…To Those Who Wait (A Reflection on Isaiah 40.21-31)

Sometimes the Scriptures are a goad, a spur that drives us to the work we are called to do. We’ve had a lot of that the past few months: a consistent message to wake up and do the work of justice and love. Other times, however, the Scriptures are a balm to soothe to soul. And I for one am grateful that this is the message of our readings today. Because, I — like all of you, I’m sure — am tired. A deep down, to the bones kind of tired. If last Spring was exhausting because we were all dealing with uncertainty and having to do life in new ways, this Winter is exhausting simply because we’ve been at it for so long. This is like the exhaustion of the second half of a marathon. We’ve been running long and hard; our energy is depleted and we need good food, good company, and good rest. While there is reason to be hopeful and the end is in sight, it seems we’ve hit the wall, both collectively and individually, and yet the race isn’t over yet. (As the viral video from the Summer put it so well, “The pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it.”)

And so, I am very grateful for the words of today’s Scriptures, and particularly the reading from the Prophet Isaiah, which was like a gentle rain on a dry land for me this week:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD … does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths 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 up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40.28-31)

I don’t know about you, but just reading these words makes me feel a lot better. At the same time, ‘just reading’ them isn’t really enough. It’s one thing to say that God will renew our strength; it’s another to know how to access that renewal. It’s no good to know there’s a deep well full of cool refreshing water if you don’t have a bucket with which to draw it up. So, what is our ‘bucket’ in this reading? If we read the passage closely, we will find that its entire rhetorical weight rests on a single word — and it’s a word we humans don’t like: Wait.

Our bucket is patience. (I know, I know. Yuck.)

To remind ourselves of the context for this oracle, the People of God are in Exile in Babylon. Some are scheming to get back home to Judah and make a new beginning; others have lost hope of ever returning, and either simply accommodate into Babylonian life or sink into depression. The prophet steps into this situation and offers a third way, a way of hope and expectation — a way we call waiting on God.

As the venerable scholar of the Prophets (and indeed, in his own right, a veritable prophet for our own time!) Walter Brueggemann wrote:

The poet contrasts us in our waiting and in our going ahead. For those who take initiative into their own hands, either in the atheism of pride or in the atheism of despair, the words are weary, faint, and exhausted. The inverse comes with waiting: renewed strength, mounting up, running, and walking. But that is in waiting. It is in receiving and not grasping, in inheriting and not possessing, in praising and not seizing. It is in knowing that initiative has passed from our hands and we are safer for it (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., 78).

It goes without saying that waiting is hard and not at all fun. Patience is a virtue, and it isn’t one our culture of instant gratification — of on-demand streaming, same-day delivery, and hook-up apps — has helped us to cultivate. Beyond that, patience is deeply connected to a recognition that some things are out of our control. This too is a virtue our culture has done little to promote in us. Our culture tells us that if we just work harder, find the right life hack, and hustle hard enough, we can manifest our wildest dreams. But while there is great value in these things, the striving attitude that often lies behind our best efforts fails to account for what is out of our control. And sadly, we can’t hustle our way out of a pandemic. In other words, in addition to patience we need the humility to relinquish control (or better, the illusion of a control we never had in the first place).

There’s a third piece connected to all this, and that’s grief. I have noticed throughout the pandemic a shocking absence of grief. We’ve lost so much — opportunities, businesses, lifestyles, and, yes, lives (2.3 million of them around the world so far) — and yet there is so little collective mourning. I’m not really sure why. Maybe we’re still too ‘in it’ to process our grief; or maybe grief is being channeled into other emotions, like the anger and blame directed at certain populations believed to be driving cases or politicians believed to be to blame for the loss of businesses. I’m not sure. But regardless, in order to move forward we really need to come to terms with what we’ve lost. We need to sing whatever our version of “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” might be. Again quoting Brueggemann:

The work of relinquishment is hard done. … The task requires trust that does not blush and history that does not blink. It is as though, embracing our loss, we offer a requiem for a lost world, willing to let it rest in the embrace of honest words (Reality, Grief, Hope, 88).

Honest words. We cannot really begin to wait until we acknowledge the reality of our situation — in all our confusion, anger, grief, loss, and impatience. Otherwise we aren’t really waiting; we’re just trying to escape, “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” as they say.

To put these pieces together, Isaiah’s oracle that “those who wait on the LORD will renew their strength” is good news for a desperate and weary people, like the Exiles of his day, and like all of us trying to navigate this second year of the pandemic. We are tired and frustrated, and rightly so. But the answer isn’t to push back and pretend that things are normal when they are so clearly not; nor is the answer to give up in despair. The answer is to wait. The answer is patience. And we can cultivate patience first by acknowledging and accepting that so much of what is happening is out of our control. Second, by accepting and grieving the reality of our situation and how much has been lost. And third, by keeping up the hope and the faith that there is a future for us.

A helpful analogy might be the seasons of the year. Winter isn’t the time for gardening; the ground is too hard, the weather too cold for that. But, even in the darkest, longest, bleakest, most relentless Winter, we still know that Spring will come. There will be a time for working the soil again, for planting, for tending and weeding, and, eventually, for harvesting. But it isn’t that time yet. Now is time to wait.

And if we can learn to do this — to let go, to surrender, and to wait in hopeful expectation — Isaiah’s message remains:

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.
(Isaiah 40.30-31)

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