Last Sunday, good friends took Camilla and me to see the van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This marvelous exhibit illustrates how prolific the painter was in the final three years of his life. He seemed to be creating exuberant works of art weekly. The exhibit also demonstrates that along with his colorful and lively innovations, he produced paintings that revealed his tortured mental state. Van Gogh painted for only 10 years and sold just one painting before taking his own life when he was a mere 37 years-old.
All of us face difficult stretches. Most of us have found out what it means to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Some of us have experienced the penetrating despair that extinguishes even the ability to envision a better future.
Some people of faith add to their burden by feeling guilty about their hopelessness. They think their belief in God should render them immune to gloom. However, anguish and disheartenment are no strangers to people of faith.
This morning's passage from the 40th chapter of Isaiah reveals an especially bleak and desperate time for the Hebrew people. It is the sixth century BC when the Hebrew people have been defeated in battle, their Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, and they have been forced into exile in Babylon. It appears that the gods of the Babylonians have triumphed over Yahweh, the God of Israel. Psalm 137 says that the captors of the Hebrews torment them as they sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep.
Have you ever felt that God has turned a deaf ear? If so, you have a good understanding of their experience. All seems lost. All dreams erased.
When life is pleasant and purposeful, and our relationships with friends and family are rich, it is natural to toss around the word "blessed." At such times it's apparent that God is with us and the future is promising. However, when the challenges are severe and the daily routine arduous and the future bleak, it's easy for our faith to become razor-edge thin. Questions mount and doubt mushrooms.
That was the situation of the Hebrew people who had been forcefully removed from their homes and compelled to live as captives in Babylon. Verse 27 indicates that the people believed that God had not only lost track of them but did not really care about them. Had they been mistaken all along? Had they tricked themselves into believing that there was a Creator who cared? People were perishing. Even their young people were weary and collapsing in exhaustion. Why would God allow such misery?
The Reformer, Martin Luther, also wrestled with the feeling that God had deserted him. He wondered why he experienced his greatest tribulations when he was striving the hardest to be faithful. He wrote about his friend, Bishop Krause, who also experienced dark nights of the soul. After church authorities reprimanded Bishop Krause for sympathizing with the reformers, he committed suicide. A friend of his revealed that Krause had come to believe that Christ judged him harshly. Preaching about this, Luther said, "This is the tragedy of our human condition, that we fall so far we can no longer see or hear the true God, and we imagine the condemning God is the only God. And then, the God we imagine becomes the God we get." Luther went on to say that Christ reveals the true God. In the one who cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" God joins those whom darkness has swallowed.1
Although it may seem as if God has fled to a far corner of the cosmos unconcerned about our plight, God walks beside us when we tread the valley of the shadow of death.
When the Hebrew people lived as exiles in Babylon despairing of their future and questioning whether God had forsaken them, the prophet Isaiah trumpeted a message of hope. "Why do you say 'My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God'? Have you not known? Have you not heard?" "The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless."
Some believe that as long as they are faithful and living good lives, God will not allow tragedy to strike. They know that terrible things happen to others, but they cling to a child-like faith that as long as they play by God's rules, nothing terrible will befall them. They believe that since they do not deserve suffering, it will not strike. Then, if it hits, they are thrown into turmoil. Eventually they come to realize that cancer does not only search out deserving victims, that ethical people lose their jobs, that oppressive governments torment their citizens and that accidents can happen to anyone. Because God does not micromanage and freedom exists, all of us are vulnerable to anguish.
When our dreams are crushed, we despair. We may feel too weak and too fearful to carry on. We may wake up at three o'clock in the morning when everything is still and dark and lonely with one thought rattling around in our head: What's the use? What's the use of trying to overcome the thing that holds me captive? What's the use of praying? What's the use of worshiping God? What's the use of trusting God? What's the use of believing that life will get any better?
Isaiah does not tell the faithful that God will protect them from tragedy. He says that in God they can discover the strength to endure it.
A friend's daughter, and only child, died unexpectedly a few weeks before she was to graduate from college. The death of one's only child is about as dark as it gets. She doubted she would ever laugh again and for a time, many of us wondered if she would survive her devastating loss. Her faith saved her. She managed to keep going and she learned to laugh again. There will always be a scar on her heart, but she was not destroyed. She grew weary and fell exhausted, but she clung tightly to the words of Isaiah: "God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Youth will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount ups with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." My friend found in God the strength to rise from the ashes and to keep going.
Had she not already possessed a strong faith that had been built over many years, I don't know if she would have triumphed over her tragedy. We draw closer to God and build a firm foundation brick by brick as we worship, as we pray, as we absorb the wisdom of Scripture, as we extend compassion to others, as we follow the way of Christ. And, it is that firm foundation that helps us to persevere when times are tough.
Abraham Lincoln was a man of deep faith. In our balcony stained glass window he stands beside other pillars of the church - Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox. In the White House, Lincoln kept three books on his desk: the United States Statutes, the plays of Shakespeare and the Bible. He quoted the Bible in speeches, debates and personal letters. But it is well known that Lincoln suffered bouts of depression.
As the leader of our country, he faced an unending list of things to do and a civil war threatening to divide our nation. Lincoln wrestled with feelings of despair. He doubted he could handle the challenges before him. Time and again he was tempted to run away from his responsibilities. Once Lincoln wrote, "I have been driven to my knees in prayer many times because I had nowhere else to turn." It was on his knees in prayer, that he found the determination to keep marching forward even when the mountain before him appeared too difficult to scale.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that, at a low point of the war, Lincoln found time to write a letter to a young cadet at West Point who was despondent and ready to drop out. The president wrote: "Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will very soon feel better... if you only stick to the resolution you have taken... I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know, what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose.... If you falter and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution..." Lincoln's letter may have been what tipped the scale. The young man stayed at West Point and graduated in 1866. 2
The church has taught us about prayers of thanksgiving, confession, petition and intercession. Sometimes what we need is a prayer of determination. When you are struck by a blow that threatens to crush you, pray for the resolve to survive the onslaught. Remembering that God is by your side at all times, ask God to give you the courage to overcome your fear, the stamina to endure the pain and the sheer bullheadedness to refuse to surrender. Ask God to help you to dig deeply within yourself for the willpower to bear the blows that threaten to destroy you. And when you think that you have exhausted the last ounce of your strength, pray that God will infuse you with the tenacity to persevere, the backbone not to wilt and the toughness that refuses to be consumed by the darkness.
Babylon may be mighty and threatening, but in God, you will find the strength to soar.
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