Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah finds the people of Israel in deep despair, wondering if they’ve been abandoned by God.
The land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the land that God led them to after freeing them from slavery in Egypt; the land where King David ruled and where the magnificent Temple, the very dwelling place of God, was built — that land is no longer theirs.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and his powerful armies have sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Those Israelites who weren’t killed were captured and taken back to Babylon, where they remain in exile.
The Israelites are broken, defeated, and humiliated, filled with doubts and questions about God. Why did God allow this to happen? Has God forgotten or negated the divine covenant with the people of Israel? Does God no longer love them?
Even more disturbingly they wonder: Are the Babylonian gods than the God of Israel? What chances do the exiled people of Israel have in a world dominated by emperors and their mighty armies?
Those are the questions and doubts addressed by the prophet Isaiah. His answer is an emphatic defense of the God of Israel against all other, lesser gods.
The Babylonian gods are mere idols, created by human hands, the prophet proclaims. The God of Israel, on the other hand, created the entire universe. Their God formed the foundations of the Earth, and created the heavens with the ease of one spreading out a curtain.
God sits above the Earth in regal splendor, so high and lifted up, so elevated and exalted, that the human inhabitants of the Earth are seen only at a distance, as small as insects.
“To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
The answer, obviously, is no one.
Isaiah also reminds the people that their powerful, creating God does not merely stay in the heavens looking down on the people. God is deeply involved in the events of human history.
The God who governs the heavens can dispatch the nations of the Earth. This God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the Earth as nothing.”
The God who rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and made a covenant with them still remembers them and is about to rescue them from their enemies once more. The people of Israel may feel that the strength of the Babylonian military and empire are overwhelming, but they cannot stop the power of God.
As one commenter notes, this “describes the heart of biblical faith as the entry of God into the confusion of human affairs.
“Like the rush of a forceful wind, God’s entry sweeps away every obstacle that stands between the community and its God, as tyrants fall like stubble and a way is made through the wilderness.”
The people of Israel may feel like the situation is hopeless, but the power of God is about to bring their exile to an end.
There are parallels between the Israelites’ plight and our own.
They were in exile in a foreign land. For almost the last 11 months it has felt like we are in exile from our own lives as we live through a global pandemic.
We may be exiled from our offices, from our schools, from our favorite restaurants and movie theaters. We’re exiled from our church building.
We may even be exiled from our families and friends — unable to visit, unable to hug the people we love, even unable to hold their hands in the hospital.
The fortunate among us are able to work and study and worship in new ways, but many in our community are also exiled from their livelihoods, from being able to provide and care for our families.
Like the Israelites exiled in Babylonia we may feel faint, weary, powerless, and exhausted.
But the God of Israel, our God, is none of these things.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Isaiah asks the people of Israel and us.
God does not grow faint or weary. God gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.
God is just what we weary exiles need, a God who does not stay in the distant heavens, but who enters into the confusion of human affairs.
No one can answer why something like a pandemic rages through a world created by a loving, powerful God. No one can answer why some are not affected by the virus and others die lonely, difficult deaths.
I do know that this pandemic, like others throughout history, is not God’s plan for the world, not some kind of divine punishment.
And I do believe that God is present in the midst of our confusion — with those who are sick, with those who grieve, with those whose livelihoods are lost.
And God is present in other ways, too — with the scientists who worked day and night to find a vaccine, with weary health care workers and first responders and all those whose work is essential to our lives.
And God is also with us who have been more fortunate — giving us strength to continue to do the things we need to do to keep one another safe, inspiring us to share our abundance with those who have less, to care for one another in new ways.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
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.