Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 40: 21-31)

(Beginning this Sunday, we no longer will post sermon audio.  Please head over to our “Watch Worship” page for audio/video of the entire service).

Remembering is easy, until it is not.  You recall something, and then you forget it; and that is when the hard work of remembering starts.

It’s easy at first to recall all the details and nuance – especially when it is something good that’s being remembered; something reassuring, something true.  And so there is enjoyment in the exercise of revisiting in the present what is now in the past.

One of the best at doing this, believe it or not, is Facebook.  I’m talking about those Facebook memories that pop up at the top of your feed every time you log in.  Mark Zuckerberg and his crafty algorithms have a knack for connecting us with our past in meaningful ways. This week, for instance, a memory popped up in my feed; a video I shared three years ago announcing a sermon series.  In the video I’m lying on the floor of our living room, the light of the fire in the adjacent fireplace flickering on my face.  And right beside me was Rocky, our boxer, looking totally uninterested in the details of the sermon I was sharing, a sermon that was appropriately titled, “Questions of Faith: Why Can’t I Get A Dog?”

It was a good memory – and it had little to do with the sermon or the fire in the fireplace and everything to do with the dog, who sadly left us a year and a half ago.  But man, did we have a great time with Rocky!  I reconnected with that memory and a host of others watching that video.  That’s what remembering does.  It reconnects us with a part of ourselves from the past.

Of course, remembering can have a very different impact when what’s being remembered is not good, not reassuring, not true.  Those are things we’d just assume never remember again.  But even those memories serve a purpose in molding and shaping the kind of person we can become.  Remembering has its greatest power when it reminds us where we have been so we can better know who we are now as we’re figuring out where we are going.

That is, unless we forget.

It is easy to forget.  And not just because memory begins to slip with age, not just because the synapses of our respective brains fail to connect as strongly as they did in younger years.  What I’m speaking of is communal forgetting – losing touch with our collective history when current circumstances are not what we hoped they’d be.  When we are in crisis.  When we are not sure what lies ahead.  That’s when forgetting happens; that’s when it is hardest to remember.

That’s exactly the situation the prophet Isaiah finds himself in in our passage today. I think of who Isaiah was and what was going on when he spoke these words to God’s people at such a seminal moment in their history, when everything seemed hopelessly lost.  It wasn’t like what happened was a surprise.  In fact, Isaiah had been trying to tell them all along: bad things were on the horizon.  Their day was coming.  He had been reading tea leaves from a cup that no one else was willing to drink from.  For 39 chapters Isaiah tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen; too blinded by their belief that nothing bad could happen to them, they were God’s people, they were protected.  A false narrative they chose to remember over the real one.  Fake news.

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 to a strange and foreign land, no one would’ve faulted Isaiah 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 called him out if he felt a sense of justification for being right all along.

But that is not what Isaiah does, because prophets are not focused on being right themselves but making sure that the people they are called to speak to are right with God.  And besides, he knows where they went wrong, where it all went off the tracks; he understands what caused this calamity between a people and the God who created them, who led them out of Egypt, who stood by them through leaders good and bad, who never stopped caring for them.

Isaiah understands that, in their moment of crisis, they no longer remembered all the good things that happened before.  Isaiah knows that the crux of their problem is that they had forgotten.

So Isaiah makes it his mission in the remainder of his days to remind them, over and over again, of the God who loves them, the God who cares for them, the God who stood by them in the darkest of times and is ready to stand by them now.  Isaiah understands well that his calling in this moment is to help the people remember:

And that is why he asks, twice:
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
In other words: Do you not remember?

You can hear just a little tinge of frustration in the prophet’s tone – come on, people!  I know these are trying times and none of us wanted to watch our homes burn and be dragged to a strange land at the whim of the more powerful Babylonians.  But come on.  Yes, our current circumstances are terrible, but we stand on centuries and centuries of God’s faithfulness to us, God’s love for us.  You’ve heard the stories before, haven’t you?  You know this God, don’t you?  Have you forgotten all that?  Don’t you remember?

And Isaiah knows that the people are primed to hear this message, they are so eager to remember; because one of the great paradoxes of memory is that those moments of crisis when it is hardest to remember also happen to be the moments when we are most ready to do that very thing.  When we are broken, at wit’s end, stressed out, exposed – when we are vulnerable, when it is so easy to forget, that is also when we are so ready to start remembering again.

In her book Vulnerability And Glory, theologian Kristine Culp makes the striking claim that vulnerability is what she describes as “the pivot of salvation” – that is, vulnerability can act as a turning point that prompts reflection and provides an opportunity for change – and, I would add, an opportunity to remember.  This is a radical thought, if not an uncomfortable one, for a very simple reason: we do not like being vulnerable.  We much prefer self-sufficiency and independence, charting our own course, calling our own shots.  The idea of being exposed and at the mercy of another is, for many of us, our worst fear.

But it can also be, for us, that “pivot of salvation.”  It was for the Israelites hunkered down in Babylonian captivity.  Isaiah goes to great lengths to remind them of their vulnerability – that God is God and they are not; that they are like grasshoppers and God is the one stretching the heavens out like a curtain, the stars hanging there with not a single one missing.  They are as vulnerable as they could be.  But here’s the silver lining: it’s not just the Israelites who are miniscule when compared to God; it’s also those Babylonians and every other nation past and present.  And yet God has chosen Israel, above all others, to be God’s people.

Moments of vulnerability help us recognize the deep interdependency we have with one another and with God.  So even in their most vulnerable moment, even in their time of national crisis, Isaiah implores the people of God to remember that their very vulnerability reveals the strength of the God who claims them as God’s own.

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 like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

I cannot help but think about the meaning those words might have for us today in our current circumstance.  I ponder what the prophet might have to say to us with all that we are facing as a family, a community, a church, a nation, a world.  I wonder about the ways his words might shine a spotlight on just how vulnerable and exposed we are – and how hard, how so very hard, it can be to remember in the midst of that.  How easy it is for us to forget.

For while we are not a nation taken into captivity and sent away to a foreign land, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that we are living in a time of crisis. This pandemic has fundamentally altered our way of life for nearly a year now, and it is getting harder and harder to remember the way things used to be in more normal times.  It is easy to forget that which we once took for granted.  Can you remember, for instance, what it was like to step through the doors of this very sanctuary on a Sunday morning and be greeted by a hundred or so worshippers?  Do you recall the subtle nuances of sitting down in a restaurant for dinner, flying on a plane without a mask, walking down the hallways of your school?  It seems harder and harder to remember because crisis makes it so easy to forget.

This, beloved, is the intersection of our vulnerability and our remembering.  This is the place where we recall that the God who was with us at the beginning is very much the God who is with us still.  A God who comes to be with us, right with us, in the midst of our weakest moments and gives us strength by helping us remember.  A God who, quite literally, goes the distance with us.

That last part of our passage today reminds me of a story shared by William Carl, former president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who spoke of a woman he knew named Margaret Stevenson.  At the time Margaret was in her nineties and was an avid hiker.  According to Carl, she used to hike ten to fifteen miles a day, even into her old age.  Margaret was a legend of sorts in the Smoky Mountain area.

Carl hiked with her a few times on the heralded Mount LeConte just outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, although her experience far exceeded his own.  His first hike up LeConte was her 75th;  his second was her 125th.  Carl’s third hike up LeConte was her 500th trip.  When she finally stopped hiking, Margaret had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times.

Carl recalls one of those hikes.  They had come to a point on the trail that 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 already.  Carl, who preferred hiking in spurts, told Margaret he would see her later and took off in his usual fashion, far ahead of her.  At some point, though, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium.  And as he lay there, a blurred Margaret passed at her steady pace, saying matter-of-factly, “One more mile to go, Bill, I’ll see you at the top!”  And she did, arriving well ahead of him without stopping once.

Now I’ve hiked Mount LeConte before, most recently with my father and brother; and I think I know that two-mile stretch he’s talking about. It is brutal.  I believe I can sympathize with what Carl experienced, when your legs can’t take another step and your lungs can’t take in enough oxygen.  I think, in a general way, we all can sympathize; even if we’ve never hiked a mountain before in our life.

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 like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Do you remember now, beloved, the God who comes to you in your weakest moments?  Can you recall now who you are, whose you are, and where you come from – not in spite of how vulnerable and exposed you might be, but because of it?  Do you now know the truth of it all – that God is right with you in the thick of it, giving you precisely what you need for the journey, reminding you where you have been so you can better know who you are now as you’re figuring out where you are going?

Don’t you remember?

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.