john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Isaiah 35 / Matthew 11 -
    Weak hands and feeble knees

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion 16/12/2007


    Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11.2-11

    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    She was struggling to get on the bus with all the bags she was carrying. Bags full of food - mince pies, cooked chicken, spare ribs, peanuts. Bags full of gifts - teddies for the granddaughters, plastic cars for the grandsons, chocolates, whisky, scarves and hankies for her grown-up sons and daughters. A bag containing two boxes of Christmas cards. And her handbag, carrying a purse which was quite a lot lighter than it had been when she'd set out hours earlier that morning on another Christmas shopping trip.

    Her hands were weak carrying all that weight; her knees felt like they were giving way. So she was very, very pleased when the young man getting on the bus behind her asked if he could take some of her bags on for her; and she was even more pleased when the same thing happened at the other end of her journey as the lady she'd sat next to helped her up and handed some of the bags to her as she got down onto the pavement to make the last few hundred yards walk home.
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    How does God come and save you? God comes and saves you through the goodness of others.
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    He had had a very difficult year. He'd battled for a long time with depression - which came on after he'd lost his job some years earlier and not long after lost his wife who found she couldn't live with him under her feet all the time and with him bringing nothing in any more, chucked him out. With the depression came the drink, and though he'd more recently started to beat that by attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, cutting right back, cleaning himself up, one problem continued - he had the shakes. He couldn't keep his hands still, found it hard to hold a cup or carry a plate to the kitchen table because he shook so much. And he shook at the knees so much that in the small room where he lived the telly wobbled, he couldn't keep the newspaper still on his lap for long. It looked comic but it was actually tragic.

    There was little anyone could do to help him, especially when the darkness returned and he hit the bottle again. But one friend kept coming round to him, not the perfect friend for he would drink with him too, but at least one who would patiently wait while he scattered instant coffee powder over the kitchen work surface and dangerously poured boiling water into their two cups; a friend who would sit and play cards with him, sit and encourage him to keep reading the papers and watching the news and talk about what was going on in the world; who would keep on bringing the struggling alcoholic out of himself, helping him to keep some outlook on life which kept him going.
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    How does God come and save you? God comes and saves you through the attentive devotion of others.
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    She had always loved athletics at school. Athletics and gymnastics. In the summer she would be out on the running track, up there at the front of the race on school sports days, enjoying the exertion in the sunshine. In the winter she would be indoors, her hands working away on the parallel bars, her knees bending in the delicate movements of her aerobic exercises. When she got a little older she kept this going, joining the gym which she went to for half an hour before work each day and most evenings too, keeping fit, feeling good. But this all stopped after the car crash.

    It took two years for her to get the full use of her legs back. Two years of hard, frustrating bending and shaping exercises, two years of being forced through the pain barrier by a very strong-willed physiotherapist who would soak in all the young woman's anger, not take the shouting and swearing personally, and who just kept pushing her on. Two years after that speeding stolen sports car had bounced her off the road and left her lying half-paralysed in a ditch. It took the physiotherapist even longer to persuade the young woman that her athletic days were not over. Though she could hardly run and all the smoothness of her movement had given way to painful stiffness her physio kept on telling her that she had a future. Not as a competitor, for sure. But - how about as a coach to others? And after a lot of persuasion and encouragement that is what that young woman does now. Permanently damaged herself, nevertheless she spends her evenings encouraging girls who look like younger versions of her, to develop their skills and enjoyment in the gymnastic classes she runs.
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    How does God come and save you? God comes and saves you by the words of encouragement and faithful perseverance of others.
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    In the prison cell the man of great faith thought that he was losing it. On his knees morning and in the dark, cold night the prayers had stopped flowing. John the Baptist, who once felt that he held the keys of the kingdom of heaven in his hands, now spent hours staring at his open palms, seeing nothing. He was imprisoned and he wasn't sure that anything he had done in the past had meant anything at all. He wasn't even sure that Jesus who he once celebrated so highly, was after all the promised messiah. He still had a small group of faithful followers who would visit him and try to encourage him. And one day they went to Jesus, seeking some words of encouragement from him to take back to the struggling prophet.

    Jesus generously gave them more than they'd imagined. He gave them a run-down of what he had been doing which read just like something from the book of Isaiah:
    'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.'
    Jesus knew that when John heard those words it would remind him of Isaiah Chapter 53 which says,
    Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
    then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
    For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
    Now John had often used these very words in his ministry to bring people to repentance in anticipation of the coming of Christ. Hearing them spoken back to him in this message from Jesus would confirm to John that Jesus was doing God's work, and that all of John's work had not been in vain. That he had put his faith in the right person after all.

    And I like to think that Jesus knew that when he heard those words John would also remember what came just before them in that famous passage of Isaiah. What comes just before them is the passage we've been hearing over and over this morning, which I repeat for the final time now:
    Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
    Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    'Be strong, do not fear!
    Here is your God.
    He will come ... and save you.'
    How does God come and save you? - Jesus seems to be answering the imprisoned Baptist. By giving you his promise. By giving you his word. By encouraging you to be strong. By taking away your fearfulness and strengthening your faith.

    He wasn't freed from his cell, John the Baptist, on hearing these words which his friends brought back to him. But he was freed. His empty hands were able to grasp the presence of God again; and he had been encouraged to find faith again, to rediscover on his aching knees how to make his prayers to God.

    This is the same God who was somewhere at work in all the people's stories we have heard today, the same God who is somewhere at work in all our stories: the God who meets people where they are and - through the devotion and help and words of others - gives them new strength and salvation, takes away their fears.