Some years ago when I had just moved from New Jersey to Nebraska, I remember praying outside looking up at the stars. It was so good see the Big Dipper and Orion from Nebraska, these same stars and constellations from a new place. It brought to mind similar times out under the stars back in New Jersey and before that in Massachusetts as I had often asked: “God, what do you want from me? Where should I go? Who am I?” Seeing the same stars in my new home and remembering past prayers reassured me. Like the expansive sky, God is beyond my grasp with mysterious wisdom, love and provision.
As in today’s text from Isaiah: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? To whom will you compare with me or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these [stars]? 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.” (Isaiah 40:21, 25-6)
Our psalm today also says: “He counts the number of the stars and knows them all by their name.” (Psalm 147:4) Count the stars. Does that sound familiar? In the book of Genesis, God told Abraham to try counting the stars. “Look up and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Your descendants will be that numerous.” (1)
God promised Abraham a son. But years had passed without this promise being fulfilled. Abraham had been waiting a long time. God comes again in a vision and says: “Don’t be afraid.” To which Abraham says: “What? You haven’t given me a son! I’m still childless. So my heir will have to be Eliezer, a slave born in my house.” (2) Maybe he blows up more than that and shakes his fist. Maybe he slumps, dejected. We don’t know the tone of the text. Abraham thinks he will have to make do with his own alternative because God still not given him a son.
God’s response in gentle and gracious: “Eliezer will not be your heir; no one but a son coming from your own body shall be your heir. Look up and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Your descendents will be that numerous.”
It’s ok that Abraham is upset and trying to fix the problem. Every night look up, and you’ll see a reminder of me and my promise. I am the Holy One, the Creator of the ends of the earth. I do not faint or grow weary; my understanding is unsearchable. I give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. I will provide for you. Look up at the stars, and remember who I am. Wait for me.
Thank God for visual aids and creative communication. The Almighty not only created and gave us a beautiful world but speaks to us through it. Through the sky and the stars, the flowers and intricate cellular structures, the bolt of lightening and the morning mist. The beauty of creation invites us to stop and wonder, if we choose to pay attention. Now I wake earlier and pray with the sunrise rather than the stars. Waiting for God as the darkness becomes blue and as the light comes forth helps me listen and speak honestly.
As the teacher who knows you best, which visual (or other) aids has God been using to communicate with you? When were you recently surprised by the beauty of creation? How long did you stay in awe? Was that prayer?
Look up at the stars, and remember who I am. Abraham believed, or more importantly, he continued to believe. He had faith. Neither he nor we can count the stars or understand God. But we are to believe with faith: “the assurance of things hoped for, the confidence of things not seen.” (3) Abraham believed with his questions and fear and anger and dejection. Faith includes all of this.
As we heard today from the prophet Isaiah: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?’ (4) Or as Eugene Peterson puts it: “God has lost track of me. He doesn’t care what happens to me.” Like Abraham, like the people of Israel, we all have times of trouble and feeling like God is absent or uncaring.
So we all need reminders. “Have 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. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.”
Even Jesus needs reminders. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus gets up early in the morning while it was still very dark, goes out to a deserted place and prays. What do you imagine he says? It’s easy to assume prayer should be nice, but the psalms—our primary book of prayers—cover the whole range of feelings. Out in those deserted places, I bet Jesus prayed honestly, sometimes with: Is my way hidden from you? I’m so sad today. Don’t you care about me? I’m tired by all these people!
Like Abraham and us, Jesus got weary. Jesus also prayed honestly and waited for God. He waited day by day, making time to be alone with his Father and being attentive to his Father through the day. “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (5) This is amazing assurance for today and the future. Like Abraham, there are troubles and promises we for which we must wait years. It is an ongoing challenge learning to wait and trust. This is also assurance for each day, for strength not our own to meet the challenges we face. As in the hymn: “morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.” See Jesus out in that desolate place as the darkness faded and the sun rose, being lifted up, given strength not his own to go out and proclaim the good news again.
In the Bible, waiting on God is a common theme, a way of life. What does that look like? One part, like Jesus, is making regular time to pray, to slow down, perhaps to a place alone, to listen. Another is cultivating attention through the day. Keep your eyes open for surprises.
God is in all places, encouraging and loving in word and sacrament, friend and stranger, and countless visual aids. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” Look up at the stars. Get up while it is still very dark to watch the sunrise. Say the psalms. Speak honestly. Light a candle. Hold a rock. Spot the birds. Notice changes in the trees. Remember my promise and who I am. Wait for me.
1 Genesis 15:5
2 Genesis 15:1-6
3 Hebrews 11:1
4 Isaiah 40:27-28
5 Isaiah 40:31