Lift Your Eyes and See the Majesty of God - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5B (Isaiah 40)


Isaiah 40:21-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 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?
22 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;
23 who brings princes to naught,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 Scarcely 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.
25 To whom then will you compare me,
    or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift 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.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have 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.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
31 
but 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.

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                How do you perceive the presence of God? We use terms like transcendence and immanence to describe presence. Philosophical terms like omnipotence and omnipresence echo these descriptors. The reading from Isaiah 40 invites us to lift our eyes to the heavens where God is enthroned, reigning over the created order. This song from Isaiah speaks of both God’s oversight of all creation, as well as God’s interest in the mundane. It speaks of God’s concern for the weak, lifting them up, while bringing down to earth those who are powerful. The biblical witness allows us to embrace both the transcendent and the immanent. Theologians tend to pick one or the other, constructing theologies that highlight the one they’ve chosen. Perhaps it’s due to my pastoral considerations, or perhaps it is due to my eclectic theological interactions, that I tend to seek a middle ground.

With Karl Barth, I embrace the idea that there is distance between creation and the creator, a distance that is bridged by divine revelation. At the same time, I am attracted to the vision of divine immanence offered by theologians like Tom Oord and Bruce Epperly. Tom and Bruce, from somewhat different vantage points, embrace a vision of God being actively engaged with creation, inviting us into partnership. Perhaps I am conflicted, but when I read a passage like this, I find myself joining with Barth in celebrating both the unknowability of the mind of God, and God’s decision to reveal God’s self to the created order (specifically through Jesus, even if Jesus is not in immediate view here).

                As we near the conclusion of our Epiphany journey, with the moment of transfiguration on the near horizon, what is it that we hear from Second Isaiah, a prophet of the exile, who invites us to perceive God’s heavenly presence, from whence God stretches out the heavens as well as meting out justice by bringing “princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (vs. 23). In other words, God is not a localized deity, but the God of the Universe whose love for creation leads to concern for those whom God creates. In this case, the prophet celebrates God’s concern for a people caught in exile.

                Returning to the opening of the passage, the prophet asks “have you not known? Have you not heard?” The question is directed at people, whom the prophet expects have some understanding of God’s presence and purpose. This is a celebration of God as creator, ascribing to God praise due to God’s power and majesty. So, take confidence in God. Here is the difficult part. We find it difficult to truly put our trust in God.

                While a few churches seem to be prospering in our day, most churches, large and small are struggling. Seminaries, even large ones, are pulling back to smaller footprints. There are financial pressures, decreasing numbers, and aging congregants. We live in a time of exile. We look around and wonder whether we will survive. Congregations move from pastor to pastor hoping to find a savior, but none are to be found. In the midst of our exile, we hear the prophet point to God, and call upon us to “lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” Yes, who is the creator of all things? Can you not put your trust in the creator? Or, will well, as the prophet notes, ask whether God has disregarded us?

                There is a word of hope here. While we may grow weary, God does not. In fact, God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” That doesn’t mean our churches will once again grow large. It doesn’t mean we’ll recapture the glory of a bygone age. It doesn’t mean that the world will suddenly turn around and justice and mercy will mark the land. When Israel returned to the land from Babylon it built a new temple, but clearly it didn’t match the one that had once stood there. Still, there is hope to be found in the presence of the creator, if we choose not to lean on our own power and abilities.


                So, even in our exile is it possible for us to gather before God and offer words of praise and thanksgiving? Are we ready and willing to embrace the message that God is always there ready to empower and renew us? With the help of the Spirit, may it be so. May we put our trust in God, even when the world around us does not seem friendly to our cause. So, I stand here with Karl Barth and acknowledge God’s hiddenness and God’s power. With Tom and Bruce, I also hear a call to respond to God’s loving embrace, and participate with God in acts of renewal, even if our effect remains small.  So, the word we hear in the midst of exile is this: “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” (Isa. 40:31). May we trust in God our Creator. 

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