Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

by Crossings

THE IMPOSSIBLE CERTAINTY
Isaiah 40:21-31
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Analysis by Bruce T. Martin

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth? 22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth—and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; 23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. 27 Who do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God?” 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; his understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31 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.

Author’s Note: The unnamed prophet of Isaiah 40-55 preached to the Israelite deportees in Babylon c. 545 BCE, about 40 years after the fall of Jerusalem. Notwithstanding Israel’s disobedience, which had led to her deportation, the question of the faithfulness of Israel’s God was at hand. If the LORD (Heb: YHWH) is indeed the God of Israel, how is it that Israel still lay in ruins and the deported People are not there? Is YHWH a God of the People or of the Land? Or has YHWH forgotten his promise to Jacob/Israel altogether? Since the deportees (and/or their children) were powerless to effect a return, their relationship to YHWH had become tenuous if not impossible. Nonetheless, proclaimed the prophet, their return to the land of promise was as certain as YHWH is the Creator of the universe and the Lord of history. So certain is he of Israel’s “salvation,” that the prophet speaks of it as an already accomplished fact (40:1-2; 44:23). The present text continues the prophet’s justification for relying on God’s word. His/God’s declaration of Israel’s “forgiveness” and “redemption” is based on the certainty of God’s creative, powerful word (40:8; 55:11). Yet for all that good news, God’s word to Israel c. 545 BCE did not fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, to be a blessing for all nations. For, only in Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s suffering as God’s servant (see 41:8-10 and 44:1-5) redemptive for the whole world. Since Mark 2:1-12 escaped the lectionary for this year, I will use it as a foil against the prophet’s erstwhile good news here.


DIAGNOSIS: Impossible . . .

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) : Weak, Faint, Powerless
True, Israel’s elite have been carted off to Babylon because of their reliance on kings rather than on YHWH as their king (as God had warned from the beginning). True, Israel was chastised; she was now separated from the land, being too weak and powerlessness to do anything about it. True, God was merciful and faithful in returning them to the land. In the words of the prophet (which are indistinguishable from God’s), Israel was “pardoned/forgiven” and “released/redeemed.” But there remained issues far deeper than her outward “iniquity/sin.” Her captivity was merely a symptom, not the cause, of her plight. The deeper, even more impossible, issues (Steps 2 and 3) were scarcely on her radar. In her exile and release, God had proven that he, not she, was the Creator and Lord of history. Fair enough! For Israel c.545 BCE, “sin” was limited to outward “iniquity,” and “salvation” to “release/freedom” from captivity and return to the land. Her self-understanding was from a legal, quid pro quo perspective; that is to say, God rewards and punishes according to what Israel does or fails to do. The other nations were hardly considered, since God’s power was presumably in the service of the Chosen People alone. As far as they were concerned, their impossible release (weakness, faintness, powerlessness) was simply because their punishment had come to an end. And yet, after the Exile and Return, something was different for Israel; she was not simply back to square one. Now she knew that YHWH indeed was Creator and Lord of history; that YHWH’s arm extended far beyond the land of promise. But until the death and resurrection of Jesus (Heb: “YHWH helps/is salvation”; see Mt 1:21), Israel could not imagine the depth of her “sin,” or the cost to God of her “forgiveness,” or the creative implications of her “suffering” and “redemption.”

Like the paralytic in Mark 2, Israel was/is paralyzed not only in body but in spirit, unable to think outside the box of her legal-covenant relationship to YHWH.

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) : Self-reliant
A deeper problem that Israel could not yet fathom was hinted at by the unnamed prophet. By recalling YHWH’s creation of the universe and the ordering of the heavenly bodies (v. 26), the prophet obliquely recalled YHWH’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And although YHWH’s original kingship provided the means by which Israel would be redeemed, Israel took no account of YHWH’s universal kingship. Since Israel’s release from captivity was presumed to be no more than a matter of strength (vv. 29-31), Israel continued to see herself in political terms, and that her destiny remained in her own hands. From a legal-covenant perspective, her forgiveness and redemption simply meant that she had another chance to be faithful to God, as if her faithfulness were really possible. Being locked into a quid pro quo relationship with YHWH, she could not see that her very quest for self-reliance, that is, independence from YHWH, was a result of a faithlessness that she was powerless to change. That problem was too impossible even to recognize.

Like the paralytic and the bystanders in Mark 2, although it was assumed that one’s infirmity was the result of one’s overt sin (again, quid pro quo), one was perfectly willing to be healed apart from the forgiveness of sin. Jesus, however, saw that the unearned forgiveness of sin (the self-reliant, faithless kind) was more important than simply healing the body. Jesus’ refusal to base his forgiveness on the assumed legal-covenant (rather than him simply speaking for God) earned him the charge of blasphemy, thus putting his life at risk.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) : Why?
Against Creation and History stands Reality. Against the prophet’s recognition of YHWH as the Creator of the universe from everlasting to everlasting, and of YHWH as the unrivaled Lord of history who causes rulers of all nations to rise and fall, stands the Reality of Israel, that is, her suffering. From her “weak” and “faint” perspective arises the perennial question, “Why?” Why does God “disregard the right” (or: disregard the election) and “hide himself from the way” (or: not attend to the plight) of his Chosen People (v. 27)? All such Reality questions seek quid pro quo answers and end up putting God himself on trial. Reality’s “Why?” is impossible for us because Creation and History have no answer to give, and God is left hanging—because it kills God for us to ask. Not trusting in God kills not only us but God as well; there is no Creation, no History, and no Reality apart from the God who brings it all into being for the very purpose of being our God.

In Mark 2, it will not do to ask why the paralytic is paralyzed (or other such questions) unless one is prepared to accuse God for it. Blasphemy aside, such accusations can only end in the death on one’s relationship to God, which is why God forbids it and why we should avoid asking it. In solemn truth, only a dead person (that is, apart from a legal relationship with God) can risk asking such questions.

PROGNOSIS: . . . Yet Certain

Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) : Christ–The Impossible Certainty
Against Creation, History, and Reality—and therefore against YHWH himself–stands YHWH’s fulfilled Promise: Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen “King of the Jews.” Apart from the creativity of God’s word, Israel could never imagine that her suffering at the hand of God was on behalf of the whole world (see the Suffering Servant poems); or that her suffering (crystallized in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth) would make good on YHWH’s promise to Abraham; or that her utter faithlessness to God would have the effect of killing God. She could never have dreamed that, despite this “sin” beyond all measuring, YHWH was willing and able to “forgive” her beyond all measuring. Yet, in Christ, YHWH did just that, and therewith ended the “curse of the Law” (Gal 3:10-14) that had, until then, shackled Creation, History, and Reality. What the unnamed prophet of Isaiah 40-55 proclaimed as an impossible certainty was completed in the weakness of God on the cross. The impossibility of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, like the return of the dead exiles, can only mean then that the old quid pro quo system of earning God’s favor was at an end.

Therefore Jesus’ absolute declaration of forgiveness to us, as for the paralytic in Mark 2, is certain.

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) : Waiting
Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead means that the only way forward for Israel, as also for us, is by trusting in God’s unconditional promise of forgiveness. For “those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength” (v. 30)—only now it is not our own strength that animates us but the strength of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. That strength is our faith. Having no strength of our own, but having the strength of Christ, we find ourselves dead to the world but alive to God. All those impossible “Why?” questions are now raised (inevitably, because we live always before God), not because we are looking for a quid pro quo answer-or any answer, for there are none, and certainly not in order to accuse God, but in order to throw us closer to God-in-Christ. By “waiting on the LORD,” we draw nearer than ever to God’s fulfilled Promise. Like Jesus on the cross (Mk 15:34), faith in the God of Promise silences all proffered answers—as we face not only the certainty of our own death but the certainty of God’s word.

How was it possible that the paralyzed man was healed? By faith’s impossible certainty in God, in whose name the risen Jesus speaks the creative word (Mark 2:5)!

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) : Running/Walking
Now that our relationship with God depends on God alone, as even the unnamed prophet attests, we (and Israel of course, especially post 1948) are free to live for God anywhere in the universe. All land is “holy land,” for YHWH is there, too. We may “run” or “walk” (v. 31) with the Holy Spirit whisking us along. Walking or running makes no difference, for God will bring to fruition his own promise to the nations in his own good time. That much is certain. So, then, what may we do, now that we don’t have to do anything? We may love our neighbors, we may even love our enemies; we may start trusting those around us, we may even “forgive” those who mistrust us. We may live each moment as a gift; we may even give those moments away. Above all, we may rejoice in the impossible freedom of God’s certain word.

“I say to you, take up your pallet and go home . . . and they were all amazed and glorified God” (Mark 2:11-12). The healed man may have walked home, but I just bet he ran! He certainly rejoiced and praised God along the way.

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