Roger Severino

What Bette Midler, Joan Osborn (and maybe Tom Petty) teach us about God

Reflections on Isaiah 40

“From a distance, the world looks blue and green, and the snow-capped mountains white. From a distance, the ocean meets the stream and the eagle takes to flight. From a distance, there is harmony, and it echoes through the land. It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace, it’s the voice of every man. God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us, from a distance.” These lyrics, made famous by Bette Midler, attempt to reassure us that behind the apparent chaos and craziness we see all around, there is a Deity watching from a distance, making sense of it all. This is meant to comfort us, but for some these words ring superficial, hollow, and perhaps cheesy.

Joan Osborn sang another perspective. “If God had a name what would it be? And would you call it to his face? If you were faced with him and all his glory. What would you ask if you had just one question? And yeah, yeah, God is great. Yeah, yeah, God is good. And yeah, yeah, yeah…What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home?”

Bette Midler’s god is beyond us, far from us, able to step back and see the messy pixels of our world come together to form a beautiful picture. This god, however, doesn’t seem to enter in our world or deal with the realities of our brokenness and evil.

Joan Osborn’s god is a bit too human (a slob who is trying to find his way), but she does pose a question that is at the heart of the Bible’s claim that God is near us, and the very thing we celebrate at Christmas: Immanuel, God with us. Yes, God is with us in Spirit, but in the incarnation, God walked among us in the person of Jesus. Scandalous. Impossible to comprehend. Yet true.

Isaiah provides a vision of God that requires the otherness and transcendence of God (how He is different and beyond us) as well as the nearness of God (theologians call this God’s immanence). Isaiah tells us about the all-powerful Creator of the universe, for whom the nations are but a drop in the bucket, specks of dust on a scale (see v. 15). He is the incomparable God who knows all and there is no limit to His understanding. For those whose God is too small, Isaiah offers a majestic vision of God. The insurmountable problems we face—in this context, the people are in exile—are nothing for this God.

Not only is God omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing), but He is a God who cares and loves. “He protects His flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms” (v. 11). God is near to His people and acts on their behalf. We may at times feel that our “way is hidden from God” or that our “claim is ignored by my God,” but God comes near us…near to the weary.

God’s people in exile were in need of comfort and hope for the future. What about you? Can you relate to that? What can we do? “They who wait on the Lord will renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

Tom Petty tells us that “the waiting is the hardest part.” What happens in our waiting? We learn to trust in God. We learn to walk by faith, not by sight. Our character gets formed. Our idols get revealed and destroyed. God acts. “Behold your God” (v. 9)! Why not fall on your knees and worship Him!

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