Preached Feb. 5 at First Baptist Church (Belleville, IL)
This may surprise you, but about 3 years ago, I ran a marathon: 26.2 miles. I have this medal to prove it. It is a giant fish, because this was the Bass Pro Marathon in Springfield, MO. I know some of you are really impressed right now, thinking that this medal means I won the race – or that I maybe came in third since it is bronze. Well, I’m sorry to both surprise and disappoint you on the same morning, but I didn’t win. In fact, I was dead last. Or, perhaps I should say that I was dead last of those who finished the race, because there were a lot of people who started the race behind me and never caught up, and there were several people I passed – but they all quit somewhere along the way.
The Springfield Bass Pro Marathon is a very small race. That was only the second year of the race and about 300 people were signed up. To offer a little comparison, nearly 2,000 people completed the Go! St. Louis marathon this year. Looking back on my experience, I should have chosen a larger race with people cheering on the sides of the streets. Because being in a race of only 300 people means that for long stretches of time, you run alone. For the first 13 miles or so, I was around other people. There were other runners to talk to, but somehow along the way, they kept disappearing. Some quit, others were running the half marathon and were finished, and others seemed to be machines who could speed up at the 15 mile mark.
Did I mention it was nearly 80 degrees. . . in November? While that doesn’t seem surprising this year, we were having normal fall weather that year – so all my of long training runs were done outside in 40-50 degree weather. While 80 degrees is pleasant to stand around in, once you’ve run the distance from St. Louis to Belleville (roughly 16 miles), it feels like an oven. And when you aren’t used to running distance in heat? You get worn out QUICKLY.
And there is nothing particularly exciting about running alone. My running partner was running the race with me . . . only, we weren’t exactly running together. She was feeling really good that day and had gotten ahead. And so there I was . . . me and my thoughts . . . for mile after mile after mile. At one point, I wondered if I’d made a wrong turn and was lost. But I kept going and eventually found another person.
The last 5 miles, I couldn’t run any more. I was walking – and probably not very quickly. I began collecting race volunteers who knew I was the last runner. I can assure you that the lines “they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” were going through my mind repeatedly. Only I *was* weary. And when my GPS watch started beeping that I had completed 26.2 miles when the race volunteers were telling me I still had a mile to go, I was ready to hurt someone… that is, if I’d had the energy.
“One more mile” is a popular race slogan. In fact, starting at the beginning of many races, spectators will hold signs that say “one more mile.” People say it long before it is true to try and get you to smile, and remind you that you can, in fact, finish this thing.
Runners, however, see things differently. By the time we are in intense pain, the thought of one more mile is torture. Every single thought revolves around quitting. Until you can see the finish line, it might as well not exist.
I find it particularly fitting that running is one of the metaphors used in our Scripture passage today. At this point in the book of Isaiah, the Israelite people are in exile – exile is a big fancy word for not belonging. The Israelites have been taken from their homes, brought to a foreign land. The people around them speak a different language, eat funny foods and do not treat the Israelites particularly well. The prophets have been warning that this will happen – they’ve been saying that the people will be punished for breaking covenant will God.
And this text is beautiful – chapter 40 of Isaiah begins with God telling Isaiah to comfort the people. “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord double for all her sins.”
I recently heard a pastor describe comfort as the moment after you fall and skin your knee, when your mother scoops you up, kisses the boo boo and puts a bandaid on it. Moms know how to make everything better.
But the people are tired. They are homesick for a home that is gone – it’s been destroyed. They are having trouble remembering who they are. Isaiah is bringing comfort, but instead of being a kiss and a bandaid, it is the promise that the kiss and bandaid are coming. He’s telling the people that they have one more mile.
Have you ever felt worn out? Do you feel worn out now? Perhaps you’re experiencing stressful times at work or at school. Maybe a time of grief that feels like it will consume you. Maybe you don’t even know why you feel worn out, but life just seems more difficult than it should.
In times like those, the encouragement of “one more mile” doesn’t seem like much. In fact, sometimes it seems downright brutal. We really want the easy answer, don’t we? We’d like to be picked up and have the puzzle pieces of our lives put back into order – and perhaps glued down like the puzzles that hang in the hallways. But our pains, griefs, distresses, angers, and fears linger, don’t they? Any answer that is easy does not ease the hurt – and often, they make things worse. A pastor friend told me yesterday that he has a list of things not to say to people in the hospital. It includes the sort of easy answers that deny the difficulty of real life.
Making everything “right” for a people in exile takes more than a bandaid – it is a process. Sometimes for all of us there is more pain before we can see or feel the comfort. But Isaiah reminds us that the God who makes these promises is the God who knows the stars by name and calls them forth. That God, Isaiah says, is able to renew us, to give us the strength to keep moving forward, even when we think we are through. The God who is never weary sees when we are. That last mile won’t be easy. Every step may feel like it will be your last. Running columnist John Bingham describes the last 6 miles of a marathon like this:
“Mile 20 is ‘the Wall.’ For many runners and walkers, ths is where the marathon starts. As a friend of mine used to say, the marathon is 20 miles of hope followed by 6 miles of truth. I know that’s where everyone says the Wall is, but this wasn’t like hitting a wall. This was like someone handing me a refrigerator and asking me to carry it to the finish line. It wasn’t that anything hurt. It was as if I suddenly weighed 800 pounds.”
For those of you who like sports metaphors, I’m afraid running is all I’ve got. But my guess is that we’ll all had moments where we felt like we were carrying around a refrigerator-sized weight. Perhaps you have one now. I wish I could find a convenient bandaid, but I have none. What I do know is that you aren’t carrying that refrigerator alone, and that God is whispering the strength that all of us need to go just a little farther. Step by step, moment by moment we are being renewed.
Will you pray with me?
God of comfort,
Many of us come today with more hurt than we can carry. And those of us who don’t know and care about others who are. We ask for the strength to continue. We ask for the renewal you offer. Give us what we need to continue on our journey. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
(photo credit — by the way, I adore this line of running gear)