Sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31
Is the sky blue? Is the Pope Catholic? Why do people ask questions which they don’t expect to be answered? Sometimes a question can underscore the point better than the statement of a fact. For example: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” The answer is blowing in the wind. Bob Dillon’s song is a great example of how rhetorical questions probe the listener with an urgency to listen more deeply and reflect on our assumptions. He uses nine rhetorical questions to lay bare the senselessness of war:
Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
If Dillon’s song had been titled, “You are blind and missing the obvious” who would have listened? The prophet Isaiah is also using a repetition of questions to make a point:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
If Isaiah had simply said, “Look, your mindset is all wrong and you have forgotten your God,” it wouldn’t have the same impact. Instead, I hear these questions and feel like I have lost something, and I would like to have back again. Isaiah’s audience lived in exile in Babylon. They were strangers in a strange land, without status and the ability to create the foundations of life. They had lost hope and felt forgotten by God, out of sight and out of mind. Some of them were probably brought as children- and stuck without a homeland. They were dreamers who were losing the dream.
Isaiah seeks to ground them in a more ultimate truth than their current unjust condition. “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” God is the creator and people are like grasshoppers. The rulers are fragile, God blows on them and they wither. ((Maybe Isaiah was the inspiration for “Blowing in the Wind.!”)
So God is great and we are grasshoppers. How do you feel being compared to the small leaf-hoppers who are more prey than predator. Isaiah had a gift for metaphor, so I wonder if he carefully chose contrasting grasshoppers with eagles, or if any small insect or rodent would do.
Grasshoppers have gotten a bad rap to my way of thinking. In Aesop’s fables, they are the lazy, playful bug that has nothing for the winter and must beg the industrious ant for food and shelter. This carries over in the movie “Bugs Life” where the grasshoppers torment the ants like a street gang. Humans generally have a negative view of the grasshopper as a pest that can eat us out of our spot on the food chain. I remember an Iowa summer when the grasshoppers were thicker than flies. When I walked in the pasture, each step caused a ripple of life that surged nearly 10 feet away as the mobs of grasshoppers leapt out of my way. They ate everything, the corn, the alfalfa and my mother’s tomatoes. Thank God they did not leave the Zucchini. Even that went with the insatiable herbivores.
I liked the grasshoppers. They had wings too, just like eagles. While they cannot soar like eagles, they can leap 20 times more than their own body length. For a human such a feat would be a flying leap of 40 yards. (That could come in handy at the Super Bowl.) Grasshoppers are one of the most successful species on the planet, coming in 18,000 different varieties (who counts this stuff?)
I also like grasshoppers because of one of my favorite TV shows growing up. Remember David Carradine, and the weekly drama “Kung Fu?” The main character was a wandering Chinese monk who immigrated to the US in the latter part of the 19th century. He passed from town to town spreading Zen wisdom and kicking the snot out of all the town bullies. Each episode would flash back to his memories as a boy growing up in the monastery. Before delivering a pearl of wisdom, his master would affectionately call him “Grasshopper.” Something about grasshoppers speaks of playful adolescents trying to come into maturity. They look like their tongue is perpetually sticking out, they are quick to leap away and hide in the grass and have a built-in fiddle to play away the day. Grasshopper seems like an excellent name for a spiritual novice.
Grasshoppers not only have wings, though they are much less endowed than eagles, they also have five eyes. Part of their adaptability and survival comes from their ability to see predators in panorama. Unfortunately, most of their super power is wasted being stuck down in the weeds. Imagine if they had the wings of eagles.
We humans have such potential to comprehend and understand. We can see, we can contemplate and project into the future. Yet if we remain down in the weeds, content to only look in front of us, how quickly become weighed down by trivia. We lose the big picture. We get stuck, annoyed by the attitudes of other people, caught up in my own selfish little struggles, wondering why the grass doesn’t taste better or worried that I will run out of grass altogether. Without a bigger perspective we are stuck in the tyranny of now.
Now Isaiah is going to tell the people they don’t have to be grasshoppers, stuck in the narrow confines, God will raise them up like eagles. Eagles are special. They don’t just flap around like sparrows and crows, they glide and soar. They have the power to get above it all. Other birds may rise high or dive down and capture fish out of water, but eagles are set apart. They have astonishing visual acuity, approximately three times greater than humans, so they can survey the details from their lofty perch. Eagles are also the only birds of prey that don’t look over their shoulder after they catch something. Even hawks and falcons, look over their shoulder after catching their prey, to make sure they are not attacked. Eagles know nothing would dare sneak up on them.
It is thrilling to imagine the vitality and power to ascend on the wings of eagles. My father was a pilot, so soaring like an eagle held great appeal. I love takeoffs, and the feeling when you stop rolling on wheels and feel the lift of the air under the wings. Jet airlines don’t cut it, it’s like comparing riding in a Peter Pan bus to driving a Jaguar. My favorite takeoffs are in a small Cessna from my great uncle’s short airstrip in his pasture. You had to rev up the engine and get in the air to clear the trees at the end of it, and hope a cow didn’t wander in front of you. As soon as you felt airborne, it was time to pull back on the wheel. The nose of the plane rises, and your body comes along for the ride, but your stomach doesn’t. One moment the trees are in front of you, then it is all blue sky and a quick look down to make sure the wheels cleared the tree tops. The only thing better is when you break above the gloomy clouds and into the sunlight, and suddenly realize that it is always shining regardless of what is going on down below.
When I read Isaiah, I hear him saying to us, “Look grasshopper. Let me show you a bigger reality, something more enduring and strong than what binds you now. We live and move and have our being in God, who has the expansive power of life, a power that can lift up a small grasshopper like us, take us on the wings of eagles so we can see a bigger reality.” This God can bring justice. With this God, your actions matter. No one is forgotten. Have you not seen? Have you not heard? Do you not know that some things have been true from the beginning of the earth? Yes grasshoppers, we are beloved by God.
God gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
31 Those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.