Summary: No matter how things may seem, we are never alone. And it is only when we feel weak and helpless that we are vulnerable enough to experience fully the power and grace of God.
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
There is a woman who lives north of here; up near the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Her name is Margaret Stevenson. She is in her nineties. She used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She is a legend in the Smokies. People loved to hike with Margaret because she knew every turn and every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name. A colleague of mine frequently hiked with Margaret and shares his adventures. The first time he joined Margaret on a hike up Mt. LeConte, it was her seventy-fifth. The second time he went was her hundred and twenty-fifth. The third time he hiked up LeConte with Margaret, it was her five-hundredth trip. When Margaret finally stopped hiking, she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went with her, even in the years before he got cancer.
Once, when my colleague was hiking with Margaret, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up at a steep grade, with no break. They had already hiked six miles on that particular day, and it was very hot. My colleague likes to hike in spurts so he looked at the elderly Margaret and said, “See you later!” He took off at a quick pace and got way ahead of Margaret. At some point, though, my friend found himself lying on his back in half delirium. And as he lay there, a blurred Margaret passed by at her steady pace. He could hear the even “click-click” of her cane as she approached, and with no pity at all in her voice said to him, “One more mile to go, Charles. I’ll see you at the top!” And so she did, arriving well ahead of my colleague and without stopping a single time.
Not long after that hike Charles took with Margaret, her husband died following a long battle with cancer. And because Margaret’s attitude in life is the same as her attitude on the trail, those last few hours with her husband were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy in celebration. Because of her daily walk with God, when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it, for her face is fixed on Christ, her step is steady and sure, and she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
When Isaiah spoke these words, he was speaking to a people in despair, the Israelites in Babylon. But he speaks a promise that echoes through the ages and is made to all people through Jesus Christ. And the promise is this; if we put our faith in God, then, with God beside us, we will have the ability to meet the challenges of life and, indeed, even to rise above them. My earliest memory of hearing these words from Isaiah goes way back to my early teen years, maybe even preteen. The pastor of my church had just lost his wife after a battle with cancer. She wasn’t even 60 yet. And on his first Sunday back in the pulpit after her death, this was the scripture he preached on. When you grow up hearing a sermon just about every Sunday, it’s hard to remember specific ones, but I’ll never forget that sermon. And the reason I will always remember it is because his grief was real, palatable. Yet, he stood before the congregation and said, “I will not faint. I will not grow weary. I will not fall back or give up. I will not lose hope. Because God is with me and I with God, I will soar on wings like an eagle.”
Needless to say, it makes quite a strong impression, even to a little kid, to know the great grief that someone is experiencing, and then to hear them say, “And yet, because of God, my hope remains.” But this is nothing less than exactly what Isaiah wanted his readers to hear and understand; not only the Israelites in exile, but all people down through the ages. When we put our faith in God, when we grasp God’s power and our powerlessness, our hope will remain in even the darkest of times.
But how easily we forget this, no? We fall into the patterns of life; work and family. We get caught up in the latest project or absorbed in feelings of inadequacy as we rush from place to place, appointment to appointment. If we are constantly self-critical, we remember only the awful things we have done in our lives. If we think we are perfect, we remember only the good things. Then crisis strikes, and the crisis causes us to fall apart because we have forgotten; we have forgotten the God who has been with us every step of the way. It’s what happens when we hear the dreaded “cancer” word or the doctor tells you they found a spot on your lung. Some of us whine. Others of us worry in desperate silence. And like those exiles in Babylon, we wonder whether God hasn’t gone off and left us altogether.