Sermon: “White Knuckling It” (Isaiah 40: 21-31)



I can’t remember if I’ve shared with you before about my honeymoon.

Liz and I went to Seattle and stayed on a houseboat on Lake Union, which was wonderful.

It was August and the weather was perfect.

Our hosts, Liz’s godparents, were delighted that we were there and showered us with gifts, one of which was a tour of the city and its surrounding communities, via seaplane.

In fact, the seaplane was tied up on a dock at the end of their street — a two minute walk away.

Magical, right?

We were both excited for this adventure.

The pilot was a grizzled old-timer kind of guy, which was perfect, and he motioned us into the back seat and fired up the engines — and it was all exciting.

Have you ever been in a seaplane?

Take off is a little bumpier than you might otherwise be used to, but that was all fine.

Except that we were gaining speed and gaining speed and zooming down the middle of Lake Union, and the pilot turned to me and said, “Hey buddy, be careful on your right there. That isn’t the wall of the plane. It’s a door.”

And with that, our seaplane leapt into the sky, zooming over the buildings along Lake Union, as the pilot gently banked the plane to starboard to begin our tour.

After a while, I could hear Liz to my left, oohing and ahhing about Mount Rainier, rising in the distance.

“Hey, look how small the Space Needle looks down there!” she gushed. “Let me get my camera!”

I heard her hunting around in her backpack.

“Hey,” she said, “look at me and smile!”

After a moment, she said again, “Hey honey! Smile!”

I don’t know when it was that she noticed my hands, which were gripping the seat in front of me so tightly that I thought for a moment I had actually punctured the vinyl.

I don’t know when it was that Liz noticed that my complexion was whiter than the snow on Mount Rainier.

I don’t know when it was that Liz realized I wasn’t moving my head because I my eyes were locked on the back of that seat in order to keep from seeing out any of the windows.

All I knew was that I was holding on for dear life and that I didn’t dare move a muscle or so help me, that plane was going to fall out of the sky.

Have you ever tried to keep a plane aloft by the sheer power of your own will?

Well, I have. And I can tell you, it was exhausting.

Twenty minutes later we touched back down, and I pried my fingers from the seat in front of me, grateful we had made it, and as soon as my heart rate returned to normal, I was suddenly exhausted.

I don’t think I’d ever been so weary in my entire life.


Our Scripture this morning talks about weariness, too.

It comes from the Book of Isaiah, culminating in the wonderful promise that we can slough off our weariness.

“Even youths will faint and be weary,” it says, “and the young will fall exhausted;”

I was interested to learn this week that the word Isaiah uses for “weariness” is the Hebrew word ya-GA, which means “to toil, labor, grow weary,” but the word comes from a primitive root that means “to grasp” — as in, to grasp something so tightly, to grasp something for so long that it grows exhausting.

Has that ever happened to you?

We can only white knuckle it for so long, right?

Whether that is flying in a seaplane, driving through a snowstorm, running a business, or trying to keep everything going when life gets complicated — we can only white knuckle it for so long.

The burden of trying to hold everything together is exhausting.

Several years ago, my father contracted a late-summer pneumonia — one of those bad things that happens that seems just to come out of nowhere…that seems as if it couldn’t be all that serious until, wow….it’s actually pretty serious.

Finally, he was hospitalized for several days, which resolved it, but it was the first time I’d ever gone to visit my father in the hospital, and that is strange terrain for everyone.

I arrived and my mother was literally fluffing pillows in the hospital room and moving around with agitation, which is not like her.

My father seemed strangely like FDR, beaming with optimism and trying to cajole the phlebotomist trying to do a blood draw. This was not like him, either.

Finally, the blood draw was over, and my mother stepped out for a second to get herself a cup of coffee.

My father’s Hyde Park grin dissolved and looked me right in the eye.

“Your mother has no idea how close I came to dying,” he said.

We talked about this for a few minutes. I think I was helpful.

Eventually, Mom returned, and shortly thereafter, I could see my father was tired and that it was probably time for me to go.

I got up to leave.

“I’ll walk you to the elevator,” she said.

We stepped out of the room. And my mother turned to me and said, “Your father has no idea how close he came to dying.”

So that was kind of a weird day.

But don’t we do things like that all the time?

Don’t we have this impulse to white knuckle it…to hold on tightly…to maintain control…or at least to try to maintain control…sometimes even with the people we love the most?

And yet for all our efforts, our control is only temporary…only at best, partial.

Worst of all, sometimes we confuse re-establishing control with renewal.

The German theologian Dorothee Soelle has written, “If my hands are full, they can neither give nor receive.”

If holding on for dear life becomes our focus, we lose the deeper rhythm of life, which is about giving and receiving.

The deeper rhythm of life is attuned to a promise that all things will constantly be made new.

New chapters are poised to begin. God is ready to write them with us. Or we can try holding on to the old story with clenched fists.

Isaiah cautions us that this won’t succeed.

“Even youths will faint and be weary,” he says, “and the young will fall exhausted;”


But then he goes on.

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and even the young will fall exhausted; but….”


“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall not be weary, they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

For those who open their hands…who open their hearts…who open their minds… renewal doesn’t just beckon. It invites us to soar.

Now, Isaiah suggests this should all be obvious to anyone.

He writes incredulously, “Have 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?”

Maybe as a person with open hands and open heart and open mind, he gives us too much credit.

I have a friend who decided last year as a New Year’s resolution that he was going to do one of those “couch to 5K” running programs — and he succeeded, and it has been great for him.

But now he says that if he could do it, clearly anyone can…in fact, truth be told, he says it kind of a lot. And while maybe that is true, how quickly they forget, right?

How quickly he’s forgotten that for those of us who are still on the fence…still on the couch, the idea that “anyone could do” what he has doesn’t seem so obvious.

So maybe the invitation to soar that Isaiah can see present in the world…present from the foundations of the earth, as he says…isn’t so obvious for us right now.

Isaiah might be giving us too much credit, because experience teaches us that for most of us, it is not obvious.

But his point is an important one.

What might our lives be like if we just stopped with all the clutching?

Maybe the question we need to ponder first is whether we even want to know.

Yet for Isaiah, God is on the far shore of our asking, because it’s only then that something beautiful and new has the space to take hold.

Friends, above all, let us remember this: in all Creation, the human imagination is the most important real estate there is.

Isaiah understands that.

This morning, he reminds us that we must tend it…cultivate it…with great care, learning not to hold on too tightly, but rather to make space for things to happen.

Because with God, new shoots are forever ready to come into blossom.

With God, we soar, letting the Spirit carry us aloft to see things more wonderful than the most elaborate of all our dreams.


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