Feb. 7, 2021

Prayer of the Day

Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Isaiah 40:21-31

21Have 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?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
  and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
 who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
  and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23who brings princes to naught,
  and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
  scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
 when he blows upon them, and they wither,
  and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25To whom then will you compare me,
  or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
  Who created these?
 He who brings out their host and numbers them,
  calling them all by name;
 because he is great in strength,
  mighty in power,
  not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
  and speak, O Israel,
 “My way is hidden from the Lord,
  and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28Have you not known? Have you not heard?
 The Lord is the everlasting God,
  the Creator of the ends of the earth.
 He does not faint or grow weary;
  his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
  and strengthens the powerless.
30Even youths will faint and be weary,
  and the young will fall exhausted;
31but 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.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

The Lord heals the brokenhearted. (Ps. 147:3)1Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises | to our God!
  How pleasant it is to honor God with praise!
2The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem,
and gathers the exiles of Israel.
3The Lord heals the brokenhearted
  and binds up their wounds.
4The Lord counts the number of the stars
and calls them all by their names. 
5Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
  there is no limit to God’s wisdom.
6The Lord lifts up the lowly,
but casts the wicked to the ground.
7Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
  make music upon the harp to our God,
8who covers the heavens with clouds
and prepares rain for the earth, making grass to grow upon the mountains. 
9God provides food for the cattle
  and for the young ravens when they cry.
10God is not impressed by the might of a horse,
and has no pleasure in the speed of a runner,
11but finds pleasure in those who fear the Lord,
  in those who await God’s steadfast love. 20cHallelujah! 

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Mark 1:29-39

29As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

There were things I was drawn to in each of our scripture passages, but for a variety of reasons, not least of which are the longings in my own soul, I kept being drawn to the passage from Isaiah. Isaiah speaks to the Israelites and I will reference that audience often, but I implore you to hear his words for you and me today. We may be centuries apart in time, but the prophet’s message is still so relevant.

The passage ends with a beautiful image: “They shall mount up with wings like eagles.” This picture gives us hope and gladness—soaring above it all, being the swift and strong eagle, with a bird’s eye view of all that is below. But the first metaphor Isaiah uses, comparing us to grasshoppers, is less satisfying—more like being compared to a sheep.  

In describing the greatness of our Creator, Isaiah starts off comparing us to the small leafhoppers who are more prey than predator.  Grasshoppers have gotten a bad rap over time. In Aesop’s fables they are the lazy, playful bug that has nothing for the winter and must beg the industrious ant for food and shelter. In the movie “Bugs Life,” the grasshoppers torment the ants like a street gang. I’m indebted in this sermon to Pastor Todd Weir for the way he opens up the grasshopper metaphor. 

Humans generally have a negative view of the grasshopper as a pest that can eat us out of our spot on the food chain. It is not uncommon for grasshoppers to be thicker than flies during a Midwest summer. When you walk through a pasture, each step causes a ripple of life that surges 10 feet away as the mobs of grasshoppers leap out of the way. They eat everything—the corn, the alfalfa, and garden tomatoes.  

Something about grasshoppers speaks of playful adolescents trying to come into maturity. They look like their tongue is perpetually sticking out, they are quick to leap away and hide in the grass and have a built-in fiddle to play away the day. Grasshopper seems like an excellent name for a spiritual novice.

Why did Isaiah choose grasshoppers to represent humanity in this chapter? Grasshoppers have five eyes. Part of their adaptability and survival comes from their ability to see everything around them in a great panorama.  It is this ability to see the wide horizon that can take us beyond being a spiritual novice. If we only see the next blade of grass in front of us, we will not grow and thrive.  

As long as I remain down in the grass, content to only look in front of me, I quickly become weighed down by trivia. I might be annoyed by the attitudes of other people, caught up in my own selfish struggles. I might wonder why the grass does not taste better or worry that I will run out of grass altogether.

When I read Isaiah, I hear him saying to us, “Look grasshopper…Have you not seen, have you not heard? Look around at the big world. Behind it all is your creator, who has the expansive power of life, a power that can make a small grasshopper soar like an eagle.” In faith, it is the capacity to look at the vast expanse of the world with a sense of awe and wonder that lifts us to new heights.  Seeing things with the eyes of amazement, seeing ourselves in the context of being part of a majestic creation, gives our faith the wind beneath our wings to soar. 

Isaiah hopes to help the Israelites to again see their creator as omnipotent and omnipresent. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon. The match is unequal. Israel cannot stand up to the Babylonians. The relationship is beyond challenge. Only God can powerfully intervene to assure the ineffectiveness of Babylon. No one knows how or when or where the victory over the Babylonians happened. It is announced and the Israelites are expected to trust the announcement, to trust the good news.

Isaiah begins this morning’s passage with rhetorical questions, chiding the Israelites for not having recognized who God is: “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?”  God is the source of all that is in the world.  God is the subject of the great verbs of creation: “who sits, who stretches, who spreads, who brings, who makes.”  Everything is an object of God’s verbs.  Everything submits to God’s power. 

Here the move is from earth and its inhabitants and the heavens to princes and rulers. But where earth and the heavens are established by the power of God, princes and rulers are cancelled out. They become nothing, just like the gods they serve. Earthly governments are as fragile as newly planted growth. They are extremely vulnerable.  One gust of God’s hot air makes the nations wither. There is no alternative source of life in the world except God.  

The Israelites are asked to lift up their eyes on high. No one can deny that the stars are impressive, but the stars are not rivaling God. They are witnesses to the power of God. It is God who created them, who calls them by name, and who keeps them all present. No other god, no idol can make any comparable claim.

The poet reiterates a complaint the Israelites voiced in exile, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Then the poet provides the most extreme claim for the incomparability and singularity of God as creator.  God’s work as creator is not a one-time deal. It is a continuing work that entails God’s endless, energetic attentiveness to creation. God is not worn out, not exhausted.  

God the creator God is directly attentive to the faint and powerless, to those who have no energy of their own. The creator sustains and gives life to creatures who have no intrinsic power for life of their own. In context it is the exiles in Babylon who are resourceless, faint, and powerless.  It is precisely for them that God is decisive.  

The concluding verses state an either/or.  Either folks will be faint, weary, and exhausted, or those who hope and wait and expect God will have strength to fly, to run, to walk, with no weariness or fainting. God is the single variable—either weakness or God. There is no third alternative, no chance for strength apart from God. This whole doxology is certainly meant to enhance God but taken in context it is something more.  It asserts that the seemingly abandoned exiles are not alone but have available a source of omni energy and power.

Sometimes we need to sit in awe of God and rest in the mystery. I think this is what Jesus was doing in today’s gospel text when he went and prayed. There is so much work to be done. The kingdom of God is breaking it but not yet fully here. People are still hurting in body, mind and spirit. We and they need to know about God’s love and desire for all creation to have abundant life. It can be so alternative to what we absorb in our daily lives.

In another sermon, Isaiah reminded the people that their ways were not God’s ways, neither were their thoughts divine thoughts.  It is hard for us to believe that our measures of what is just, what is merciful and what is best are not in sync with the mind of God. They seem good to us. But we are not omni, Isaiah says. We have some perspective, but not the omni-perspective of God, who knows the movement of all history toward all futures, who knows our place among those billions of galaxies.

When the calculations comparing our smallness with God’s greatness are finished, we can react to our position in the universe in several ways. We can slink away in despair and denial, like grasshoppers hiding in the grass. Or we can crawl back into God’s big saving hands, Isaiah proclaimed. The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus confirmed that this God who knows all, creates all, controls all and plans all also loves all. God has no inconsequential creatures or untended corners of the universe. God tells us how precious we are in God’s sight.

The proclamation is always a shock because it is not the way we operate. We who counsel each other to let the little things go, we who can only manage a limited number of details are amazed by God yet again. God has the whole world well in hand. We can be happy to live inside a wrinkle of God’s palm, content to be a part of an ongoing creation process, amazed to be so loved and, most days, unafraid of what it all means.

Prayers of Intercession

Guided by Christ made known to the nations, let us offer our prayers for the church, the world, and all people in need.

A brief silence.For the church: for ministries of healing and wholeness, for hospital, hospice, and military chaplains, for those serving in prison ministry, for all who proclaim freedom and release in the name of Christ, let us pray. Have mercy, O God.

For creation: for insects in the grass, clouds on the mountaintops, for cattle and the rainwater they drink, for the humility to take our place among all creatures of the earth, let us pray. Have mercy, O God.

For the nations: for all who lead in cities and towns, states and countries; for community organizers, school officials, and CEOs; for international health organizations, that in times of trial, fear, or hopelessness, they find freedom in service to those most in need, let us pray. Have mercy, O God.

For all wearied by life’s burdens: for those who are poor, for those lacking supportive relationships, for those crushed by debt, for those struggling with chronic pain or other sickness, for those exhausted from overwork or stress, and for all who cry out to you (especially), let us pray. Have mercy, O God.

For this congregation: for outreach and social ministries centered here (especially); for parish nurses and visitors; for ministries of companionship and support, for the young people in this place who open us to new understandings, let us pray. Have mercy, O God.

Here other intercessions may be offered.In thanksgiving for the faithful departed, who were called by name and now rest from their labors, that their lives serve as witnesses to the goodness of God, let us pray. Have mercy, O God.

Merciful God, hear the prayers of your people, spoken or silent, for the sake of the one who dwells among us, your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

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