Sunday 5 February 2012

God cares for us, his children!

Address given at Portumna, Eyrecourt and Banagher on Sunday 5th February 2012, 3rd Before Lent (Year B, Proper 0)

What beautiful poetry Isaiah (40:21-31) has given us in today’s Old Testament reading!
It is actually a fragment of a rather longer poem, which goes on for several chapters. The poet invokes the sense of how small and insignificant we humans are in the face of the immense universe around us, and in the face of its Creator.

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
Hasn’t every one of us experienced this same sense of awe at our own smallness - for instance when we look out from a high place at a big view? For me it brings back the memory of standing on top of the hill above Black Head, looking out beyond Aran, out across the vast ocean - next parish Boston, as they say.

And it is not just you and me, the little people, who are as nothing.
The poet continues: It is he

who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
It is good, I think, for the powerful of this world to be reminded that they too are insignificant. And it is good for us to remember it too. We have no reason to fear princes and rulers, since they, like us, will wither and be carried away.

Then the poet invites us to look up at the stars, as today's psalm 147 echoes:

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
I am intrigued by this idea of numbering and naming stars. I think for the poet it must represent having power over them, in a magical kind of way.

Astronomers today, using ever more sensitive telescopes, survey the stars and register them in gigantic star catalogues, so that they can find any one of them again if they want to study it. And as astronomers first discovered more than 150 years ago, not far from here using the great telescope at Birr, we now know that there aren’t just stars out there, but a myriad of galaxies, each one consisting of more stars than we can see with the naked eye. If anything, we are even more insignificant than the poet could ever have imagined!

Astronomers will never catch them all. But if they could, that would not give them the power the poet ascribes to the Creator.

Faced with such a God, is it possible for any of us to feel anything but frank terror?
Yet the poet goes on to reassure us that God, YHWH in the original Hebrew, translated here as the LORD:

.. gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but 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.
The images are very powerful, aren’t they? Which one of us would not wish to ‘mount up with wings like an eagle’? I certainly would, particularly after watching the recent TV series on birds in flight. But it’s a big claim to make that such a mighty creator is concerned with the faint and the powerless. Why should we believe it? The answer, I suggest, lies in our shared experience of faith and the example of Jesus.

Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures very well.
Quite likely he had this whole poem by heart. I feel sure that he felt the same awe we do when he contemplated the magnitude of creation and his own place in it. A little before our Gospel passage, Mark tells us that the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days. I imagine Jesus, in the barren, rugged Judean uplands, looking up at the stars, filled with awe.

Perhaps part of his temptation concerned doubts about whether YHWH really cared for him, small as he was. If so, his faith was strengthened. He overcame these doubts, and went out to teach all who would listen that this mighty God cares for all his creatures, as a father does. And he taught us to pray to ‘Our Father in heaven’.

In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) we heard that when Simon hunted for Jesus and found him praying in a deserted place, Jesus said: ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do’. What was this message? It was surely the message Mark has already summarised in these words (Mark 1:15): ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’.

I like to think that the good news is that not only does God love us, but that he has given us the faith to believe that he does. We human beings seem to be primed to faith - it comes naturally to us. Even though we are faint and powerless we have been given the faith to believe in Isaiah’s caring God, who is the same loving Father that Jesus teaches us about.

It is because of this faith that we are enabled to be fearless, to act like true human beings made in God’s loving image, able to walk and not faint, able to run and not be weary, able to mount up with wings like eagles.

Thanks be to God for the faith that God cares for us, his children!

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