February 7, 2021
Returning to seminary after being out on internship can be a struggle for many soon-to-be pastors. They have walked with the people of a congregation and experienced many of lives ups and downs in the congregation. There is an eagerness to get out and do ministry in a congregation right away. Yet, in the traditional ELCA format, you returned to school for a final year before being assigned to a synod and being called to serve your first congregation. It is a time of anticipation bundled up with nerves and anxiety.
I was looking forward to that assignment and learned that I was assigned to my home synod. This was not totally unexpected as we hoped to stay within a close distance of our parents. What was shocking, was the realization that my home synod called 5 approved for ordination candidates and at the time there were only two full-time calls open. We were told there would be more coming available in the months to come. Not knowing the specifics was dreadful. I had already moved my family all over the place and now we did not know what the future looked like. Once graduation came and went, I became weary. I returned to what I knew, retail. However, who wants to hire someone that could leave soon for what he really wanted to do?
I was living my own little exile. At times, the weariness ruled and amid the uncertainty there were times I questioned whether I was truly following the path God planned for me. If I didn’t receive a call would I be a failure?
I spent seven months working a retail job and had even been offered a management position. I was weary from the not knowing and I know my family had the same feelings if not greater. After interviewing at one church, interviewing for a year-long Chaplaincy residency, and the talk of possibly moving to Montana, I received my first call. Was it ideal? No, but I was going to get to serve in the church and become ordained.
In my faith, God lifted me up from a time I felt faint and gave me strength in a time when I needed it. I am not special. God has promised to lift all from their weariness and give strength to the powerless.
The fortieth chapter of Isaiah is just the beginning of the Israelites coming to terms with where they are and not-knowing what their future holds. The generation that hears these words of the prophet are many generations removed from their ancestors who were first sent into exile. They know little of Jerusalem and have forgot about God. Somewhere along the line, stories were not shared as frequently and with not having their own personal experience, they slipped into a complacency in their current residence of Babylon.
They needed to be reminded of God’s love by the prophet in the beautiful poetic verses of Isaiah. They needed to be reminded God is present in their lives in Babylon. It is not a ruler or other authority that they should be turning to for comfort. It is not an idol or different god that seeks their attention. It is the God of their father Abraham. It is the God that accompanied them from Jerusalem into their exile in Babylon.
From the beginning of their exile to now, their community has gone through a myriad of emotions. Currently they find themselves being settled. They do not know any other home. They fear leaving Babylon because that means leaving everything they know behind. The prophet is preparing the way for them to return to Jerusalem and the home of their ancestors. There is some excitement in the opening verses of today’s lesson:
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 [God] 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. Isaiah 40:21-23
This is an incredible story that should have been passed down through the generations. Distance in time has created a sense of apathy and this current generation has failed to listen. The current generation has little feeling for what happened over a hundred years ago and thus their emotion wrapped up in the thought of returning is more fear than joy.
The prophet has been called to share the hope of returning to Jerusalem and what that means for the Israelites. In the meantime, the promise of God present with them in this moment is one that gives power to those that are faint and strength to those that are weakened. God breaks through the weariness with the promise that they will be lifted on wings like an Eagle. In their running and walking they will not tire and will endure for the time to come.
These words in the Hebrew scripture come to us today to provide hope amid any pandemic exhaustion we may be experiencing. These words of the prophet can speak to this era as weariness has become synonymous with daily life. Like the Israelites, the words of the prophet remind us that we are not alone. God is present with us.
This is the story that we have been following from Christmas. Jesus born incarnate of Mary: Immanuel, God with us. The presence of God with humanity has came to us in human form and we get to rejoice and celebrate. Life happens though and there are many things that we do not understand or simply know.
For some reason, we think we need to know everything. Isn’t that how everything went askew in the Garden of Eden? When we do not know everything, we try to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations and make things fit together when many times they do not. For many, there is a fear of resting in the knowing of what you do not know.
God meets us in this not knowing. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and surrender to God’s presence in our lives, we can begin to see more clearly. It is a letting go of control. Currently, amid the pandemic there are many things that we individually have no control over. For instance, we cannot control how many vaccinations are getting distributed and how quickly the population can be fully vaccinated. We must wait in the not-knowing.
St. John of the Cross refers to this time of not knowing or unknowing as he calls it, the dark night of the soul. He spoke to this time when he wrote, “I entered into unknowing / Yet when I saw myself there / Without knowing where I was / I understood great things; / I shall not say what I felt / For I remained in unknowing / Transcending all knowledge.” The time of not knowing is a mystery and yet peace can be found in it as well.
Hope is found in God’s presence in the not knowing. Not knowing what the next week will bring. Not knowing what the rest of the year will look like. Not knowing how the pandemic will change the mission and ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church for the future. We can have a role in shaping this, but it is God that calls us and opens our hearts and minds to a new creation. God is present in all of this with the light of hope illuminated in Jesus Christ. God is greater than any of our fears. God is greater than anything we have encountered, and God reassures us in knowing what we do not know.
It has been a long ten months. Many of us feel us though we have lived several years in those months. As we approach Lent, I am reminded how everything that seemed normal at this time last year ground to a halt. We have become weary. Hearts have become faint and strength has weakened. In our weariness God will lift us up and give us strength. We have waited in hope of life returning to a familiar point, and yet we do not know when that will happen. God’s presence with us in the waiting can comfort us in knowing what we do not know. Letting our faith guide us invites surrender and sacrifice. Surrendering to knowing what we do not know and personal sacrifices for the greater good. Will you let God sit with you as you wait?