Saturday, September 10, 2011

Renewing Strength

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls
September 10, 2011
Isaiah 40:31

“…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.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When I turned 40 my dear sister sent me a birthday card that I’ve never forgotten.   I don’t remember the artwork or the sassy verse that was on the card, but I do remember what my sister wrote to me, inside that card.

She was trained as a nurse, you see, and for some reason she thought that my turning 40 was a good time for her to remind me of all the ways that life declines at that point—to remind me that age 40 truly is “over the hill.”  

My sister poured it on pretty thick…mentioning the loss of brain cells, loss of visual acuity and hearing, loss of muscle tone, loss of bone density.  You name it—everything starts falling apart, heading downhill after age 40

“Gee, sis—thanks for bringing this to my attention!”  Thanks for making sure I remember all the ways that as I age, I lose the strength I once enjoyed.

I thought of that as I pondered your theme verse about “renewing strength.”   Yes, that’s what we’re all looking for—isn’t it?  A way to regain lost territory, recover lost ground, get back in the game, be restored to what we once were.  

But how does that happen?

A couple of years ago my physician gave me his answer, in the form of a book entitled:  Younger Next Year.    It’s a book about how one can halt, even reverse the effects of the aging process.   Not by going on a particular diet.  Not by taking a special pill.  Not by resting or doing yoga or engaging in some sort of mind-over-matter meditation.

No, the way to restore strength is to exercise, pure and simple….to be so committed to regular, vigorous physical activity that you make plans now to spend some time exercising on the morning of the day you die.

Strength is restored, not by resting, not by reposing on a feather bed, not by taking it easy.

Strength is restored by regularly encountering, bumping up against, “pushing yourself” against some form of stout resistance.  

You get stronger when you work, even over-work, your muscles.   When the coach yells “make it hurt,” he’s doing you a big favor, urging you to take a step toward restoring your strength.

In short you restore your strength by expending your strength.

Now, you might be thinking:  that’s all well and good—if we were here for advice on our physical health, here to think about restoring the strength of our bodily muscles.

But what’s the connection between all of this and the “things of God?”   What if the “muscle” that needs to be worked happens to be your soul, your faith?

Strange as it might seem, ask the question that way and the answer is still basically the same:   if  your soul has grown weak, if your faith is flabby, if your spirit is what needs to be restored, the best thing that can happen to you is to exercise it by encountering some resistance—especially resistance that God allows to come your way—maybe even resistance that God actually brings upon you.

There is a deeply biblical pattern in that, and we see it in spades here in Isaiah 40—the source of your theme verse about “Renewing Strength.”

In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah we see how God allowed, how God handed over his chosen people to come up against some of the worst resistance they ever experienced:  the soul-robbing, strength-draining resistance of the Exile.  

After centuries of disobedience and waywardness, God allowed his precious people to reap the fruits of their faithlessness by permitting their enemies, the Babylonians, to kidnap them, remove them from their home in the Promised Land and haul them off to a far country.

Talk about “encountering resistance!”   Exile like that wiped out most other ancient nations and tribes—and by all accounts the Exile nearly spelled the end for the people of Israel, too.

But if God allowed the extremity of exile to come upon them, it was not in order to bring Israel’s life to an end.  

No.   God, instead, tested and tried the temper of his people, in the refining fire of persecution and exile, to bring them up against the kind of resistance that could have killed them—all of it, in order to bring them out of exile, restore their strength, and give them wings to soar like eagles once again.

That’s what Isaiah starts to sing about starting here in this hinge chapter—chapter 40 of his book.  Here in chapter 40 the prophet hones in, like a laser, on the two questions that dogged the people of Israel as they languished for years in Exile, far, far from home.

First, they wondered if God still had the stuff to help them, to bring them out of the hole they had dug for themselves.   Israel wondered, in the first place, if God could help them….

…which is why Isaiah goes to such lengths earlier in this chapter to magnify the immensity and the incomparability of his God: 

Have you not known? Have you not heard?...

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,

   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;…

who brings princes to naught,

   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Could God help us?   That was the first question the exiles asked themselves…but it quickly led to a second, even more poignant question:  if God indeed could help us, would God actually do so?   Does God still care enough about us, to give us a second chance?

If the first question inquired into God’s power, the second question delved even deeper, into God’s mercy….which is why just two verses before our theme verse, we read this hinge sentence in this hinge chapter of Isaiah’s book:

[God]  does not faint or grow weary;

   his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

   and strengthens the powerless.

Isaiah is sure of two things—two things his exiled sisters and brothers longed to know for themselves.  Isaiah recognizes the incomparable power of God….a power that is seen most clearly in the unfathomable mercy of God.

God can help them in their weakness—with one hand tied behind God’s back.

But the even better news is that God will help them in their weakness.   God’s power is made known chiefly in showing mercy.

….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.

Notice please, the deep comfort of all these “shalls.”

But notice also the strenuousness of these “shalls.”

God restores strength to his people as they exercise the strength that God alone gives them.   Faith’s muscularity is restored as we flex the faith-muscles that God has already given to us.  

We realize that we’re not weary—because we’re already running.  It dawns on us that we no longer feel faint—because we’re up on our legs, walking  brisklytoward God’s tomorrow.

This is a peculiar business, isn’t it?  It’s about God’s ways, not our ways.   It’s about God trying and testing those whom God loves.   It’s about faith more precious than gold, being purified in the Refiner’s fire.   It’s about Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the … joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…”  (Hebrews 12:2).

I don’t know that we should think of ourselves as living in an Exile time.   But I do know that these are scary, unsettling days on our planet.   Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. 

Over this past decade it has come to seem as though everything we thought we could count on is up for grabs—my goodness, even the post office is ready to go belly up!   In our country, across our world, even in our church—everything we used to just take for granted seems to have evaporated.   The only constant is change.   What can we count on?   Who can restore us?

Can God get us out of this mess—does God have the power to do that?   And even more importantly, will God save us—does God still care about us enough to draw us up out of the soup we’re in?

Listen to Isaiah as he pours the gospel into our ears!

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

   the Creator of the ends of the earth….

He gives power to the faint,

   and strengthens the powerless…. 

 …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.

The resistance you feel, the obstacles you’re up against just may be how God is restoring your strength in your exercising of it. 

Why are eagles so good at flying?  Because they fly a lot, every day, in the strength that God freely gives to them.

God can give you this same strength.   Better yet, God will give you this same strength.

In the name of Jesus.


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