A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 5 February 2011
Readings for Proper 5, Year B, Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
“but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)
Are you familiar with motivational posters? You know them, those posters showing rowers or bobsledders with the caption “TEAMWORK”, or a person scaling a cliff with the label “PERSEVERANCE”? I confess that I’m not a fan of these posters.
I have nothing against teamwork or perseverance or whatever other value they happen to be promoting. It’s just that the posters themselves ring false. I used to work for a failing and poorly managed company which displayed these posters in its front offices. One poster exhorted us to fly like eagles. But back in the rear cubicles, where the parodic, demotivational posters were stealthily displayed, another poster said “It’s hard to fly with the eagles when you’re stuck with the turkeys”.
The people in the back cubicles felt that the demotivational posters were closer to the truth they lived. They knew that they could do their jobs with all sorts of PERSEVERANCE and TEAMWORK and COURAGE, but when the company hit a bad quarter, they could be pinkslipped, given ten minutes to pack, and marched out past the motivational posters in the front lobby. In short, these people couldn’t believe in the motivational posters because they lived and worked without hope. You could tell them to fly like eagles, but they believed they were stuck with turkeys.
I feel that the same eagle/turkey thinking can carry over to our spiritual lives if we think that our faith has to come from within. I could give you motivational posters with soaring eagles and captions like “FAITH: IT’S WITHIN YOU” or “CREEDS: YOU CAN BELIEVE THEM” or “LOVE ONE ANOTHER: YOU CAN DO IT”, but would they do anything for your spirituality other than to make you feel inadequate? I doubt it.
There are times when I feel like a spiritual turkey. There are times when I feel lazy, doubting, or weak. There are times in my ministry when I doubt that I will find any words of comfort or encouragement to help the hurting or grieving. There are times when the administration of the sacraments seems mundane rather than profound. In these times, I don’t feel like I can soar on eagle’s wings. During these times, I feel like the father of the dead child in Mark’s gospel, whose prayer to Jesus is “Lord I believe, help y my disbelief” (Mk 9:24). That’s a turkey prayer, not an eagle prayer.
When the prophet Isaiah (or sometimes Second Isaiah as some biblical scholars call the latter part of this book) wrote the words of our Old Testament lesson, he was speaking to a bunch of spiritual turkeys. The people of Israel had been conquered and decimated, the survivors taken from their land and living in exile in Babylon, the so-called Babylonian Captivity. For a modern equivalent of this disaster, imagined if Israel had today had been defeated by Iraq or Iran, and its survivors living as prisoners in Bagdhad or Tehran.
Isaiah was preaching to people who lived without hope, but that did not stop him from speaking some of the most hopeful words in scripture. The very first verse of Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”, is part of the Advent readings and was wonderfully set to music by Handel in his Messiah. Shortly afterwords come the words that John the Baptist would repeat to announce the coming of Jesus:
3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40:3-5)
Isaiah’s message, like that of John the Baptist, is precisely the message that the hopeless need to hear. The message is that rescue and salvation comes from God, and no where else.
Because hopeless people often need to be shocked and even bullied into action, Isaish begins our reading today with words that may seem harsh.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning? (Isaiah 40:21).
Isaiah says to the survivors of Israel, “Have you guys really forgotten? You know this stuff. Don’t say that God has hidden himself from you.” He reminds Israel that God is greater than all kings, even the kings that have conquered them. People are mortal, but the God who created the stars without number is eternal. He will be there when all other things, like strength and youth, have failed. He will be the one who rescues Israel. It is he will lift them up and make them “mount up with wings like eagles” (Is 40:31). These are not the words of the motivational poster. The prophet is not saying that salvation comes from within. It comes from God.
I don’t think any of us wants or needs a God who encourages us to try harder or to think happier thoughts. We need a God who will rescue us. We need a Saviour. The rising up on eagles’ wings is a promise of the salvation of God, not a promise of self realization. The prophetic metaphor contains a word, raising or mounting up, that occurs again in today’s gospel reading. As Sarah Henrich notes, when Jesus raises up the mother in law of Peter, the Greek word Mark uses is the same word that he uses later to describe God’s raising Jesus from the dead. The word and the action both point to the powerful and regenerative word of God, the word of life and healing that conquers death, the word that unites us to God.
That is the word that I need to hear, not some inner motivational voice, but the voice of the God who comes to rescue. I believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can also make this turkey fly like an eagle.