February 4, 2024

Readings:    Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

From the Prophet Isaiah, “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I begin today’s sermon with a story: The British Olympic Team found itself in a quandary. Two of their finest athletes, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams were expected to win the gold medal in their respective footraces at the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics. Abrahams, a truly driven and spectacular athlete said that he must win the 100-meter race because he believed (and I quote), “I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.” Eric Liddell was equally driven and determined to win his 400-meter race. But when it was announced that race was scheduled for Sunday, Liddell, a devout Presbyterian was determined to keep the Sabbath and so he refused to run in spite of being pressured to do so by King and country. When asked why, he quoted today’s reading from Isaiah. He proclaimed that those who wait upon the Lord renew their strength and that spending time with God in prayer is the most important thing to him because, he said and again I quote, “when I run, I feel (God’s) pleasure.” One man runs to prove himself. The other waits upon the Lord in order to enjoy the running. Two ways to run. Two ways to live. One depends upon his own strength and the other upon God’s. The interesting thing is that by chance both events were rescheduled and both men won their respective races.

I thought of that story when meditating on today’s scripture lessons. See, our reading from Isaiah is one of my favorite Bible passages. It has been a source of deep comfort and encouragement to me in my Christian walk and for many of you as well. These words from Isaiah assure us that God never grows tired of listening to us, embracing and loving us, never tires of correcting and directing us. Like those eagle’s wings, God never grows weary of communing with God’s people.

And as I meditated upon each of today’s lessons, I wondered how this particular reading along with our other texts fit with our contemporary lives. As I said my prayers, that connection became clear. Our lessons this morning offer timely encouragement in our walk and our life together with God.

     See, ask most people today how they are feeling, and many will say they are tired. Not so much physically tired although we haven’t fully recovered from the Covid pandemic, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually tired because of ongoing racial, gender, economic and political divisions that plague our nation like never before. The truth is the needs of communities have grown so great that churches are scrambling to meet those needs. And in the process, many have grown weary. Like the people of Israel in today’s reading from Isaiah, many wonder if our ways are, indeed, hidden from the Lord or that God simply does not care that the needs of this community, our county, our world are far more than we can handle.

     Our reading from the Gospel according to Mark tells us that Jesus faced a similar dilemma. Wherever he went, people thronged him bringing him their sick and those possessed by demons. The work was great, the need overwhelming, and demons, Mark says, were abundant. Mark tells us that even going into the home of Simon, one of his newly called companions, Jesus found Simon’s mother-in-law sick with fever. We really don’t worry too much about fevers today, but in biblical times, anyone running a fever was critically ill and near death. Well, Jesus took her by the hand, lifted her up, and the fever left her. Just as in last week’s reading when Jesus demonstrated his authority over the unclean and dark forces of this world, he now demonstrates his power over sickness and dying. But our reading doesn’t end there. Simon’s mother-in-law is restored to health and immediately she begins to serve everyone. Now, this isn’t an affirmation that women are called to serve men. Far from it! No! Her actions are an affirmation that God’s people are called from whatever our station in life may be, to serve as Christ has served us.

Our reading concludes with Jesus arising early in the morning and going to a deserted – an empty place – in order to pray and commune with God. Throughout the Gospels, we learn that Jesus did this every day. He took time for quiet and prayer in the presence of God. And it is in that deserted place that the disciples eventually find Jesus. The disciples are as agitated as we are when there is much work to do. They say, “Everyone is searching for you.” In other words, what are you doing here? There’s work to do! Jesus reminds them that he has not come to heal and fix everyone’s problems, but rather, he has come to proclaim his message. And that message is that the kingdom of God is at hand: God’s kingdom is ready to be born within you and within me; God’s kingdom is here for the taking; and sharing that message, Jesus says, “is what I came out to do.”

     St. Paul in today’s reading from I Corinthians tells us that message of the gospel – the good news of God in Christ – the good news of our salvation, our forgiveness, and the opportunity to dwell, to thrive, in God’s kingdom right now, is so important to Paul that he has tried to “become all things to all people.” Not so that he can brag or boast about it, but so that he might by “all means” possible bring God’s saving grace to as many who will accept it. Paul says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel” and that gospel is his reward for he already shares in its blessings: he lives right now in the wholeness of God’s kingdom as a redeemed child or son of God. And we, too, are so called.

See, Jesus said, “Let us go on … that I may proclaim the message … for that is what I came out to do.”  This parish is exemplary in our demonstrated commitment to meet the needs of our community. But our ministry is not about social programs. It is about proclaiming the life-changing and values-transforming good news of God in Christ that proves there is a better way to live. If we are ministering for any other reason than to proclaim and demonstrate that message in our words and our deeds, then we will grow weary, and fall from exhaustion. Our Lord offers that the only way to keep focused on the mission before us and maintain any sense of well-being, is to commune with God in prayer every day.

     Now, I am sure some are thinking, “Oh great! Something else to do now! My plate is already full. I’m … too … tired … to … pray.” You know what? I have said those very same words. The needs of this community are great and there just aren’t enough volunteers to go around. And yet, our scripture lessons tell us that we have all that we need. See, the Psalmist says God is not impressed by our deeds or our stamina. God takes pleasure in those who will wait for the Lord. In communing with God, in prayer, we find direction and strength for the journey before us so that we can proclaim the good news of God. Like those Olympic athletes, we can choose to serve relying upon our own strength in order to justify our existence, or in relying upon God’s strength, entrust our justification to God.

     The Prophet Isaiah brought God’s message to a despondent and broken nation. In the midst of the devastating Babylonian captivity when their cities lay in ruin, their resources shattered, their lives uprooted, and people dying all around them from abuse and sickness, the people of Israel wondered if God was simply blind to their needs. God sent Isaiah to stand in the midst of this tired, worried and disheartened people - people just like many today - and proclaim that God knows how hard we labor. God knows our limitations. God knows that many lose sleep at night worrying about the plight of the poor, the homeless, and others in need. Isaiah reminds God’s people that those who will wait upon the Lord, those who will choose to commune with God, those who will remember that we are first and foremost called to love God and all that God loves, will pray for ourselves, our nation, our leaders and our neighbors, and in so doing will renew their strength, our strength, because beloved, God always keeps God’s promises.

The truth is, sometimes our journeys of faith are like eagle’s wafting above basking in the presence of God. Sometimes it is like running a race, and running with endurance. And sometimes, it takes all that we have to just walk and not faint. Regardless of where we are in our journeys of faith, God is present listening and promising to renew those who will remember that our life together is not about what we do or how we do it, but rather, about gathering together to wait for the Lord in prayer, and then follow where he might lead us. For as Jesus said, “that is what I came out to do.” What a timely message for us as we draw nearer to Lent.

Friends, They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength.” God grant us both the grace and the will so to do. Amen.