The time is about 550 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The once mighty nation of Israel has been defeated by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, of Babylon. Some of God’s people have escaped the destruction of Jerusalem and have fled as refugees into Egypt, and are struggling to survive. Others have remained in hiding in Palestine and are in dire straits. The vast majority of God’s people, however, have been deported to Babylon, where they are living, once again, as slaves. The holy city of Jerusalem, a powerful symbol of God’s abiding presence, lies in ruins. If hope could be at an all time low, this is more than likely the time.
And while we have not yet suffered the horrible ravages that God’s people suffered, our hope is also in short supply. We are tired and we are weary. The coronavirus has not gone away, in fact, it seems to be surging all around us, especially here in Maine. Has God not caught our attention yet? Rather than turning to God in the midst of this crisis, we have instead, turned against one another. Instead of finding peace in our Lord, we are lashing out in violence, and with hatred.
Is there no hope for us? Is all dark and grim like it was for God’s people in the year 550 BC? Not really. Times are tough, and all of our fears are legitimate, but we have not yet suffered as God’s people suffered after their complete and total defeat by the Babylonian army. But that does not deligitimize our pain and suffering at all.
From an outside perspective looking in, God had not done very well by his people. It surely did look like God had given up on them, and abandoned them. It was as if God had turned that great cosmic back of his on his people, and that he had found something far more interesting to look at in a completely different direction. Now, we know of course, that that is never true. We have been told that our way is never hidden from the Lord.
But in the middle of the mess, it can sure seem like it. Too often there is great disparity between what we know about God, and about God’s ways, and how we happen to feel about God at any particular moment. We know that God is great, and wonderful and worthy to be praised, but sometimes that knowledge just doesn’t stir us. The Psalms are full of those “Hey God, where did you go?” moments. “Have you forgotten me; turned your back on me? In case you’d like to know, my circumstances haven’t forgotten me.” “It sure would be nice if you’d show up, God, and help out a little bit!”
And in our passage this morning, God shows up. The whole thing is crammed full with good news for those who yearn for words of hope. Listen:
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way of the Lord, make
straight in the dessert a
highway for our God.
Every valley shall be
lifted up, and every
mountain and hill be
made low; the uneven
ground shall become level,
and the rough places a
plain. Then the glory of
The Lord shall be revealed,
And all people shall
See it together, for the
mouth of the Lord has
For God’s people living in exile in Babylon, that was a wild promise! It was a promise that God would show up, that God would lead them out of exile, and back home to their rightful inheritance. And God did show up. God showed up in the person of a foreign king named Cyrus, who, after defeating the Babylonians, said to the people of God, “Go back, go back home, the road is clear for you to return.” And some of God’s people do go back. It was a struggle, and it was hard work, but they did it, and God’s people have been returning to Israel ever since.
But when we hear those words, we see a scruffy, crazily dressed prophet named John the Baptist. And we hear his impassioned pleas for us to repent, because God is going to show up yet again. And when God shows up this time, it won’t be in the person of a mere man named Cyrus, who says, “Go back, go home”, it will be in the person of Jesus, the very son of God, who says, “Come to me, all of you who labor and are over burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus didn’t say, “Go home”, he said “Come home, come home to me.” And Jesus has been at our side every moment since. And he is with us now, while we wait in exile; while we confront and face our fears and worries.
And Isaiah reminds his readers and us, that God has been with us all along. Isaiah says, “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? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…” It is God! It is God who is in charge, it is God who is keeping watch. It is God who cares deeply for us, even though, and don’t miss this, we are but mere grasshoppers. I don’t know much about grasshoppers, except that I’m pretty sure that I’ve mowed a few of them along with the blades of grass in my lawn.
I suspect that we humans are compared to grasshoppers because in the eternal scheme of things, neither one of us lasts for very long on this planet. Neither one of us has a whole lot of time to tread the paths of this earth. And so the path treading that we do had better be in relationship with God. None of us has much time to waste.
Verses 23 and 24 have a wonderful word for those of us who labor under tyrants and satraps: they don’t last very long either. All of the Nebuchadnezzers and the Herods and the Neros and the Hitlers, and anyone else that we might want to add to that list, come, eventually to the same bad ends. Isaiah says that they come to nothing. That’s not much. Nothing has never been much, even for those who think they are much. God simply whiffs them away with his breath. And that’s often-times and act of mercy. It is mercy that we receive when they are whiffed out.
The exile in Babylon lasted somewhere around 60 or 70 years. That’s about 20 or 30 years longer than the desert wanderings after the exodus from Egypt. And I am sure that during this time of the exile that many of God’s people believed that they had been abandoned by God. Many cried out, “How long, O Lord, how long?” And we have cried the same.
And Isaiah names that feeling in verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” They say that because that is how they feel. It is an honest assessment of their emotional state, even if it is not wholly true. Waiting for God to show up, waiting for God to be visible, is difficult indeed.
And so the rest of this passage is God’s promise to be there with us, even if the eyes of our hearts cannot yet see him. This is God’s promise, to be at our side, while we wait for him to be at our side. And it begins with another one of those thunderous, rhetorical questions that can be answered only in the affirmative: 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. Let’s pray.
OK, God, we know that. We’ve heard it over and over again, mostly at funerals. But unlike you, we do grow weary, we do get old, we do get tired, we do tremble, we do worry, and sometimes we do get really afraid. We don’t know what this world is coming to, and we don’t know what we are coming to. We feel like we could be whiffed out at any moment, just like those grasshoppers.
So help us to understand that we should be striving to come to a deeper relationship with you. We know that your way is unsearchable, but help us to see just a glimpse of the vastness of your love, and the depths of your compassion for us.
We confess, O Lord, that we sometimes judge you based on our own experience of you at any particular moment. We admit that we too soon forget those moments when you were so fully and so powerfully beside us that we were overwhelmed with awe and wonder. And so we yearn for that comfort that comes when we know that you are the God who shows up.
Teach us, O Lord to lean our hearts upon the shoulder of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we pray this especially when we are in need of his healing touch, either to comfort our souls, or to bind up our wounds. Give us power when we are faint and strength when we are powerless. Fill our hearts with joyful anticipation for that day when our bodies, or this world have run their courses, and we see you face to face in that place that has been prepared especially for us. For we have heard, and we have known these things, and so God, grant us faith to them believe always. Amen.