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  • Claire Helton

"A Change on the Wind," by Claire Helton

Isaiah 40:21-31

Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning? YHWH sits above the vaulted roof of the world, and its inhabitants look like grasshoppers! God stretches out the skies like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent for mortals to live under! God reduces the privileged to nothing and throws the rulers of the earth into chaos. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root on earth, than God blows on them and they wither, and a storm wind sweeps them away like chaff. “To whom can you liken me? Who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and ask yourself who made these stars, if not the One who drills them like an army, calling each by name? Because God is so great in strength, so mighty in power, not a single one is missing. How can you say, tribe of Leah and Rachel and Jacob, “My destiny is hidden from YHWH, my rights are ignored by my God?” Do you not know? Have you not heard? YHWH is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. This God does not faint or grow weary; with a depth of understanding that is unsearchable. God gives strength to the weary, and empowers the powerless. Young women may grow tired and weary, young men may stumble and fall, but those who wait for YHWH find a renewed power: they soar on eagles’ wings, they run and don’t get weary, they walk and never tire. This is one of our sacred writings,



Sermon

In the year 539 BCE something significant shifted. Two generations before, the prophet Jeremiah had proclaimed to the people of God that their exile was not going to be a quick detour, God was not waiting in the wings to swoop in and turn things around, despite what their preferred prophets were telling them. And as the years went on, and his prediction proved itself true, they had taken his wisdom to heart. There, in Babylon, the exiles of Judah had settled in, had built homes and lived in them, had planted gardens and eaten what they produced, had married off their sons and daughters, and raised the children born to them there. Those children now had children of their own – an entire generation that had never laid eyes on Jerusalem. Some of them never would. Living out their lives in the great city of Babylon, the capital and cultural crossroads of the farthest reaches of the empire, their eyes had been opened to the broadness of the world. What felt like a tremendous loss to their parents was, for them, just the way things were. They felt no need to return to a city whose significance, for them, lay only in the past. Instead of resenting their surroundings, they grew up accepting that, of course the God their parents had known in Jerusalem was a God they could still know in Babylon, or wherever else they might go. And truly, they thought, wasn’t that how it had always been? Perhaps this is the broadness of perspective that was in the mind of the prophet, writing in the tradition of Isaiah, when he meditated in Isaiah 40 on the splendor and majesty of a God who stretches out the skies like a curtain, who spreads out the canopy of clouds like a tent under which mere mortals can make their dwelling. “Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning? YHWH sits above the vaulted roof of the world, and its inhabitants look like grasshoppers! Lift up your eyes and ask yourself who made these stars, if not the One who drills them like an army, calling each by name?” This youthful generation knew themselves not as Judeans, but as Babylonian Jews. They had begun to understand themselves as being of mixed heritage, and in that broadening they had come to know something of the truth of God: a God who could not be contained or claimed, and certainly never limited to one building or one homeland. But there were many who still longed for home. Their parents and grandparents, the ones who knew what it was not to march, but to be marched, across the desert – in them, the weight of these decades had only deepened the ache of their longing for a return. And so it was that, when the year 539 brought with it a change on the winds, there was an air of rejoicing among the elders of the Babylonian Jews. The rumor was that Cyrus, the Persian conqueror, had set his sights on Babylon. The great wall of the power that held them captive in exile had started to crack. They wouldn’t be going home tomorrow, but the possibility of a return to the way things had been…was on the horizon. It should have brought them courage, it should have brought them renewed energy and vigor – or so they thought to themselves when they realized that the exact opposite seemed to be the case. As the Persian threat to the king of Babylon became clearer, an air of anxiety filled the city. As the days turned to weeks and the armies drew nearer, the Jews in exile realized that the overthrow of the city of their captivity would still mean the overthrow of the city they now called home, and they were filled with fear. The fear made them unkind, they became short-tempered with one another, easily offended, easily offering offense. And it wasn’t just the fear, it was the ambivalence that started to drive them mad. They were afraid of what would happen if the city were overtaken, and they were afraid of what would happen if it stood strong. The prospect of watching Babylon burn around them – which was what would have to happen if they were ever going to be set free – that prospect was almost as frightening as the thought that the empire might stand, that Cyrus would be overpowered, that all this anticipation would be for nothing, and everything would go back to normal – or at least, to what they had begun to call the ‘new normal.’ Rather than making them strong, they were dismayed to find that the prospect of a change on the winds began to make them weak in the here and now. And this is where the prophet stepped in, offering his images of a God big enough to hold this complexity, big enough to understand the ambiguity, big enough to encompass the fear and the anticipation and the excitement and the anger, the bittersweetness of it all. Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning? This God carries a depth of understanding that is unsearchable. And then the prophet continued with a word of encouragement. Come what may, they would need to know that this God who had been with them in exile would continue to be with them here in this home, or when they reached the home they remembered, would be with them on the journey, or wherever else they might end up should the road not lead them where they intended to go (as, in truth, it so seldom does). God would be with them and would be the wind at their backs. Yahweh, the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, is a God who does not faint or grow weary. The fear is real, but so is the God who holds us through it. Not only that, the prophet continued, not only does God hold fast and true, but God imparts this strength to those who trust, to those who will turn their face toward the stars and remember who hung them. God gives strength to the weary, and empowers the powerless. If Babylon stood strong, the people of God would need the courage to tend to one another and their shattered hopes of freedom as they carried on life in exile. If Babylon fell, the people of God would need the courage to face the prospect of uprooting everything they knew, to face the complexity of re-establishing relationships with those who’d been left behind, to face the physical struggle of walking all that long, hard way home. And this is where the words of the prophet grow pointed and poignant in their beauty. As they dreamed of the journey back across the desert sands, of the long hard days and the cold, star-drenched nights, the prophet spoke to the one thing they feared the most: that the time might come for them to make the journey home, to make the journey back to the place they had longed for, and that they would not have the strength to make the trip. To that fear, the prophet had one thing to offer: faith. A faith in something greater, something they could put their trust in even when physical strength gave out. Even your young women may grow tired and weary, he wrote, young men may stumble and fall, but those who wait for Yahweh find a renewed power: they will soar on eagles’ wings, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and never tire. Friends, we are here in a moment when there is change on the wind. There is hope in the air of something different down the road, still to come – not quite here but close enough to give us a glimpse, and to cause us to grow anxious with the way things are. We are taking steps toward a future we can’t quite wrap our minds around, a future full of questions: will it be like it was? Could it ever be, again? And if not, what does that mean? May we, like the ancient people of God, take heart in the knowledge that the one who smooths the canopy of the skies out like a bedspread, like a tablecloth, like a tent cast wide enough to gather us all inside, that this One holds us each close. May that knowledge make us more kind. May it embolden us in our love for one another, may it give us the courage to practice seeking understanding even when we can’t see how to get there. Even youths grow tired and weary, even the young stumble and fall. But those who wait for Yahweh will find a renewed power, they will soar on eagles’ wings, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and never tire. May it be so. Amen.



Invitation to Respond

On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:

  • When you imagine the future ahead of you:

  • Where do you find hope?

  • Where do you find fear?

  • What do you imagine God is calling you to do?

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