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To Walk and Not Faint

May 4, 2014

Sermon:  To Walk and Not Faint
Text:  Isaiah 40:28-31

Did you watch the Kentucky Derby? Did you bet…No, don’t answer that question. I do not want to know.

California Chrome, the winner, is only three years old. The jockey is fairly young, but the horse’s owners and trainers are old codgers. I thought, Nothing is more appropriate for Senior Adult Sunday than having this kind of prelude of old people winning the Kentucky Derby. I was so glad for them. I guarantee you that I am going to watch the Preakness. If California Chrome wins that race, I will also watch the Belmont. I take great delight in this kind of story. People who have never before been to the Kentucky Derby had the opportunity to enter a horse and experience victory.

Today, Senior Adult Sunday is an occasion to celebrate.

The Sunday School class I teach has been studying the book of Isaiah. More purple passages appear in that book than in any other Old Testament book, except perhaps the Psalms. One of my favorite passages of scripture, Isaiah 40:28-31, is so important to me that I have memorized it. I hope it is one of your favorites too. I want to recite that passage for you now:

28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who wait upon the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

These words were written to the people of Israel who had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years. They were tired, tired of captivity and tired of oppression. We might think of seventy years as one generation, but it is actually two or so – time enough for people to grow up, marry, have children, and have grandchildren. Isaiah begins his prophecy after the Exile with these great words of reassurance. He tells these people, who have been in captivity all of their lives, that the time of their bondage is ending. He also declares that they will have liberation and comfort. God intends to set them free, to restore them, and to make things new.

The political situation is changing. Persia, under the leadership of Cyrus, has defeated Babylon. He has no intention of keeping people captive. It is under his reign that Nehemiah and Ezra return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city and to restore the temple, which had been destroyed. Certainly not all of the Jews will return. This is the beginning of that great period in Jewish history known as the Diaspora, a time when Jewish people are spreading all over the face of the earth. This is also the beginning of synagogue Judaism. Synagogues are built as little temples, places where people can worship a long, long way from Jerusalem. Many will never return to Jerusalem, but every single one of them can experience this spiritual renewal, this renewal of their strength.

Isaiah’s prophecy emphasizes the importance of waiting. “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” Boy, is that hard to do! Learning how to be still and how to wait upon God, who is in charge, is complicated. Waiting does not mean that we must be passive, sitting and twirling our thumbs. Waiting is being active, doing what we know to do, as we wait upon the Lord.

Hudson Taylor, a missionary to inland China, was on a ship that fell into the doldrums with no wind and weak currents as it rounded the tip of South America. The ship’s captain came to Taylor and said, “Please pray for favorable winds.”

Taylor answered, “I will be glad to pray, but you must hoist the sails.”

The captain argued, “I’m not going to hoist the sails. My men will think I’m crazy. If I tell the crew to raise the sails without any wind, they will think I have lost my mind.”

Hudson Taylor answered, “Unless you hoist the sails, I will not pray for wind.”

Once the captain did as he was directed, Taylor prayed. The wind came and moved the ship.

The term we use for people who are sick in the hospital is patients. Patience is perhaps the most difficult spiritual discipline that any of us must learn. Patience is one of the strengths in short supply in our culture. We live in a culture of immediate gratification. We want God to hurry. “Lord, grant me patience, but hurry.” God is never tardy. He is always right-on-time, though His time is not necessarily the same as our time. “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Ben Franklin was a smart man and great patriot who helped establish this new nation. He had many remarkable accomplishments. He invented the wood-burning stove and the fire department – two ideas that seem to go together. He had the ideas for the postal service and the free public library. He knew that ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean needed compartmentalized hulls so that water leaking into one section would not sink the ship.

We also know of a few crazy ideas Ben Franklin had. People who are really smart are sometimes unwise in what they do. He flew a kite, we are told, in a thunderstorm to show how electricity can be conducted. He also proposed making the wild turkey our national bird. Imagine our coins having an image of a turkey on the reverse side. Imagine the Great Seal of the United States of America depicting the image of a turkey. Imagine the professional football team in Ben Franklin’s home city of Philadelphia being called the Philadelphia Turkeys and the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America being the Turkey Scout Award. I have a feeling that Thanksgiving Day would have been very different if the wild turkey had been named the national bird. I am glad Congress defeated Ben Franklin’s recommendation.

The Bible never mentions turkeys, but it does mention eagles. Isaiah refers to eagles when he makes three promises in this passage. First he says that if we “wait upon the Lord, we will mount up with wings as eagles.” An eagle does not fly in a covey. It soars alone, above all others. This particular bird is a symbol of accomplishment, a symbol of strength and power. A great passage in Psalm 103:1-2, 5 also says the Lord blesses us so that our strength is renewed like the eagle’s: “Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Charles Lindbergh’s fellow pilots called him “The Lone Eagle” because he had a particular knack for catching the updraft. He knew how to fly along the sides of mountains so that he could catch the wind, enabling him to save fuel.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set the lunar landing module down on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, they radioed back to Houston, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

I suppose that at times all of us have our fifteen minutes of fame, some accomplishment or achievement; but that is not the way most of life is.

Isaiah also promises, “If you wait upon the Lord, you can run and not be weary.”

Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us in that in 490 B.C. a soldier named Philippides ran all the way from Sparta to Athens to get reinforcements for battle. He fought two days, then ran twenty-six miles back to Athens from Marathon. He was so tired that he collapsed when he arrived and spoke only one word, Nike. Philippides was not asking for a pair of running shoes. He was declaring victory. Nike is a Greek word that means victory. We continue to call races of great length a marathon because of this runner’s accomplishment.

Can you imagine a marathon runner who is not weary?

This week I talked with a young man who has run both the New York and the Boston marathons. All marathon runners talk about hitting a wall at about mile seventeen, a time that is the most difficult. Runners want to stop because they feel totally exhausted. Those who are trained learn to run through that exhaustion. As they do, their Krebs citric acid cycle kicks in, providing a new boost of energy that enables them to finish the race.

I know it is hard to believe that I was a runner in high school and college. I was much younger and lighter back in those days. One day Jimmy Carnes, our cross-country and track coach at Furman, said, “Today, guys, I want you to run up Paris Mountain and down the other side.”

When I finished that run, I was exhausted. My legs hurt so badly that I could hardly stand the pain. When I attended the Southern Conference Cross-Country meet, I had to use crutches because my legs were hurting so badly. My legs still hurt to this day.

I cannot imagine experiencing no weariness when running, but Isaiah says that if we wait upon the Lord we will not be weary; at some points in life we just sort of sail along, hardly noticing the effort required to get through life. Sometimes life is not so difficult.

Then Isaiah adds a third promise: “Those who wait upon the Lord shall walk and not faint,” a goal that seems reasonable for senior adults.

Yesterday after a funeral here at the church I stopped by the grocery store on the way home. A dear lady had parked her car in the fire lane and was walking into the store. I guess after you reach a certain age, you can do that. She thought she could park there.

Noticing that she was using a cane, I asked, “Can I help?”

She answered, “Just get me a grocery cart. I use it for a walker.”

She put her cane in the cart, held onto it like a walker, and guided herself around the store.

“They shall walk and not faint.”

Consider the order in which Isaiah lists these actions in this passage. It sounds as though we are going downhill, like Isaiah is giving these actions in decreasing importance. Isaiah talks about mounting up with wings as eagles, or soaring through life with ease. He talks about running and not being weary and walking without fainting. By the time we get to this bottom rung – using walkers, canes, even motorized grocery carts – we can barely make it. Compared with mounting up with wings as eagles and running without being weary, walking without fainting does not seem like very much. It appears as a low-level goal and sounds as though we are just able to put one foot in front of the other. The order seems as if Isaiah is giving us a sense of declining health, declining strength.

Let me ask you to consider another possibility. What if Isaiah is actually giving us the actions in ascending order? What if he is saying that rarely will we have great accomplishments when he talks about “mounting up with wings as eagles”? It is true that times of great achievement are few and far between. Getting through life without much effort would be like running without being weary. The greater truth seems to be that most of the time, however, we walk and do not faint. Learning to do that – just keep-on-keeping on, never giving up in life – is really the highest level of achievement. As I approach seventy, I am learning a little bit better how to live life one day at a time, how to take great joy in getting out of bed in the morning.

I attended an open house at Spartanburg High School several years ago when our children were younger. I walked into the wrong classroom, a driver’s education room, and I saw something that I have never forgotten. Written on the blackboard in that classroom were the words, “Integrity is doing the right thing. It is doing the right thing every day. It is doing the right thing every time. It is doing the right thing for a lifetime.” The truth is that walking without fainting is our greatest accomplishment.

Let’s take Charles Lindbergh aside and ask him, “When you flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean, wasn’t that your greatest accomplishment? Wasn’t that the time when you needed the strength of the Lord more than at any other time?”

Charles Lindbergh would dab tears from his eyes and say, “No. The most difficult time in my life was when our son was kidnapped and murdered. That is when I needed the strength of the Lord most.”

Let’s take Buzz Aldrin aside and ask him, “You know, you landed on the moon and walked on it. Wasn’t that your greatest accomplishment, the time you needed the strength of the Lord more than at any other time?”

Buzz Aldrin would tell us what he has told so many others, “No, when I got back home I fell into depression and became a despondent alcoholic. That was the time of my greatest difficulty. It is much harder walking on planet earth than it is walking on the moon.”

Great accomplishment is fleeting; it will not last very long. Running without being weary is occasional. This third promise, however, that we can walk and not faint, sustains us.

Some years ago I attended a National Scouting Conference at the University of Indiana. I preached a Sunday morning sermon on this text to the 30,000 boys there. After the service a young man, a Scout leader, came to speak to me. This remarkable man shook my hand and said, “I want to thank you for the sermon. I am an Eagle Scout. When I was a Marine, a second lieutenant, I was wounded. I was highly decorated and got the Purple Heart.” When he added, “I have actually won the Boston Marathon,” I looked at him with a puzzled expression. He was in a wheelchair. Both legs were paralyzed. He explained, “I won the Boston Marathon in the wheelchair division. I lost the use of my legs in Desert Storm. You are right. I have had times of great success. I know what it is like to have times that are not so difficult, but the greatest accomplishment of my life is dragging myself out of bed every morning into this wheelchair and facing the day.”

“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles” – rarely. “They shall run and not be weary” – occasionally. “They shall walk and not faint” – every single day. How do we do that? We wait upon the Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Have you asked Jesus into your life? If not, could I invite you to do that this morning? Simply commit your life to the Lord. You know what he is speaking to your heart. You respond.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2014

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