Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2021 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:21-31
This morning we read my absolute favorite passage from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, and I can’t let it slip by without preaching on it. This passage touches on a common element of the spiritual life that I don’t think gets enough press because people don’t particularly enjoy sharing their doubts. See if this sounds familiar.
You’re pumping gas or flossing your teeth or washing your hair or doing any sort of mundane activity. The numbers tick by on the gas pump, and your mind wanders. And for some reason, you have a sudden and unbidden attack of existential doubt. Has that ever happened to you? One minute you’re thinking about your grocery list, and the next your heart drops into your stomach, and you shake your head a little and you narrow your eyes and you look up at the sky and you say, “Why do you care about me, Lord?”
For a bleak moment – or perhaps longer – everything seems silly, foolish. You realize you’ve been had. Your cheeks get hot as embarrassment takes hold. You re-focus on the gas pump because you don’t want to think about the errant thought that just went through your wandering mind.
Why do you care about me, Lord?
Notice that this question doesn’t speculate on God’s existence. The question isn’t: “Do you exist, Lord?” There’s no reason to ask God if God exists. Instead, the question wonders why the heck God would ever care about insignificant, messy, little things like us.
And our friend, the prophet Isaiah, doesn’t help matters. He says, “It is [God] 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… To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.”
So, we’re grasshoppers. Great. Why would God care about little grasshoppers like us?
I need to shift gears here for a minute to gain some perspective on this question. There’s a tension in our scriptures — a twofold presentation — about how God relates to us. The dual stories of creation in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis illustrate this tension. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” says the first verse of Genesis. The narrative goes on to tell how God spoke creation into being. God is the conductor of the symphony of creation, drawing forth the music of life and proclaiming the creation “very good.” This filling the void with matter and energy and life and light, speaks of the Cosmic Creator, whose voice and arm stretch into the vast expanse of eternity. This is the understanding of God that Bette Midler sings about: “God is watching us from a distance.”
The second chapter of Genesis presents another view of this same creative God. God is not standing at the podium, waving the baton. Rather, in the second story, God is more like the concertmaster – the first violinist who directs the orchestra to tune and gets all the best solos. “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” Genesis says, God bent down in the dust and formed a human being. Then, into the human’s nostrils, God breathed the “breath of life.” When the human became lonely, God put the human to sleep, and out of the human’s own flesh God created another human being. As the story continues, the two humans heard God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” This movement and participation in the creation, this intimacy, speak of the God who eventually becomes incarnate as the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This is the understanding of God that Joan Osbourne wonders about when she sings: “What if God was one of us…just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?”
The tension between our understanding of God as “Cosmic Creator” and of God as “Intimate Companion” brings us back to our question: “Why do you care about me, Lord?” In those moments of existential angst, the Cosmic Creator looms large over the Intimate Companion because the Cosmic Creator seems so much bigger, holier, more powerful. When my idle thoughts compare the two, the Intimate Companion seems somehow lessened by my own shabbiness.
And this misguided transfer of human shabbiness onto God is difficult to reject. Self-referential human nature dictates that we use ourselves as the measuring sticks by which other things are evaluated. Our ability to reason, manufacture tools, and put our thoughts into speech elevates us above other animals. We then use these factors to order other species by “intelligence.” Chimpanzees eat using rudimentary utensils. Dolphins communicate with their cackling code. Therefore, based on the human-centric scale, these creatures are closer to our presumed preeminence.
But the scale works the other way, as well, as we use ourselves to try to understand God. Our penchants for betrayal, mistrust, indifference, and our well-rehearsed disregard for the welfare of others appear on the measuring stick too. And so when the questions surfaces – “Why do you care about me, Lord? – these regrettable attributes plaster themselves onto our understanding of God. And so it’s no surprise that we wonder why God would care about us, since we don’t do so great a job caring for each other.
The question resounds in my mind, and I imagine the Cosmic Creator looking down from on high and seeing a bunch of tiny grasshoppers. Why should that God be bothered? Then I imagine the Intimate Companion, who I’ve already unconsciously decided is just as apathetic and self-centered as I am. So why should that God care?
There’s a strange and twisted reasoning at work here. The question – “Why do you care about me, Lord?” – hits us during idle moments when we recognize our own cosmic insignificance. At the same time, we apply to God our own severely limited capacity for caring. Our grasshopper-ness both prompts the question and at the same time reduces our vision of God until God fits the expectations of fallible humanity.
The problem here comes from how we read the grasshopper passage from Isaiah. When Isaiah proclaims God’s greatness, he is not applauding God’s distance and isolation. Instead, Isaiah is warning people against the very thing we’ve been talking about – comparing God to us, messy and fallible as we are.
Isaiah hears the Holy One saying, “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” The answer is quite obviously a resounding “NO ONE!” When we escape the twisted logic that seeks to remake God in our own image – then we are one step closer to resolving the question – “Why do you care about me, Lord?”
God as Cosmic Creator, who “stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” did not need a reason to speak creation into being. I might need a reason to build a bookcase or compose a letter, but God doesn’t need to share my motivations. If God did not need a reason to create grasshoppers, then why would that same creator need a reason to care about grasshoppers? Or perhaps, it God’s greatness, to create is to care. God’s very greatness engulfs the “Why” question into God’s eternal being and renders it irrelevant. With the “Why” expunged, the question becomes a glorious statement of faith: “You care about me, Lord.”
You care about me, Lord. When we finally realize this, we notice that God as Intimate Companion has been whispering these words in our ears the whole time. Then we realize that God’s care for us (another word for which is “grace”) enables and enthuses us to care for others. The penchant for betrayal and disregard for others’ welfare, once unfairly plastered onto God’s being, now fall away as God continues to shape and reshape us in God’s image.
Our world is vast and full of questions. We are insignificant. We are messy. We are little things. But God’s vastness stretches into eternity. In staggering showers of grace-filled generosity, God both answers and removes the need to question. In those same showers falls the gift of sanctifying love, which removes our seeming insignificance in a cascade belovedness. As we discern the Cosmic Creator and Intimate Companion in the same loving face of God, more words from the prophet Isaiah resound: “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.”