02/07/21 – Awed & Perplexed

AWED AND PERPLEXED

February 7, 2021
5th Sunday after Epiphany
Isa. 40:21-31; Ps. 147; 1 Cor. 9:16-23; Mk. 1:29-39
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

One of my favorite hymns is from the Southern Harmony hymnbook. I love the tune, probably coming from a folk tune of the British Isles, as many of the hymns of the Appalachian region do. The refrain is this:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Savior did come for to die.
For poor on’ry people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Wonder. On the one hand, it can mean to marvel at something too beautiful and awe-inspiring for words. Gazing at the stars on a clear, dark night, just as the wise men from the East in the nativity story, we experience wonder. Seeing the miracle of birth fills us with wonder. Looking at the vast expanse of the sea or the majesty of the mountains fills us with wonder at the glory of God’s creation. But, wonder also means we have unanswered questions, and that is perplexing. With mystery is disorder and anxiety that we, who pride ourselves on intellect and reason, find uncomfortable. In our postmodern world, why do people still read horoscopes in their local paper and pay money to psychics? We wonder about the future with feelings of anxiety and dread, but maybe also, hope.

In this season of Epiphany, our scripture readings have focused on God’s revelations to humanity. Yet, these revelations still leave us with unsolvable mysteries. We marvel at the created world — the vastness, the beauty, the majesty, and complexity – and are filled with wonder. God’s power and wisdom are gloriously beyond our comprehension. Yet, we also long for intimacy with God. We want to experience God’s presence in a way that is up-close and personal, to feel we are not just a being swimming upstream in the river of humanity. Even when we have felt God’s presence in the past, we ask if we will feel it again. Mother Therese witnessed God spoke to her when she was 20 years old and told her to go to India to care for the lepers, but never spoke to her again. We may look back on an unanswered prayer and realize God blessed us with a better answer than we had hoped. Yet, in the midst of crisis, our memories can become too short to sustain hope. In our relationship with God, our star of wonder can become hidden in the dark night of perplexity and doubt.

Our reading from Isaiah gives voice to this existential dilemma. Chapter 40 is the beginning of what is called the Second Isaiah. The historical background is the period of time after the Persians have defeated the Babylonians. The exiles from Judah are free to return to their homes. Jerusalem and the temple lie in ruins. If the exiles return, they will have an arduous journey followed by years of hard work rebuilding. After creating lives for themselves in Babylon, do they have the energy to start over again in their homeland? During their exile, God seemed to have forgotten them. Do they trust the prophet who tells them God wants them to return and vows to be with them? Do our ten months of social isolation imposed by a global pandemic, inflict a similar sense of God’s absence?

The prophet pleads the case, beginning with the rhetorical questions: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” The prophet appeals to the exiles’ collective memory of God’s saving actions in their history as a people.  For the Jewish people, remembrance is foundational to faith. The prophet then declares that God, the Creator, is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and transcendent, while we are finite beings that are minuscule in comparison. Kings of nations, like the Egyptian or Babylonian Empires, will always fall away, but God will be our most powerful ruler forever. Yet, God is also omnipresent and imminent – always there for us, who are God’s beloved children. The prophet assures the people that thought they may feel powerless, with God’s power supporting them, they can do what God has called them to do.

By appealing to memory, the exiles were being asked to recount, not just God’s specific saving acts, but also the various ways God had acted for them in the past. One way, and always the most popular, was God swooping down to rescue the Israelites with a miracle, such as the ten plagues on the Egyptians and the parting of the sea, which enabled their escape from slavery. Who doesn’t love a miracle? In our gospel reading from Mark, we read about Jesus’ healing miracles that established his identity and authority.

Another way, the Israelites would have remembered would have been God working through others to rescue the weak and vulnerable. God used people like Moses and King David, giving them greater strength than they thought they had. At times, God answers our prayers of deliverance by walking with us, sharing God’s strength and power, as we work to change a difficult situation. Since we do not know the mind of God, nor can we predict the future, the bible tells us this expectation should be our default position. Waiting for a miracle could mean the loss of valuable time. Isaiah assures us that, no matter what problem we are facing, God will be with us.

The most difficult way God comes to our aid is when the trial that afflicts us doesn’t change at all. At these times God just gives us the strength to endure. The situation doesn’t change, but we are changed by growing stronger and more resilient. This is a reality most often revealed in hindsight after we have journeyed through our grief.

No matter how God answers our prayers for deliverance in times of trial, the key, the prophet assures, is patience: “but those who wait for the Lord 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. (40:31)

Today, we may wonder: When will I get the vaccine? Will I contract one of the “monster mutations” of the virus before I have a chance to be vaccinated? Will our economy be revived and the people who have lost their jobs and life savings be able to support themselves again? Will conspiracy theories continue to frighten people to the point of violence? Will racism ever be exorcised from our society?

The question we must ask ourselves is: What can I do, with God’s help?

So today, we come together, virtually, to praise God and pray. This is how we renew ourselves to do God’s work. We come to Christ’s Table to receive sustenance from His spiritual presence. We wonder about the future, but we do so knowing God is with us and for us, lifting us up as on eagle’s wings when we grow weary and faint. God loves each and every one of us. That is the mystery of our faith, to which we can only respond with awe and gratitude.

Amen.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501