Strength for Weary Souls
By the end of his life, Victor Frankl was one of the leading psychiatrists in Europe. But during World War II, from 1942-1945, this Austrian-born Jew endured imprisonment in Auschwitz and three other German concentration camps. Millions died in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps, but millions more died simply existing in the horrific, dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps. And Frankl saw first-hand what made the difference between the survivors and the dead, and it wasn’t a matter of physical health and strength. What made the difference between the living and the dead was hope – something to live for beyond the barbed wire, something to look forward to, something to go home to after the war. He wrote about it in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning:
The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate.… Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him anymore.
Line 9 of canto 3 of Dante’s The Inferno reads, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” These words appear in the literary masterpiece as an inscription at the entrance to Hell. It is said that human beings can live for 40 days without food, four days without water and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.
And yet how easy it is to lose hope when we’re facing difficult times in life. Reading people’s posts on Facebook and Instagram over the past few weeks has been interesting, because they’ve been reflecting not just on the passing of a year but the passing of a decade as we move into the “Roaring 20’s.” Some will always look back on a good year with fondness, and on a bad year with a sense of “good riddance,” depending on the challenges they faced, on how life went for them over the past year. But almost no one could look back over a decade without some sense of frustration, pain, and loss.
Maybe for you it was the word everyone fears, and no one wants to hear their doctor utter: cancer. Or maybe you’ve been worn down trying to manage a chronic medical condition. Maybe it was the day your spouse told you they didn’t love you anymore and walked out, or the day you held your child in your arms as he or she slipped from this life. Maybe it’s a teenage daughter who tells you she’s pregnant, or a teenage son who tells you he’s going to be a daddy. Maybe it’s a child, sibling, or parent addicted to cocaine, meth, or heroin. An injury that stole your life and your livelihood. Or maybe someone stole your innocence when you were a child. Maybe someone you loved beat you up or raped you. Maybe you’re a soccer mom doing her best to raise the kids. I don’t know what’s happened to you. But I know too well what’s happened to me. And life has a way of not turning out the way we’d planned. Many, many people get to the point in life where they’ve given up hope. Oh, most aren’t thinking about ending their lives, although some are. But you’ve gotten to the place where the naysayers and news sellers have gotten to you and you’re simply doing your best to survive a day at a time with no real hope for today or for the future. I talk to people like that every day. Some days, I am one of those people.
In our text for today we find the prophet Isaiah near the end of his life offering words of hope from God to a people in exile. His people. The Jewish people. Isaiah was a high-born person, a person, the Bible tells us, “of royal blood.” He’s wasn’t the king. But he had access to the king. In his lifetime he served three kings as a prophet and advisor – one ok, the other two downright evil. In his lifetime he watched the people of Judah go from attempts at worship reform and a reinstatement of the law of Moses among the people to outright rejection of almighty God and the worship of the idols of the Assyrians.
He watched his once proud nation stagger under the burden of heavy tributes paid to Assyria. And he foresaw the day when they would be enveloped by the powerful Assyrians, exiled from their homeland, forced to worship the false gods of the Assyrians, with any dissention ruthlessly crushed. Isaiah was writing to a people who had lost hope. A people who had been beaten down, crushed, and written off, their homeland nothing but a smoldering ruin. They were failures as God’s people. They were failures as a nation. They were a people in despair.
Look at verse 27. Most of us if not all of us will face despair at some point in our lives. It may be for a short season, or it may be for a much, much longer period. We feel abandoned – abandoned by God and maybe abandoned by others too. We ask, “God, where are you? Why are you allowing this to happen? Are you there God? Do you care God? My life is a shambles God … do you even notice?”
And what is God’s response to such questioning, for question God we all do? Is it to punish? To strike us in anger? To rub our faces in the ashes of our lives? No. Look back up at V. 1. Oh, but it’s a common perception in the church that God stomps all over those who question him. Jesus ran into the same idea about God and sought to correct it when he said, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so your Father in heaven?” (Matthew 7:9-11). Jesus looks at people who think God is in the business of stomping on people, ignoring them in their plight, rubbing their face in it, and says, “Huh? That’s just stupid.”
Look back at V. 27. God calls them by name. He calls them “Jacob” and immediately after that refers to them as “Israel.” Putting those two names so close together is intended to remind us of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham wrestling with God. Long before the nation that bore his name was in crisis, Jacob was in the crisis of his life, and he was desperate for a blessing from God. And as he wrestled with, contended with God, God did bless him. And to signify a new beginning in Jacob’s life, God changed his name to Israel, because he had striven with God and with men and had prevailed. It’s okay for the people of God to wrestle with God when life get’s confusing, when we despair, when we’re looking for hope.
Scripture is full of the stories of people who have wrestled with God, who have questioned God, who have wondered where in the heck God has gone. If he cared about them. If he could hear their cries. If he was strong enough to make a difference. And never, not once, was God angered by it. Instead, like a loving parent, he wraps his hurting children in loving arms and says, “I am here.” In your despair. In your pain. In your struggle, I am here. But he doesn’t just say “I am here.” He goes the extra mile with them. Even Jesus, in his darkest hour, wondered at the wisdom of God’s plan. And his finished work on the cross guarantees all of God’s promises to all who trust him as Savior and submit to him as Lord of all. But God doesn’t just say “I see you, I am here.”
Look at verse 28. In the first part of this chapter God has shown himself to be incomparable, over and above all of creation, the indescribable and indisputable King of Kings over all of creation. One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancy, in his book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? says this: If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. As of 2006, they had been speeding away from Earth for 3 decades, approaching a distance of 9 billion miles. When engineers beamed a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it took 13 hours to arrive. Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun – in truth, the size of a coffee cup – fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.
Now, do you think that if even the faintest star cannot escape God’s attention that he doesn’t see you? If the Milky Way galaxy alone were the size of North America (Canada and the United States together), then our entire solar system fits inside this coffee cup. So how small is this planet? And he sees every sparrow that falls to the ground. He wants you to know something this morning … he wants to say something to you this morning … “I see you. I know what you’re facing.”
He is the eternal one, the everlasting God. We, in our human experience, are confined to this moment. To the right now. This moment is all that we have in which to function. We cannot move backward into yesterday. We cannot move forward into tomorrow any faster than one second, one minute, one hour at a time. But God is not bound by time the way we are. He is present to every hour, every moment, every second at once. He is now where you were, he is now where you are now, and he is now where you will be. He is already where you are going.
Now look at verses 29-31. Even our young, vital, strong ones will eventually grow tired and weary. Even the best and toughest among us will eventually reach the end of their capacity, physically, emotionally, even spiritually. Every one of us has a breaking point. Even finely tuned athletes reach that point at which they’re gassed, completely spent, unable to go on. Isaiah is blunt here. Human strength, physical strength, emotional strength, even in its prime, will eventually fail. We are no match for the demands of life. The good news is we also aren’t doomed by our own innate potential or lack thereof.
But the promise of God is this: “You can do it.” No. Our strength will last for a while, but the strength of the strongest of us will eventually fail when the burden is heavy enough. No, the promise of God is this: “I’ll give you the strength to finish the race of life. I’ll give you the strength to take the next step. I’ll give you the strength to carry on, to keep going.” One pastor said “There is a power beyond ourselves, and we can experience it. Isaiah is not merely saying, “God enables those who draw strength from his promise.” He is saying, “God enables those who draw strength from his promise to do the impossible.” The weak soar like eagles and run without tiring and walk without quitting. Their confidence in God will not let them lie down and give up. It’s not a matter of willpower but of expectancy, of knowing that God will bring us through.
And the key word here is “wait.” “Those who WAIT for the LORD shall renew their strength.” What does that mean? When we think of wait, we think of sitting in a waiting room awaiting an appointment. Or perhaps waiting impatiently in the car for someone who is running behind. We think of inaction, of not doing anything. In our minds, the action starts when the waiting is over.
But waiting on God IS action. And it requires two things. First, it means complete dependence upon God. In other words, apart from God you really are done. You can’t go on and you know it. You’ve come to the end of yourself. There’s nothing left to give. Your tank is empty.
Second, it means to allow him to decide the terms. It means we recognize that we have no other help, nothing left in ourselves and nothing coming from someone else. It means that apart from him we are helpless and dead in the water until he acts. But it also means to have a confident expectation that he will act, maybe not in the way we want him to, because he decides the terms, but he will act.
St. Paul loved to use athletic imagery to describe his life in Christ. For Paul, life was like a race. Not a sprint, but a long, endurance race. He knew he would get tired. He knew he could lose all hope. At times he pleaded with God to ease his suffering, to make his journey easier. He knew how easy it would be to run out of strength. To collapse. To give up. He knew what it meant to run this life’s race with strength that was not his own, to do things that he by himself was not capable of. He knew what it meant to WAIT on the LORD, because God’s answer to his pleading was simply “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Years later, in chains on house arrest in Rome awaiting his final appeal directly before Caesar, he knew that unless God intervened, his life would soon end. And so he wrote his final letters to the young pastors he had left in churches scattered throughout what is now modern day Turkey. In one of those letters he said “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” The image that flashes in my mind is of a beaten and exhausted runner crossing the finish line. He may be 1st. He may be 50th. He may be 500th. But he crossed. And he knew that he had not been running, and at times walking, by himself. He was carried along by the one who had promised him that if you wait on me, I will renew your strength so that you fly like an eagle, run without growing weary, and when you can do nothing else, plod along one step at a time without fainting.
I don’t know what your orientation to 2019 was – whether it was a good year or a good riddance year for you. And I don’t know what 2020 has in store for you. But I do know this, that no matter what 2020 brings, you are not alone. God is already there. He is here. He sees you. He knows what you’re up against. And he is ready to help you take one more step when your spirit would collapse, and to help you run, when your strength is spent. So let’s enter 2020 not with rose-colored “It’s going to be a great year” glasses, but with confidence and hope, the expectation that no matter what we face, God is already there with us, and we will not walk one step of this year alone. Let us pray.
Ortlund, R. C., Jr., & Hughes, R. K. (2005). Isaiah: God saves sinners (p. 249). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.