I don’t usually title my sermons but if I did, today’s title would be Grasshoppers and Giants. Let’s start with the grasshoppers. Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah (40:21-31) begins with a majestic picture of God. Isaiah describes God as one who sits above the circle of the earth, a God who stretches the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to live in. This God is presented to us as all-powerful, bringing down princes and hurling rulers to the dust like a WWE wrestler with god-sized muscles.
But did you notice the grasshoppers? Well in the face of all this power, according to Isaiah, the grasshoppers are us. “God sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.”
When Isaiah settles on this image of grasshoppers to describe the people, I believe that he is going back over thousand years to a story in the Torah, which was Isaiah’s Bible. Isaiah is remembering a story from the time of Moses from the book of Numbers. Moses has led the people on a 40 year wilderness journey to the promised land and that land is now in sight. So Moses sends spies to check if out and to see if it’s a good place to settle. This is what we read of the spies adventure: “they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.” In case this isn’t clear, the grapes are so humongous, you need two men to carry one single bunch. Not even Miracle Grow could produce grapes that big. Only God. This land is so amazingly fertile that it can feed and support many people- the people there now and more to come.
But well, then there were some others in the group, like in most groups…some negative Nancies. If it looks too good to be true it probably is. They ignore the giant grapes and say: “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites who come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Doubts and fears are rising to the surface. The Nephilim were a mythic race of giants briefly mentioned in Genesis, produced by the unnatural union of supernatural beings and mortals. Faced with the Anakite descendents of the Nephilim, the people see their own potential dwarfed. “to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” They are buying into the identity projected upon them…others put them down, they internalize that, seeming insignificant to themselves like grasshoppers, because so they seemed to others. When that happens, everything else falls apart. The land is no longer filled with fruitfulness — humongous grapes, milk and honey, instead it is a land that devours its inhabitants.
But were the Anakites really giants? Were they a race of tall people? There is an interesting study where archeologists examined the skeletons of Anakite people and found them to be generally the same size as everyone else. They were the same size, but for the fearful band with Moses, they were larger than life. And the fear grew and spread so that soon, everyone felt diminished…everyone felt weak and powerless and insignificant, like grasshoppers.
It’s easy to understand why the prophet Isaiah draws on this distant memory in describing his present situation. The people Isaiah is writing for also felt like grasshoppers. A powerful nation had taken them from their beds, from their homes and work and place of worship and brutally carried them off to exile in Babylon. They were refugees. Faint, powerless, even the young, like the young refugees from Syria and Iraq waiting today in refugee camps faint and weary, as the adults. Tired of longing to be where they are not. Tired of not knowing if they will ever be free. It’s easy to feel that God does not see them or take notice of their plight, to feel so small and unimportant in the scheme of things. In the scheme of others who can crush them in a second the way you crush a bug.
Isaiah speaks to us too. We also get tired, worn down and faint. This time of year is especially hard on many people. The cold, the slush, the ice, the long nights – can all have a particularly wearing effect. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which leads to depression. Thrown down not by some human tyrant but by the cold tyranny of the weather. And if we huddle inside and turn on the news, it just gets worse and we hear of modern day descendants of the Nephilim, terrorists like ISIS severing heads, burning people alive, doing all sorts of horrific, larger-than-life evil things. And what can we do? We are like grasshoppers.
I think Isaiah got that part right but I’m not sure about the rest of what he starts with. This image of a majestic, all powerful God who sits above the circle of the earth. Is that really comforting? Is that comforting for those down below who already feel that God is far away, too far to notice the plight of those who fear being crushed like bugs.
Even Isaiah realizes that the answer is- probably not. So he shifts direction. Do you feel your way is hidden from the Lord? Isaiah asks. Do you feel God is disregarding your humanity? The prophet asks, but he knows the answer. Well then, he says, hear this. God calls all by name and not one is missing. Not one child in a crowded refugee camp is missing from God’s sight. Not one person is suffering alone. Not a single one. What does this mean for those who are missing from their families, held by terrorists? Those who disappear? Those who feel invisible? They do not disappear eternally. God sees and God has counted every hair of their heads. They are not crushed permanently. That is God’s promise. At times, it does not seem like enough, but it is all we have and the hope that it will become what we need.
A few days ago, some of us stood at the coffin of Andy Silva, a 16 year old boy who died of leukemia. He was once a student in our afterschool program. His mother is weak and faint with grief, but she was surrounded by her sisters, held up by their support. Andy insisted that the family wear white not black. He wanted them to live with hope. Is the promise that her son is not eternally lost a comfort? Perhaps not that day. But maybe some day it WILL help if she can believe that her beloved, hopeful child has not disappeared. That Andy lives on in a different way that we cannot yet understand. That her son, downed by disease, is now raised up, lifted on the wings of divine love.
Isaiah has another promise too. The promise that God who does not faint comes and gives power to those who are faint. God who does not grow weary comes and strengthens those who are weary. God does not stay sitting above the circle of the earth. God comes and gives power. God comes and gives strength. This is what we see Jesus doing in today’s gospel. “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but 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.”
I read a terrific blog by Melissa Bane Sevier on this text. Sevier points out that in Hebrew poetry when you have three images, like walking, running and flying, the last line is more important to the author than the middle, and the middle is more important than the first. So you would expect Isaiah to write: “They shall walk and not faint, they shall run and not be weary, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”
You walk, then you run, and then, you fly! But Isaiah has the opposite. they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary , they shall walk and not faint. You fly, you run, you walk. Maybe Isaiah is realizing, well how many of us spend our days soaring above it all up where God sits above the circle of the earth? How often are WE able to race through the hurdles before us, running like the wind to get where we hope to go?
“Sometimes, no matter how much we long to soar like an eagle, all we can do is barely manage to put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again. Maybe the (greatest thing) is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.” (Melissa Sevier) In Selma, the people walked. In the face of terror, they walked. In the face of hatred, they walked. For the sake of their children and grandchildren, they walked. In the face of crushing evil, they stood up and walked. So in the end, who were the giants?
It was this time of year, at the end of January that my grandparents were taken from their beds, like the people Isaiah wrote for, they were taken from their comfortable home and brutally forced on a train that would carry them away from all they knew and loved to a concentration camp. A week before my grandparents arrived, an inmate of the camp wrote in his diary:
“Winter has come, and with it a great chill. I remember how much we feared the winter. The situation is truly very bad. People are living in the attics where the temperature often falls below zero. Still more transports will be coming.” Including the transport with my grandparents. There was no heat and each winter morning began with the removal of that night’s stack of frozen bodies, more than a hundred and fifty a day from around the camp.
How could you not feel like a grasshopper? Like a bit of vermin about to be crushed at the whim of the giant monsters of evil around you? My grandfather did not survive but my grandmother, in her 70’s, somehow did. She survived insect infestations, diseases and the indignity of being allowed to bathe once every other month.
My grandmother survived starvation rations given to the elderly who could not work. Sometimes there was nothing but lentil soup made from dried ground lentil pods, gray, tasteless, without any nutritional value boiled in stinking water; Most people threw it away in disgust, but the old begged for it because they were given nothing else. They were expected to die. She survived standing all day outside in freezing rain, soaked to the skin during a camp census. Many died that day, that night, but she survived.
Then in February of 1945, an announcement was made. People could sign up to go on a train that would take them to Switzerland and freedom! Who could believe that? Why would those who were constantly plotting your murder and torture grant you a ticket to freedom? One volunteer for the trip was a young mother planning to take the train with her son, but at the last minute, she was chosen to leave, while he had to stay behind. He was stronger. He could work harder. My grandmother watched. She heard the mother’s cries. She was old. The woman was young. My grandmother was faint and weary. She knew the train was really going to Auschwitz like all the other trains but she stepped forward anyway.
She would go, so the mother could say with her son. But as it turned out, a payoff of over a million dollars had been made to divert this train from Auschwitz to Switzerland, the only time this ever happened. On February 8th, 1945, exactly 70 years ago today, my grandmother stepped off that train and was free.
She lived the rest of her life in Switzerland because Germany was no longer home. When I was 18 months old she held my hand and took me on walks. When I was four, she gave me roses with all the thorns picked off so I wouldn’t hurt myself and held my hand and took me on walks through alpine meadows. When I was 7, we went on walks up the Alpine hillsides and I ran ahead while she took breaks on what I called Oma benches. At the end of the walk, we stopped for ice cream and then we walked back.
My grandmother didn’t just survive. She walked on with grace. She walked on with love. Oma didn’t fly. Not even on planes. Oma didn’t run. She walked. A short elderly woman, She walked with a cane. Slowly. But she walked. One foot in front of the other. And so I ask, WHO IS THE GIANT?
Beloved church, we all struggle, sometimes more than other times. But when I see the way you put one foot in front of the other. In service to others. In generosity, in kindness, in fierce determination, in loving gestures that most do not even notice, but that are not lost to God. I see that you are not the grasshoppers. You are the giants. “Maybe the greatest thing is simply to be able to walk, in faith and with strength, because God accompanies us.”