A Word of Hope for Grasshoppers and Exiles

February 04, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah 40:21-31

21Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; 23who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah Let me just begin by saying: I think that grasshoppers deserve a little more respect. 

Now we know that the Prophet Isaiah didn’t have Wikipedia when he wrote these words to the exiled people of Israel, but if he had, he would have known that:

  • Grasshoppers are likely the oldest living group of chewing herbivorous insects, dating back to the early Triassic period, approximately 249,997,500 years before the Babylonian exile.
  • He would have known that grasshoppers, although small in stature, are able to use their powerful hind legs to jump an average of 20 times their own body’s length in order to escape danger.
  • And that male grasshoppers spend much of their days stridulating, or singing, rubbing their legs together, and their songs vary in intensity and phraseology whether they are trying to attract a mate, ward off a potential rival or keep the swarm together.
  • Their lifecycle, although tragically short (only about 80 days) begins as an egg, develops into a nymph and then a grasshopper molts five times as it develops into its full adult form.
  • Even without the assistance of a google search, Isaiah surely would have been aware of the power a plague of locusts, part of the family of grasshoppers, can have upon plants, causing tremendous destruction and leading to famine for humans.

Sure, they are not as majestic as an eagle, but let’s all give the grasshopper it’s due, shall we?

After all, it is the grasshopper to which the prophet compares God’s people.  Like them, our lives are short and filled with vulnerability.  We put all our energy into the daily struggle to survive, to thrive, to grow and reproduce, knowing that in the grand scheme of things our lives are stunningly beautiful and shockingly brief.

And, we too, do it all while singing.  We sing love songs, and praise songs, and songs of lament.

One of my favorite hymns of all time, and one I am sure you know, too, goes like this:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.

But how do we know?  How do we know that the God of the universe, seated high above the circle of this small, blue planet, also watches over each and every one us, cares for us, loves us even?

The questioning voice of the prophet can sound scolding to us: have you not known?  Have you not heard?  How could you not understand?  He seems so sure of himself, of his faith in God, his trust in God’s plan and provision.

The prophet Isaiah’s original audience were people who were living in exile—their leaders captured by a foreign king and taken away to a strange land.  Their homes and towns destroyed; the holy city of Jerusalem besieged; the Temple in ruins.

For nearly 50 years, two generations, they lived in Babylon. And waited for God to speak to them, redeem them, bring them home.

And it was to the generation that was born in exile, that Isaiah calls upon to remember.  These Israelites knew of the promised land only from the stories of their elders, the songs, the prayers.  It was a place of the imagination; one that they weren’t sure they would ever get to see with their own eyes.  Because they had lived their whole lives in exile, the people had started to give up on God, to lose hope and faith.  They started to question: maybe God didn’t care about them after all?  Or maybe Yahweh just wasn’t as powerful as the gods of Nebuchadnezzar?

So, with his questions, the prophet seeks to break through their theological amnesia[1], to help them remember who and whose they are.  To put their suffering and grief in perspective. It is  not that their experiences are insignificant or inconsequential to God.  But the Prophet wants them to remember that there is a power at work that is greater than themselves, than all of this; a God on whom they can trust and rely and hope and wait, because in God’s time, they will be redeemed.  Their weakness will become strength; their losses, hope; death, new life.

Perhaps this is also the word of hope that we come to worship seeking today.  We who experience many different types of exile—social, spiritual, political, familial.  We, too, need someone to remind us, that when the world seems so full of injustice and violence and suffering and pain; when we are facing great challenges in our personal lives…

We can dig deep into our hearts and minds and try to remember:

What was the first thing you ever learned about God?
How did you learn it?
Who taught it to you?
How did you know it was true?

Was it from the prayers your family said at dinner time?  Or the songs your grandmother sang while working around the house, “Yes, Jesus loves me…”?  Maybe it was from church—from Sunday school lessons, or a particularly instructive children’s message.  I put these questions out on Facebook and a friend of mine shared that one of the first things she learned about God was that “He does not wait for you to clean yourself up and come out of your mess, before God will use you… I knew it was true, because it was different than the world. The world wants you to fix yourself up, be qualified, etc. and then you can come….God is completely different, I know, felt, saw, experienced it for myself.”

I will never forget the Good Friday when I was a young teenager, serving with my brother as one of the acolytes for the Tenebrae service in the Methodist church where we were Confirmed.  It must have been the first Good Friday service I had ever been to, because my family had not been very involved in church when we were kids. I knew about Easter, of course, but I had never heard the whole story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  But as the scriptures were read, and verses of hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” sung, and as my brother and I took turns extinguishing the candles on the altar, one by one, I remember sitting in that dark sanctuary at the end of the service, and a realization coming over me, that Jesus had died for me.  For the world yes, for the sin of all humankind, to reconcile us all back to God’s love.  But also, for me.  Though I was just an awkward teenage girl, who much of the time felt like nothing, like nobody.  To God I was someone; someone worth dying for.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The prophet pleads.

Remember that we know who God is because someone taught us.  Because we had an encounter with someone, something that we knew was the power of God.  We know who God is because of the traditions, rituals, communities that have shaped us.

We do know, it’s just that sometimes we have to be reminded.  We have to remember that God is God and we are not.  We are merely grasshoppers.

And we are not used to making ourselves small, of taking time to really acknowledge our place in the grandeur of God’s creation.  We resist taking this perspective because we spend so much of our lives trying to be somebody—we want to be strong and powerful and valued and impressive; to matter and to make a difference.

And we want God to move on our terms, our timetable.  To respond to our needs, and hear our prayers, and when God doesn’t seem to do these things we may start to lose faith or become bitter, turn away from the church, stop coming to worship.  Never mind, God, I’ll just do it by myself.

But God says to us: just wait.  Just wait for me.  Sit for a while here, in this space.  Go out at night and listen to the wind, look at the stars.  And remember, who I am, whose you are.

Go ahead, God says, come to me with all your unanswered questions, your exhaustion, your grief.  I am waiting for you, too.  And it is then, only then, that God raises us up with higher than we could ever imagine; gives us a strength we didn’t know we could possess.

I want to leave you with a poem by Michael Coffey called “Have you not known, grasshopper?”

What a relief and what a cause
of humility right down to my exoskeleton.
The shaping of the earth
and the timing of the rains
the rising of the sun
and the spreading of the stars on the sky fabric
the making and crowning of kings
and the dethroning of prideful powers
does not depend on me
a grasshopper in the field of the world.

But the world does depend on me
to hop and nibble on the grass
and stop and take notice with my compound eyes
of the sun, the sky, the muscle and immodesty of kings
and with my mandibles in full song
let praise and protest rise up above me.

[1] William J Carl III, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2