Wait for the Lord
Yesterday marked a somber anniversary. One year ago, on February 6, 2020, Patricia Dowd, a 57 year-old resident of San Jose California, became the first American to die of Covid-19. Patricia, who was enjoying a successful career as an auditor, left behind a husband and a daughter. She was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer and was known for her turkey lentil soup, which sounds really wonderful in February. The virus that took Patricia’s life has in the year since claimed the lives of nearly half a million others in our country, and two and a quarter million people worldwide, each with a family, each with a story.
Yesterday’s anniversary is just one more reminder, as if we needed reminding, that while living through Covid-19 has been daunting for so many, it has been devastating for so many others and that all of us, all of us, have been diminished.
The entire world has collectively experienced what Joe Mathews once called “the up-againstness of life.”
The Babylonian exile of the people of Judah in the sixth century B.C.E was most certainly an up-againstness experience for them. They were physically distanced in the most extreme sense, displaced by a thousand miles from their homes, their temple, their country, their customs, and in many cases one another.
It is into this Covid-like world, of displacement, and disruption, and separation that the prophet of second Isaiah speaks, seeking to offer these exile people a word of encouragement. Hold on; hope on.
But how? In words that we shared earlier in our call to worship, the prophet gives us away to God: Wait. They that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.
But “wait” seems like such a passive word. Sit back, bide our time. Drum our fingers, twiddle our thumbs, give the dog a bone. Count the tiles in the ceiling. Doze a little. Make a grocery list. File our nails, check the mail. Pace the floor. Stare at the door. Wait.
Is that what waiting means for the prophet?
Don Edwards, was a human interest columnist for the Lexington newspaper. He once wrote about a salesperson in a local department store who noticed a little boy standing at the foot of the ascending escalator. The boy’s gaze was fixed on the handrail as it rolled up from underneath. A little concerned, the salesperson approached the boy and asked, “Are you lost?” Never shifting his gaze from the handrail, the boy said, ‘Nope.” “Are you scared to get on the escalator?” “Nope.” “Then why are you standing here?” “I’m waiting for my chewing gum to come back around.”
Is that what Isaiah is asking us to do? Is that the way he thinks we’ll make it through a time of exile? A time of Covid? Wait for the Lord like we’d stare at a moving handrail? Or stare at the news? Or stare at the statistics? Or stare at the calendar waiting for it to turn from winter to spring, from spring to summer?
The biblical idea of “wait” is far more dynamic, forward-leaning, and active. It’s propelled in its character.
In English, “wait” shares a root with the word “wake,” which is instructive for us about the texture and character of that word in the Bible. Wait shares a root with wake, which suggests that waiting has a dimension of awareness, attentiveness, mindfulness, noticing things, remembering things, not forgetting things, reclaiming things that we believe to be true.
To wait for the Lord is to wake for the Lord, to awaken to truths that steady us, strengthen us, assure us, give us a peace the world cannot give. That’s from John 14.
This is from Philippians: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
And this is from Romans: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not death, not life, not Covid.
And this is from Luke: nothing is impossible with God.
And this is from Matthew—I am awakening to these gifts, to these assurances that come from scripture and through one another as a means by which we all renew our strength. This from Mathew: Come to me all you who are weary from carrying heavy burdens, for nearly a year now, and I will give you rest.
This from Thessalonians: Give thanks somehow by grace. Give thanks in all circumstances. Earlier this week our weekday school director gave me a beautiful phrase to express that practice, that discipline, “gratitude in the crisis” is a new touchstone for me.
The Psalms give us yet another gift: God is our refuge and strength—our refuge: shelter from the storm, our strength: courage through the storm.
And then this precious gift a verse from deep in the heart of the prophet Isaiah: They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, mount up with wings as eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint.
Waking for the Lord means waking to God’s assurance, again and again as we find that assurance in Scripture, and in the encouragement of others who cross our paths; maybe in the encouragement we hear coming out of our own lips before we are even sure we altogether mean it. The assurance that by God’s grace and power at work in us, we can overcome the up-againstness of life with the get-beyondness of hope.
The word “wait” in Isaiah 40 yields other beautiful meanings, too.
I find this quite remarkable that the Hebrew word for wait, wuh-KOH-yeh, is also the word for “gather”. It’s used in that way in Genesis, chapter 1:9, we’re told that God, wuh-KOH-yeh, gathers the waters together into one place. The Greek translation of that verse 9 in chapter 1 in Genesis is a word we’ll recognize too: God synagogues. The word synagogue, of course, means gathering place, gathering together to worship. God synagogues the waters. God’s already having church way back there in Genesis 1. Synagogue is the same word we find in the gospels where we’re told that Jesus longs to gather the people of Jerusalem; as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wing. This gives us a whole new sense of the prophet’s meaning here:
They that wait for the Lord. They that gather for the Lord shall renew their strength.
Immediately I think of our work, yours and mine, our work of enfolding the world in our care, finding our way to the least and the lost, and gathering them in. Lending a hand to feed, to listen, to encourage, to serve, to welcome—all the ways we find and fulfill our mission.
Gathering is about all the ways we lend courage and hope to others—even when ours runs low, and by means of which our own courage and hope are also renewed.
A call, a letter, a porch visit, a couple of hours lending a hand, or running an errand, or making a delivery, a special contribution to a special ministry, a day of volunteering, a year of service, a lifetime, eventually—a lifetime of self-giving to the glory of God. They that gather for the Lord shall renew their strength.
In one of A.J. Verdelle’s novels, a Black grandmother is sharing life’s wisdom with her granddaughter, Denise, Neesy, who is missing her absent mother. The grandmother’s words have over the years become for me gospel truth.
She says to her granddaughter: “Neesey, I know you upset. I know how lonesome you feelin, But you let Granmama tell you somethin. The best way to make y’self feel better is to get y’hands to workin. When you put y’hands on somethin and make it somethin else, that will heal you in lower places than you cry from.”
Get your hands to working, make something into something else. And while we’re at it, somehow loneliness turns to love. Discouragement to hope. Fear to new courage.
They that wake for the Lord, they that gather for the Lord, they that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. And again. And again.
Renew their strength; mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; we shall walk, and not faint.