A few verses earlier, in verse 6, the poet-prophet writes ‘all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. ...The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever’. We are like grass, aren’t we? – When the sun shines, we’re happy, but when the heat is on, we wither! Human life is fragile and short. We’re like grass. And then in Isaiah 40:22 we are likened as grasshoppers. Have you ever thought of yourself as a grasshopper? Grasshoppers are relatively small; and grasshoppers have little wings to help them flit randomly from one thing to another. But here’s God’s consolation: in verse 31 he says, ‘They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’. God’s power and strength are promised to us. An eagle is a big step up from a grasshopper!
This passage helps us remember who God is, and who we are in relation to God. And when we recognise ourselves as being small and fragile, like grass or like a grasshopper, and we acknowledge God as being quite big – after all, he made the whole universe – to hold on to this perception of humanity and of God is quite a healthy and appropriate thing for us to do. Because thinking about God as immeasurable, powerful, inexhaustible and everlasting – and about ourselves as small and limited – frees us; we can travel lighter, be more like Jesus – humble, but not a doormat – free from the need to measure up to other people’s expectations, free to quietly seek God’s will; to allow God to refresh us, and to do what God asks of us, to focus our life simply on that. It frees us from the futility of striving for success and power; it frees us from the foolish grasping for status.
Nations rise and nations fall; princes and rulers are nothing: Earthly governments are as fragile as newly planted grass – the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Empire, the German Empire, the USA, and now the up-and-coming China – their power has never been a threat to God. The Arab Spring – the power struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen – there is no threat to God’s kingdom in all of this. The rise and fall of Political parties – I take a keen interest in the show currently going on in the US Republican primaries. In TIME magazine, Fidel Castro, the retired Cuban leader, has offered his views on that, calling it “the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been”.
Here in Britain – the rise and fall of Bankers and Politicians: the former Royal Bank of Scotland CEO Fred Goodwin stripped of his knighthood after he led the RBS into the world’s largest bailout of £45.5 billion. Chris Huhne resigning from his cabinet post to deal with the charge of ‘perverting the course of justice’. Political parties, politicians, bankers and corporations are no threat to the kingdom of God. And in the wise words of Psalm 146, we are cautioned, ‘Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save’ – trust in God alone.
Brueggemann, writing on Isaiah, says that “in our own time, it’s not very difficult to identify as ‘Babylon’ the global system of consumer capitalism that seems to sweep all before it, so that it has the power through its relentless “liturgy” (that is, advertising) to tell us what is possible. The struggle for women and men of faith now, as always, is to be able to imagine our life out beyond the system that seems totally... encompassing. ...It’s an act of boldness ...to [re-imagine and reinterpret] life in terms of God, the creator who brings to nought both the wonders of creation and the pretenders of politics. It is easy for people of faith to conclude that the creator God is an irrelevance in a contemporary system that seems... set in stone. [Isaiah], however, will not permit such a verdict. The very God taken to be obsolete is the One who governs and gives strength, who makes it possible for life to be taken up again without the force of empire. ...this One [overrides] the nothingness offered by imperial task masters.”
Whenever Jesus took himself off to pray in solitude, as he does in our gospel reading in Mark 1:29-39, he returns refreshed, re-committed, and re-focused on his mission. And out of that, he’s given the strength to say ‘no’ when something is asked of him that doesn’t align with what the Father asks of him. In Capernaum he worked many miracles of healing and the people wanted him to stay, but staying wasn’t part of God’s plan, and the time Jesus spent in prayer confirmed that. It was time to go. Of course he disappointed those who wanted him to stay, but as a result of his moving on, the Kingdom of God grew. And that kind of insight is available to us as we’re called to prayer and enabled to move forward in the service of the Kingdom of God that continues to break in to our world. A good discipline we might consider then, would be to wake up each morning and say, ‘God how can I be useful in your kingdom today’?
I showed a video at our mid-week communion service here last Thursday where the message was about letting go of the things we hold onto in our lives, those things that distract us from ‘the one thing’ – what God is calling us to. We often say ‘yes’ to all kinds of obligations that keep us from focusing on what really matters. But if we’re serious about following Jesus, what really matters is that our lives contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom, by accepting God’s strength and God’s power that’s given to us so that, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we might rise up from the fever of life to serve God.
But maybe we’re like Jacob and Israel, in Isaiah 40:27, complaining that God doesn’t notice us or doesn’t care about us or isn’t able to do anything to save us or help us? The answer given in vv. 28-31 is that God is continually working for us, tirelessly, endlessly. And so we can either sink in our cynicism while holding on to false securities, or we can live in hope and expectation that God moves powerfully, among us and within us. God’s power and energy is here – we simply need to trust.
Sometimes amidst life’s struggles it can feel like we’re distant from God, in a kind of spiritual exile. Or with this economy perhaps we’re in an economic exile, where we’re unfairly separate from those in a higher income bracket. When life’s at its most difficult, we can lose perspective. We can lose sight of the trees for the forest. That’s when we most need to remember: the creator of the universe knows our situation. God understands our fears, our hopes, our dreams, and our pains. God’s wisdom is unsearchable, and God’s power is unmatched. Remember who you really belong to, and rest in God’s holy presence. Do you not know? Have you not heard? Look at the world around you - look up at the stars, on these cold and clear nights - and receive the gift of perspective. God is vast, and we are small, and God is holding us in the palm of his hand. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.