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Isaiah 40:27-31, John 14:15-21
Good morning, church! May I begin this morning by asking you a question? How do you usually respond when you are going through hard times? I mean, honestly, what do you do when life isn’t going very well and you are dealing with sickness, setbacks, conflict or struggle? Maybe you received bad news regarding a loved one? Perhaps things at work are not going well or your relationship has hit a speedbump? What do you do when things are difficult? Do you run away in denial? Do you try to avoid the pain that inevitably comes with hard times? Do you shut down, get angry with God and with people, and maybe even with yourself? Do you lose hope, become despondent and just give up? How do you deal with hardship?
In the Bible, we see many instances of people dealing with hardship. Afterall, hardship is a part of life. People like Paul experienced all kinds of hardship for the sake of the gospel – persecution, torture, severe beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, stoning, hunger, thirst. Perhaps in our time, the hardships we go through are very different from the ones Paul suffered. Because our hardships today are usually not physical or externally visible, sometimes people may assume that we have a comfortable life. Well, I guess they are not completely wrong because how can most of us complain? We eat well. We have roofs over our heads. We don’t hunger or thirst. We don’t have to worry about persecution or imprisonment. We even have our own space to gather for worship. So what kind of hardships are we talking about?
Maybe our hardships are very different from those that Paul and the early church experienced. But pain, fear, conflict, struggle, grief, loss are all things that we as human beings experience, no matter what our cultural, social or historical context. At church, I have had the opportunity to witness different people going through different kinds of hardship. I have also seen mental and emotional hardship among some as they serve in church and in ministry. People mostly start out with good intentions but conflicts, anger, misunderstandings, resentment, bitterness sometimes arise. Many people give of their time and talents to serve in one way or the other. And that is an amazing thing. But along the way, conflicts or misunderstandings arise. And when these are not communicated properly or resolved well, bitterness, discouragement, exhaustion sets in.
What can we do when we are going through difficult or hard times? How can we rise up whatever the hardship? And not just rise up…but rise up with joy? With joy?!? Pauline, are you crazy? Do you know what you’re saying? Is that even possible? Yes, it’s possible and I’m not saying this because I am an optimist. I’m saying this simply because God says we can. Let me tell you a secret: I’m a skeptical optimist. So I don’t often take things as they are. I question, I debate, I struggle. But I can tell you one thing. I know from personal experience that it’s possible for us to rise up with joy whatever the hardship. I know because God says we can. And I know because I have experienced it first hand. Please understand that when I say I have experienced it first hand, I don’t say it with an ounce of pride at all. I say it sincerely and humbly from a heart that has experienced its own brokenness and pain. So my prayer is that as I offer this message, I hope it may help and encourage you in some way.
The main passage we want to look at together this morning is from Isaiah 40:27-31.
Isaiah 40:27-31 New English Translation (NET)
27 Why do you say, Jacob,
Why do you say, Israel,
“The Lord is not aware of what is happening to me,
My God is not concerned with my vindication”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is an eternal God,
the Creator of the whole earth.
He does not get tired or weary;
there is no limit to his wisdom.
29 He gives strength to those who are tired;
to the ones who lack power, he gives renewed energy.
30 Even youths get tired and weary;
even strong young men clumsily stumble.
31 But those who wait for the Lord’s help find renewed strength;
they rise up as if they had eagles’ wings,
they run without growing weary,
they walk without getting tired.
Do we sometimes think God is not aware about what is happening to us? Do we sometimes think God may not be concerned with our situation or our vindication? Why? Because God is too busy attending to more important things? Because we are too small and our issue too insignificant for God to care? Our God is an eternal God. God does not get tired or weary, just because there are so many people in the world calling out for help at the same time! God created the whole earth! There is no limit to God’s wisdom or strength. And God is more than willing to give us that power, that wisdom, that renewal of strength and energy at those moments when we need it most.
So what do we have to do to get all that? That power, that wisdom, that renewal of strength and energy? According to Isaiah, it is for those who wait for the Lord. Or in some versions, they say “those that wait on the Lord”. What does this “wait” mean? Does it mean we just wait passively and see what God is going to do? Is that how you understand it? This word “wait” sounds like a pretty crucial word for us to understand, right? Because those who wait on the Lord will rise up as if they had eagles’ wings. Who doesn’t want to rise up as if we had eagles’ wings?
So what does this “wait” actually mean? The original Hebrew word that is translated as “wait” in our English Bibles is “qavah” (kaw-vaw’). Qavar has both a literal and a figurative meaning. The literal meaning of this word is to entiwine, to bind together like a cord. To bind together like a cord — what does that mean? First let me explain what “to bind together like a cord” does not mean. It does not mean to tie a cord around a bundle of sticks to keep them together. Instead, picture in your mind the process of making a rope (cord) by twisting or weaving (binding) thin threads together to form the rope. The more strands that are twisted or woven together in a rope, the greater is its strength. Can you picture each of us as a thread? And as we draw near to God and wrap ourselves around God, as we are bound together with God, God’s strength becomes ours. God’s strength fills the gaps of our weakness and that is how we are renewed day by day.
A piece of string cannot lift very much weight because it doesn’t have many strands in it. A piece of rope, however, can lift hundreds of pounds because it is made up of many strands. When a rope lifts or pulls a load, it stretches a little while it is working. As it stretches, the individual strands are pulled closer together. While this “stress” is on the rope, the individual strands work together to lift or pull the load. No one individual strand does all the work. If it did, it would snap. A rope’s strength comes from all the strands working together.
The literal definition of “qavah” implies strength through numbers. The more strands in your rope, the greater its strength. Just as a rope’s strength comes from being made up of many strands, so our strength comes through being united with Christ. The “rope” of our lives gains strength by being twisted or woven or bound together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That’s the literal definition of that word. Then there is the figurative definition of the word qavah, which is “to wait, to hope, to expect.” The figurative meaning of qavah conveys anticipation. It is the same type of waiting that children do on Christmas morning while waiting to open up their presents. That “waiting in hope” is the definition that is often used in our bibles.
So now that we have both the literal and figurative definitions of this word, does it give you a fuller idea of what it means to “qavar the Lord”? It is not just to wait passively in anticipation and hope. It is to entwine ourselves to God the Parent, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is drawing strength from God by being united with God. So how exactly do we qavar the Lord? The best analogy that I can think of is the one we have been using of the rope. A rope is made up of many strands and so is our relationship with God. The more “strands” that we weave into our relationship with God, the stronger our relationship with God is. As with any relationship, our relationship with God grows when we spend time with God and the people of God. Our relationship grows when we pay attention – paying attention to what God may be showing us about him/her, what God is teaching us about ourselves. Our relationship grows when we pray and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, learn from one another, study the Bible together, pray for and encourage one another.
That’s how we qavar the Lord. That’s how we can rise up like we had eagles’ wings. What’s so special about eagles’ wings anyway? Eagles have a long life, perhaps longer than any other bird, up to 100 years. When an eagle becomes old, it moults and renews its feathers. That means the old feathers shed and they get a completely new coat of feathers. It’s not like botox or plastic surgery. J The eagle actually gets brand new feathers. So the eagle seems to become young again – its youth and strength is renewed. It gets a new lease of life and once again it is able to stretch its mighty wings, and rise up high on the winds. And the beauty of eagle’s wings is that they actually do very little work — they don’t have to put in much effort. Have you ever seen an eagle soaring in the wind? I saw it a few times when I was living in Japan and once when I was trekking through MacRitchie. It’s quite a sight to behold. Usually, the eagle flaps its wings a couple of times as it takes off but once they catch the wind currents, all they have to do is to stretch out their wings and hold still. That’s all. They hold still. Does this remind you of that verse in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God”? Well, that’s what eagles do. They hold their wings still…they don’t struggle. They allow the winds to carry them as they glide and soar through the sky. Once, I saw a pair of eagles gliding in the sky together. They were flying quite close to the ground and started soaring up into the sky, moving not in a straight line but swirling upwards like they were caught up in a column of wind. It was a marvelous sight. It looked like they were dancing… dancing with joy.
What about us? How can we soar like we have eagles’ wings? Paul tells us it is only through hardship, through discouragement, through disappointment, through exhaustion, that we learn to draw on the power of God’s Spirit within us. It is only when we come to the end of our own strength that we discover God’s strength. “When we are weak, then we are strong.”
Brian McLaren says, “Hardships make us bitter…or better. They lead us to breakdown…or breakthrough. If we don’t give up at that breaking point when we feel we’ve reached the end of our own resources, we find a new aliveness, the life of the risen Christ rising within us. Hardship not only teaches us to live in dependence upon God, but they also teach us interdependence with others. So through hardship, we move from “me” to “we”.” “Me” to “we”…it is in hardship that we realize how much we need Christ and one another.
So how can we rise up with joy whatever the hardship? Firstly, we learn how to qavar the Lord – to entwine, to bind ourselves with God, to wait in hope and anticipation even when things around us seem bad or difficult. We learn to draw on the power of God’s Spirit within us. Here at FCC, I notice we don’t often preach about the Holy Spirit. And that’s a bit of a pity because the Holy Spirit plays such an important role in our lives. Before Jesus left his disciples, he comforted and encouraged them by telling them how God will give them the Spirit of truth who will help and be with them forever.
John 14:15-21 (NIV)
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[c ]in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
I feel a need to speak about the role of the Holy Spirit because it would be remiss of me to not mention the importance of depending on the power of the Spirit in our daily lives. Sometimes in our sermons, we emphasize what we all need to do in following Jesus as our example. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is what God desires for us — to be like Jesus, to act like Jesus. But one thing is missing when we challenge people to action without reminding them where the source of our power comes from. Remember qavar? We experience the constant renewing of our strength and energy, we receive wisdom and grace for each day when we cling to God, when we entwine ourselves with God, when we let the Holy Spirit fill our hearts and empower us.
Rev Yap, Miak, Gary and I all preach differently. We have our limitations as human beings. Our limited human abilities, our personalities, our preferences sometimes hinder us from communicating a message fully…in its complete wholeness. As human beings, we tend to focus on certain things more and we may negelct other things. That is our limitation. But God loves limitations. In fact, God specializes in our weaknesses and limitations because it is in and through those limitations that God swoops in and allows her strength, fullness and glory to be shown. As God entwines and binds each of us together, with God at the center and the power of God moving in us, can you imagine what we could all achieve together?
When we take Jesus at his word, when we truly believe we live in the power of the Spirit, we will begin to see things from the lens of abundance, not scarcity….from freedom, not obligation….from power, not weakness….from God’s infinite strength and resources, and not from our own finite strength and resources. We take on God’s perspective. There is no other way to live. We cannot take on life and all of its challenges based on our own strength and abilities alone. And I say this from the perspective of a pastor and counsellor who works from a positive, solution-focused, strength-based approach when doing ministry with people. Much as I believe in the ability of people to accomplish a lot, I believe even more deeply in the power of God’s Spirit in us. With the power of the Spirit, we will accomplish much more. We will BE more.
Who knows? We may even rise up with joy whatever the hardships. God is sparking something in us and we are moved..no, compelled to make a difference even when things are difficult. We are compelled not because of guilt or obligation. We are compelled because of love. We are compelled because of love. We are compelled because we bind ourselves to God. We are compelled because we are inspired by the example of Jesus and enabled through the abiding presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And that is how things change. That is how God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth, becomes a reality here on earth.
It starts right now with you and me.
Let us pray.