Many of us have come to love the Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” First written in 1843 by a French poet, the lyrics were translated into English only a few years later by an American pastor. The carol’s initial popularity is often traced to its third stanza which is cherished by abolitionists in the United States fighting for the freedom of African-American slaves. Lines from that stanza read like this:
Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace;
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease …
These days, the carol may be apprecitated still for another reason … its recognition of a very weary world. One sings in stanza one:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
’Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope for the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn …
The carol sees a weary world thrilled by the hope of an end to a long and tiring life of unabated, of persisting “sin and error.”
“O Holy Night” isn’t alone in its recognition of a weary world. The Christmas hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” written in 1849, describes the song of the Christmas angels floating over a “weary world” in stanza two:
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world …
So … with a cue from our carols, let me ask you … are you weary? Are you exhausted? Are you fatigued? Will the song of the angels this Christmas float across a weary you? Do you maybe find yourself “in the middle of in-between,” waiting for resolution or reconciliation or vindication or at least a change – but with none of it in sight? What has you weary? Are you weary of circumstances, your age, your illness, our relationship, your job? In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf: “I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed! Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.”
Do you feel stretched thin? Are you winded or exhausted from a pace that has you spent physically and emotionally? Have you just about given up hope that we can solve any of our big problems: the economy, war, sickness, tribalism, racism, immigration? Is it all too much, this marathon our life has become?
There are many ways to go when we are wearied by life. Isaiah counsels that with the Lord’s strength, we can soar like eagles. Yet weary people are often difficult people. We can live with despair. We can complain and we can blame. There’s an old proverb that says something like, “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” When we get weary, we may not see the needs of those around us or the opportunities which are right before our eyes.
In each of us, there is this struggle. A struggle between weariness and being strong in the Lord. It’s one aspect of being a saint and a sinner at the same time which is found in every Christian. American poet Carl Sandburg is credited with this introspective thought … “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.”
The text from Isaiah is for the wallowing hippo inside each of us. “Weary”, that word is all over our reading from Isaiah. Isaiah first uses the word to say that God does not grow tired or weary. Now that’s good news! It’s good to know that the One who is running the universe does not wear out. You would if you were God. I would if I were God. Thank God that we’re not God! With all which God has to do and to be, you’d expect God would get weary at some point in time. I mean really, God has always been and will always be God. That’s a long marathon of divine responsibility with some very high expectations.
Isaiah reminds us that God never feels, how did Bilbo say it?, “all thin, sort of stretched like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” In fact, God, Isaiah says, gives “strength to the weary” and “increases the power of the weak” (40:29). In the long history of God and humanity, God has always been strength for the weary, He has always been a second or third wind for those who are ready to fall.
Do you see what is happening here in this reading? Isaiah is speaking words of comfort to a people who are weary of the long wait for a Messiah. He spoke to a chosen people who were losing their sense of being chosen. Isaiah’s comfort speech was for those who forgot the chapter in their history entitled “The Exodus.” They forgot about those who would spend decades as exiles in a strange land. Today, today Isaiah’s comfort reaches any of us who want to follow Jesus but find ourselves weak and weary. He doesn’t yell at you and tell you to “Suck it up buttercup!” Isaiah doesn’t even say, “Be strong!” or “Be courageous!”
Instead, what Isaiah does do is bring to remembrance the God who has always been there for the weary. “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” (Isaiah 40:28). Or to put it a different way, “Don’t you remember? Have you forgotten?” Isaiah is a remembrancer. He remembers things to tell others so that they don’t forget.
So in our reading this morning, we have a remembrance speech, a comfort speech. A speech turning us from our weariness to remember a tireless, an all-wise and all-powerful God. Isaiah has us remember who God is and what God is like. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increase the power of the weak” (40:28-29).
On top of that, Isaiah turns us to God. He turns us to the One who offers divine strength to replace our weariness. There is a wonderful exchange here which some of you have experienced personally. The exchange is your weakness for the Lord’s strength. Or as Isaiah says, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 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” (40:29-31).
Who doesn’t want to soar like an eagle? The images of eagles ascending into the sky and soaring at heights which only planes can fly is breath taking.
But this isn’t a new image. When God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, God said, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). Isaiah no doubt is doing some remembrancing here. Our God has a history of taking the weary and putting us into eagle-like flight.
For us, for you and me on this side of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, God has exchanged our long weariness of “sin and error” for a thrilling hope that rejoices in the strength of Christ to overcome sin, death, and this very weary world. This is the God we know, the God we trust.
At the front of some churches is a replica of a sculpture titled “Christ the Consoler.” The extended hands of the often life-sized Christ figure are scarred by crucifixion nails. Standing before this image of Christ, one can hear the echo of his invitation in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Rest for the weary. Strength for the weary. “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn …”
And so we pray, “Jesus, be born in us today.” Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.