Exorcising Our Demons
by Louise Westfall
Will you permit me a “grandma” story? (I guess one of the benefits of online worship is that you can’t talk back 😊) My daughter-in-law sent me a photograph of one-year-old Ever experiencing snow for the first time. There he is in his cute little snowsuit, hat and mittens and his mother has just handed him a snowball, which he has immediately put in his mouth. The look on his face is somewhere between wonderment and worry. What is this stuff?!
When was the last time you had a genuine moment of awe? Some breathtaking revelation of discovery, inspiring delight or jaw-dropping epiphany, even when a little unsettling? I’ve seen it on some faces of those who have received the Covid vaccine–unmistakable joy beaming from their eyes above masked smiles. It’s been a long time coming, and many psychologists have described the “flattening” of emotions during the pandemic as we have used every ounce of energy to stay strong. For many of us, it’s been awhile since we had any reason to exclaim with amazement and curiosity What is this stuff??!!!!!
The text today may just do the trick. It’s a word from the prophet in a very difficult period of Israel’s history: while they were exiled far from their beloved homeland, captive to their conquerors, the Babylonians. Their distress, given voice in a Psalm of lament, resonates with our reactions to the multiple crises in 2020: By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered [home]. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in [such a time as this]? [from Psalm 137]
But lo and behold, when the people themselves are muted in sorrow and discouragement, the prophet steps up to sing. Our text today is not a narrative recounting their history, or a sermon admonishing the people to cheer the heck up. No, it’s a glorious ode to the Creator of the ends of the earth. It’s a poem in the definition of a poem offered by a six-year-old: A poem is like a song, except you hear the music in your heart rather than your ears. Hear God’s Word from the prophet Isaiah in the 40th chapter, verses 21 through 31. Listen, friends, for the music in your heart. [Isaiah 40:21-31]
Nothing ruins a good poem like an explanation of it. But this is a text one doesn’t have to interpret; not really.
You heard it. God’s majesty and glory, God’s power and might demonstrated in the created world. You don’t have to give up your confidence in evolutionary biology and scientific knowledge to affirm the One described here. The prophet isn’t writing a research article; he’s reflecting on the One behind and underneath and intimately involved in the wonder of the world; the God who cares so much about fiery stars that they’re named, for heaven’s sake!–and none escape Divine notice.
God knows us (not one is missing!) and is present to us when we're hurting and suffering and vexed and perplexed, sad and sorry and frustrated and lonely and doubting that things will ever get better.
For the people’s sense of isolation and spiritual distance from God, the prophet/poet sings of the ways the Divine has bridged that divide in awe-inducing ways. First, a reminder there’s a reason for the sense of distance: God really is “other” than human, unique. Compared to God’s Being and Essence, their place in the universe is like that of grasshoppers (somehow I think Isaiah smiled a little at the absurdity of the comparison). Then there’s the elephant-in-the-room, the fact that they were captives to an enemy power; their lives were very much controlled by human forces. Again, the prophet’s angle is to ridicule the earthly powers that imagine themselves as sovereign. Ha ha. They’re like chaff blown away by the breath of the true Ruler.
But Isaiah doesn’t ignore their plight, or pretend that they’re not enduring a painful, difficult time. Instead, he offers hope by focusing on the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth…Remember? This all-knowing, all-powerful God has always shown concern for your well-being, and has acted on your behalf again and again. This is the One who through Moses and Aaron and Miriam liberated you from slavery in Egypt; this is the One who through Joshua guided you safely through the wilderness; and with the help of Rahab brought you into the land of promise. Do you think God is falling down on the job now???
Without so much as a scold or finger-wagging judgment, Isaiah concedes that God’s ways aren’t fully known to the people, ever. That’s the nature of God. The prophet doesn’t know why they’re still in exile. I don’t know where a global pandemic and tragic loss of life, racial injustice persisting for centuries, or any of the heartbreaking turns of the roulette wheel we experience, figure into the good purposes of God.
But we can take to the bank the assurance that this God is ultimately “for” us. God knows us (not one is missing!) and is present to us when we’re hurting and suffering and vexed and perplexed, sad and sorry and frustrated and lonely and doubting that things will ever get better. And not just present “from a distance” but nestled right inside our spirits, renewing our strength and striking awe in us once more (or even for the first time!).
My grandson tasted snow with a sense of amazement, but also a little uncertainty. What is this stuff? And what am I supposed to do with it? But he trusted his mother and dad. He’ll play in the snow again, and will experience the wonder of making snow angels and snowmen, of building snow forts and having snowball fights…and at some point, getting practice with a snow shovel. Oh, the fun and learning ahead!
…that comes as a result of a trusting relationship. I struggle with Isaiah’s final chorus of receiving the blessings of strength, peace, and joy by “waiting for the Lord.” Waiting has often implied passivity for me, sitting around on one’s hands hoping things will improve.
But Isaiah’s song resounds with the idea of waiting as the best response to the powerful, caring God who really does rule over the universe. Our worship begins when we remember that God is God and we are not.
I think waiting begins with noticing…pausing long enough to see, really see, what is all around us. Whether it is the mystery and miracle of the night sky flung with stars, or the silent majesty of the Rocky Mountains…or the feeling of another’s heart beating close to your own. Wait a moment before rushing on to the next thing.
For in those moments we may encounter the living God in ways we have not known before. We are called right then and there to worship the God whose “otherness” disrupts the status quo and its stranglehold on our imaginations. We see possibility, even if just a little bit more. We remember and can envision a different future. Our hope is re-ignited, and our God-given powers to co-create are restored. What is this stuff?–and what am I supposed to do with it? Not a bad call to the meal we will soon enjoy. Just ordinary stuff: bread, wine. Ordinary stuff, imbued with extraordinary power. Designed to take our breath away…and nourish us for the hard work of love ahead. Friends, with awe (even if it’s mixed with a little anxiety) may we receive the raw materials to walk even one more step, break into a run, and against all odds, take flight— healed and joyous and free.
May it be so.