They Don’t Know: February 4, 2024

February 5, 2024

 Year B, Epiphany 5                                             Isaiah 40:21-31                                                                                  

            Just last week I was
listening to an NPR news quiz show and they mentioned that a recent study
revealed that 28% of Americans don’t believe in God.  I was a bit shocked as that seemed high to
me.  I realized that while I typically
trust NPR, it was a quiz show, and I should look up the PEW study they were
referencing.  Fortunately, I learned it
was a misrepresentation. It’s not that 28% of Americans don’t believe in God, it’s
that 28% don’t identify with a religion. 
That includes atheists, agnostics or those who don’t believe anything in
particular.  They call them the nones and
we in church have been stressing about the rise of the nones for as long as I
have been ordained.  However, the
interesting thing about the nones is that most of them believe in God or a
higher power, they just don’t associate that higher power with a specific
faith, nor do they practice a faith. 
That’s very different than not believing in God.

            The people who Isaiah was written
for believed in God, although it’s not obvious from the first few lines of our
reading which begins with “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?”  Keep in mind that this comes in
chapter 40.   The prophet has already
been speaking for 40 chapters.  When he
asks: Have you not heard?—it’s a rhetorical question. The expectation is yes
they have heard.  Yes, they do know.  Yes, it has been told to them from the
beginning.  Because Isaiah and the
prophets before have been telling the Hebrew people for years and years about
God.  Since most of Isaiah’s audience has
heard at this point, the better question would be: do they still believe and
have faith?

            The Book of
Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible and it covers several decades.
Our reading for today comes after the Babylonian exile, which was about 50
years long.  Jerusalem had been destroyed
and the people had been exiled to different places. Some were treated ok and assimilated
into their new culture.  Others were
essentially forced into labor camps. Those who were able to return to Jerusalem
were either too young to remember what it was before, or old enough to know
what it once was and wise enough to know what would take to rebuild. 

They returned to a devastated city.  Think of the horrifying pictures we have seen
of Gaza or parts of the Ukraine.  Imagine
this city, Philadelphia in rubble.  That
was the homecoming these people were experiencing.   This is who Isaiah was talking to:  People who were tired.  People who were afraid.  People who were feeling hopeless.  It’s easier to have hope when you don’t
exactly know what you are up against. 
When they were exiled, they could think of their old home and envision a
joyful return.  But when they returned to
the rubble and the waste, all they could see was their own loss.

            So it’s not that
Isaiah was speaking to people who had not heard of the one true God.  Isaiah was trying to remind the people of the
character of God–a God who had the power to stretch the heavens out like a
tent and make the rulers of the earth as nothing—-but also a God who cares
deeply for God’s people.  I wonder how
compelling the argument of the all powerful God would have been for the people
of Israel.   They were a people who had
been defeated. The holy temple had been destroyed.  It seems to me that post defeat and post
exile would not be the time for a prophet to focus on the power of God. Isaiah
tried this at the beginning. I don’t think he could help himself.  However, in my experience, when I am feeling
despair and hopelessness, I don’t want someone to lecture me about God’s
infinite power.

Fortunately the tone shifts toward the end. It’s not just about
the all powerful God who needs to remind others how incredibly powerful he is.
It’s the all powerful God who empowers the weak.  Isaiah writes, “He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless…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.”

            I am not much of
a bird watcher.  I admire people who have
the patience and dedication, but that’s never been my thing, but I do love to
watch eagles fly.  Because they don’t fly
as much as they glide. They harness the power of the wind.   Of course they flap their wings occasionally,
but that’s not their primary method.  I
don’t think it’s a coincidence that Isaiah chooses this bird, the eagle that
soars on the wind to demonstrate God’s care. 
Because the word that is translated to wind in the Hebrew scriptures can
also be translated to God’s spirit or breath. 
When God gives us the wings of eagles, it’s not the wings that make us
powerful or that enable us to fly—it’s 
God’s spirit and breath that lifts us, that gives us the ability to soar.

            Compare the eagle
to a humming bird. They’re cute little guys, but they work hard and can beat
those wings up to 80 times a second.  I
think that is the way most of us operate. 
God gives us God’s spirit and instead of allowing that spirit it to give
us strength and energy, we just beat our wings against it and then we get angry
with God when things aren’t as smooth as we would like them to be.

            The first line of
our opening collect is, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sin, and
give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in
Jesus Christ….”  Jesus rarely emphasized
the power of God.  For him, it was about
worshipping God, but also lifting up the lowly, empowering the powerless,
healing the sick and saving the lost. 
The church got a little lost for awhile. 
There have been times in our history when the church has been corrupt,
when it has been much more concerned with kowtowing to the powerful then
lifting up the lowly.

And that, I fear, is why we have so many nones in our nation.  It’s not because they don’t care.  It’s because they don’t know (just like what
the prophets Isaiah was asking God’s people.) They don’t know the God who wants
to lift us on the wings of eagles so that we can soar.  They don’t know the Jesus who heals the sick
and dines with the marginalized and the oppressed.  They don’t know the Episcopal Church and its
commitment to openness and love.  They
don’t know. 

And we the people of the church have become far too shy about our
faith.  We don’t want to offend anyone.
We certainly don’t want to be associated with those “other Christians.”  And because of all of this, we have missed so
many opportunities to empower others with the faith that we have come to know
and trust. This is the failure of the Episcopal Church (which I have heard on
more than one occasion referred to as Christianity’s best kept secret).  Guess what—we are not supposed to be a

This is not the time to be shy about our faith.  This is the time to be bold—not so we can
grow our church and fill our pews. 
No.  Because they don’t know the
love of God and people are lonely, depressed, and hopeless.  We might not be able to give them wings, but
we can tell them about the spirit that can help lift them up.  They don’t know, but we do and we can tell