Working and Waiting

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

February 7, 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31

Mark 1:29-39

I took a week of study leave at the end of January. It wasn’t my usual winter trip with other clergy women because of covid, but I still got away to a place where I could see the ocean, and worked on a writing project while watching the big, wide horizon.

sunrise from a previous study leave trip

As Isaiah said, “it is God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.”

While I can appreciate those who see God in the majesty of mountains, when I think of God, I see the ocean. In addition to the vast horizon, the ocean presents you with a roiling surface of water, but you know there is life teeming underneath that surface. Being on a boat on the ocean reminds you of how small humans are on the face of creation.
Isaiah addresses this dichotomy. God is powerful, vast, and able to be concerned about the smallest detail.

We, on the other hand, are like grasshoppers. God goes on forever. We come to an end.

In this beautiful poem, Isaiah reminds us that even the mightiest kings and princes of humanity are but grass to God.

“It is God who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely 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.”

On one hand, that doesn’t bring me comfort. Being faced with my own rather flimsy mortality does not make me want to cheer. But being reminded that kings and princes are mortal, that we are mortal, does call us to remember where our trust should reside. Our trust should not reside in the winner of a political race, no matter how great their concern for the common welfare.

We should not be waiting for salvation from ourselves, from each other, or from the leaders of our governments.  Because, no matter how much money, or power, or wisdom any other human being has, they are still human.

And so we wait on the Lord.

Isaiah was, as you’ll recall, writing to people who probably didn’t need the reminder that they were mortal, that they were small pieces of creation. They were in exile. They had already been blown about by the winds of political upheaval and knew what it meant to be carried off as stubble by the tempests of Babylon. They knew how kings and princes could affect their lives in horrible ways.

And, depending on where you are in your life’s journey, you might also relate easily to Isaiah’s words. You may not be under Babylonian exile, but we feel the tempests of covid, as 450,000 have died from it in our country, over 2 million deaths around the world. The tempest carries us off like stubble.
Whether we find ourselves in exile or not, these words are for us.

Because we all need the reminder of who this God is whom we serve, whom we follow, and from whom we have life.

“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 Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
God does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.”

So, here’s the reminder we need when our own mortality is limiting us. When our waiting is more than we can bear.

God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
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.

I wonder if Peter’s Mother in Law understood Isaiah’s words a little differently after she met Jesus. Mark doesn’t tell us her name, so let’s give her one. Let’s call her Ruby.

And Ruby knew what it was to wait for the Lord.  Her daughter had married well. Simon Peter was a good man—a bit of a hot head, but a good man. And, as a woman in first century Palestine—as an older woman in first century Palestine—she knew about waiting. She was dependent on others for many things. She was not always in the driver’s seat of her life.  Even before she fell ill, her arthritis would get in the way. She couldn’t see as well as she used to, so the family took away her driver’s license and sold her camel.

So she rubs the knuckles of her arthritic hands and waits for Jesus.

And Jesus comes to her. And he heals her.

And she gets up from her bed, with her strength renewed, with shiny new eagle wings, and she runs without getting weary and she walks without getting faint.

Okay, it actually just says that he lifted her up and the fever left her and she began to serve them.

I don’t know about you, but the first time I read through this text I thought, “Ruby! Don’t get up and serve them! You’ve been sick. They can make their own coffee! And Peter, if you brought Jesus to your house to heal your mother in law just so she can make you dinner, we’re going to have some words.”

But I don’t think this is about Peter needing someone to iron his laundry. I think that once Jesus holds out his hand to Ruby, offering her a return to wholeness, a healing, and a chance to return to her life, then serving them becomes her spontaneous response of gratitude.

Whether it is God restoring the strength to Israel, or Jesus restoring health to Ruby, the response from the healed and restored people is the same. They walk, they run, they get up and move because they have work to do.

God doesn’t restore people and heal people so they can sit around and talk about how awesome it is to be healed. God heals us, God restores us, so that we can join in the work of the kingdom.

If you noticed, after Jesus healed Ruby, he healed many other people. The entire town of Capernaum was standing outside their door. There is much healing to be done.

And after a long day’s work, Jesus stops working. There are still people to heal, people wanting his attention. He gets up and goes to a deserted place to pray.
The crowd and the disciples, when they hear that news, “hunt for him”.

They had other options. They could have waited for the Lord, as Isaiah describes. They could have, like Ruby, taken their own newfound health and wholeness and got to work serving people.

But they didn’t. They hunted for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you!”, they tell him.

They want Jesus to keep doing all of the work himself.

Jesus had some options too, once he was found. He could have said, “Oh gee, if everyone is searching for me, then I better go back and do what they want me to do.”

Instead, he says, “ ‘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.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I read an article this week about how to lead a team that is exhausted when you, yourself, are exhausted. And if that isn’t the article for 11 months into a pandemic, I don’t know what is. One of the things it talked about was paying attention to the difference between what is important and what is urgent.
Jesus was good at that.

He healed lots of people. Not everyone who came to be healed, but lots of people. I’m sure they all saw their healing as urgent and important. Jesus knew he needed rest. He needed time for prayer. He had more than one community he had to visit, more than one community in need of healing. He kept his eye on what was important.

And sometimes waiting has value that we might not always see as we wait, as we get caught in urgent.

Samantha found the great image on the cover of the bulletin of a bee, who had been busy working and then fell asleep in the middle of his task, his little bee behind sticking out of the flower. I think we can often be like that bee, unable to turn off the cries to urgency to the point that we fall asleep in the middle of something important.

I think it is easy when someone calls us and says “everyone is searching for you” to fall prey to the urgent. It’s harder to be deeply grounded in the important. In truth, some things rise to the challenge of being both urgent and important. And time for prayer, time for rest, time for discernment all surely figure in to how we discern where we really are needed right now.

So, I’m thankful for Isaiah’s reminder that we wait for the Lord. Patiently or impatiently. Either grouchy or with grace, we wait for the Lord. Things don’t always move at our pace, and on our time table.

Pandemic time is a time of waiting. I’m waiting to hug people and go to movie theaters and crowded public places. I’m waiting to travel to see family and friends. At church, we’re waiting to gather back together and sing and eat meals and laugh and cry and worship and work. In truth, I’m sick of waiting. I know we all are. “Wait for the Lord” sounds more like judgment and less like a promise from where we are, 11 months into this.

Yet, as we wait, we’re also working, preparing.

Because the truth in the story of healing is that the story doesn’t end after the healing happens. That’s when we get to join in the work of the Kingdom. The leadership of Calvary is doing our best to prepare so that when the world opens up again, we’ll be positioned to do the important work God is even know preparing for us. It feels like we’re busy, even as things feel like they are still shut down. It’s hard to see the way the work we are doing while we’re waiting is going to bear fruit down the road.

And we trust that those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.

In a little while, we will come to the Table. Where we will be fed. We will be renewed and given new strength, where we will be nourished and nurtured, so we can tend to the important, trusting in the healing work of God in a manner and way we cannot control.  We work. We wait. Together.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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