“Pokémon and Paul”

July 17, 2016


Isaiah 40:21-31

Galatians 6:1-10


This summer’s big craze—Pokémon Go—came to Iowa City and the rest of our nation this past week. On the streets, in the parks, across the campus people of all ages were walking around, looking at their phones even more intently than usual, hoping to discover the Pokémon that were lurking everywhere. It’s getting people out of their houses—and I guess a little fresh air really can’t hurt.

And let it not be said that the church is irrelevant in contemporary times! I was told on very good authority that the area by our sign outside was a PokéStop, where, as I understand it you can get more Pokéballs. I’m really not sure what that sentence means, so if you’re confused as well, that’s OK.

Pokémon Go is not the end of civilization as we know it—as some are no doubt preaching this morning. Nor is it the great hope for churches—and I’ve seen that suggested as well this past week. It’s the relief that we’ve been waiting for.

All of this was a distraction, but who can blame anyone for wanting to be distracted? It is, after all, the height of the summer, the temperatures in the week to come threaten to soar, and we need a break.

We are more than well aware that there is so much in our world that is wearing us down. The Thursday night killings in Nice were the next in what feels like an endless line of atrocities. The President’s Town Hall meeting sought to address the ongoing issues of race and policing in our nation that has resulted in so much death. And we’re heading toward the two political conventions and an election in which so many are so disinterested in both candidates. I could go on—and I have in previous sermons—but you know that there are even more problems that challenge us and wear us down.

Compassion fatigue sets in. We become tired. We become discouraged. We become fearful. We become numb.

Isaiah’s assessment rings true, doesn’t it? “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.

At such times, we can chase Pokémon or complain about Pokémon or choose other distractions—and I think there are some mental health and spiritual benefits in all of that. We need a break.

Paul, however, encourages us to take the long view in all of this: “Let us not grow weary in do what is right…whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…”

And Isaiah speaks those wonderful words of hope and encouragement: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Like a lot of people, I try to be one who “waits for the Lord.” And like a lot of people I know what it means to have tired legs and a weary soul, still looking to mount up with wings like eagles.

The prophet is right about our human condition: we wear out, we grow faint.

We worry that we are going through these tumultuous days unknown, unseen by the living God.

In this concern we are connected to the ancient Israelites. At the time of Isaiah, some 500 years before the birth of Jesus, the people sensed that the promises and saving acts of God were things of the past, not present realities. They could not see God’s saving hand in the world of history or experience.[i] As we do today, ancient Israel cried out: “My way is hidden from the Lord.”

Reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians has led me to preach a lot about social and political situations in recent weeks. But when he urges us to “not grow weary in doing what is right,” I sense the need to lift up the religious aspects of the spiritual power that undergirds such action. In these days when the world spins with a dizzying speed, through prayer we might reconnect with the God who is the still point of the turning world.

The problems of prayer are many. I’m sure you have discovered that for yourself.

But if the problems of prayer are great, perhaps greater still are the possibilities of prayer.

Through prayer we draw close to a source of strength and renewal—the God who “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” Prayer is a powerful spiritual energy. Indeed, prayer’s power on the mind and body is measurable.

When we pray, we remain connected to the rest of life with all its challenges and demands and opportunities.

In prayer we bring our anguished and honest and bold cries to God. The Hebrew Scriptures show God’s people setting their outrage and complaint before God, who is the source both of anguish and hope. And as Isaiah suggests, God answers on those terms, yet with divine freedom and wisdom.[ii]

Isaiah often speaks of God as mysterious. That mystery, however, is not cause for us to lose faith in God’s care.

The prophet reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that we are not God. We are not the Creator, who is far greater than the creation.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

It is God who sits above the circle of the earth,

and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who brings princes to naught,

and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

            To whom, then, will you compare me,

            or who is my equal? says the Holy One.

When the calculations comparing our smallness with God’s greatness are finished, we can rest in God’s great love even in these days. Isaiah proclaimed—and the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus confirmed—that this God who is unequalled and beyond compare regards this creation with an equally incomparable love. God has no inconsequential creatures or untended corners of the universe. God tells us how precious not only we are in God’s sight, but how precious all of the creation is.

The God who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing also gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless—people like you and me.

As we come to know the power of God, we also begin to know the hope to which God has called us. It is the hope of the resurrection, and this is not simply an otherworldly hope for an afterlife. God calls us to a hope that can see beyond the shadows and the resistance and the destruction that we sometimes encounter. Because we can see by hope resurrection beyond death, we can dare through that hope to act for the good even when confronted by all that disheartens and discourages.

You see, hope is that vision of the future that allows us to act in the present.

Hope invites us to look beyond failure, beyond despair, beyond fear and death to what might be—and to start moving toward what we see.

And so we are encouraged to “wait for the Lord.” This implies a confidence that God will not desert God’s people. These words of the prophet are not to be confused with the tired argument that “God acts in God’s own good time”—for God constantly acts and all time is God’s time. As we trust in God, we find ourselves renewed in and for the present moment.[iii]

To wait for the Lord means that we will act out of a sense of who we are and who God is—not confusing the two. We recognize our limitations and our abilities. To wait for the Lord means that we will continue to work for peace in a world that prefers for war. To wait for the Lord means that we will continue to open our doors to the homeless, we will continue to feed the hungry even as our economy creates more homeless and hungry people each week. To wait for the Lord means that we will continue to affirm the value of each person even as the voices of hate get louder. To wait for the Lord means that we will continue in our busy lives to love one another.

In other words, to wait for the Lord means to work for the good of all whenever we have the opportunity.

In all of our action we live out a faithful waiting, receiving the strength God provides.

It might not feel at all times like flying on the wings of eagles.

We might not even run very far.

But we will walk, at least, depending on the God who gives power to the powerless, depending on the Creator who will not abandon any of the Creation.

And by the grace of God, as we work for the good we will rediscover the ancient wisdom that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wing like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

So this is the message that comes to us today: Do not give in. Do not give up. We work for the good, we do what is right because such acts matter now and in the larger scheme of God’s creation.

And somewhere you knew this before you came here today.  You did not come here this morning to be told to give up. You came because you sense your ability and want to use it. You came here because you wanted to hear again the good news that there is a powerful and forgiving love that will sustain you through all the discouragement and opposition and failure as you act in the world. And that is just what I am telling you.

Do not give up. Do not quit the god and valuable work that you are doing. While it may feel like it at times, especially at times like these, we are not without power. What you are doing here matters.

What we are doing is of value in God’s now and in God’s eternity.

Through our efforts God is able to accomplish far more than we can imagine.

In faith we believe certain things about our lives and this universe: that God is present in the depths of human suffering; that God is made known to us in weakness, anguish, and despair as much as—if not more than—in victory and strength. We have a faith that God is making something new even in the midst of everything that would tempt us to give up.

The ability to act for the benefit of yourself and the benefit of others is nothing less than the strength of God acting through us. Just think of what might be accomplished through you by that power.

Like all summer fads, and summer songs, Pokémon Go will fade. In a few weeks people will look at the dwindling number of players and derisively say, “Oh, that’s so July.”

But our charge will stay.

And the promise will stay—you will run and not be weary.

God has not given up on this church, this nation, this world. And let me make it even more specific: God has not given up on you.

Do not grow weary of doing good. God has not yet finished working in us and among us.

[i] John McKenzie, Second Isaiah, Anchor Bible, vol. 20, pg. 25.

[ii] Isaiah, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6, pg 346.

[iii] Second Isaiah, Anchor Bible, pg. 25