"Carried Over the Finish Line"

5 Epiphany.B.24
Isaiah 40:21-31
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Heather Elkins wrote about an astonishing race that I would like to share with you this morning. It was called the Roberts Memorial Race, in memory of a young man, an athlete at the local high school, who had died tragically. The participants were members of the community, gathered to assuage their collective grief. Runners included all sorts of humanity; an octogenarian optometrist, the entire high school track team, the Boosters Club and a host of high school students. Perhaps the most unlikely participant of all was a six year old child, Aaron. And it’s about Aaron, and the race he ran, that I would like to speak this morning. Because Aaron, at six years old, wasn’t supposed to win—and, in truth, he didn’t. The fact is, he came in last place. But, as our story begins, you can picture him there gathered with many others at the starting line, bouncing around with an armband tied about his elbow and buoyed by nervous energy as he prepared for his run.

Once the starting gun went off the watchers retreated to porches and lemonade. Well out of the sun they discussed the route as if it were a marathon. Three times around the town limits. The first round, Aaron wasn’t last. He waved once, but he did not smile. Fierce and frail, he continued on. The second time around it was clear that some runners had gone missing, having surrendered, breathless, on some neighbor’s porch—presumably drinking lemonade and enjoying other refreshments. The optometrist, by now, was reduced to a stroll, clearly enjoying the view; and Aaron was—well, he was last, his armband missing, face and fists clenched, nothing to spare.

The third and final round belonged to the golden boys of the track team, vying for first place in memory of their lost comrade. Now the serious watching began—who was left, and what had it cost them to come this far? Once the winners arrived, the crowd began to dwindle—by now, only those waiting for family members and loved ones were left. Finally, a small figure was spotted rounding the corner, his face too white, his eyes too fixed. And then, it happened. A mere twenty yards away from the finish line—one minute Aaron was up, and the next he was down, tripped by a shoelace or a stone, or by simply being six. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that his mother swooped to his side, bent down to check him, to see that her son was all right, and whether he wanted to rise on his own. After a count of two heartbeats, this woman--she picked her son up, shifted him higher in her arms, took a deep breath, and then—well—that woman began to run—those last twenty yards. She ran, carrying her child over the finishing line.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking to the heartbroken people of Israel, who were, by now, defeated and exiled to a foreign country, reminds God’s people that God will not fail to sustain, support, restore and lift up His servants. He says: “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; …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.”

It’s no accident that we hear these verses spoken most frequently at funerals. They are words of comfort to those who grieve, certainly—but more than this, they are words of hope. They speak to us a truth about our nature as human beings and about God’s nature as well. Listen close enough, and we discover something about ourselves as well as the God we serve.

That truth is this--we are frail—not so different, really, from six year old Aaron. There are moments in each of our lives when we discover that we have reached the limits of our personal marathon—be it a time of waiting for a family member to return home from serving in the military, to caring for a loved one who is dying, to dealing with the daily stress of trying to make the figures of a too-small bank account fit the demands of one’s budget, to coping with the loss of a job or the failure of one’s health, the demands of parenting or the stress of a broken relationship. Most of the time, we muster up the strength to continue on, perhaps giving little thought to the fact that God is there beside us. But when the test of our endurance reaches its limit—and we find ourselves, for lack of a better image, face down on the track, it’s then that God swoops in, and somehow, we discover the possibility of continuing on—not, mind you, by our own strength, but borne aloft by the love of God which moves through us.

This passage from Isaiah, then, tells us what we already know—that there are times (in all of our lives) when we are weak. But it also tells us about the nature of God. God is powerful, but God’s power isn’t simply there to crush or destroy, God’s power is filled with great mercy and compassion—and that is a rare combination indeed. History is replete with stories about individuals, who once they’ve tasted a little power, forget where they come from, forget about extending assistance to others, and instead, use their power to dominate, control and destroy. God, however, is not like this. The Almighty King, teaches us that power is tempered by mercy and compassion towards fainting weak, needy people such as you and me.

Think back to Aaron’s mother. God, I believe, is like that. At the point where our reserves simply give out, and we have abandoned hope of finishing the race by virtue of our own steam; God is there. The finish line—whether it is simply the ability to face another day or to bridge the ultimate gap between the end of our mortal life and the life to come, God is there, carrying us over the finish line. Because, the fact of the matter is, we can’t accomplish that by ourselves. Quite simply, it is not in us. The Good News in today’s passage is that God is Almighty and God is all-loving—not simply all-powerful. And that, in the moments of life’s distress, is a hope worth clinging to. It is a hope worth building our faith upon. In Jesus’ name. Amen.