The God Who Walks With Us
Dec 12, 2021
For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
Nine years ago, two big things were happening in my life. I was sorting out how I felt about a request to consider being this church’s second ever senior pastor. That had been a surprise. And I was training to run my second ever marathon. I had run one in Hartford a few years earlier, and even though I was nursing an injury and had lost a fair bit of speed, I was really excited for marathon number two, because this was going to be the Boston Marathon. An amazing race in my hometown. My daughter Julianna was just 10 years old, but she liked to run a little, and we thought it would just be the best if she hopped in with me near our house, about three miles from the end, and we crossed the finish line together.
The day came, and right around mile 23, I saw my family cheering me on. I stopped, got some high fives and hugs, and Julianna joined me, falling into my pace. I was pretty worn out at that point, so I had to ask her to go slow and stay with me, to take a walking break with me now and then too. And my 10 year-old daughter did just that. She enjoyed the roar of the crowds and she set herself at my pace and cheered me on.
Things took a turn, though. About half a mile from the finish line, the runners ahead of us were stalled. Lots were just milling about, looking confused. There were some sirens too. It felt chaotic. Rumors were circulating – that a bomb, or maybe multiple bombs had exploded. Could that be true?
I tried to call my wife. My phone didn’t work. Another runner thought they had a signal, let me use their phone. But it couldn’t call through to anyone either. My memory’s not too crip as this point, so I don’t know if it was a race official or a police officer, but someone was calling out:
“The race is over. Course is closed. Walk away. Go home.”
Later, we’d learn of the two brothers, the two bombs, the three deaths, the hundreds of injuries. But we didn’t know all that yet. We just knew we were three miles from home and had to walk there.
Easier said than done. When you’re not an elite athlete or anything, and you’ve just run 25 1/2 miles and then stopped for a while, a lot of things are going wrong in your body.
I was getting cold. I really wanted one of those flimsy but strangely effective runners blankets we’ll talk more about soon. But there were none around.
And I really needed something to drink and some food. And the joints and the muscles in my legs were so, so sore. So you know what I did? I turned to my 10 year-old daughter, so much smaller, seemingly weaker than me. And I said
Can I lean on you?
And I put my arm around her little frame and leaned on her just a little bit and started walking.
And with her help, and some more help along the way to come, we made it home. We made it home.
This week, the third week of Advent, we’ll talk about the God who walks with us, about how our hope and our strength can be renewed, so we can find our way home.
Our scripture today is from the prophet Isaiah, in the 40th chapter, other parts of which get quoted around Christmastime. Here’s the bit we’ll read today.
Isaiah 40:27-31 (Common English Bible)
27 Why do you say, Jacob,
and declare, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
my God ignores my predicament”?
28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
He doesn’t grow tired or weary.
His understanding is beyond human reach,
29 giving power to the tired
and reviving the exhausted.
30 Youths will become tired and weary,
young men will certainly stumble;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength;
they will fly up on wings like eagles;
they will run and not be tired;
they will walk and not be weary.
Jacob is the name of one of the founding fathers and mothers of the people of Israel, which was first a name for a person. It was Jacob’s new name, and it meant the one who wrestles with, who struggles with God. And it became, in time, a name for a whole people. And the context here is the suffering of those people in exile. Far from home, hopes dashed, living in a time and place and in ways that they never wanted to live.
This scripture is spoken into existential threats and traumas like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and far worse.
We’re talking about threats like those small Caribbean and Pacific islands whose very existence is threatened by climate change.
We’re talking about the lived experience of the Afghan refugees settling around us this fall and winter, some of whom some Reservoir friends were feeding just yesterday.
We’re talking about the unhoused opioid addict a few miles down Mass Ave from here, over whom everyone is arguing about what *can’t* be done
This poetry about the strength and presence of God that can renew your hope is addressed to people who have good reason to say to themselves: My way is hidden from God. God seems to have ignored my predicament.
I wonder if you have felt or said words like that this year. I wonder how many of us have wondered if our way is hidden or if God has forgotten us.
Have those thoughts crossed your mind this year? Show up in your prayers?
I was talking with a friend who has felt this way, who has been facing discouragement after discouragement. And I texted these words of Isaiah. I’ve actually texted versions of these to a handful of people recently.
Even young people become tired and weary,
People in the prime of their lives stumble sometimes.
But those who hope in God
Will renew their strength;
They’ll fly on eagles’ wings
They’ll run and not be tired;
They’ll walk and not be weary.
This is a profoundly beautiful promise, isn’t it? The words remind me a little bit of that walk home from my nearly finished marathon… stumbling, tired, weary. But in my daughter I had to lean on, in the store we walked into that gave me free food and drink, I could walk and not be weary.
This hope for stamina, for energy, for resilience and strength in hard times is why I’ve been sharing these lines with a few people. And as I’ve been doing that, I’ve been struck by what God does here and by what people do.
It’s a partnership, did you notice? Like everything with God, it’s a partnership.
We hope in God. That’s our first part.
And then God renews our strength. That’s God’s part – to do something within our minds, spirits, and bodies when we hope in God.
And then we run, we walk – metaphorically, I’m pretty sure – we fly.
This is less like those scenes with the eagles in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, the ones where just when everything is going bad and there’s no hope of escape, and eagles come swooping in to rescue you. I’d like a bird like that to appear sometime. Singlehanded, miraculous rescue from the sky – that is not what this passage promises to the people in exile or to you and me.
It’s more like the runners blankets we’re passing out today. Take a look if you want – open yours up if you feel like it. They’re pretty flimsy looking, right? Like what good are these stretchy piece of aluminum foil?
Thing is, though, when you’ve been running a few miles (or like 26 miles) and sweating, you wrap one of these things around you and it works. You don’t get the chills. It radiates back to you your own heat, which keeps you warm in a way that couldn’t happen without it.
Those who hope in God will renew their strength… and then just watch what they can do.
In Advent, we remember the arrival, the emergence, the appearance of God with us in the person of Jesus. But in the life of Jesus, wonderful as he was, we see that primarily what this meant was not a release of unbridled power. People wanted that from Jesus, but he wouldn’t, sometimes couldn’t.
What Jesus was, was he was the wisest, kindest, boldest, most loving, most totally in sync with God person we could conceive of. A new kind of human, and an accompaniment for others, one to lean on and hope in. God with us.
Kosuke Koyama calls this nature of God revealed in Christ the three mile per hour God, the God who moves at our speed, who loves us by walking with us – God with us, not God over us.
Jesus confirms this when he says
the way we’ll know him with us after his death and resurrection, so long ago, is through the Spirit of God that Jesus names not the Power, but the Paraclete – the one who comes alongside.
The Spirit of Jesus by which God is with us today is not the Force, but the accompanier. The one who walks with us, all the time, everywhere.
When I had to walk my way back home after the Marathon blew up years ago, I didn’t know if I could make it. But then I remembered, and my daughter reminded me, I had someone to walk with, someone to lean on. I was not alone. I put my hope in that fact, and that gave me strength.
Walking with others, metaphorically – being in friendship, being in well-connected and interdependent relationship is like this. It reminds us we aren’t alone. It gives us hope, which gives us strength. Walking with others literally, like taking walks with someone else, side by side, at one to three miles per hour, does this too.
It mirrors, it images God with us in tangible, embodied form. I encourage you, walk more with others this winter if you can. It can remind you of the God who walks with you, that there is nowhere you will ever go, no place you will ever be where God is not accompanying you, waiting to appear or emerge again to your consciousness. To help you hope in God and renew your strength.
What does it mean to put your hope in God like this? And how does that strengthen you, so that you can run and keep walking, and sometimes even fly?
Three final images I’ll share. I hope that one of these will help. Looking at God. Yearning for God. Sitting with God.
Looking at God, yearning for God, and sitting with God.
Looking with God.
This month we’re spotlighting art our community made for our Advent art exhibit hanging in our sanctuary dome. This week’s art work is a drawing by Jenny Pan. It’s her reproduction, with a few changes, of Sister Grace Remington’s painting called “Mary Comforts Eve.”
You have a very pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus. This is a woman whose yes to partnership with God, whose love and faithfulness, has for many been a picture of the ideal human, or even qualities of God with us.
And with her you have, across time, Eve, one of the first humans from the first chapters of the Bible’s primordial legend, the mother of us all. Eve is looking ragged, unkempt, long hair flying everywhere. She’s troubled by shame and regret too – holding that twice bitten apple that reminds her of how she lost her way and said no to God. And she’s hounded – the serpent clings to her ankle, winds up her leg, to sting her again, to choke out life.
But she comes to Mary and looks at her. Looking for redemption. Looking for accompaniment. Looking for help or hope or understanding. And Mary sees her, she sees all of her – which is what I read from Mary looking at the apple, not that she only sees Eve’s sin and shame and regret, but that she sees that too. And neither turns away, they choose to be in fellowship, in connection, and to see what comes of that.
And quietly, subtly, Mary had her foot upon the snake. Mary isn’t going anywhere, she’s there to help.
The psychiatrist Curt Thompson says that
To be human is to be looking for a face that is looking for us.
As an infant, that’s what we first know to do, it’s our first yearning. We’re looking for a face that is looking for us. And it’s what we keep doing our whole lives. We yearn to be known, to be seen, to be searched for and called by name.
And when we find that the one we’re looking for is also looking for us, that gives us hope and gives us strength.
I like to read at night. I often read a bit to help myself fall asleep. But last night, instead of that, I lay down by myself and quietly said to God:
I’m here. I’m looking for you.
And I lay there in silence for a while. And I felt led to call to mind how I am while looking for God. I didn’t have a snake and a serpent with me. I had two other things. I had an image of a place in my life where I’ve been quietly trying with all my strength to help somebody I care about. And there was love but also fear and fatigue in that. And I had an image of a way that in some of my stress this past month, that stress has overtaken me, sapped my strength, and not always left me at my best – and there was some fatigue and regret in that.
And as I called that to mind, looking for God, I felt something open up in my mind, felt an emergence in me of awareness that God was with me, and I felt two things in God’s gaze.
For the stress and the not at my best stuff, I felt like God had a hand out, like I see you, it’s OK, I understand, I can help you move forward to a better place.
And for my love and service, I felt like God was proud of me, that God liked and loved who I was in this, and that God was showing me this made a difference, this has mattered, and I felt the smile of God.
And the peace and love that strengthens me to carry on with lightness, with new resolve, like I cannot say.
Look for God, my friends, look at God. Be still, call what you know of God to mind, and sit in silence. See how God emerges for you, how you can hope in God and be strengthened. The God we are looking for is always looking for us, eager to call us by name, and to renew our hope.
More briefly, yearning with God.
My friend, one of many mentors in my life, David Gushee wrote recently:
“If Christmas is about everyone being happy and jolly and all’s well with the world, only a fortunate few can really participate.
But Advent is about broken people in a broken world, yearning for a promised redemption.”
Perhaps as you look for God, perhaps as you seek to pray, to talk with God in these last two weeks before Christmas, you don’t find yourself mainly talking about yourself and how you need God with you.
Perhaps you are mostly yearning, yearning for change, yearning for breakthrough in your life, and breakthrough in any number of the many things wrong with our world. There’s a lot, right?
Advent is for this as well. It’s for bringing to God the very things we wonder if God has disregarded, and saying with simple clarity: This is what I yearn for, God.
This yearning, this taking the time to express this to God, is a way of hoping in God too. It’s a way of believing that this world matters to God and that the love and goodness of God, as it’s welcomed and expressed by more and more people, changes things. Directing that yearning to God, rather than bottling it up, strengthens us too.
And lastly, just sitting with God.
That’s what these blankets are for….
Sometimes our hoping in God to renew our strength can be entirely wordless. We just need a gesture, a sign, a symbol that God is with us to renew our hope and strengthen us and grow our resilience.
We’re going to need resilience this winter, friends. We’re all going to have our disappointments and our struggles. One way to do this that we are going to take some time to try right now is to sit still, and put a blanket around us. Go ahead….
And with that blanket around us, we imagine by faith that this blanket represents the loving presence of God with us – the Spirit of Jesus, the accompanier, the one who comes alongside. And we simply sit, silently, attentive to this sign of God with us, and see what comes to our heart and mind. How our body feels, how our mindset shifts, what emerges for us.
Let’s end trying this. Take a moment with the blanket…