Walk and Not Faint

I lived in the town of Manchester, CT for 14 years in my early ministry. Every year, I walked the two blocks from the church to Main Street to watch the Manchester Road Race. I was not much of a runner—I had been told at an early age by a gym teacher that I wasn’t much of an athlete. I cheered on friends and parishioners and even my 70-year-old dad.

But the year I turned 40, I decided to try running it for myself. I started training in the summertime, jogging alongside the kids on their bikes as we headed toward the park. By the early fall I had worked up a 2½ mile loop. The end of this run was a great downhill through the park. I would just pick up my feet and let gravity take me. “I can do this!” I thought. As I flew down the hill, I remembered the lofty words from Isaiah in our OT lesson, “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.”

As the fall wore on, though, I just couldn’t seem to find the time for a longer run. The kids were still small and didn’t want to bike that far; I was busy with a new church and caring for the family. I started to doubt myself: how can I run this five-mile race if I have never tried it out? I started to waiver in my resolve, and as the race drew near, I even stopped training. I felt defeated.

That’s the way the people of Israel felt back in Isaiah’s day. In fact, they were not just feeling defeated, they were literally defeated—by the mighty Babylonians. Forty years before their nation had been brutally conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem for over a year, slowly starving the city; when they overcame the city’s weakened defenses, they killed the king’s sons before his eyes, blinded him, and then took him prisoner. Soldiers looted the city and marched the people 500 miles across the desert to live in refugee camps in Babylon. Jerusalem lay in ruins, and the temple was destroyed.

For the Israelites, this was not only a terrible military defeat—it seemed that God had been defeated. That was the symbolism behind destroying the temple—the Babylonians saying, “see our god Marduk beat your God Yahweh.”

This is the context for our passage today. Isaiah speaks God’s word of hope to the broken-hearted Israelites in Babylon. God reclaims God’s rightful place as creator of the world and ruler of the nations. The God of Israel is the one “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; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” Isaiah brings home that point that the people of Israel needed to hear: that there is no other god than the LORD, and the LORD was still in charge.

But is that enough in hard times? What good is God’s power if God is removed from human existence, aloof and unconcerned? This is exactly the complaint of the people, paraphrased by Isaiah: “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.” And so Isaiah answered their complaint with this reassurance: “[God] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” Isaiah proclaimed that the Lord of the universe cared about them and was with them in their struggles.

Back in Manchester, the day of the road race was drawing near. While I was losing my nerve, my husband announced he was going to run the race. That was it—I wasn’t going to let my husband, who hadn’t trained a lick, outdo me. So we went to register the day before the race. The weather predicted for Thanksgiving was perfect, and they had record registrations. My husband, my dad, and I got the last three numbers out of 15,000 people—now I was committed.

I was also a wreck. Why was I putting so much pressure on myself? It was just a race.
I told myself I could walk it if I had to. But this wasn’t how I had envisioned it—I was supposed to train, work up to five miles, run the course once or twice. I was supposed to do my best, and I knew I couldn’t.

Thanksgiving dawned as beautiful as predicted. We ate our high-carb breakfasts and headed to Main Street. I lined up just in front of the walking section, figuring that is what I’d do. And then the race began. As I jogged I started to notice that not all of the runners looked as if they had trained. In fact, I saw mothers with their kids, people in costumes, guys older than my dad—all running. Along the route people were cheering, bands were playing, the folks at the pub even raised a glass to us. I still didn’t know if I would make it to the end of the race, but I was starting to have fun.

I was working my way around the course, each step, each breath, when suddenly I came upon the four-mile mark.
I couldn’t believe it—I had less than a mile to go. I thought: “I’m going to make it!” And the words of Isaiah came back to me: “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.”

As I reflect on it now, I recall what I learned in seminary about Hebrew poetry: whenever you have a set of three phrases, the third phrase of the set is the most important. And it’s kind of surprising here, because you’d think that in Isaiah’s prophecy the most important message would be God’s promise to make you soar like an eagle. But instead the last phrase, the most important phrase is about walking—not running like the wind, not even jogging—simply crossing the finish line without fainting.

I have decided that this is what the life of faith is like. We may not always fly high; we might not even run. But our performance is in the end not the point. The point is God’s faithfulness in all circumstances: in exile and in homecoming, in sickness and in health, in failure and in triumph. God is present to support us and sustain us for the long haul.

Last week marked my two-year anniversary as your pastor. Together we have embarked on a journey. Like the road race, we have some idea of where we are headed. We have thirty young people going to the National Gathering this year and our Sunday school is growing; we know we’ll invest in our young people. Our strategic planning is underway, building on our history and our strengths; we know Epiphany will continue to be a place to love Jesus and serve others as we focus on growing in faith, building thriving community, and transforming lives through Christ’s love. We know we want to call a second full-time pastor to support the initiatives we propose. But we don’t know when or how all this will happen. And we don’t know all the curves or potholes that lie ahead.

We do know the most important thing, however: that God is with us on this journey. And God is faithful. God will guide our planning, our learning, our creative responses to challenges. God will sustain our behind-the-scenes labors and our visible service in the community. God will strengthen us in worship and in fellowship and in caring for one another as we journey as a people of faith together.

I finished the race that day in Manchester, and I didn’t even walk. I was amazed that I could do it—it was a sign of something I continue to learn about myself. I have a lot more strength to draw on than I thought. That strength, of course, is God. God’s power is what renews my life, and yours. God’s strength is what fuels our ministry. When we wait on the LORD, when we walk together to follow God’s call, there is nothing we can’t do.

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