The God Who Goes the Distance
by Louise Westfall
What a difference a mere two years makes! On this day in 2016 … well, you remember. My friend Tony, a pastor and die-hard Philadelphia fan, is preaching on the same text as I am today. He’s been marveling all week at the phrase we’ll read in a minute: Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles … He posted that the Bible mentions “eagles” 33 times, whereas the Bible speaks of “patriots” exactly zero times, surely an omen of Divine favor. Well, Bronco fans. Wait till next year …
But truly, the text today may speak more to us whose team did not make it to the Super Bowl. It was first proclaimed to the people of Israel at possibly the lowest part of their history until modern times. The covenant people, God’s chosen ones, were defeated; their nation conquered by enemies who had destroyed the Temple, the very house of God, and sent most of them into exile, far from home, into a country that scorned their faith and values.
A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, in the fortieth chapter at the twenty-first verse. Listen for God’s Word to losers. [Isaiah 40:21-31]
She is a person of faith, a religion professor at Duke, diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer two and half years ago. Regular infusions of chemicals have kept her disease at bay. For now. She described it this way in an op-ed piece in the New York Times: I am keeping vigil in the place of almost-death. I stand in the in-between where everyone must pass, but so few can remain. The article described the ways people speak with her: the advice they give to cheer her up, the references prompted by something in their own experience, the way they avoid the topic of her illness and keep the conversation light. Because she is a practicing Christian, they say things like “God has a purpose for this.” “You know heaven is your destination, and it will be better than this earthly life.” “Have faith.” “Wait for the Lord, and you’ll renew your strength … you’ll rise with wings like eagles.” [from How to Talk to the Angel of Death, NY Times, January 28, 2018]
What should be a source of comfort in an impossibly difficult time is changed into a weapon. Though wielded with good intentions, it wounds by turning faith into another mountain to climb, and God into the all-knowing wise one available only to those who go the distance. Friends, I wonder if many of us unwittingly subscribe to this perspective because it fits so much of our worldview around achievement through hard work and righteous purpose. So, we conclude, God helps those who help themselves. God rewards good behavior with success. The amount of faith one has or develops will determine the outcome of difficult circumstances. Blessing is a sure sign of God’s approval. God might even nudge to victory those who have waited in faith.
The problem with this view is that it depends on the faith of fallible human beings, rather than the faithfulness of God. The focus becomes human decision-making, human choices, human effort; what we do or don’t do. As important as these are, they are inadequate as a source of hope or even as nourishment for our daily journey. Who or what can we trust in a world which can be undone by passing chance as easily as by human action?
Well, the prophet makes a case for God alone. Though the last few lines of the text are the ones most-quoted, the bulk of the passage exalts the One who is the powerful and mighty ruler of the universe. The picture is not of a deity that sets creation in motion and then remains at a distance. No, this is a God continuously involved in the world, who numbers the stars, gives them names, and keeps track of them. This is a God to whom the inhabitants of earth are the size of grasshoppers, yet who knows each one intimately and compassionately. This is a God mightier than their Babylonian captors or any other human leaders who have their day and are gone.
Friends, this is a God who goes the distance, a God who bridges the chasm between heaven and earth, a God involved in human history, and in our personal histories. And unimaginably, this is a God who imparts God’s own attributes — God’s power and strength — to human beings. God does more than protectively gather her human chicks under her wings; She gives us wings. Wings that lift us from despair and fear to hope and faith. Wings that raise us from forces of death to renewed life.
What a contrast to religion rooted in self-improvement, or a faith dependent upon our will and strength of character to reach towards God! God is the One who goes the distance, who reaches out to us come Hell or high water or Stage IV cancer. Episcopal priest and best-selling author Barbara Brown Taylor describes the source of our security this way, It’s not a matter of leaving life to chance, but of leaving chance to God. When the unthinkable happens, when we encounter the reality of randomness, when we are overtaken by forces beyond our control, God comes to us. God gives us wings.
This Table is one way we experience God’s presence, in a meal that offers “communion” with God and with one another. Here we are welcomed without qualification; everyone has a place, because it’s not about us, but about God and God’s deep desire to be with us. Here we receive gifts that nourish us to go the distance.
In the article I mentioned earlier, the author describes how much small efforts encourage her. There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts and in affirmations when everything you know about yourself might not be true anymore. I am a professor, but will I ever teach again? I’m a mom, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. [All these] are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future. They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here. [Ibid.]
Echoes of the God who goes the distance for every one of us.