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The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 02/08/2015

Sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31, by Samuel Zumwalt


Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It 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 dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

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

25 To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
    and because he is strong in power
    not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have 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.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they 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.



Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


Last weekend over 114 million people watched Super Bowl XLIX. It was the largest Super Bowl television audience ever! Not everyone watching was a Patriots or a Seahawks fan. Many people wanted to see the Super Bowl TV commercials which are always known for their creativity and their cleverness.

The TV commercials you remember most have a catchy slogan or song or gag that will stick with you for years. I remember a dog food commercial from my middle school years that went: “My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ‘cause he gets Ken-L Ration. My dog’s better than yours.”

I always think of that commercial when I think about the conflicts in the Ancient Near East. Each of the nations had their own gods, and when one nation conquered another, the tacit assumption was: “Our gods are better than your gods, because we won and you lost.” Like the Super Bowl, the winning nation had bragging rights until someone else conquered them. It was like a deadlier version of the childhood game we liked to play called “King of the Mountain.” When builders were building new houses in our neighborhood or if our parents ordered a load of sand or topsoil, we children struck up a quick game. You were king of that big pile of sand or dirt until somebody knocked you off the top. Rivals would cooperate to knock off the latest king, and then loyalties shifted again and again. Everyone wanted to be king.

At one time Assyria had been king of the mountain. They had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and made the southern kingdom of Judah its vassal. Surely their gods were greater than the God of Israel and of Judah. But then the Assyrians’ power waned, and they were conquered by the Chaldeans. So now the Chaldeans’ gods must have been stronger than those of the Assyrians. Then the Chaldeans conquered Jerusalem and took its king from David’s family tree along with the leadership class into exile in Babylon. So now these Chaldeans were truly the big dog in the region. About ten years later after resistance to their rule grew strong in Jerusalem, the Chaldeans came back again to destroy the Temple and to leave Jerusalem largely in ruins. They slaughtered all the sons of the last Davidic king, and then blinded him before taking that king and the second tier of leaders into exile in Babylon. God’s people wondered: “Did this total domination and destruction of the LORD’s Temple not mean that the Chaldeans’ gods were stronger than the God of Judah, too?”

The subsequent fifty years in exile were a time of painful reflection, doubtless filled with what Christian mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.” The Babylonian houses of worship were magnificent as were the hanging gardens which were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. What was Jerusalem compared to that? New generations of God’s people were born in exile and learned Aramaic, their captors’ language. Were they children of a lesser god?

The Deuteronomistic history from that time in exile gave a theological explanation for why God’s people had lost the Land, the Temple, and the king from David’s family. The problem was not with God who is the only God and unrivaled by the idols of their Babylonian neighbors. Their God had not been defeated by a bunch of idol worshipers. No, the problem was with those who had not kept the Sinai covenant. Because they had not keep covenant, God allowed them to lose the use of the Land and access to the Temple and the leadership of a Davidic king. Had not God’s faithful prophets warned them repeatedly what would happen if they forgot the covenant’s stipulations? In the haunting words of Don McLean’s song Vincent, “They would not listen. They did not know how.”

Only after decades in exile and only after God raised up Cyrus the Persian to rescue His people and conquer those vain Chaldeans were His people ready to listen. And so in the opening words of our lesson, the LORD God asks: “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Don’t you yet know Who you are dealing with? There is only One God. He has no rivals. He has not forgotten His people even in exile. He can’t be knocked off His throne by idols or their minions. God is God, and mortals wither and blow away like straw. Israel’s God will set His people free as He once delivered their ancestors from Egypt. He will bring them back to the Promised Land.



In four months, I will celebrate my 34th anniversary of ordination. I wouldn’t believe it possible but for the fact that last Friday I looked at a digital proof of my staff photo for our latest church directory. Yes, I definitely look 61. In August, it will be 39 years since I began a week of Hebrew at what was then known as Seminex (seminary-in-exile). The seminary logo was a shoot growing out of a stump, a “holy remnant” from the mighty oak that had been cut down. The idea of being exiles was quite the rage at the seminary in a 1960s kind of adolescent rebellion against the denomination from which most of the professors and students had taken their leave. Those who stayed with the denomination labeled their departure an exodus instead of an exile. And so for forty-one years, those who lived through that time have disagreed about what happened. Sadly, no one has told that story with what AA calls a searching and fearless moral inventory.

I confess to an agnosticism about North American church denominations and all other manifestations of Christ’s Church on earth. If I were part of the denomination of my childhood, I would be no more at home there than I am in my present denomination. Were I a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, I doubt I would be home there either although I have an immense respect for both. I suspect that most of what used to be called the mainline American Protestant churches will eventually merge into some kind of weak union of social reformers while the so-called nondenominational megachurches will continue to be constantly changing cults of personality trying to make people feel comfortable and at home where they are. But, you see, the problem for Christians is that we are strangers and exiles here. This is not our home!

Pain is a great teacher if we will learn from it. When God’s people were exiled in Babylon, they were, at first, shocked that God had not saved them from the loss of all that was familiar and all that they held dear. Grief overwhelmed them for a time. The psalmist captures their hatred of their captors in that terrible final verse of Psalm 137. And then, they had a lot of time to ask that middle of the night question: “How did we get here? How did this happen to us?” When you finally understand that you are in exile on account of your own sins, the consequences of your own bad choices, then you can begin to let pain be your teacher. Then you can say, “I am in this place because I have not feared, loved, and trusted God above all else!”

Now doubtless God’s people had great Schadenfreude on the day that Cyrus the Persian humiliated the Chaldeans. You can imagine they were like a mocking stadium crowd singing to the defeated Chaldeans: “Na, na, na, na; Na, na, na, na; Hey, hey, goodbye!” But, then Cyrus told them they could go back home and rebuild Jerusalem. And the oldest folks with the longest memories were anxious to go back home. But Jerusalem and Judah wasn’t home for the young. Like far too many Christians including far too many pastors, professors, presidents and bishops, those born in Babylon had settled in to their life there. They did not get that they were exiles!

It’s hard to act like a stranger and an exile when you are just fine where you are and your focus is helping people to feel more comfortable where they are. Oh, how the health and wealth preachers preach such sweet comfort! Oh, how the builders of bigger and bigger barns preach such sweet comfort! Oh, how the God-loves-you-the-weirder-you-are, look-at-me-I’m-so-hip-and-cool pastors preach such sweet comfort! Obviously, they haven’t had enough pain yet. If you’re writing books about how to be a great pastor after a few years of success, obviously you haven’t experienced enough pain or you haven’t learned a damned thing from your pain. If you are a Christian, you are a stranger and an exile here. Babylon is not your home, child! Shut up!

Exiles who know they are strangers and exiles learn to wait on the LORD. It’s not easy to wait. You must learn that from the pain that comes by not waiting on the LORD. In other words, learning to wait takes time. And when you try to force God’s hand and when you try to bring in God’s kingdom by your own efforts, then you end up with a hope that is built on something less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness...which is why Christ’s Church on earth is such a mess and the world around us an even bigger mess. We get too soon old and too late smart!



The Babylonian exiles waited fifty or more years. How many years did that lame man wait at the Beatiful Gate (Acts 3)? How many years did Blind Bartimaeus wait (Mark 10)? How many years did the ten lepers wait (Luke 17)? How many years did Mary Magdalene wait to be freed from her demons (Luke 8)? How many years did Paul live with that thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12)? They all had to wait on the LORD. And even after years of heartache and struggle, Paul was told what? “My grace is sufficient for you. For my strength is made perfect in your weakness” (12:9). The waiting is not over when the Lord Jesus graciously touches our lives.

In the water of Holy Baptism, the Father claims new children for Jesus’ sake as we are buried and raised with Christ. When hands are placed on our heads, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Our commonwealth is no longer where we are culturally or geographically or psychologically or familially or temporally. Today, Christians who are undergoing persecution by their neighbors understand far better that they are exiles here. Will it take persecution or the betrayals of those who know us before we understand this truth?

Left to ourselves, those who revel in youth and cool and beauty and inner strength and success and all those other narcissistic marks of foolishness will most certainly give out and wear out. If you have ears, listen. Those who are wise will gather with Christ’s Church on Ash Wednesday to hear: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” and “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where rust and moth consume and thieves break in and steal....”

If we run on our own strength or on the strength of Babylon’s seductive gods, we will surely grow faint from trying to run on empty. So, dear ones, wait on the LORD with the hopeful expectation of older exiles who have learned from pain not to trust in princes or princesses or false prophets and their vain empty words. We are not from here. Babylon with all its glories can never be our home. And its gods bearing all the devil’s empty promises can never give true strength for our weakness.

Waiting on the LORD is active and hopeful. God’s children know that God alone can give power to His faint children and strength in our weakness. And so, made aware by pain, we come again confessing our sins and lifting up our empty hands as we gather at the Table of the LORD. Here Christ Himself is truly present in the earthly stuff of bread and wine. Here He welcomes us weary, sin-sick exiles with His promise: “This is my Body and this is my Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And through that Gift, we have the strength of the Triune God’s own eternal life and love flowing into our weak and heavy-laden lives. The Holy Spirit sends us back to our exile as if we had eagles’ wings, able to run the race set before us with our eyes focused on the Servant Son, out in front, leading us through death to life...all the way home to His Father’s waiting arms in paradise!


In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

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