(Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 39:1-7)
The night before, I am ready to go. I’m psyched up for my early morning run, mere hours away. I’ve learned over the years that, if I’m going to exercise at all, I better do it first thing, long before the sun comes up, before the day gets away from me. It’s probably not my optimal running time – truth be told, I’m more of an 8-to-9am kinda guy – but this is the hand I’ve been dealt. And I am ready for it.
So I lay my running shoes on the floor beside my night stand. On top I place my socks, then my thermal pants and shirt. On top of that, my running gloves and headgear, if it’s going to be cold. On top of that, my cell phone arm holder and earbuds, because whether it’s sports talk radio or Radiohead, I need sound to keep me going. I make sure the cell phone is charging for its early morning departure.
I don’t typically set an alarm, because long ago I found that I had been blessed, or cursed, with an internal clock that just can’t wait to greet the new day. I lay my head on the pillow and close my eyes with a smile on my face, because I know a good morning run will be on the other side of this slumber. And that is how I fall asleep.
It is, more than I would like, very different from the way I wake up.
At some point my body tells me it’s time to rise. It is dark. It is silent. This time of the year, it is cold. A lot colder than when I went to bed. No one else is up, or close to being up. And I notice that my legs creak. And I notice that my back is stiff. Did I mention it was cold? It is a physical effort, it seems, just to sit upright. There is little excitement as I lace on the shoes. There is scarce any joy as I don my running garb and earbuds. If I even get that far. There’s a 50-50 chance I’ll just stay in bed.
I started running when I was in middle school and could take on a 10k like it was nothing. It’s different now. I had knee surgery a few years ago so no crazy-long runs for me anymore. I wear special shoes that take some of the wear and tear off these middle-aged joints.
What it boils down to is this, my friends: I have a love-hate relationship with running. I love it the night before. I hate it the morning of.
But the night before, y’all, I’m all about our scripture today. I mean, I’m feeling it! Classic lines; poetry practically. Words most of us can recite from heart. Stick them on a big piece of paper with some majestic mountain scene or a long highway through an endless desert, and you’ve got yourself one of those motivational posters. It might actually help me get out of bed, seeing that on the wall at 5am, except it’s dark and I can’t see a thing.
Besides, these words are words that transcend mere motivation. They’re about something much, much deeper. Hear them once again:
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!
You can run forever, the prophet seems to be telling us. You can run without getting tired, you can walk and not lag behind.
I read these words to myself, and I think about how much I wish I’d had the chance to meet this Isaiah guy; meet him so I could ask what made him chose these images here, of strength and endless motion. I’m wondering – was he like one of those ultra runners? I had a friend in Mount Airy, a doctor, a little older than me, who ran not just marathons but ultra marathons. A while back he did a 50K, which is 31 miles, in case you were wondering. Not too long after, he did 50 miles. And then a few summers ago, he went to Europe and ran a 100-mile race. That’s one hundred as in one hundred. Took him over twelve hours to finish the thing. I asked him how he felt after that. He said it did all kinds of weird things to his body, most of which he didn’t think I’d want to know, and that it was a few weeks before he was walking normally again.
Impressive – and a little insane, if you ask me. But not what the prophet is talking about. He doesn’t say, “They shall run and not be able to walk for weeks.” They shall run and not be weary.
And so as a runner with ailing knees who scoffs at early morning jaunts, I have to ask: how?? How exactly does that work? The more I run, the more weary I get. How in the world does anyone run and not be weary; walk and not faint?
I ask this question and I think of who Isaiah was and what was going on when he wrote this. I think of where within himself he found these words to speak to God’s people at such a seminal moment in their existence, when everything seemed hopelessly lost. It wasn’t like what happened was a surprise. In fact, he had been the one all along trying to warn them: bad things were coming. Their day was due. He had been reading tea leaves from a cup that no one else was willing to drink from. He tried to warn them, but they didn’t listen.
So when it happened, when it finally came to pass that the powerful Babylonian nation descended on Jerusalem and set the great city aflame, when they took the Israelites from their home and dragged them away to a strange and foreign land, no one would have faulted Isaiah in the least if he chose to stand on top of the smoldering ruins and scream the Hebrew equivalent of four English words: I told you so! No one would’ve blamed him if he rubbed it in their faces, ranted out of pent-up anger and frustration. No one would’ve blamed him if he felt a sense of pride inside because he’d been right all along.
Instead, these were the words that first came out of his mouth: Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.
In other words, all is well now.
Surely this was the last thing they expected to hear from the previously-fiery prophet. Not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined the doomsayer sharing words of new beginnings. It’s a dramatic shift, we find in the 40th chapter of Isaiah; a cosmic shift. This is not simply the turning of good fortunes here. This is, at its very heart, transformational change.
A reminder, really. A reminder that God is God and we are not. We are like grasshoppers, the prophet says; and God is the one stretching the heavens out like a curtain. Throughout the prophet’s words, he tows that party line in great rhetorical fashion: there is a stark divide between God and us; a huge chasm of differentiation that makes God oh so great and us oh so small.
I remember as a child – 11, 12 years old, maybe – lying in bed one night, unable to sleep, because my pre-adolescent mind was racing at full-speed, consumed by the mystery of our solar system, and the idea that the universe somehow goes on forever. It never ends. I couldn’t let it go; it held my mind and my consciousness captive. I wracked my brain: what exactly does “forever” look like? How can something not have an end to it? I tried in vain to grasp the logistics of infinity, and in the end I kept coming back to this: what is out there beyond the realm of my understanding could be nothing else but God.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
To this day, I am haunted by the idea of an infinite God; a God who never wears down, who knows all and sees all and is all. This is the God I have grown up with all of my life: a God that goes on forever, even if I have a hard time imagining what forever is like. A God that doesn’t get tired or worn down, that is constantly making all things new and creating something out of nothing, because what kind of God would God be if God didn’t do those sorts of things?
But sometimes, if I’m honest with myself, I find it hard to relate to this God, because I live in the reality of my finitude on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. The knees that beg to be spared from another morning run. The decades-old car that is so obviously riding on its last leg. The voice on the other end of the phone that utters those two dreaded words: It’s cancer.
How exactly do you and I worship and serve and give glory to an infinite, unwearied, omnipresent God, when we are hopelessly bound by our limitations? Like minions who can do nothing but stand in awe of our more powerful master? How does God’s heaven-stretching nature give our grasshopper lives any hope?
Could it be that hope, in and of itself, is the reason?
I say that because I look at the strange wording in the last verse: those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. I’m not sure what it means to do that. I know it’s not a literal waiting for God, as if I’m on one of my early morning runs and I’ve beaten God to the finish line.
And that’s when I remember that the Hebrew word used for “wait for” here is qawah, and that that word is sometimes rendered in other places as “hope in.” Those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength.
In the 39th Psalm that Keeley read, it is David, or whoever wrote it, who offers this incredible thought:
And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
It is a play of words on the same word: wait for, hope in. What does it mean, exactly, that waiting and hoping are so intricately tied together in our faith?
Could it be that that’s what keeps us moving forward, day in and day out, in spite of all our limitations and finitude and not-foreverness? We go forward because that is the way we are called to go. We move into the new chapters of our lives, individually and as a church.
And all the while we both wait on and hope in you, God. It has to be you; it can be in nothing else. It certainly can’t be in ourselves. We’re the ones who get worn down. We’re the ones who faint. You, though, God, you last forever. And you believe in us, even when we struggle to believe in ourselves.
You remind us, God, that our calling is not to be a perfect people but a faithful people. You remind us of grace, because you know our temptation is to run ourselves ragged in pursuit of the unattainable. And you remind us that life is not a sprint but a marathon, an ultra marathon.
I am reminded of a story shared by William Carl, outgoing president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who spoke of a woman named Margaret Stevenson. This is what he says:
Margaret is in her nineties. She used to hike ten for fifteen miles every day. She is a legend in the Smokies. My first trip up Mount LeConte was her 75th; my second trip was her 125th. My third was her 500th trip. When she finally stopped hiking, she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times.
Once when we were hiking together, we came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-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 in my usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, I found myself lying flat on my back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed at her steady pace. I can still hear 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.
God, in the Mt. LeConte hike, ultra-marathon that is life, you are the source of all hope. And through you, and only through you, do we find our respite and our endurance and our very salvation. You can run forever – and because of that, maybe, just maybe, so can we.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God; and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, pg. 317 and 319.