Anne Lamott tells the story of riding a ski lift. She intended to get off at the intermediate slope, but failed to recognize the jump-off until the lift had moved on.
Lamott decided to leap from the moving lift from a height of five or six feet. She did not soar like an eagle. She flapped to a crash-landing. To her relief, most people pretended not to notice, and she waved away the few who came over to sympathize. Then the nausea hit.
As she stood there on the verge of passing out, she prayed for Jesus to help her. This is what she says:
I don’t know how long I stood there with my hand clamped to my mouth, only my poles and a frayed, consignment-store faith to support me. All I knew was that help is always on the way, a hundred percent of the time… I know that when I call out, God will be near, and hear and help eventually. Of course, it is the “eventually” that throws one into despair. (Grace (Eventually), pp. 17-18)
At one point or another something inside each of us has called out for help. Maybe it was just a momentary lapse in our usual calm, like when we realize that we can’t see our toddler on the beach or discover that we’ve had food in our teeth through an entire interview or get really bad news.
Help! Help! Help! We feel it in our gut before we even think it. Life has taught us for the most part never to say it out loud. Calling out for help betrays the awful secret that we are not as composed and in control as we pretend, as we assume everyone else is, as we fear that God expects us to be before He decides that He’ll invite us to dinner.
In a way, calling for help is the beginning of faith. We discover that God was already on the way before the first butterfly took flight in our stomach.
And there are times when that help comes with miraculous speed. The threat or the challenge dissolves as quickly as it came. Jesus turns on his Nightlight of the World and banishes the shadow that has us cowering under the covers.
But sometimes, Jesus comes to our help eventually. Adversity or sorrow or conflict or suffering endure. It can feel as if God is not listening or does not care or maybe cannot help after all.
Lamott has it right. The spiritual challenge in relying on God hits home when we experience firsthand that he comes to help eventually. How do we follow Jesus in the meantime? In between the cry for help and God’s rescue?
This is the spiritual struggle that the prophet Isaiah tackles. How do we live with that divine “eventually?” The urgency of our longing and the patience, even the apparent dawdling of God’s sense of timing?
As it turns out, the gap between our cry for help and God’s final rescue is where Jesus does some of his best work. And it’s where following Jesus actually happens. But to explain what I mean, we have to look a little more closely at the Isaiah text and what was happening in the lives of the Israelite people.
The Israelites are in the midst of what people call the Babylonian Captivity. The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem, torn down its wall, and destroyed the Temple.
A large part of the population was then taken captive and deported over 500 miles to Babylon. There the people were surrounded by foreign customs, a foreign language, and reduced to servitude. Their religion and their traditions and their very identity as the people of God were the objects of constant scorn.
As awful as all of this was, they saw their captivity as the just desert for their own unfaithfulness. Despite the repeated prophetic warnings to change their course, the Israelites despised the ways of God by trampling on the poor, offering phony worship, and relying on their own political conniving to save them.
The results were catastrophic. They threw away the Promised Land that God himself had delivered to them. They recklessly squandered the riches He had heaped upon them. They had nobody to blame but themselves.
And yet, despite it all, God promised to redeem them. Even in the midst of captivity, God spoke words of comfort to the people. He would return them from exile, restore them to Jerusalem, rebuild the walls of the great city, and even build a new temple.
In other words, he would come again and dwell in their midst. He would take them out of their misery and live with them as their God and they would be His people.
He was on the way. Eventually.
Decades passed. And they were still in Babylon. Jerusalem was a distant heap of rubble. Despair was starting to set in. And this is where the grown up faith lesson begins.
Sometimes we turn to God for help and the truth of the matter is that we just want Him to fix things for us.
We want our marriage happier, our children more compliant, our parents more understanding. Our prognosis to improve, our financial prospects to look up. To find a friend or a spouse or to just not be so alone or afraid or self-loathing.
Help! Help! Help!
It’s as if we’re here and we want God to get us over there. Whisk us from Babylon to Jerusalem in the snap of His mighty finger! Fix it!
But the problem inevitably runs deeper than we have ever dreamed of diagnosing it. The ancient Israelites had much more than a geographical problem. A Celestial Magician could easily solve a relocation issue like that with the wave of his wand.
But that’s not the problem; and they needed, and we need, more than a magician. We need a Redeemer.
You see, if you just relocated the Israelites from Babylon to Jerusalem, the very same hearts that got them deported in the first place would still inhabit Jerusalem. All that old unfaithfulness that got them in this fix in the first place would just start up all over again.
Big changes—heart changes, mind changes, soul changes, will changes, relationship changes—have to come before the moving van will do any good. Who the Israelites are—who we are—has to change before where we are will make the first bit of difference in our lives.
God will set things completely right, eventually. In the meantime, God is not biding his time or turning his back or asleep at the wheel. Jesus works with us day by day to make all those changes in us before God’s “eventually” becomes a present reality
You might think that living in the meantime would be filled with toil or impatience or drudgery. Like waiting for the weekend or Christmas or summer vacation. Trying really hard to be holy and righteous and lugging around a sense of guilt and unworthiness.
You might think that we trudge along staying one step ahead of despair at our own spiritual inadequacy. But that is not what Isaiah tells us:
Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. (Isaiah 40:31)
We are meant to soar like eagles. Following Jesus means to stretch out our wings and let the Holy Spirit, the Ruach, the very breath of God to bear us up to heights and to propel us along distances that merely human foot traffic could never achieve.
As we wait for God to complete His redeeming work, we are learning to rely on God. Learning to soar with hope and joy and courage instead of merely pushing through and plodding along.
The maker of heaven and earth is with us not just at the beginning of things or only at the finish line. He is with us in every routine moment in between. Our God is the sovereign God of the meantime.
It is precisely in the midst of trial and adversity that we learn to stretch out our wings and trust in the updrafts of God’s very breath, His abiding Spirit, to support us and to sustain us and to propel us forward to new life.
It may seem safer to slog along by our own power. Stay closer to the ground. Lean forward and push against the obstacles in our path. After all, many of us are afraid of spiritual heights. We fear that we might simply drop like a stone.
Even some who think they are following Jesus look at life as an exhausting hike of moral effort and spiritual exertion. They rely upon their own will and their own spiritual disciplines and seem never to learn to stretch out their wings and take flight by relying on God to carry them.
Christians, by being Christians, actually commit ourselves to living in the meantime. The Cross and the Empty Tomb are behind us. The Second Coming and the New Heaven and the New Earth are out in front of us. We live between what Jesus has accomplished for us and what he will accomplish for us.
Now we dwell in the meantime, where Jesus is accomplishing something in us, with our cooperation.
God will set things completely right eventually. In the meantime, we are learning to soar with Jesus on the updrafts that only God can provide.
This sermons was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on February 5, 2012.