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Encouragement: Strength to the Faint

June 28, 2009

Isaiah 40:28-31

 When I started this series of sermons on encouragement, a church member came to me and said, “I sure hope you are going to preach a sermon on Isaiah 40.”  I decided to do exactly that.  Many of you recognize this great chapter from the prophet Isaiah as one of the most encouraging portions of God’s Word.  I have preached from this text a number of times, so many of you will hear comments you have heard before.  I have tried to tailor the message especially for today.

Earlier this week, I visited Martha Davenport at the hospital.  The pastor from Green Pond Baptist Church was there, also visiting Martha.  He had come because Harry Morris, Martha’s son-in-law, is serving as Interim Minister of Music at Green Pond.  We greeted each other, and he said, “I heard you preach a sermon years ago, one I have used many times since.”

I said, “You have?  Which one?”

He said, “The one from Isaiah 40.”

It was as if I were receiving confirmation.  I said, “I’m probably going to preach from that passage this coming Sunday.  I will give you credit for it.” 

“That will be fine.  I give you credit every time I preach that sermon.”

No credit is needed.  The message comes right out of the Bible.  Studying a passage of Scripture, preaching on it, and hearing others preach on it all mingle together and become a part of the message.

This morning when I walked into the early service, Dr. Vernon Jeffords commented, “Kirk, the first time I ever heard you preach, you used this very passage as the text.”

The year was 1976.  While on staff at a church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I was invited to preach the Sunday morning sermon at the inaugural meeting of the Baptist Medical Dental Fellowship.  I preached to a relatively small group, about one hundred doctors and dentists interested in medical and dental missions. 

I want to read the passage for your hearing from the Bible I ordinarily use for funerals.  There is no particular significance in that except that I especially like this translation, the Revised Standard Version.  I begin at Verse 28 of Isaiah 40.  Hear now the Word of God:

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

By almost any measure, this week has been eventful.  People in South Carolina and indeed across the nation have heard so much about Governor Mark Sanford and his family.  Those who are avid television watchers have heard about Jon and Kate.  Many of you have heard about the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.  Globally, it has been a busy week. 

This week has been eventful right here at Morningside, too.  Last Sunday, we had a very strong, positive vote to move forward with the plan for our extreme makeover.  We will begin the next stage in the planning process.  Survey results, which have come back from the Natural Church Development group, are quite encouraging.  The survey shows that we have a healthy church.  On Monday night, we had an exceptionally good deacons meeting, and our Vacation Bible school all week long has been a very fine experience.  Our gratitude goes to all of you who worked so hard with that ministry.

On Tuesday night, I called two of our members who were to have surgery. I knew I could not be with them Wednesday morning.  I left a message for one and prayed with the other.  Early Wednesday morning, Clare and I left for Nashville.  I had been invited to attend a Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University, which turned out to be wonderful.  The guest speakers were outstanding: Rev. Dr. Hubert Locke, Professor and Dean Emeritus of Public Affairs at the University of Michigan; Barbara Brown Taylor, exceptional preacher and author; Billy Collins, 2001-2003 Poet Laureate of the United States; and Marilynne Robinson, recent Pulitzer Prize winner for her work Gilead:  A Novel

Clare and I looked forward to a good trip.  We were traveling on I-40 just beyond Waynesville when traffic came to a complete stop.  Delays on I-40 in the summertime are not unusual.  I thought surely road construction was ahead.  While waiting, I made several cell phone calls.  I quipped as I was talking to one member, “The road of life is always under construction.”  He laughed and said, “Tell me about it.”

As it turns out, the delay was not caused by construction.  An eighteen-wheel tanker had flipped near a tunnel at the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, right in the heart of the Smokies.  The Highway Patrol stopped all traffic throughout the Smokey Mountains.  The Hazmat team that was brought in said that cleaning up the toxic spill would take a day or more. 

Unwittingly diverted, Clare and I took the scenic route, driving through Cherokee, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. 

Clare has a knack for turning a bad situation and into something good.  While driving through the Smokies, she asked, “Why don’t we stop for lunch?”  Clare had packed us a picnic lunch, so we stopped by a little mountain stream and enjoyed lunch together.  What a wife!  What a gal!  It is absolutely amazing to have somebody like that with you.

Finally, we resumed our journey on I-40, already running behind our expected schedule.  I called and assured the hotel that we would arrive late.  We had arranged for a standard room, but when we arrived, we found that the hotel had upgraded us to spacious beautiful accommodations with tile floors.  After checking in, we ate supper with Betsy, relaxed, and went to bed. 

Our accommodations were just too good to be true!  On Thursday morning, we received an early call from the hotel manager, telling us that a terrible mistake had been made:  “We have given you the wrong room.  We must have that room, so you need to move out before 10:00 this morning.”

The same woman who packs picnic lunches for trips also packs heavily for other events.  Those of you who know Clare are aware that she usually carries two pocketbooks, with one serving as a backup containing all kinds of supplies.  She packs the same way for a trip.  With little time to spare, we began to gather our belongings, which were scattered all over our room, and prepared to move. 

During our efforts to get everything together, I needed to take my insulin shot.  I had brought a brand new bottle of insulin with me.  Hurried, I dropped it on the tile floor, shattering it to smithereens.  I had brought another bottle that had just a little bit of insulin left, so I rationed myself through the week and got by just fine.  This was the third strike so far during our trip.  First, we had to take an unexpected detour, then make a sudden room change, and now manage with a near-empty bottle of insulin. 

I asked, “Clare, do you think this trip was a good idea?  Maybe it is just a star-crossed week for us.”

She answered, “There is no such thing.  All of this is going to be fine.  It will all work out.”

We had planned to go to June’s house that morning.  She needed to make preparations for Vacation Bible School at her church, and Clare had agreed to keep little Virginia for the day.  I had just a few minutes to spend with June and Virginia before leaving Clare to do her grandmother thing all day.

On most college campuses, students have to walk everywhere.  During this very hot week in Nashville, I walked and walked and walked.  I must tell you that having to walk so much may be one of the reasons my blood sugar did so well. 

On Friday morning, I attended the conference again.  Then we met June and Betsy for lunch and afterwards went by the house where Betsy lives.  She is now responsible for getting the grass cut.  Betsy did not need a lawn mower for that yard.  She needed a hay baler.  That lawn was knee-high.  When she told me that she had no lawnmower and nobody to cut the grass, I told her I would take care of the problem. 

I walked across the street and asked a neighbor, “Do you know anybody in this neighborhood who can cut grass?”

“Oh, yes.  I know just the person.”

Within fifteen minutes, a guy with a brand new lawnmower was tackling that grass.  About an hour later, the grass had all been cut.

Soon after I paid the man and he had left, another neighbor who lived across the street from Betsy walked over to us.  She said, “Sir, you have made a terrible mistake.”

I asked her, “What do you mean?”

“The guy cutting your grass is a convicted felon.  He has broken into houses all over this neighborhood.  I am sure that he cased out this place as he cut the grass.”

I have spent the last six to eight months doing everything possible to protect my daughter.  And here in an effort to get her grass cut, I brought a convicted felon in the yard to walk all around her house and case out everything.

“Clare, do you think we are having a star-crossed week?”

“No, Kirk, it is going to all work out.”

After discovering the fact that I had hired a convicted felon, I did a lot of handy-dandy daddy jobs to shore up the house.  We also made arrangements for the installation of a security system.  What is amazing is that I believe that everything, even this situation, is going to all work out for good.  We will wait and see. 

On Friday night, Clare and I had a very good visit during supper with Betsy, her roommate Lauren, Hudson and Lindzey.  We headed home yesterday. 

I give you this travelogue simply to say that our journey through life does not always happen the way we might expect.  It is true that the road of life is always under construction.  Episodes and eventualities we cannot anticipate intersect our lives every single day, and we encounter many detours along the way.  Any person whose life has taken a sharp detour knows exactly what I mean.  Any person who has encountered unexpected turns in their lives, events they did not ask for, knows exactly what this experience is like. 

Some situations that happen to us are not our fault at all; we are innocent victims.  Other situations are caused by our own wrongdoing, our negligence, and our haste.  People whose lives have taken sharp detours because of these reasons understand that life is not easy.  The journey through life is fraught with hazards.  We experience toxic spills and wrecks of all kinds.  Ask Jon and Kate.  Ask Governor Sanford and his family.  This road of is very difficult for every single person.

Isaiah gives a reminder in this text to people who are in bondage.  My guess is that the people of Israel pretty much thought they were innocent victims dragged off into bondage through no fault of their own.  God had warned them repeatedly, however, to change their ways.  Because they did not, they ended up in bondage many, many miles from home. 

When this kind of problem happens to us, we have some choices.  We can get mad.  We can get even, or we can whine and be despondent.  I do not know what your mother taught you, but my mother taught me that those options do not work.  Throwing a fit is not going to get you what you want.  Going in a corner and pouting is not going to help either. 

Isaiah tells us how to respond.  When life offers you unexpected detours, when problems intersect your life, Isaiah says to wait.  Various translations offer different words there.  Some say “trust.”  Some say “hope.”  The Hebrew word selected by Isaiah can mean all of those definitions.  I choose the Revised Standard Version, which states that we are to “wait upon the Lord.”  This kind of waiting is not just sitting idly and twiddling our thumbs.  That response does not help either.  Our waiting is not like that found in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.  Our response is active waiting.  We are waiting upon the Lord with a sense of anticipation, a sense of expectation.  We are waiting with trust, waiting with hope.

The great missionary Dr. Hudson Taylor was on a boat headed around the tip of South America to mainland China.  In that part of the ocean, ships often fell into what is called the doldrums, a nautical term which describes a situation in which the ship has no favorable winds, thus causing it to be immobilized.  The doldrums is also a word we use to talk about people who fall into a malaise, a despair.  When this ship fell into the doldrums, the captain came to him Dr. Taylor pleaded, “Would you please pray that God would send favorable winds?”

Dr. Taylor answered, “Yes, I will pray for wind.  First, though, you must hoist the sail.”

The captain replied, “I do not dare hoist my sail when there is no wind.  My crew will think I’m crazy.”

“Sir, I am not going to pray for wind unless you are prepared to receive it.  If I ask God to send wind but you are not prepared to receive it, your doubt has outweighed your faith.”

Active waiting is a willingness to hoist the sail first and then pray for wind.  It simply means that we come before God with a sense of humility, that we come before God in the life of prayer with a steadfast faith that God will provide, even when life takes a detour.  It does not matter whether we have been responsible for our own difficulties or whether we are innocent victims.  What matters is that we wait upon the Lord with total humility, with fervent prayer, and with steadfast faith. 

Consider the text for today.  Let me remind you that Isaiah is writing to exiles, to people whose life was hard.  Isaiah says that if we wait upon the Lord we will “mount up with wings like eagles.”  We think, We are going to accomplish a lot here.   Think about eagles a moment.  Eagles do not travel in coveys.  They do not fly in flocks.  Eagles are solitary birds that can soar high above every other bird.  They are symbols of great accomplishment.  They are our national symbol.  The Eagle Scout is the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. 

Charles Lindbergh was known by his fellow pilots as “The Lone Eagle” because he could get more mileage out of a tank of gasoline than any other pilot.  He would fly along the face of a mountain and catch the updraft as an eagle does.  Using that one technique assisted Lindbergh in flying solo across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis

The lunar landing module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon was known as the Eagle.  Perhaps you remember the message radioed back to Houston: “Houston, Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed.”  Armstrong and Aldrin were the first to walk on the face of the moon.  We must view the eagle as a symbol of great accomplishment.

Then Isaiah says that those who wait upon the Lord, “shall run and not be weary.”  The hope of every marathon runner is to run without fatigue, to run a marathon of twenty-six miles and never hit an imaginary wall about mile seventeen that makes them feel like quitting.  The dream of a marathon runner is to run without feeling out of breath, without having pain in the side, without getting leg cramps.  Isaiah contends that if we wait upon the Lord, we will be able to run like that at times.  It is a way of saying that life will be easier at times, that life will not require as much effort.  We will be able to just glide along and have smooth sailing with no storm clouds in the sky at various points in our journey through life.

Think back.  First, Isaiah compares those who wait upon the Lord to an eagle, saying that they will soar or achieve accomplishments far greater than others.  He asserts that God will renew their strength.  Next, Isaiah states that those who wait upon the Lord will be able to run without being weary.  Now, his third statement, “they can walk and not faint,” does not sound like any great shakes.  That last achievement seems to be a pretty low level of ambition.

When we read this passage, we might think that Isaiah is making these comparisons in descending order.  We would consider that he mentions the greatest accomplishment first.  Getting through life smoothly without much difficulty would be second.  Walking and not fainting would be the low end of the ladder. 

Let me suggest to you that Isaiah presents these comparisons, not in descending order but in ascending order.  Rarely, very rarely, do we have accomplishments in which we soar like an eagle.  Occasionally, we might be able to sail through life without much difficulty.  Isn’t it true that our task every single day is simply to put one foot in front of the other just to walk?  We know that daily life is hard. 

Ask Charles Lindbergh, “What was the hardest problem you have gone through?”  I doubt he would talk about flying an airplane.  I doubt he would mention flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean.  Lindbergh would likely describe the kidnapping of his child.  What a wrenching experience!  How difficult to endure! 

Ask Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the surface of the moon, “What has been the most difficult problem of your life?”  I do not think he would talk about traveling in space.  I do not believe he would talk about walking on the moon.  When Buzz Aldrin returned from his space flight, he fell into depression and became an alcoholic.  Aldrin would probably say, “Walking on planet earth is much harder than walking on the moon.”

The truth is that the greatest accomplishment we can have is to walk and not faint.  All of us can fuss and fume, or we can whine and pout.  That will not help.  We must wait actively, wait prayerfully, and wait patiently upon the Lord.  When we do, God promises to renew our strength and help us make it through the most difficult times, to walk and not faint.

Some years ago, I attended a national scouting meeting of future leaders at the University of Indiana.  I was asked to be chaplain for this group of about 8000 Scouts, most of whom were Eagle Scouts.  On Sunday morning, I tailored this very text to suit that particular audience, just as I have done for you today.

When I finished that sermon, a young man, who I learned was an adult leader in Scouts, came forward and said, “I want to talk to you about today’s sermon.  I have many Scouting awards.  I accomplished a lot in the program, including receiving my Eagle Scout Award.  I went to college on a naval ROTC scholarship and became a Marine officer.  I served this country in Desert Storm.  I am highly decorated as a Marine.  I have a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.  I have also won the Boston Marathon.  I know you must have a little trouble believing that because I do not have legs, but I won the wheelchair division of that marathon.  I know what it is ‘to mount up with wings as eagles.’  I have an idea about what it is like ‘to run and not be weary.’  Do you know the hardest thing I have to do?  Every single day, I have to drag myself out of the bed, get into this wheelchair, and face another day. The hardest thing I have to do is ‘walk and not faint.’”

That is the way it is for most of us. 

So Isaiah asks,

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might, he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  

They shall walk and not faint every single day.  That, my friends, is a word of encouragement from our God.

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  Have you invited him to come into your life?  Have you acknowledged him as your Lord?  If you have never done that, could I extend an invitation for you to make that decision?

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2009

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