Sunday, January 19, 2014

too light a thing • isaiah, jesus, king

Year A • Epiphany 2
Isaiah 49:1–7 • Psalm 40:1–12 • 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 • John 1:29–42
(Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures)
Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
Sermon available as a PDF by clicking here.

The Sermon

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
      to raise up the tribes of Jacob and
      to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations
      that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
                                                   — Isaiah 49:6  
Three Men
Today, I want to tell the stories of three men—two known, one unknown; one from the recent past; two from the distant past, all from a different place and time, and yet, all who lead lives of remarkably similarity.

The Servant of Isaiah
Let’s begin with the story of the one unknown. But in order to understand his story, we need a bit of background. In the ot, God chose the Israelites to be his special, covenant people. Actually, it’s not so much that God chose Israel, as it is that God formed Israel. It all began with an unlikely couple, Abraham and Sarah. Unlikely, because out of all of the people in the world God could have chosen, God selected this childless, elderly couple to be the progenitors of a new nation, a new people who would be the means of restoring all people to a right-relationship with God.
The Lord said to Abram[ham], “Go from your country and your kin­dred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed(Genesis 12:1­–3).
Abraham and Sarah were chosen for a purpose that went beyond themselves. They were blessed to be a blessing. As the years passed, God made good on his promises of land and offspring. And as each new generation arose, God reaffirmed his covenant with his people. Over time, God’s chosen people grew in number, though not always in faith. Despite their stubbornness, their failures, and general unfaithfulness, God remained faithful. God never forgot them, nor abandoned them. That’s not to say that God turned a blind eye to their disobedience. Quite to the contrary, God often dealt more severely with his chosen people than with other nations. After all, Israel was the key to the restoration of all people. So when God’s people wandered from the path, when they broke the covenant, by going after other gods and by treating their neighbors unjustly, God sent prophets to call Israel back to being Israel. Sometimes the people heeded the prophets; many times they didn’t. On two dramatic occasions, after generations of disobedience, God sent his people into exile. For example, in the sixth century b.c., the Babylonians came out of the east and attacked a disobedient Judah. They destroyed Jerusalem, razed the temple, and took many of Judah’s leading citizens as captives back to Babylon, where they lived for generations as exiles.    

But as I said, God never abandons his people, not forever anyway. In Isaiah 40, a ray of light shatters the darkness and chaos of judgment. God sends a message of forgiveness and hope to his exiled children:
      Comfort, O comfort my people,….
      Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
            and cry to her
      that she has served her term,
            that her penalty is paid,
      that she has received from the Lord’s hand
            double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1­–2).
The exile is over, and a new exodus is in the works. God is going to come and lead his people back home. It is at this point that we encounter one whose name has been lost to history. He introduces himself in today’s reading from Isaiah.
      Listen to me, O coastlands,
            pay attention, you peoples from far away! (Isaiah 49:1a).
This is a curious introduction, for this servant of the Lord has been sent to Israel, yet he addresses himself to the nations of the world, to “you peoples from far away.” The reason for this becomes clear in verses 5 and 6, when the servant describes his vocation.
      And now the Lord says,
            who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
      to bring Jacob back to him,
            and that Israel might be gathered to him,
      he says,
      “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
            to raise up the tribes of Jacob
            and to restore the survivors of Israel;
      I will give you as a light to the nations,
            that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Did you hear that last part? The servant has a twin vocation. He is not only responsible for restoring the fortunes of God’s people, he is also an agent of God’s blessing so that all the nations of the world, not just Israel, might experience God’s salvation. Of course, this was not only the servant’s vocation, it was also Israel’s vocation. But I can’t imagine that the other exiles were jumping at the chance to bring God’s blessings to the nations, especially not to the Babylons of the world who had oppressed them. In fact, there is some indication later on in Isaiah that this servant had to bear this burden alone, that he was rejected by his own people, and that he suffered great hardship because of them and on their behalf. Isaiah writes:
He was despised and rejected by others;
      a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
      he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
      and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
      struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
      crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
      and by his bruises we are healed (Isaiah 53:3­–5).
The life of this unnamed Servant of the Lord serves as a witness to “the redemptive power of unearned suffering,”[1] and his life became the template for another, and it is to his story that we now turn.

Jesus of Nazareth
After fifty years of living as exiles in Babylon, the Jews were finally allowed to return to their homeland. When they arrived, they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and they rebuilt the temple. But neither the city nor the temple ever came close to reflecting their former glory. More significantly, the Jewish were not allowed a king, only an imperially appointed governor. So while the people of God had returned to the Promised Land, things were not back to normal. They had a measure of self-rule, but they were by no means autonomous. They were, in short, exiles in their own land.

And that is how they lived for the better part of five hundred years. They saw imperial landlords come and go. After Babylon, it was Persia, and then Alexander the Great with the Greeks, then it was the Egyptians (the Ptolemies), and then the Syrians (the Seleucids). Now during this time period, the Jewish people did enjoy a century of independence from about 167 to 63 b.c., but that ended when the greatest of these empires, the mighty Roman Empire, stomped onto the world stage and began conquering everything in the name of peace. So you can well imagine what the Jewish populous was thinking when, after ninety years of oppressive Roman occupation, the son of a Jewish carpenter, with great power and authority, began proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand; the Empire of God is at hand.”

Jesus of Nazareth took his message to the masses, traveling about the countryside, demonstrating the presence of God’s Empire by performing powerful deeds. And it was obvious to many what was happening, or so they thought. Jesus’ healings were a sign that God was going to heal his people and restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus’ exorcisms of unclean spirits signaled that God was going to rid the land of unclean Gentiles. Jesus drove out demons, surely he could drive out the Roman legions. “Finally,” they thought, “God is going to forgive us and restore our fortunes. The end of exile is at hand; a new exodus is dawning.” These are the things on the minds of Andrew and his companion when, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus turns and says to them, “What are you looking for?”

But when these disciples come and see what Jesus is up to, when the crowds come and see, they get something different than they were expecting. On the one hand, Jesus says to them, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger, you who weep, you who are persecuted, for you will be filled with food and laughter and you will be rewarded” (cf. Luke 6:20–23). This is exactly what they are hoping for, but then, in the very next breath, Jesus says, “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). Really? We who have lived under the yoke of foreign occupation, you want us to love our enemies? You want us… to love… the Romans? You want us to bless them, pray for them, and do good to them? Really Jesus?

Jesus did come to restore the kingdom to Israel, but the kingdom he had in mind was of a very different sort. As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus came to gather together God’s chosen people. He came to call Israel back to being Israel, back to being the means by which God would bless all peoples everywhere. But centuries of foreign domination and occupation had warped Israel’s sense of identity and vocation as the people of God. Some Jews—like the Pharisees—took a defensive posture. They sought to renew the nation by separating themselves from the Gentiles, by constructing barriers that would keep them holy and unstained by the world. But there’s a problem: how can you be a conduit of God’s blessing for other peoples if you cannot even sit down and share a meal with them. Others—like the Zealots—were more militant. They sought to restore Israel’s fortunes through armed revolution. Their battle-cry was, “No king but God.” But you cannot be the light of the world with a sword in your hand. You cannot love your enemies at gunpoint.
Like Isaiah’s unnamed Servant, Jesus carried out a bivocational ministry. It was too little a thing “to restore the survivors of Israel,” he was also given “as a light to the nations, so that [God’s] salvation might reach the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus knew that Israel had been chosen for a purpose, to know God and to make God known throughout the world. Yet, Israel’s nationalism and revolutionary zeal kept them from fulfilling their vocation, so Jesus had to show them the way. The kingdom of God was at hand, and God’s people had to repent if they were going to participate in it.

So Jesus calls the crowds to follow his way of being Israel, which is the way of nonviolent resistance, the way of suffering and death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34­). In part, Jesus was saying, the Gentiles are not your enemies. The Romans are not your enemies, even if they are the ones holding the swords and putting up the crosses. Your enemy is the demonic power behind Rome, the power of darkness that animates Rome’s unquenchable thirst for power, prestige, and wealth. But, you are not Rome; “you are the light of the world.” If you want to participate God’s Empire, then put down your sword, take up your cross and follow me.

Of course, in the end, Jesus was the only one who heeded his call. Jesus took up his cross and confronted the powers with the sword of his mouth, and it cost him his life. Yet, after his resurrection, after the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, his followers began to walk in his ways. Though there were some initial struggles, they took on the mantle of being the light of the world. They endured beatings and other hardships as they carried God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ way of being Israel had transformed them, and they in turn began to transform the world, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed, some­times with their very lives.

And it wasn’t just the first generation of Christians who were so transformed and transforming. There have been many who have followed the way of Jesus, and the world has benefited. It is to the story of one such follower that we now turn.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
As you know, tomorrow is a national holiday set aside to honor and celebrate the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel in 1964 for “his dynamic leadership of the Civil Rights movement and [his] steadfast commitment to achieving racial justice through nonviolent action.”[2] This past week, I re-read one of Dr. King’s books, which I was first introduced to in seminary. It’s entitled, Why We Can’t Wait, and in it, Dr. King details what he calls the Negro Revolution of 1963, which took place in Birmingham, Alabama, while the nation and the world watched. The book includes Dr. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was a letter… he wrote while in a jail… in Birmingham. (I just wanted to make that clear.) He wrote the letter in response to a statement published by eight, white Alabama clergymen, who called the nonviolent public demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” They regarded King as an outsider, and argued that the most appropriate place to right racial injustice was “in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.” Dr. King respectfully disagreed, and in his letter and in his book, he put forth his arguments as to why Blacks could no longer sit back and wait patiently while other men set the timetable for their freedom.[3] He writes:
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
      We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.[4]
As I read these words this week, I was struck by the parallels between Dr. King’s situation and those of Jesus and Isaiah’s Servant. All three were members of an oppressed, racial minority. All three felt empowered by God to lead their people to freedom. And all three armed themselves with weapons of nonviolence. Why? Because the vision of freedom that guided these extraordinary men was an expansive, generous, and all-inclusive freedom. The justice they sought was not for their people alone, but for all the parties involved—oppressed and oppressor alike.

In the fight for justice, people are never the enemy, but rather the systems of injustice that foster fear, hatred, and prejudice.[5] As Dr. King writes, our
attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races… The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.[6]
And since people were not the enemy, violence was not an option for the civil rights movement; the only alternative was nonviolence. Citing Dr. King again:
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars.[7]
As a weapon social transformation, “nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.” [8] And because it is grounded in love for others, it has the power to transform the face of one’s enemy. Returning to Dr. King:
To the negro in 1963,… [nonviolence] served his need to act on his own for his own liberation. It enabled him to transmute hatred into construc­tive energy, to seek not only to free himself but to free his oppressor from his sins. This transformation, in turn, had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so.[9]
For Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders, it was “too light a thing” simply to free Blacks from racial injustice, the perpetrators of injustice must also be set free, and for this we must be forever grateful.

Too Light a Thing
There is still much work to be done to transform our world. As Christians, we are called to know Christ and make Christ known. It is too light a thing to only be concerned with our private spirituality, we must also be about the public task of working for justice in all human relationships. As citizens of the present kingdom of God, we are ambassadors of reconciliation, and so our weapons, our tools of the Christian trade, must be consistent with those ends. So let us give thanks for those, who like Isaiah’s Servant and Dr. King, have shown us how to walk the way of Jesus. Let us learn from them, and let us pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire and empower us to do the same, so that the salvation of our God might reach the ends of the earth.
      In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Nelson and Malkin, The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America, 81.
[3] King, Why We Can’t Wait, 84.
[4] King, Why We Can’t Wait, 80.
[5] In the words of the Apostle Paul, the Civil Rights struggle was “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
[6] Nelson and Malkin, The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America, 79–80. Quoting from King, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice” (1957).
[7] King, Why We Can’t Wait, 26.
[8] “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate” (Nelson and Malkin, The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America, 79).
[9] King, Why We Can’t Wait, 38.

The Scriptures
RCL, Year A, Epiphany 2
Isaiah 49:1–7 • Psalm 40:1–12 • 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 • John 1:29–42

The Collect
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 49:1­–7
            1          Listen to me, O coastlands,
                                    pay attention, you peoples from far away!
                        The Lord called me before I was born,
                                    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
            2          He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
                                    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
                        he made me a polished arrow,
                                    in his quiver he hid me away.
            3          And he said to me, “You are my servant,
                                    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
            4          But I said, “I have labored in vain,
                                    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
                        yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
                                    and my reward with my God.”
            5          And now the Lord says,
                                    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
                        to bring Jacob back to him,
                                    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
                        for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
                                    and my God has become my strength—
            6          he says,
                        “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
                                    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
                                    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
                        I will give you as a light to the nations,
                                    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
            7          Thus says the Lord,
                                    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
                        to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
                                    the slave of rulers,
                        “Kings shall see and stand up,
                                    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
                        because of the Lord, who is faithful,
                                    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Psalm 40:1–12 • Expectans, expectavi • BCP 640
            1          I waited patiently upon the LORD; *
                                    he stooped to me and heard my cry.
            2          He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; *
                                    he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
            3          He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; *
                                    many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the LORD.
            4          Happy are they who trust in the LORD! *
                                    they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods.
            5          Great things are they that you have done, O LORD my God!
                        how great your wonders and your plans for us! *
                                    there is none who can be compared with you.
            6          Oh, that I could make them known and tell them! *
                                    but they are more than I can count.
            7          In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure *
                                    (you have given me ears to hear you);
            8          Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required, *
                                    and so I said, “Behold, I come.
            9          In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: *
                                    ‘I love to do your will, O my God; your law is deep in my heart.”‘
            10        I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; *
                                    behold, I did not restrain my lips; and that, O LORD, you know.
            11        Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart;
                        I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance;*
                                    I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation.
            12        You are the LORD; do not withhold your compassion from me;*
                                    let your love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever..
1 Corinthians 1:1–9
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
     Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
     I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 1:29–42
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

     The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Delivered on Sunday, January 19th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)