The Rev. Sara Warfield
Scripture: Isaiah 40:21-31
You’re all aware of my love for Ted Lasso. I’ve mentioned my Game of Thrones obsession here and there. But somehow I haven’t talked about being a huge Lord of the Rings geek. I’m not sure if it was the first obsession of my life—I think that was the Babysitter’s Club—but it has definitely lasted the longest. Not only have I read the core books more times than I can remember, I’ve also tackled the Silmarillion and a lot of the histories of Middle Earth many times. I still turn on the movies—extended versions only—when I need some comfort viewing.
There’s a scene towards the end of the story when Frodo and Sam have made it to the base of Mt. Doom to complete their task of throwing the One Ring, evil objectified, into the flames and lava of the volcano. But, despite how close he is to achieving his goal, Frodo can’t take another step.
“I can’t manage it, Sam,” he says in the book. “It is such a weight to carry.”
Sam responds, “Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo,” He’s recalling a more joyful time in their journey, hoping to bring some lightness to his despondent friend.
“No, I am afraid not,” Frodo says. “At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire.”
This terrible ring has taken Frodo away from his home. And then, just as he’s so close to being rid of it, the ring steals from him his will to go on, his hope. And it does so by stripping him of the memories of all that was good and beautiful in his life, of all that he loved.
Memory, it seems, is an essential component of hope.
This is what Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, is saying to God’s exiled people in Babylon.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Do you not remember? the prophet asks. Do you not remember that the sky above you, the water you drink, the air you breathe, are all God’s creation?
Quick Bible lesson: the book of Isaiah is actually three different works put together. The first 39 chapters, more or less, were written by Isaiah, son of Amoz, in Jerusalem before the exile.
Ah, sinful nation, his book begins,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!
Isaiah son of Amoz speaks warning to the Judeans. You are growing further and further apart from God, and it will lead us down a harrowing path if you don’t change your ways. He predicted catastrophe. And then came the Babylonians, and exile.
Most scholars believe that Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah, is a compilation of the words of several prophets. These chapters, chapters 55-66, speak to the exiles after they have finally returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
But our reading today, Isaiah 40, is the beginning of Second Isaiah. The words of yet another prophet, or maybe prophets, who lived in Babylon with the exiles, and they had been in exile for a generation. Like Frodo, they had forgotten the smell of the air in Jerusalem, the colors of the wildflowers in the hills of Judea, the particular taste of the water from Gihon Spring that fed their city. They’d been in Babylon so long, some of them born there, that they couldn’t remember their home. So they were beginning to question the power of God, the love of God. They are losing hope.
We’ve all been there. One way or another. Navigating day after day, year after year, with a difficult illness. Living in the long shadow of the loss of someone you love dearly, whose absence is nearly unbearable. Watching a parent or child or spouse deteriorate before your eyes and there’s nothing you can do. Moving through poverty, trying to decide to work a job that won’t pay enough to make rent but pays too much for you to qualify for rental assistance, or to go unemployed and barely make ends meet with government assistance.
You start to forget what laughter sounds like, what the smile on your loved ones face looks like, what joy feels like. And then you start wondering where God is. You lose hope.
You start to forget what Second Isaiah said to the exiles: that it was God who gave you that laughter, that smile, that joy in the first place.
We start to forget that:
God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God’s understanding is unsearchable. How frustrating is that? How frustrating is it that we don’t know God’s plans?
There are two things I learned for certain in seminary. Just two. First: everything is problematic. Which is something we don’t have time to get into today. But the second is this: The Enlightenment ruined everything.
The Enlightenment, also known as The Age Reason, was a period during the 17th and 18th centuries that saw Western society adopt the primary idea that knowledge is centered around reason, what can be experienced with our senses, what can be proven. It was a time when Western culture moved away from religion as an explanation of the world and all that happens in it to a scientific method of understanding. Proposing a hypothesis, doing an observable experiment, seeing how the result of that experiment stacks up against the hypothesis, and then repeating the process over and over again to see if the result is consistent and therefore true.
It was during this time that the very definition of truth changed. Truth became synonymous with provable fact. If it wasn’t provable, it wasn’t true.
And listen, I joke, but really I’m a big fan of the Enlightenment. The evolution in thought and science led to advanced democracies, medicines that save our lives—my life, the realization that humans truly are biologically equal beyond the superficial meaning we assign to different features and pigmentation.
But Western civilization did lose something during this time. Before the Enlightenment, there was an openness to not knowing, to mystery. There was a giving over of trust to the imagination, to the heart, to God. There was a recognition that, at a certain point, we are all powerless.
But in this Post-Enlightenment age, we now expect an explanation for everything: observable, replicable proof or it’s not “real.” Humans can be all-powerful if we can just discover how everything works and why. It’s just a matter of time and progress.
It’s now embedded in how we think. An answer is out there, we just need to find it. And if we can’t find it, we’re frustrated. Why can’t the doctor give us a diagnosis? Why are the weather people wrong so much of the time? We even apply it to our faith: we try to scientifically prove that the world truly was created in six days, we try to determine what meteor or comet was in the sky to lead the wise men to baby Jesus. It’s the very heart of Biblical literalism. We even apply it to our God: Why am I suffering, God, and why aren’t you doing anything about it? I need information. I need proof that you’re here, that you’re on my side.
Not knowing, not having the answers, makes us feel powerless.
But why then do we love fiction? Novels, shows, movies? Things that are explicitly not factual, not provable? Why are we here? At church. Listening to stories from the Bible, some of which we know are utterly impossible in this reality. Taking communion that we know is not factually, biologically the body of Christ, and yet it changes us.
Now the most important thing I learned in seminary, and I mean it, came from my theology professor, Marion Grau. She said: “Myth is a truth that is greater than fact.”
Myth is a truth that is greater than fact. Now she said it in class, and I can’t find it quoted anywhere else on the internet, but I think she was riffing on J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. I think my professor was crystallizing many things he wrote on the subject of myth, indeed what he illustrated in his own fiction, his own fantasy.
Which is: It is in the space between facts, between what we can prove, where hope lives. It is in what we don’t quite know, what we can’t quite understand, that makes room for hope. Because hope is waiting for what is unknowable, unprovable.
And waiting for what we do not know is an act of trust. An act of faith. An act of loving God. It’s why we’re here, building our hope by singing together, praying together, sharing our joys and concerns together, taking the body of Christ together.
And there it is, the central word: together.
You see, Frodo can’t go on. He can’t take another step. He has lost all memory, he has lost all hope. But it doesn’t matter, because he is not alone.
“I’ll get there,” Sam says. “And I’ll carry Mr. Frodo up myself, if it breaks my back and heart.” And that’s what he does. Sam remembers what is good in the world when Frodo can’t. Sam holds hope for Frodo when Frodo has none. And he physically picks him up and carries him up the mountain. I think most of you know the rest of the story.
God acts, even when we have lost all hope, even when we think God has forgotten about us. It may not be the way we expected. God’s love and action takes many forms. 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.