Grace Through Struggle

Good Morning Church,

When I was a child, growing up in central Maryland, I always looked forward to winter and the possibility of snow. It was always a dream to have a white Christmas and many snow days to go sledding with friends in the neighborhood. Growing up in a warmer climate we did not get a whole lot of snow and there were many years where we never even got snow, just ice. I believe that during my childhood we only had one, maybe two Christmas’s with any snow at all. We certainly were never blessed, or what my younger self would call a blessing, with a fully covered yard for Christmas. This time of the year, in the best of years, can often be rough for people. I know that since moving to PA in 2015, I have struggled with the longevity and harshness of Pennsylvania winters. The grayness and short days during this time of the year can drain us of energy and lead to a wearing effect that creates imbalances in life. Now since experiencing PA winters, I have come to fully appreciate the condition known as, cabin fever.

As we continue to trudge through this year with COVID-19, I believe that the imbalances that we may often feel during this time of the year have only been compounded more. We have witnessed a loss of community, loss of family and friends, loss of time with loved ones. We are a weak and weary nation from the longevity of this pandemic, not knowing when the end will really be around the corner. I know for myself, I am hopeful for the community that will be able to emerge from this terrible national tragedy. Hardship has been know in years past to bring people together and I believe that if Christians prepare for the world to come, we will be able to live out the community that Jesus modeled for his disciples. Throughout human history we have seen some who have worked hard to live out this community that Jesus instructed his followers to evoke into the world.

Our writer for today’s passage is speaking to a community of people who were in exile. These people had spent years away from home and have grown tired and weary of the separation from what they had always known, longing to go back to a place of peace and comfort, not knowing if this option would ever present itself to them again. The people are feeling powerless. They have no control over the direction of their lives and no knowledge of what will become of them next week, let alone year from that point. They have grown tired and weary from their travels and I can imagine that they would have come to a point where they would just simply want to give up.

Even though we have not been in the particular position that the Jewish exiles experienced, we all have our own stories of being in the wilderness. We have all experienced times of loss and uncertainty that control our lives and ultimately our hearts. Times of pain and hardship can zap us of our passion and energy for life. Times of uncertainty can drain us of our faith and possibly even our will to go on. We all have stories and experiences that have forever changed our interactions with the world around us and even the God that we have long since strived to know.

The writer of Isaiah 40 is speaking to a tired and weary people, encouraging them to keep taking that next step. The writer wants to help the people to not lose hope, believing that there is always strength to be found in the community and in the spirit that is residing around them. I believe that the writer is speaking to us in this way too. Though they can not comprehend the kind of world that we are living in today, they know the inner workings of the human heart. They understand the human condition and our need for reassurance. It is easy to feel like there is no hope and that we are truly alone. It takes faith to believe that there is something better around the corner, especially when all we see around the corner is darkness.

As a child, I always believed that there would be snow to come in my future that would be beautiful and white. As I grew older, that snow became dark and dirty in the gutter in the street. With experience, I believe, comes more knowledge of the brokenness in the world. We see where things get dirty, unlike children who live unaware of these life consequences. I believe that this is why Jesus calls us to return to him with the heart of a child. He is not expecting and would never want us to become ignorant of the world and its struggles, but to have faith enough to know that Jesus can make the snow white again. That with Christ, we can soar on wings of eagles.

This passage speaks to us in our loneliness and weariness. When we have lost hope of what God can do and what doors can be opened, Jesus is there to guide us back away from the dirty snow in the street to the beautiful snow on the hill.

When you are in seminary, you learn about biblical languages and the way that they are structured. Often times in Hebrew poetry you will find what are called triplets, three-line sequences, like the one at the end of our passage today. These sequences have a tendency to build on each other and grow in emphasis with each line. The interesting thing about this passage is that this triplet actually seems to do the opposite. It begins with us soaring on wings like eagles and ends with us barely able to remain standing. It seems odd to me that the writer would view the final line as more important than the first. It truly seems counterintuitive that the writer would begin with this profound image of an eagle and end with someone about too faint.

If I were the one who would have written this passage, I think that I would have flipped these final three lines and wrote them in the opposite direction. Obviously my childhood self would say that the superpower you would want from these three lines is the ability to fly and not simply keeping yourself from fainting. Therefore, this order is the opposite of what I would expect.

Here’s what I have grown to love in this poem: Sometimes, no matter how much we long to soar like an eagle, all we can do is barely manage to put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again. Maybe that is the pinnacle. That the very best thing is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.

Friends, there are going to be many challenges that we will face together throughout this year and the years ahead. As a community of faith, we are tasked by God to help carry each others burdens. We only can achieve that in community and I know that it has been difficult to feel community together. As we begin to regather in a few short weeks, we have a wonderful opportunity to build that community even stronger together. This time of separation has helped me to realize just how important community is for our faith and discipleship. There is a reason that Christianity is always done better when in community. We are a part of a communal faith and when we are together we find strength to take each step by the inspiration found in one another. Let us not take for granted the moments that we have to cherish together and when we return to worship in person, let us be in an attitude of gratitude for this beautiful shared moment. Amen.