We have been abandoned.

It’s easy to see why the Babylonian exiles might start losing their faith and doubting their God. They were being exposed to the wide variety of Gods and idols that were worshiped in Babylon – perhaps they were thinking, “You know, maybe I’ve been following the wrong God. Maybe YHWH, the God Abraham and Jacob, is not all powerful. It seems like the God of Israel has been defeated by these gods that the Babylonians worship. I mean – were slaves now, it appears we’ve lost. Maybe we should re-think who and what we worship.”

So this passage from Second Isaiah builds on an assumption that lies at the core of Israel’s theology – the assumption that faith begins with memory. Faith is dependent on remembering what God has done in the past. Faith begins with remembering that God is beyond this world, sitting above the circle of earth, stretching out the heavens like a curtain.

This is why Isaiah says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning?” Why do you say things like “My way is hidden, the Lord has forgotten about us, we have been abandoned? Why do you say such things? Have you forgotten what God has done?

Faith starts with memory. Faith lives by remembering what God has done. Faith is expressed as we wait for the Lord, with patient hope.

Three things come to mind as we look at this text:

1.    We are theological amnesiacs…

2.    The writer reminds us that God is really in charge; and

3.    Only when we feel weak and helpless, whether young or old, are we vulnerable enough to experience the power and grace of a God who raises us up on eagle’s wings.

So this text is about us, about God, and what God does with us when things look bleak.(1)

First of all, we are amnesiacs. Notice how selective our memory is. We remember what we want to remember. Theological amnesia is the kind of problem that causes us to fall apart when a crisis comes. It is what happens when you hear the dreaded “C” word – cancer, or the doctor says she found a spot on the x-ray. Some of us feel sorry for ourselves. Others worry in desperate silence. Like Babylonian exiles, we wonder whether God hasn’t gone off and left us altogether.

So Isaiah reminds them – God has not forgotten you. Have you not known? Have you not heard? God is incapable of forgetting you – it can’t happen. God made you and everything else. Remember that.

Then comes all the imagery about the power and majesty of God as compared to our insignificance, reminding us that God is in charge – the powers and rulers of this world, ultimately, are not.

The theologian Karl Barth liked to describe God as both transcendent – above and beyond us, all powerful and ultimately a mystery to us – and immanent – present with us, in human form, able to know each one of his creation, “calling them all by name,” as Isaiah says. Our theological amnesia shows when we forget that God is in charge – God is both transcendent and immanent. Faith begins when we remember this.

This passage also points out that when we feel weak and helpless, those are the moments when we are most open to experiencing the power and grace of a God who “raises us up on eagle’s wings.”

In many ways, this Isaiah text represents a kind of theological wake-up call that reminds us how God really does reign over all nature and history, as the one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

Isaiah is trying to cure the world’s amnesia. God has not forgotten you. Why are you forgetting God? We worry because we don’t trust God. Wait on the Lord. Trust God more and you will cure your worry problems.

Bill Karl tells the story about a woman in Tennessee who understands this. Her name is Margaret Stevenson. She is in her 90’s. She used to hike 10-15 miles every day. She is a legend in the Smoky mountains. It was always a joy to hike with Margaret, because she knew every turn and every trail and every plant and tree by name. My first trip up Mt. LeConte was her 75th, and my second trip was her 125th. My third was her 500th. When she finally stopped hiking, she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times.

Her husband rarely went with her, even before he got cancer. Once, when we were hiking together, we came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting 2 mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break, and this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

I like to hike in spurts, so I said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off at a quick pace, and got way ahead. At some point, I found myself lying flat on my back, a bit woozy from dehydration and fatigue. A blurry Margaret passed by at her steady pace. I can still hear the click – click of her cane, and with no pity at all in her voice, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so she did, arriving well ahead of me without stopping once.

Not long after that, her husband finally died of cancer, but because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent no in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!”, she means it, for her face is fixed on Christ, her step is sure and steady, and she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

“Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings as eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.”(2)

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, and they will make it to the top.

Faith is patient hope, waiting on the Lord.

And faith begins with memory.

So let us gather at the table to wait upon the Lord, forgetting not all God’s blessings. Amen.

 

1.    William J Karl III, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p315.

2.    Ibid… p317, 319.