"In Praise of Plodding"

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

“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.”

Verse 31 of Chapter 40 of Isaiah is a magnificent piece of poetry. It is routinely sung in hymns such as “On Eagle’s Wings” and read from the lectern. Rarely does it fail to lift sagging spirits. It’s worth a closer look.

In the study of biblical languages, we learn that the triplet form of Hebrew poetry is one which builds upon itself—rather like a stair step. Moving from the first step, to the second, to the third, in order of importance. What this means is that the last line of the triplet (the third step) is always more important than the first.

Here's how it looks for us: Step one (the lowest step) is to “mount up with wings like eagles.” Step two is to “run and not be weary” and step three—the pinnacle of the poem, the height of the triplet—it is to “walk and not faint.” Huh? Surely, this is counterintuitive. From the perspective of most of us—the height of achievement would be soaring like an eagle, wouldn’t it? Not walking without falling down. Yet, here it is—Isaiah’s crescendo—“walk and not faint.”

Now, from my perspective, this is something to love about this poem. Because, let’s face it, sometimes all we can do is barely manage to put one foot in front of the other. If you can’t relate to this—let me tell you, I can. And I suspect, as we limp through yet another year of a pandemic, maybe this is the achievement we need to concentrate upon—walking without fainting. Putting one step in front of the other over, and over, and over again.

There are developmental psychologists who tell us that learning to crawl before walking is an important process in the life of an infant. What that means is that before you fly—you begin by crawling. And, if you don’t learn how to crawl and later walk—you have no hope of ever soaring above the clouds. This makes sense to me. We learn incrementally. No one achieves a Ph.D. before they’re learned their alphabet and gone through the process of laboriously sounding out words, learning the meaning of punctuation and moving from simple sentences to paragraphs. So, in some ways, though we may raise the flag to astronauts, sound-barrier breakers and rocket scientists—perhaps we really should be congratulating their teachers from elementary school. For it’s the formative experiences which build incrementally into the grand achievements of later years. Walking is a feat in itself. It is the achievement upon which everything else rests.

So, let’s take a closer look at the reason why Isaiah wrote these words to the people of Israel. When the prophet spoke these words, the Israelites were a conquered people. They had lost their land, their temple, their king and their priesthood. Exiled to the foreign land of Babylon this once great nation was bereft. So much of what they traditionally associated with their sense of self had been stripped bare. Is it any wonder that their experience of failure, loss and defeat led some to question if God had abandoned them? And I wonder if perhaps some of you can relate?

Here, Isaiah takes care to remind them of the fundamentals. Walking without fainting. Putting one step in front of the other. Plodding on. Why? Because this is the pinnacle. For the very best thing, the finest achievement, is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.

You see, Isaiah is reminding the people of Israel that God is still with them—they only need to get up and put one foot in front of the other. Listen again to verse 21: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? In other words, Isaiah is reminding the Israelites of the truth of God that they have heard from their ancestors (who had also lived through difficult times). They are being reminded not only who they are, but also who God is.

As I contemplate this reading from Isaiah, it seems to me, those Israelite people, dwelling in a land that was foreign to them; having lost so much of what they considered important to their identity—they are ourselves. The special character of the writings and stories of the Bible lies in the fact that they are not told for themselves, and they are not only about other people in distant places and times, but they are always and forever, about us. These words, spoken to the ancient Israelites—they are also spoken to ourselves.

I recall visiting a parishioner in West Virginia who suffered a stroke. Suddenly, this vibrant, beautiful and gracious woman was struggling to put together a puzzle meant for preschoolers. To say she was frustrated would be to put it mildly. Years have since passed, and to see her today, you’d never know what she’d been through. But I suspect she would be the first to tell you that learning to walk again was perhaps the greatest of all the achievements she faced. I know there were days, and months of feeling defeated—and I know, as well, there were no huge leaps forward. But I also know this, she plodded along, and not only regained a sense of self—she improved upon who she was in the process. Her character deepened, gentled and became more empathetic.

Perhaps this mirrors where we are as a nation, grappling with a pandemic. Here’s what we know. There’s no picking ourselves up and soaring to the finish line. We will get there, assuredly, through the slow process of vaccinating millions of people—it’s a plodding process. And, we know this as well: when we get to the finish, no doubt, there will be a sense of victory; but also profound grief for those who are not there with us. We will be a different people, wiser, and more compassionate, one hopes. But this one thing will not change. In all that has befallen us, we (like the people of Israel) will not have been alone. God will have walked this way alongside us. And in this, there is ample reason for us to give thanks. Our hope isn’t found in shortcuts or quick fixes—but in a slow journey to new land, one made hand in hand with our God—the same God who led the people of Israel to their homeland; the God who came down from heaven and dwelt among us; the God who lives into the name “Emmanuel” – God with us, with us not only in the times when we soar above the clouds, but also in those times when fainting seems so near at hand. In Jesus’ name. Amen.