February 4, 2024

“Trusting, While We Wait”

Isaiah 40:21-31

Since the annual meeting celebration for the church is this morning, I thought I’d begin with some information on the state of our church. Regarding our financial situation, you’ll hear more from Jill Turner, our treasurer, at the annual meeting celebration about a financial breakdown of who gives to the church and age demographics. Let me just state, for the record, 90-year-olds rock! So many of you went above and beyond the call, whatever age bracket you come from, and our 2024 budget looks good. We also have a surplus for 2023, thanks to generous giving last year, which will help us pay in part for my sabbatical replacement pastor, provide raises for the staff, and help cover costs for substitute musicians while our music director is out. Many thanks! Our membership numbers have taken a hit, especially after losing so many in 2023. We officially have 101 members on our roles. Yet we still have good attendance most Sundays and experienced the Christmas Eve miracle last year with 270 people attending our Lessons and Carols service. I’ll offer a new member class in March for anyone interested in adding to our membership numbers. We’d love to have you become a part of the Presbyterian family here.

As for our church’s future, your leaders are looking at ways to utilize our property to ensure being able to pay for building repairs- like a new sanctuary roof, paint, gutter repairs, etc. and keep our church moving forward, doing its ministry for Christ. In light of pending repairs down the road, we are considering downsizing our property footprint and making the sanctuary a multi-purpose facility. We are contemplating the possibility of merging with another Christian church. We are even considering moving to a place like Temple Emek Shalom a few years from now to share space and ministry. Please note these are just ideas floating about, and eventually, the whole congregation will be fully involved in trying to figure out our future as we wonder and wait for what is next. Now is a time of transition, and waiting in such times is difficult. We remember how things used to be- fuller sanctuary and chapel, more members, a bigger budget, seemingly secure and stable church life, Christianity at the center of public life, and long for those days. My message this morning is this: Trust that, in the midst of it all, while we wait and wonder about the future, God is calling us as a congregation into something new.

Part of the structure of my sabbatical includes some in-depth work after I return on July 1. Your church leaders will be working with the Presbyterian Foundation, being led in a three-month program called “Project Regeneration.” This program will take most of the fall to go through. Once we have completed the process, we’ll involve the congregation in some decision-making to move forward together on our congregation’s future. In the meantime, we wait for what comes next, not sure what God is up to, remembering what was, weary of all the changes in Christendom, with difficulty imagining just what our future may look like.

We are in a similar state as the Israelites were when in captivity in Babylon. According to a passage in Jeremiah (52:28-30), some 4,600, the brightest and best Judah had to offer, were taken into captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar and brought to Babylon. They had been there for at least seventy years. They still remembered what was- living in Jerusalem, worshiping at the temple, seemingly secure and stable life. Things changed dramatically as the captives were led away to a foreign country. The chapters following Isaiah 40 address a wondering and weary people who likely had trouble imagining a new future.

At the beginning of Isaiah 40, the call went out to the prophet to comfort the people exiled from their homeland, waiting decades for an answer from God, hoping a desert highway would be built, allowing their return to Israel. The prophet Isaiah responds to their worries with this prophecy about God, structured into three sections:

21-24: Have you not known? Have you not heard?
25-27: To whom will you liken me?
28-31: Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Verses 21-24 question how the people do not recognize God’s creative power and then give examples of this power that would be difficult to miss. The first image in verse 22 is of a dome over the Earth, with God sitting atop it. Meanwhile, below, the much tinier, much less powerful inhabitants go about their business like insects in a terrarium. The dome, as the Israelites would have imagined it, also known as the firmament in scripture, acted as a solid boundary to protect the Earth from the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:6-8). Windows would open to let in water in the form of rain and then close when the rains were complete. What kind of Creator is this? One who sets life-giving boundaries. One who keeps the waters of chaos at bay. One who is powerful and over all of creation.

A more modern-day example would be all of the incredible discoveries coming from the field of astronomy. New, more powerful telescopes are finding all sorts of things- planets with the same periodic elements as ours orbiting around distant stars, billions of galaxies, black holes that may affect the Earth’s gravitational field, learning more about dark matter, and seeing pictures of the planets and moons in our solar system which make our jaws drop. Behind this enormous, creative, and beautiful magnificence is the Creator of all worlds. The terrarium is now much larger, and we are very tiny insects compared to the vast universe. What kind of Creator is this? Who can compare? No one.

The second image in verse 22 is of the LORD stretching out the heavens like a tent. The metaphor is common in the Hebrew Bible, as the action of stretching out animal skins or goat’s hair cloth over and around poles to create a tent would have been familiar. Whether one dwells in a tent of stretched skins or another type of habitation, the image of God preparing a home resonates across the generations. What kind of Creator is this? One who makes a home for God’s creatures. One who provides and protects.

God is preparing some kind of place, home for our future as well- stretching out skins to create a tent of meeting for us in our future, yet not fully known. This is a God to hold onto and place trust in.

Then comes verse 23. It Suggests God brings princes and princesses of the world to naught and makes rulers of the Earth as nothing. This is a difficult teaching. It is hard for us to consider the princes and princesses of the world, who seem to wield so much power as powerless before God. Yet this passage and others tell us differently. A good and orderly ruling of the world has much to do with the created order in the Hebrew Bible. God is above them all somehow, even though we may not see it now. A good psalm to consider backs this idea of God over all beings, even the rulers of this world. Psalm 146:34 says, “Do not put your trust in leaders, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the Earth; on that very day, their plans perish.”  This psalm and the passage in Isaiah remind us of the eternal order of things, over and above that which is temporal.  Put your faith in the God who lasts forever. Remember, that was also a problematic teaching for the Israelites, who were in their plight due to a prince of the Earth, Nebuchadnezzar, conquering them and taking them into captivity.  

In verses 25-27, a dispute arises. The people feel as if God has abandoned them. The people of Israel accuse God of not seeing them, of passing them over. Perhaps another God has their best interests at heart and will sustain them into the future. Consider that before their monotheistic practices of worshiping the one God, their recent history was multi-god. Perhaps one of the old gods wouldn’t let them be in this mess? Or does the Babylonian god Marduk possibly have something to offer?

We may wonder as well if God has somehow abandoned us, no longer a large and thriving congregation.

Once more, creation imagery serves as a way to address the concern. Look to the heavens with their host, the moon, and the stars. Are any of them missing? Have they floated away? No. God has named them and claimed them. In the same way, God has named and claimed Israel. God was still there, still working behind the scenes to bring the people back.

That same God is behind the scenes today and claims us, even as churches shrink, struggle, and sometimes close. God is with us in this struggle! Theologian Edwin Markham wrote, “ Whoever has fallen from God’s right hand is eventually caught in God’s left.”

We come to our final section, verses 28-31. These verses point toward the future. Throughout this section of Isaiah, God’s action of returning the Israelites to Jerusalem is understood as an act of creation. The same power used to make the heavens and the Earth will be leveraged on behalf of the people to form them into a new creation. In verse 28, the statement that the Creator does not faint or grow weary suggests more to come. God has not finished with Israel yet.

As for the Church, there is yet more to come. God is not finished with the Big C Church or the 1st Presbyterian Church of Ashland. Rev. Allison Unroe recently wrote an article for Presbyterian Outlook magazine. In part, she stated, “If there’s an article to be written about the church’s future, all it really needs to say is that the future of the PCUSA is being reformed by God, and it is limitless.”

I’ll finish today’s sermon by focusing on this last verse. “But those who wait for God 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.”  This section of Isaiah often reminds us of a future in eternity. Yet it was also meant for the exiled in Babylon who were waiting. One day, they will be renewed and invigorated. But I want to focus specifically on one word, “WAIT.”

The Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon of the Old Testament says that the word for wait in Hebrew, Kavaw-[קָוָה] is a verb meaning to wait for - originally twist, stretch, then the tension of enduring.”

I love this Hebrew understanding of waiting, which includes being twisted, stretching, and the tension of enduring while waiting. I think that this definition of waiting encompasses us perfectly. It reminds me of my brother-in-law, Dave, as we approach Superbowl Sunday next weekend.

Dave and I text back and forth on important matters of sports- The Sacramento Kings, the former Oakland A’s, and, of course, football. Dave mentioned he was worried that the Kansas City Chiefs were being called underdogs to the San Francisco 49ers, which would motivate the Chiefs to win the game. He is a huge Niner fan. He noted how the Niners barely won their last two playoff games. I responded, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait another 270 hours to see what happens.” How many hours are left now before the game? Approximately 168 hours more of waiting. But while waiting for this game to unfold, Dave was active! He and Paula’s sister have been trying to find a new home while their house is in escrow, and he found a beautiful place this past Thursday.

God wants us to be active while we wait- while we twist, stretch, and endure tension. While we wait, we don’t just sit and hold on. We look at new ways of being- new ways of using our buildings, worship space, and the like. God wants us to be active while we wait for what is next.

The Israelites did the same. They lived their lives while they waited for God to speak with them. They worshipped, prayed, and hoped for a return. Once Isaiah spoke, most of them let go of what was for the last seventy years and moved forward into the future with God, who was stretching out a garment to provide them a place to call home once again. May we, while we wait, trust that God is doing the same thing for us as we actively search for new ways of becoming. Alleluia. Amen.