August 6 | “Lift up your eyes…”

“Lift up your eyes…” | 6 August 2023
Texts: Isaiah 40:12-31
Speaker: Mark Rupp

I heard a story this week that is apparently one told among the Hasidic Jewish community. In this story, there was a grandfather who noticed that every morning during the time for daily prayers his granddaughter would sneak off into the woods. At first he ignored it, perhaps thinking she was sneaking off to play. But one day he decided to follow her. When he came upon her deep in the woods, he found her not making mud pies or swinging sticks or climbing trees. No, instead he found her going through the daily prayers just like the rest of the family was back in the house.

He stepped into the clearing and asked his granddaughter, “Why do you go outside to pray?”

She looked up at him and replied, “I feel closer to God when I am in nature.”

The grandfather tried to sound as wise as he could and said to the girl, “Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”

“I know,” she said back. “But I’m not.”

It is a nice little story that borders slightly on the saccharine, but when I first read it this week, the ending caught me off guard like the end of a well-told parable. God may be the same everywhere, but I am not. Or perhaps we might say, the essence of who or what God is may be the same everywhere, but our experiences and receptivity to those revelations are not the same everywhere. Whether we are praying, worshiping, studying, meditating, dancing, or simply waiting for God in quiet contemplation, our experiences can be greatly affected by our surroundings. We are not the same everywhere.

That’s not to say that God cannot be known inside the walls of a church or a home, but I think this story is a reminder that God cannot be contained within any walls any more than God can be contained within any forest or on top of any mountain. Some places, some situations and contexts can open us up in new ways to revelations of the Divine, but others can make it harder to sense God’s presence or to make sense of a God who allows such things to happen. 

Wherever we are, sometimes we need someone or something to remind us to look around, to lift up our eyes, and to wonder at the God who is beyond anything we can fully imagine. When God feels distant, we need reminders to hold on to hope, to keep searching, even if that means we need to learn to see in new ways.

The prophecies found in Isaiah’s writings span several centuries, addressing the people of Israel during many different periods and locations of their community’s existence; periods of prosperity, exile, and restoration. Isaiah’s words often serve as both warnings of impending judgment and promises of hope and restoration.

The Book of Isaiah is often divided into two (sometimes three) main sections. In chapter 40, we find ourselves in the second section, a portion of the book thought to be written to the Israelites during their exile in Babylon. The people were living in a foreign land, feeling lost, abandoned, and far from their homeland and their God.

They were finding it hard to be the same everywhere.

It is in this context that the prophet delivers a message of comfort, reminding the exiles of the greatness of their Creator and the enduring strength found in the Divine creation. Now you may be wondering how the bulk of the passage we read today can be considered a message of “comfort,” but we should remember that these words come directly after the well-loved words of Isaiah often read and sung during Advent: “Comfort, comfort, O my people” and “Every valley shall be lifted up and every hill be made low.” 

Directly after those words of deep comfort and assurance, we arrive at the passage read this morning where Isaiah shifts into a series of rhetorical questions. With these questions, Isaiah calls us to consider the vastness of creation and to reflect on the breathtaking marvels that surround us every day. “Who has measured the waters of the sea in the hollow of their hand? Who has marked off the heavens with a span? Who has enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?”

From words of comfort, Isaiah moves to encouraging the people to broaden their scope, think bigger and experience the hope of a God who is beyond compare.These words were meant to evoke a sense of wonder and awe in the hearts of the exiled Israelites, reminding them that despite their circumstances, the One who fashioned the heavens and the earth remained present to them and their plight.

In their exile, the people surely felt disconnected not only from their homeland but also from their sense of identity. Yet, Isaiah’s message was a resounding affirmation that their true identity was found in being children of the ever-present Creator of all things. Just as the Divine’s handiwork was evident in the world around them, so too was the Divine intimately involved in their lives, offering comfort and hope.

“Lift up your eyes on high and see!” he tells them. “Who created these? God brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name. Because of God’s great strength and power, not one is missing.”

Pastor Mary Anderson points out that Isaiah is making a bit of a risky pastoral move here by focusing on God’s incomparable greatness in contrast to humanity’s smallness. She writes, “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 or we can crawl back into God’s big saving hands. Isaiah proclaimed, and 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.”

I’m not so sure I’d agree that God “controls all and plans all” but I think her central point still stands that the greatness of God that we can glimpse in the vast beauty of Creation can be a comfort. We stand in awe and wonder but we also trust that the great strength and power of God are at their most potent in the assurance  that all are called by name and not one is missing.

The hope of this incomparable God is not found simply in mighty acts of deliverance or great displays of thunderous power. Even if those are the easiest to point to, we need a hope that lives just as comfortably in the places of pain and exile. The hope we claim as we lift up our eyes and stand in awe and wonder before the God who measures oceans, marks off the heavens, and weighs mountains, this is a hope in a stead-fast relationship, a hope that Love (with a capital L) is written into the foundations of the universe. It is a hope that this Love is ultimately stronger than despair, death, and all forms of exile that separate us from one another and ourselves.

From these rhetorical questions about the incomparability of God, Isaiah swings to new questions. “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?” Now the focus is on the people, a reminder of who they were and still are as beloved. This is not the first time they have faced hardship. This is not the first time they have been admonished to trust God in the wilderness or to have faith in the God who is there in the desert alongside them.

Remember who you are. It is hard to be the same everywhere, but remember, change your perspective and lift up your eyes to the God who is the same everywhere. If you can do this, if you can hold on to this hope and continue to sing your songs of hope for those who need to hear them, you will mount up with wings like eagles. You will run and not become tired because your hope is not dependent on fickle notions about winning this or that race but on what it means to persevere together, in relationships of mutual care and love.

On Tuesday, we explored this passage with some of our young people during our one night Vacation Bible School meet-up at Whetstone Park. We told everyone to meet near the duck pond, but it probably would have been more accurate to call it the goose pond.

I set up some blankets on the grass and proceeded to tell the story using wooden figurines and felt scraps and rocks and dried beans for stars. We watched the people taken from their home and forced to live in a strange place. We wondered about how they felt. We listened as the figure of Isaiah approached to speak a message of comfort. We wondered together what we might say to a friend who was feeling like God didn’t care about them.

To that question one child very matter of factly retorted “But that’s not true! God loves everyone.” In a way, her own rehearsal of Isaiah’s words. Another suggested that maybe we could sing them a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I couldn’t help but think of the words to Psalm 137 where the people in exile hang up their harps and ask one another “How can we sing the songs of God while in a foreign land?”

While the Isaiah figure was admonishing the people figures to lift up their eyes, I realized my audience was already lifting up their eyes to the gaggle of curious geese that had made their way from the pond to the grass about 10 feet away from us. We marveled together at how they seemed to be listening in to the story. I attempted to keep all of my audiences engaged by continuing on with the story and Isaiah’s words.

I’m not sure I could make this up so poetically on my own, but as we got to the part where Isaiah talked about how those who wait on God will mount up with wings like eagles, the geese began to run and take flight off toward the river and the setting sun, loud honking announcing their departure. 

God may be the same everywhere, but I think we would have had a very different experience of this piece of scripture if we had been reading it inside. From here on out, I know that I won’t be able to hear this passage from Isaiah and not think of those geese. They didn’t really soar like eagles, but maybe that’s ok. Maybe life doesn’t always leave us feeling like eagles. Maybe sometimes we’re more like geese who make messes everywhere, who’s honking is more cacophony than melody, but who can still lift up their long necks and soar in their own way. 

Lift up your eyes, friends, for God is all around. Sometimes we just need to change our perspective, to get a goose’s eye view of the world, and to remember that our strength comes from hope in a God who knows and loves all Creation by name.