Isaiah 42:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Traditionally, within the life of the church today is considered to be The Baptism of Christ Sunday. I chose, however, to focus on the passage from Isaiah as suggested for the Hebrew text as a reading for today. As Kathryn Matthews notes from the: “Old Testament text from Isaiah, we hear a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God.” (sermonseeds.com)
Since our focus is this Isaiah passage it may be helpful this morning to sketch the historical context of these well-known words. “This passage in Isaiah shows God speaking into the pain of exile to send a servant who will bring justice, and not to Israel only but to all nations.
You’ve heard of the Cliff Notes version of a story – this is the thumbnail version, but note, there have been full semester classes on this very topic, and people spending a good portion of their lives in scholarship as well. Amy Oden puts it this way: “God delivered God’s people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and brought them through wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for YHWH. For centuries they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but prophets [like Isaiah] called them back. Then, in the sixth century BCE, the unthinkable happened.
The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, took them into bondage, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains, prompting ‘By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries.” (Amy Oden, workingpreacher.org.commentary 1/12/14)
I think it’s really difficult for us to actually imagine this hardship when we’ve not experienced combat and defeat on our own soil. We had a taste of that devastation on November 11, 2001 and continue to live with that tension since then. But as Oden noted, we have difficulty imagining “just how devastating it was for God’s chosen people to be handed over to enemies, humiliated and destroyed, taken into bondage, all while God did not intervene in this terrible defeat.
[And it was] Into this identity crisis Isaiah speaks a word. The prophet reminds the people who God is and how God works. [Isaiah] draws their attention from this particular, historical moment, to the larger purposes of God. As Isaiah speaks, it’s as though we see the camera lens zooming slowly out from a close-up shot to a wide-angle view, a cosmic view. By reminding Israel of who God is, how God works, and what God is doing by sending a servant, Isaiah expands the frame of reference, re-locating and purposing Israel’s particularity within God’s cosmic frame. That’s the big picture. It is a vision that is full of future.” (Oden) A vision full of hope and promise as well. This big picture is reminiscent of the current dialogue within many Christian communities today.
Spanning the centuries to Jesus’ birth and remembering the significance of this prophet’s words, comes the birth of Jesus into the world. That world was also full of danger and darkness and yet, that birth also brought a vision full of hope and promise, and full of future.
This pattern of servanthood from the time of Isaiah, to the time of Jesus, to our time is so significant. [Yes,]“In Jesus, God again sends a servant who will bring justice, who God ‘anoints to bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor’ (Luke 4:18-19).” (Oden)
But this servant, Jesus, is not the only one. Listen again to the first paragraph from Isaiah where there is a simple shift in understanding of whom God is speaking – it is us: Here you are, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon you; you will bring forth justice to the nations. You will not cry or lift up your voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed you will not break, and a dimly burning wick you will not quench; you will faithfully bring forth justice. You will not grow faint or be crushed until you have established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for your teaching. “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” You – this is address to you – to each of us.
As a culture we love our superheroes. I grew up loving Superman much more than Clark Kent. We have Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and today we even have Supergirl. Sometimes I think we have a superhero mentality when it comes to Jesus. Jesus can do what I cannot, but we too are called to be a servant people. We are called “to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. And yes, God’s soul delights in us. Do you believe that?
One commentary suggests: “In this in-between time, between the cross and Jesus’ coming again, does it seem like all our efforts at justice are hopeless, our faith a delusion? We need to see that our involvements – whatever they may be – in immigration reform, caring for victims of war, drug violence, climate change, voter registration, the care of the homeless, drug rehabilitation, and so much more, are a statement of servanthood. Like those first disciples with the help of the Spirit we carry out the mission of the Crucified One in servanthood. (M.Daniel Carroll R., Sojourners, January 2020)
Kathryn Matthews asks an important question: “How does God’s Spirit work in us today, move through us today, speak to us still today, calling us in this time and place to do new things? What former things have passed away, or need to pass away, and what new words of hope need to be spoken? What is the transformation that needs to happen, or is happening beneath our gaze, even now?
The same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope–the promise–of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds.”
Bruce Epperly provides our Adult Conversations focus for the next few weeks on The Mystic In You. We’re reminded that “We discover that all moments can be holy moments and all persons God’s beloved children” (Pg 31). In the chapter entitled Everyday Mysticism focusing on Benedict of Nursia (480-543), Epperly wrote: Benedict “envisioned a holistic spirituality that joins work and prayer, activism and contemplation, and grounds itself in the experience of God’s ever-present activity and guidance.
Epperly states that “One of the most significant theological questions centers on whether our lives make a difference to God.” This understanding within every Benedictine community is the affirmation, ‘Treat everyone as Christ.’ We reveal our love for God in our love for one another. [That is simply servanthood. Even a hello to someone who seems loveless can make a world of difference. Certainly,] Christ feels the pain of those who are marginalized and neglected, who experience injustice on city streets, long waits in line for social services, and exclusion of voting rights. God rejoices in children welcomed in church in all their chaotic creativity, in families receiving shelter, and in foreigners provided safe asylum. In ways beyond our imagining, God feels our pain and celebrates our joy. Everything we do touches God. Our actions matters because they impact our neighbors’ spiritual growth. [Think about it – our actions] shape the quality of God’s experience in the world. Our daily lives are our gifts to God’s ongoing work in the world.” (Epperly, Bruce, The Mystic in You. 2017,pg 42,42,45.)
Jewish Theologian and author, Abraham Joshua Heschel, did not realize that he wrote one of my favorite quotes that I have carried with me for decades as a reminder of God’s presence in my everyday life: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
May God bless us as we grow in our everyday understanding that what we do does matter and that we too, are God’s beloved. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2020