Running on Empty
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:27-31; I Kings 19:1-8
When I started here at Southminster five years ago, I worked two weeks and then I had to take a vacation. It wasn’t because the job was so stressful, but because long before accepting the position here I had signed up with my daughter and son to ride STP—the two day Seattle to Portland bike ride, which took place two weeks after I started here.
At the time I was excited to be doing a two day bike ride with my children. Nothing for them to do for two days except talk to their father. It was going to be great. The problem, I soon realized, is that I could not keep up with them. Within the first mile they had to stop and wait for me. I somewhat managed to keep up on Rainier Avenue because they had to stop about every three blocks for a traffic signal. But by the time we got to the Puyallup hill, I was struggling. After that they rode behind me. I should have been riding behind them, so I could draft off of them, but they had to ride behind me so they could keep their eye on me, make sure I didn’t fall over and die.
By the time we got to Chehalis, a little over 100 miles from Seattle, I was running on empty. Fortunately, we had rented a room with a family that had opened their home for STP, so after that first day I at least had a bed to fall in. But I had absolutely nothing left, and yet I knew that the next day I had to get up and do it again—another 100 miles.
That was the situation for the people of Israel in Isaiah 40. As I have mentioned several times in our study of Isaiah this year, the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonians in the time of Isaiah. Their homes and temple were destroyed, many people were killed, and many of the rest were taken away as slaves to Babylon. By the time we come to Isaiah 40, which begins a section of the book that may have been written decades later by one of Isaiah’s students, the people of Israel had been in captivity for about 50 years. Their faith was running on empty.
You can see this in some of the psalms, some of which are psalms of lament—outpourings of grief—from the time of exile. Let me read an example. This is psalm 44:23-26:
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for God’s help. At the beginning of our second scripture reading from Isaiah 40, the people of Israel are quoted as saying, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” You can see why they felt that way. Their faith was running on empty.
But it is not just the people of Israel who have ever felt that way. I hope you have had the chance to read our latest issue of The Southminster Servant, our quarterly church magazine that came out on Easter. In it is a particularly powerful piece by Erin McArdel called “My Lament.” It is written in the style of the psalms, the kind of language that would have resonated with the people of Israel in exile. Only it expresses eloquently the experience of God’s people today. Erin’s lament begins, “Hey, God…it’s me again. Do you remember me or have you forgotten?” Remember what the people of Israel say to God in Isaiah 40: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by me God.” God’s people still feel that way sometimes. Erin’s lament continues,
How do I keep believing your goodness when so much is so hard, when the suffering in my own life and in the lives of my fellow humans, and in the life of our planet feels way to much—It’s overwhelming.
How do I keep believing that your goodness and love prevail when the toxins of hatred, violence, oppression, and evil seep deeper and deeper into the fabric of the human experience—It’s heart wrenching.
How do I keep believing that you are Redeemer when things have not been made right… when I cry out day and night asking for deliverance, and it seems our cries fall on deaf ears? How long must we wait? All of creation is groaning for renewal, restoration, re-creation. When will you answer?---It’s exhausting. (Issue 3, Spring 2019)
She is echoing the words of the psalms, the words of Isaiah. God’s people in all times and places have sometimes found themselves running on empty.
But to these people Isaiah has good news—verse 28: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.” Though we get tired, God does not. Though we feel like giving up, God does not. And that allows God to empower the exhausted. Verses 30-31:
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.
To me the interesting thing about this verse is the idea of waiting. “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” I don’t like waiting. If there are three people ahead of me in the checkout line at the grocery store, I get antsy, especially if one of them has to buy something from the liquor cabinet.
But maybe waiting can be a gift. If you are running on empty, waiting is a chance to rest, a chance to catch your breath and try to remember where you are going and why you are in such a hurry. It also gives God a chance to catch up with us.
Which is what happened to Elijah in our first scripture reading. Elijah is running from Queen Jezebel, the wicked queen who was determined to kill him for challenging her authority to establish a new religion. To get away from Jezebel, Elijah ran all the way from Jezreel to Beersheba, about 100 miles. I was exhausted from riding a bike 100 miles, but Elijah ran all the way. But by the time he got to Beersheba he was exhausted. So he laid down under a broom tree and told God he wanted to die. But God didn’t let him die; instead God let him sleep. Then when Elijah woke up, he found a cake next to him with a jar of water. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. When he woke up the second day, there was more food and water for him. And suddenly life didn’t look so bad. After he accepted food from God, and rest, he was able to keep going.
After my first day riding a bike from Seattle to Chehalis, I was exhausted. I could not have pedaled one more block. But after a night’s sleep and breakfast the next morning provided by our hosts, I was shocked by how much better I felt. I got back on the bike, and I didn’t hurt. And I started riding and I felt okay. I was hurting later in the day, and by the time I got to Portland, I was exhausted again. But I made it, and I wasn’t sure I would make it when I stopped the night before in Chehalis.
Waiting, resting, eating—these things can have a marvelous effect, and God can use them to restore us, along with the encouragement of hearing God’s word and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Toward the end of her lament Erin says to God, “Take my overwhelmed, heart-wrenched, exhausted, and broken down self into your hands and revive my life that I may sing again in boldness, faith, and trust.”
That’s the cry of God’s people throughout the centuries, and the Bible promises it will not go unheeded.