Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 4, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31 Commentary
Grasshoppers are interesting creatures. While they have wings, just like eagles, they can’t soar like eagles. Yet grasshoppers can really jump. If people could jump like them, we’d be able to leap more than 40 yards.
Yet while grasshoppers can be colorful, heads that are relatively tiny also house their brains. If you walk through a rural field in the summertime, you’re likely to squash lots of them. So grasshoppers are perhaps more interesting than majestic.
That’s one reason why Isaiah’s claim that “people are like grasshoppers” (22) may seem like a demeaning description of people whom God creates in God’s image. We, after all, like to think of ourselves as far greater than little green critters. However, Babylon has just dragged Isaiah 40’s Israel into exile as part of God’s judgment on her. So she has shrunk Israel to little more than a grasshopper in the cosmic order of things.
Yet both those who proclaim Isaiah 40 and those to whom we proclaim it may also sometimes feel like grasshoppers. Maybe it’s the other students at school who mock them. Or perhaps loneliness or even advancing age makes people feel like grasshoppers. We may feel like grasshoppers when we trudge into our workplace or try to raise a difficult child. Or perhaps reports from their investment or pension funds make people feel like grasshoppers.
Sooner or later, we all feel like grasshoppers — especially when we compare ourselves to the Lord of heaven and earth. God is, after all, the creator of everything that is made. In fact, when we compare anything God made to its Creator, even the greatest things are tiny. Things like mighty mountains, immense galaxies and awesome oceans are a bit like our cooking, knitting, or pottery compared to you and me.
Over the years people have thought of leaders like Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong as mighty. People sometimes still assign almost extraordinary power to democratically elected leaders like presidents and prime ministers. Isaiah, however, reminds us that almighty God not only raises up such leaders, but also topples them like fragile houses of cards. God reduces even the mightiest and most charismatic leaders “to nothing.”
I think Americans fall into a trap when they assume if they just elect enough politicians that share their views, moral problems will quickly shrink. Isaiah, after all, reminds us that compared to God, even our most talented leaders are like dry dandelion seeds that even a mild windstorm can scatter. The Lord is capable of reducing even such gifted leaders to nothing.
In fact, Isaiah insists, even the mightiest nations, like the Babylon of his day, or, by implication, the United States, Canada or China in ours, are like a drop in the bucket compared to God. Of course, nations seem to be quickly shrinking in comparison to various alliances. So while we may readily agree with Isaiah about nations’ vulnerabilities, we need to remember that he writes about nations like Babylon that were very powerful in his day. So we might to compare the prophet’s nations to powerful modern alliances like the European Union or OPEC.
However, while Israel thought of the nations as fat monsters, Isaiah insists they’re not even strong enough to move the needle when they step on God’s cosmically precise scale. So we might say that even modern superpowers are like the nothingness that preceded creation compared to the Lord.
Isaiah assumes that God’s people have always understood that. Yet sometimes things happen that sometimes challenge the assumption that nothing and no one compare to the Lord. To most of Israel’s contemporaries, after all, her Babylonian exile meant that Babylon’s god was stronger than Israel’s God. To them Jerusalem and Israel’s destruction meant that Babylon’s gods had somehow defeated their God. So we sense that some Israelites had begun to compare God to a grasshopper.
Sometimes people and things also challenge our own assumptions about God’s greatness. We may wonder if, for example, cancer or advancing age is somehow mightier than God. Economic crises or terrorism may seem stronger than our living Lord. Or perhaps our fears, doubts or worries seem incomparable.
In fact the things that make us wonder if God is really so great may even lead God’s adopted sons and daughters to say with Israel, in verse 27, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.” Sometimes struggles, after all, lead even God’s people to wonder if God can even see or cares about what’s bothering us.
Does God even care, we all naturally ask, if I’m afraid or confused? Does God even see that my life sometimes feels like just one long walk on a treadmill to nowhere? Doesn’t God see the injustice that sometimes seems to flourish in our world, communities and sometimes right in our own lives?
Of course, many of those who proclaim and hear Isaiah 40 learned about God’s incomparable love for us a long time ago. But in case our memory has shrunk, the prophet reminds us that nothing but God’s own nature limits the Lord. So time and space don’t limit God. Nor do God’s energy or endurance limit God. God doesn’t get tired like people do. Even taking care of a rebellious world doesn’t somehow wear God out.
In fact, finally, the prophet insists, God is cognitively unlimited. In other words, God’s wisdom and understanding is complete. God both knows about and sees everything. So our mighty God is able to help tired, weary and weak people like the Israelites, you and me.
But will this perfectly wise God help people like you and me? Does, in other words, the God who’s able to help grasshoppers like us also actually want to help us? Isaiah insists God, in fact, loves to give power to people who sometimes lack it.
Most of us naturally want to do something to fix whatever’s wrong with our world, those we love and us. You and I, however, can’t fix some of the things that make us most weary and weak. While we may be able to temporarily revive our energy, only God can give strength that lasts to those who “hope in the Lord.”
As a result, God’s adopted sons and daughters learn to wait for God to work in our lives and world. Yet we don’t wait with our legs crossed or hands in our pockets. Christians wait on tiptoes, as it were, fully expecting God to both revive us and perhaps use us to help revive our world and its people. After all, Isaiah insists that God won’t just sooner or later increase the “power of the weak.” No, as surely as God created the “ends of the earth,” God “increases the power of the weak” (italics added).
“Weak” would seem to be good descriptions of Isaiah’s Israel that’s in exile. Yet those who hear and proclaim Isaiah 40 today also know what it means to be weak. After all, even children and young adults, as the prophet reminds us, sometimes “grow tired and weary.” Even the strongest people eventually “stumble and fall.” So at no matter what point of life in which we find ourselves, whether or not we always realize it, all of us desperately need God’s help.
Through Isaiah 40 God reminds us that those who rely on the Lord find that help. God doesn’t always take away our problems. Yet God gives us the strength to deal with them. God helps vulnerable people like us so that we can run and not tire out. God lends us a hand so that we can walk and “not run out of gas.”
In her August 24, 2006 New York Times article entitled, “Secrets of Endurance: Eating to Go (and Go and Go),” Catherine St. Louis describes the running phenomenon that is “bonking.” She compares it to running out of gas in the fast lane of the Long Island Expressway.
Australian triathlete Chris Legh fell victim to bonking at the 1997 Ironman championships. His meltdown was, in fact, so vivid that a Gatorade advertisement immortalized it. Just before Legh reached the finish line, his limbs went as limp as a rag doll’s because he was both dehydrated and underfed. “One moment he was striding,” St. Catherine reports. “The next he had collapsed.”
“You can do all the training in the world,” she goes on to quote Legh as later saying, “but if you go out too fast, or make a mistake with your nutrition, then your day is done.”
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