Isaiah 42:1-9Here 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 faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlines wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, 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.
Isn’t this passage just gorgeous? We don’t know who wrote this part of the book we now call Isaiah, but we do know that she or he had a gift for words. Before we get into the meat of our reflection today, I feel like I should mention that if you ever find yourself in need of comfort and beauty, open to Isaiah 40 and begin reading. There are chapters and chapters of these lyrical prophetic words. And today the lectionary brings us to these nine verses.
The lectionary is a schedule of scriptures for every Sunday of the year, and the people who put it together suggest this reading for today because it is the Sunday on which we traditionally celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. That was the story we heard from Matthew a minute ago. This passage, you can tell, is intended to form the background for the primary drama of Jesus being baptized. The words that Jesus heard are echos of the words here, “Here is my servant…my chosen in whom my soul delights.”
If we relegate this passage to the background, though, we miss out on at least two things. One is the beauty of the writing, which like all great art, points us in the direction of the ultimate Creator. It is worth our time simply to take joy in the beauty of the words.
But there’s something else we’d miss if jumped right to the gospel story today. We’d miss the counter-intuitive, surprising, almost ridiculous portrait of servanthood that Isaiah paints. And it’d be a mistake to miss that because it holds very good news for us. So let’s pause this morning and see what light this text might shed on our Lord’s baptism and life, and if it might even have something to say to our own lives as disicples.
Did you hear the good news when I read it a minute ago? Mixed in with all of the beautiful poetry is some really radical stuff. The prophet is describing how God’s servant, who they have been praying for and dreaming about for years, will bring justice to the nations. How will that happen? Listen again to verses 2 and 3: “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.”
It sounds nice, until we begin to imagine how it might work in real life. Can you imagine voting for someone who campaigned on a platform of silence and sensitivity? Seriously? It might sound like a nice change given our current civil discourse which is anything but, particularly in light of the events in Arizona last week; but, really? Can you imagine following a leader who said, I’m going to change the world–but I’ll never lift my voice, and I’m going to spend all of my time on little problems that seem irrelevant?
No way. When we think about how to make change, we want someone with a strong voice, a following, and a big vision. We expect a leader to step on some toes, to break some eggs as they make their omelets.
Well, this text respectfully begs to disagree with our expectations. The prophet’s vision is of a leader who will very quietly make an omelet without breaking a single egg.
We don’t know who the author of this text was describing. It may have been a specific political leader of the time, or maybe Israel as a whole, or a longed for Messiah. Christians have consistently read this passage and seen a striking portrait of Christ.
And that makes sense. We can see this song lived out in Jesus’ life. When Jesus was baptized into ministry, he was baptized into this vision. Think about it. People around him wanted him to lift up his voice, to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, overthrowing everyone in his way. Over and over, though, he told us that wasn’t what the reign of God looked like.
Even though his business was saving the world, he seemingly stopped for every blind or lame person in his path. Even though he had the most important task in the world, he never turned away saying he had more important things to do. Instead, he told us that the one lost sheep was of utmost importance, the one lost coin the most valuable, the most dimly burning wick the most precious in God’s sight.
Okay, so Isaiah painted this idealistic picture, and Christ fulfilled it. But so what? What about the rest of us? We have to live in the real world. We’re not Jesus, and we can’t be expected to pursue this painstakingly gentle, absurdly weak, inefficient model of service. I mean if we were to work for justice, for any part of justice–equity for immigrants, or prison reform, or wiser stewardship of our earth–and we were to use Isaiah’s model, we’d never get anywhere. This passage can’t possibly have a claim on us, right?
Well friends, there is news for us today.
In our baptism we join Christ in this ridiculous mission. When we are baptised we are adopted into Christ’s family, we are marked as Christ’s own, we take our place in the body of Christ. And so when we hear this passage, we, like Christ, are called to hear it as a direct claim on our lives. And if you haven’t been baptized, but are still discerning to what extent you want to follow this man Jesus, take note, this is a claim that is made on Christ’s disciples. We are to live by this vision. We are called to be a light to those around us, to bring forth justice to the ends of the earth even as we care for the smallest flames and the weakest links.
And while this may seem like a daunting claim, I think it is also tremendously good news. I see at least two parts to the good news today.
We often read passages like this in the Bible and think, I could never do that. That reqires someone like Martin Luther King, someone with a lot of power and an organization. It requires a powerful leader, or at least a saint. And I’m neither.
But here’s the good news: this vision of how justice will come about is a vision that is particularly well suited to us every day, ordinary folks. Because the truth is, we’re already half way there. Our voices are not heard in the streets for the most part. I mean, we may be leaders in our community. But we’re not Oprah. Or Bono. Or Billy Graham. No one is clamouring to hear what we have to say. And, as is so often the case, the Bible reminds us that God’s ways are not ours; in our very quietness, our weakness, we find ourselves aligned with God’s power.
What might Isaiah’s vision look like in our lives? I think it’s all around us if we only know how to look. In the daily choices we make to honor the least and last around us, we are part of God’s work of bringing justice to the ends of the earth. And this text tells us that matters.
Perhaps you care for the least and the last by bringing food to church or to a local pantry. Such a small act, and certainly a quiet one if there ever was one. And yet, it is also daily re-enactment of Jesus breaking five loaves and two fish and feeding thousands. It is a way of saying, I have enough. Here, you have some. It is a witness to the truth that all of God’s people deserve to have enough to eat.
Or maybe in your work you have the opportunity to pay attention to a few dimly burning wicks. Maybe you are a teacher and in your concern for the slowest members of your class you daily proclaim God’s care for the last and the lost. Or maybe you work in retail and when you take a deep breath and spend extra minutes helping the difficult customer you witness to the transformative power of God’s love in our lives–a love that brings about peace. Or maybe your moather or father is aging and you care for them, or perhaps its your child who’s sick, or a friend with mental illness who you care for–in all of these ways you put flesh on the words ‘I was sick, and you took care of me.’
Our daily practices are precisely the ground out of which Isaiah’s vision seeks to grow. If you take time to pray in the morning, or on your evening commute home, that time itself is a statement of your orientation, where your true home is, and who is truly Lord of your life. If you take a day of the week for rest, you are witnessing to God’s vision for the world where all have both meaningful work and time for rest. Simply by arriving here this morning you have said that for this hour you will affirm that the living Lord is on the move, bringing about justice, reigning in majesty, and present with the church.
It all seems so small and inconsequential, doesn’t it? Like changing lightbulbs from incadescent to CFLs, or adjusting the pressure in your tires? And sure, we think, maybe it is in line with Isaiah’s vision of how the Lord’s servants will act. But what difference can it possibly make?
And here we come to the second piece of good news this passage has for us today: which is that our efforts to bring more light into the world are not rooted in our own power, but in the Lord’s. The light we bear, the freedom we proclaim, the reality we witness to, does not begin and end with us. The justice that will ultimately reign on earth is God’s, and the power to bring it about comes from the One who created the earth, who marked out the coastlands, who even this moment is giving us breath, and who at the last will bring us all out into the Promised Land.
If you doubt whether your work has meaning, whether making daily choices to love has any purpose, and you are tempted to throw up your hands at the futility of it all, hear these words: “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. You are my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon you, and you will bring forth justice to the nations. I am the Lord, that is my name; see, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
So maybe our voices are not loud. They are not often heard in the streets. And our daily work of tending to the bruised reeds and the dimly burning wicks doesn’t alway seem like it amounts to much. But we follow a God who came and dwelt among us as a child. We follow a man who told us that we don’t need much faith, not much more than a mustard seed, who told us that the kingdom of God is like yeast, or salt–it only takes a little to leaven a whole loaf, just a pinch flavors the whole pot of soup. We worship a savior who needed just some mud to heal a blind man, who took just a few bits of bread and some fish and fed a multitude, who thought that a couple of fishermen and some tax collectors were exactly the sort of people who could help him usher in the kingdom of God.
And today he calls us, too, just as we are. He says come do your work with me, tend to people in my name, care for the least and the last, and in doing so you will discover that the kingdom of God is within and among you, that the Spirit is on the move, and the Living Lord is at work bringing forth justice, peace, and righteousness even now.
*** by Sarah Wiles Manitou Presbyterian Church, Tacoma January 9, 2011