Our assigned Hebrew bible reading for today is found in that portion of the book of Isaiah where the people of YHWH (Jehovah) are exiled in Babylon – their homeland destroyed, their future decidedly uncertain. As you will hear, Isaiah’s voice speaks with some urgency at the beginning, concerned that the Jewish people have forgotten who they are and whose they are. But Isaiah’s is not the only voice you will hear. YHWH also speaks … at least how Isaiah understands the voice of the Holy One. And as well, you will hear the complaints of the people, moaning that God obviously does not care. Listen closely to how Isaiah’s voice becomes gently encouraging, as he tries to help the people remember God’s sacred promise. This is good news, and is as full of grace as the words of Jesus.
Some of you may have already heard author Harold Klemp’s little story of a four-year-old child who asked to be alone in the nursery for a moment with her newborn brother. The parents agreed but, a little worried about sibling jealousy, switched on the nursery monitor just to be safe – you know, trust in God, but turn up the volume. What they heard touched them deeply. The older sister gently leaned over the newborn and whispered, almost like a prayer, “Baby brother, please help me remember what God is like. I’m beginning to forget.”
When I read this Isaiah text a few weeks ago, this story was the first image I thought of, and then when I met our baptism children, 4 year old brother, Jacob, and 4 month old sister, Lily, I realized how powerful these “God coincidences” can be … if we can make room in our minds and hearts to receive them. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? … from the very beginning … from the foundations of the earth …” Twice in these 11 verses, Isaiah asks us these probing questions, to remind us of who God is and who we are in relation to the Holy One. In the ancient context, it apparently had something to do with the people’s complaint that if the LORD has forgotten us, then why should we remember God? And although that attitude is sometimes expressed in this day and age, there is other more subtle forgetfulness in our midst … kinds of forgetfulness that Klemp’s story begins to explore.
One commentator on this Isaiah passage suggests that we are all “theological amnesiacs.”[i] Personally I probably prefer the phrase ‘spiritual amnesiac,’ but the idea is similar, that as we grow into thinking, doing humans, we seem to lose the inherent connection to our true identity, our human being … our being in intimate relationship with God. This is what I hear in that 4-year-old’s plea, “Help me. I’m losing touch with the very thing that gives me life.” And as I become more capable and self-directed and independent, the sacred memory of my origin and identity begins to slip through my fingers until, like the people of Israel, I find myself in exile from my true home, my true self.
From Isaiah’s perspective, in the first 5 verses of this reading, the tone feels more like a wakeup call, where God’s overwhelming grandeur is splashed in 3-D on the High-Def, wide-screen of our human imagination (if you close your eyes you probably can see it) … this God who sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens like a tent in which we all live … this bigger than life God in whose presence we look like tiny insects … this all consuming God by whose breath even the most powerful of humans are blown away like flecks chaff … this incomparable God whose voice Isaiah makes to sound almost like bragging. If you are daydreaming in your spiritual amnesia (daydreaming about “what you deserve and what the world owes you”), Isaiah seems to be saying, “Wake up. There’s more to life than your own desires. Wake up. God’s got something for you to consider.”
And then the prophet invites us in our imaginations to come outside on a crystal clear night, far away from the city lights, and look again at the stars … more than anyone could ever count. Can you remember the last time you did that? I bet you can. I certainly can. What an awesome and humbling experience. How could anyone forget? But sadly, some do. So Isaiah reminds you, “God not only made all of them, but numbers and knows them all by name.” And what’s true for the stars is true for you. So if your spiritual amnesia has left you complaining that you’re a nobody in God’s eyes, and that God really doesn’t care what happens to you, Isaiah says, “Think again. Not one is missing from God’s view. Not one star. Not one human life. Not even you. You are on God’s radar screen and, whether you realize it or not, God knows your name.”
And that’s when Isaiah’s tone softens and he encourages us to hope and trust in the One (as Eugene Peterson in The Message describes) the One “who never tires out, who doesn’t pause to catch a breath, who knows everything and everyone inside and out.” Hope and trust in God, who “gives power to the faint of heart and strengthens the powerless.”
One insight that the story of the older sister and infant brother suggests is how young we actually are when we begin to lose our innocence. And Isaiah seems to agree, “even the young grow weary, faint, and fall exhausted.” Regardless of how old you are, if your spiritual amnesia has left you breathless, unable to feel God’s inspiration, now may be the time to anticipate your spiritual renewal. Like the little girl, our Spirit-prayer is “Help me.” Yet like the Psalm-writer we also ponder, from where will our help come? (Psalm 121:1) How does God work through this world? What might we be waiting for? Where will we recognize the wind of Christ’s Spirit lifting our wings?
In Java Jive Bible Study last Thursday, when I asked where folks have experienced this sacred reminder, we did talk about God’s wonder in nature, for sure. Then someone else suggested that we can experience it by reading our bibles or other inspirational books. Another said that music does it for her. But when someone offered that our human memory of God’s goodness is restored in meaningful relationships with other human beings, I felt the wind stirring around me. As commentator, Verity Jones writes, “we come to know how God works in the world through years of living with God’s people … years of exploring, seeking, reflecting, and acting (together) with God.” [ii]
Waiting on God’s strengthening and empowering promise is realized in a vital, compassionate, and engaging community of faith. Here is where the Spirit’s breath will lift our spirits. Here with each other will we see and hear the reminder of God’s grace, experience and know the goodness of God’s love. The living memory of God is here, in Christ’s body, the church. That’s who we are for each other – we will serve and not grow weary; we will love and not faint; we will live and renew our strength. And because of us and our faith, the world too will remember, God willing.