Text Study for Isaiah 40:21-31; 5 Epiphany B, 2021

Too Good Not to Be True

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted,” the prophet proclaims to those in exile, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…” Waiting for the LORD is always waiting in expectation that something good will happen.

The Hebrew verb translated as “renew” has the sense of gaining something new, something that wasn’t there before. The youths will faint, grow weary, and fall because they continue to rely on themselves – the normal source of endurance, energy, and balance. Those who wait in hope will get something they didn’t have before. This new energy will be the capacity to act.

The prophet sets this promised newness in an ancient context. As the LORD introduces the Sinai covenant to Moses in Exodus 19, the LORD reminds him of the rescue from Egypt. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,” the LORD says, “and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

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The Hebrew word translated as “eagle” in both Exodus 19 and Isaiah 40 is not very precise as to the actual species of the bird in question. It may be an eagle, hawk, or some other bird of prey. It may as easily be a vulture or other carrion-feeder, since the same word is used for all of the preceding fowl. It may even be a pelican or other sea bird.

What matters is the wingspan, not the ornithology. And what matters about the wingspan first of all is the care, not the power. The Hebrews are carried out of Egypt by the Creator of the whole earth. That compassionate Creator has chosen the Hebrews to be God’s “priestly kingdom and holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In Isaiah 40, the prophet reminds the listeners that this promise has not petered out just because God’s people have taken an exilic detour. God remains the Creator of all, as we can see in verses 21-26 and verse 28.

We might even think about another avian image, this time offered by Jesus. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” Jesus laments in Luke 13:34. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is the image we should allow to control our imagination as we hear the words of the prophet in this reading today.

Those who wait for the LORD shall be given new strength for their journey from exile to the land of promise. They shall be enfolded in the wings of love, just as their ancestors were in the wilderness wandering. As often as they fall down, they shall be raised up to walk again (perhaps we could think about the Gospel reading in this regard). No matter how exhaustion pursues them, they will not “run out of gas.”

This is God’s promise through the prophet in the darkest days of the Exile. Perhaps the prophet’s listeners scoffed that the news was too good to be true. “Look around you!” they might have said. “Does it look to you like our God is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth? It looks a lot more like the gods of the Babylonians are in charge here,” they might have complained. “It looks like our God has indeed grown weary and fainted from exhaustion.”

The profound temptation is to surrender to the worship of idols that promise immediate certainty and security (see verses 18-20, for example). The gods of the Babylonians seem to offer position and privilege, power and property. The Judeans bet on the wrong horse and lost, some of them were perhaps thinking. All the superficial evidence supported this conclusion. Perhaps it is the younger generation, those without any living memories of the land of promise, who are most susceptible to these temptations – thus the contrast between fainting youths and stalwart elders in our text.

“The text this week holds two thoughts in tension,” writes W. Dennis Tucker in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “The proclamation of what seems impossible to believe is held together with the truth of what is impossible to deny.” The prophet’s proclamation is, in fact, too good not to be true. If the exiles had only their own resources and their old ways of seeing the world to rely on, then nothing was going to change.

Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old,” the LORD commands through the prophet in Isaiah 43:18-19. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth,” the LORD announces, “do you not see it?” In his most celebrated work, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust puts it this way. “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The prophet pleads with the exiles to receive the gift of new eyes so they can perceive what is right in front of their noses.

Not only do they need new eyes. They need new ears, and a new way of understanding how God operates. Twice the prophet asks the incredulous questions. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (vv. 21, 28). What part of this are you not getting (and why not)? These questions are really emphatic statements, as Tucker notes: “Surely you have known! Surely you have heard!”

The verbs have more depth in Hebrew than they do in English. To “know” in this verse means more than to apprehend intellectually. It means to take in the truth of what is being said and make it a part of my life. To “hear” (the same verb as we find in the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4) also means to obey and to put into action. The good news has been announced. It’s time to live as if it’s true. After all, the news is too good not to be true.

This is a text not for people who want to back to things the way they were but for a people who long to go forward in faith. It is God’s faithfulness that is reliable, not some remembered “golden age” (which was probably never all that golden to begin with). Charles Aaron, Jr., puts it this way in his workingpreacher.org commentary.

This passage offers a call to harken back to the faith that formed the church. That faith includes God’s power and creativity as well as the affirmation that God sees and knows us. God cares for us. God can give the church the energy it needs to move into an uncertain future. Although these words originally spoke to people whose faith might have faded nearly away, they can speak persuasively to people whose faith is shaky and tentative. They can speak a word of courage to those who see reason for fear in what the church faces.

We are certainly weary people. We are weary of dealing with The Pandemic. We are weary of executive and election drama. We are weary of legislative gridlock and the schemes of those intent on ruling but disinterested in governing. We are weary of debates and arguments that have no end. We are weary of bad news and wary of good news. If there is a text for us this week, perhaps it is this one.

We long to go back to the way things were. Of course, that’s not a new sentiment. The campaign and presidency of Donald Trump were built on the desire of some to return to a “better” time. “Better,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder and the privilege of the privilege-holder.

The 1950’s – the time after which it seems that Donald Trump hankers — were good times for American, white, male, business executives. They weren’t such good times for Black, brown, or Asian Americans. They weren’t such good times for women who wanted more than pearls and cocktail parties. They weren’t such good times for anyone who was other than a cisgender, heterosexual male. They weren’t such good times for former colonies and subjects of decaying empires. When a particular kind of America was “great,” most of the world suffered as a result.

I don’t wish to suggest that it was all bad by any means. Our forebears gave us much on which to build. But building forward is quite different from going back. That is certainly the perspective the prophet brings to the people of Judah in exile. This is the promise that Jesus brings as he announces in Mark 1:15 that the Reign of God has drawn near. The proper response is to get a changed mind and trust that the Good News is too good not to be true.

How shall we “pivot” from this text to the Gospel reading in our preaching this week? It is easy for the beneficiaries of American, white, male supremacy to long for a return to that cultural imperialism. But there is no going back. It was that great fictional twentieth century philosopher, Longfellow Deeds, who first noted, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” We who have been so privileged are likely to lose some of that power, position, and property as the Reign of God comes near to us.

This is a “last shall be first” text, after all. The youths grow weary and faint. They stumble and fall. It is those who wait for the LORD who find a new source of energy and hope. “But we have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians chapter four of his second letter, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The LORD gives power to the fainting and strengthens those who are powerless.

Later in his letter, Paul uses his own biography to illustrate this principle. In 2 Corinthians 12:10, The Lord assures Paul that God’s grace is sufficient to fill up his weakness. “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me,” Paul concludes. “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

This is the testimony Jesus presents as he heals the sick and liberates the demon-possessed. This is the Good News that cannot be suppressed – even by Jesus’ command – but rather spreads in every direction. This is the Good News which can lead us forward out of our darkness –pandemic, white supremacy, economic dislocation, cold civil war – and into a new path. This is certainly news that is too good not to be true.

References and Resources

Aaron, Charles L., Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-4

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Tucker, W. Dennis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-2 Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.