Blessed Are… | 4th after Epiphany

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. 2 He taught them, saying:

3 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

5 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

6 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

7 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

8 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

9 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (CEB)

Blessed Are…

If you’re anything like me, the Beatitudes have always seemed a little confusing. This was especially so when I was younger because I kind of took them at face value. When you mourn, you’re blessed. When you’re poor in spirit, you’re blessed, etc. And none of the Beatitudes seem to fit me very well; except that one about the pure in heart. After all, my Mom’s friends used to call me “Chris The Good” because I was the only kid who wasn’t getting into trouble. But no, even that Beatitude doesn’t seem to fit me most of the time. None of them seem to fit me all the time. The Beatitudes confused me when I was younger and the confusion lasted through my teens, twenties, and into my thirties.

Part of my confusion came from the fact that I used to read the Beatitudes as if they were imperatives, as if they’re suggestions or commands: I needed to be these things in order to receive the appropriate blessing. If I want to inherit the earth, I need to be meek; if I want to be filled, I need to hunger and thirst for righteousness; if I want to be a child of God, I need to be a peacemaker.

It’s easy to fall into thinking about the Beatitudes this way because we’re used to things having a price tag on them. We’re used to thinking in terms of reward and achievement systems. It happens in our workplaces—if you meet certain goals you’re rewarded; it happens in the sports we watch on TV—those who score the most points win (and that’s why I don’t watch golf because it’s completely backwards), it happens in the video games we play—if you make it to the end of the dungeon alive you get to open the reward chest.  But I didn’t know how in the world I was supposed to achieve what the Beatitudes demanded.

I mean, Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, I’d like to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, too, so do I need to somehow measure my spirit to know if I’m poor enough? Do I need to sell off some spirit at the next rummage sale so I qualify as poor? And he says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I mean, I’m usually a fairly happy guy. So, if I want to be blessed, do I need to go find some creative ways to be sad?

Maybe I’ll mourn that I have too much spirit. That way, I might not receive the kingdom of heaven, but at least God will comfort me. Can you imagine God telling me, There, there, now, Christopher, it’s all right. Look at the bright side, you almost made it! How about a hug? Okey dokey, have fun in Hell. I mean, seriously, how do you do the Beatitudes?

For one thing, since my youthful confusion I have since learned that the Beatitudes are not written in the imperative mood, which is a command to do something; they’re written in the indicative mood, which is a statement of fact. What that means is they aren’t suggestions or commands to be these things or to feel this way so that we can receive these other things as a reward. No, because they’re written in the indicative mood, the Beatitudes are simple statements about the way things are.

Still, though, there was this other thing that I didn’t quite get. It’s this word, blessed. What does that word mean, anyway? Blessed is one of those words that we don’t really use much anymore in our common language. It’s almost exclusively an ecclesiastical word—meaning it’s only used by church people within the church, and even we don’t seem to use it very often—so its meaning is vague enough that most of us don’t really know what the heck anyone is talking about when they actually say it. If we ask someone how they’re doing, and they reply, “I am blessed”, we just kind of nod and say, “Yeah, me too.”

I thought maybe it’s our English translations that confused me by using the word, “Blessed”. So, to address this problem I thought I would do a word study in Greek. That’s what you should do when you’re confused, go study Greek. That’s where the phrase, It’s Greek to me, comes from, because when you study Greek, everything suddenly becomes perfectly clear.

The Greek word which our English translations so often render as “blessed” is “μακάριοι”, which can also be translated as, fortunate or happy because of circumstances, or pertaining to being fortunate, favored, happy, blessed, or privileged. Some suggest it can even mean joyful. And I think looking at the other nuances of what μακάριοι means is helpful because these other words: fortunate, favored, happy, joyful, and privileged actually shed a little more light on the matter and get a little closer to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is saying—at least for those of us who speak modern English—because we still use these words in our every day.

In fact, if we use the English word that would seem to make the least amount of sense in each Beatitude, I think we might get to part of the point Jesus was trying to make. This is, in some way, about profound reversal. This idea of profound reversal is a part of the Gospel message and I think it’s a part of what Jesus is saying here. No matter our circumstances in this particular time and place, a day will come when all shall be set right. It’s a very apocalyptic idea, and it’s one of the ways the Beatitudes have been interpreted for centuries.

But then that makes me wonder…are the Beatitudes nothing more a random list of comforting words to remind us that there will be pie in the sky when we die? Or is there something more here? What if, instead of looking at them individually, we looked at the Beatitudes as a whole: as words that build upon each other? What might that look like?

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Some scholars suggest that it refers to a lack of hope. Those who are poor in spirit have come to recognize that they can no longer uphold a sense of hope in the world because the world is full of evil, and people’s lives are torn apart each day. In fact, the Common English Bible that I read today renders the first Beatitude this way: “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (CEB). When we are poor in spirit, the only hope we have left is in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (NRSV). Those who are poor in spirit—who lack hope—because of the workings of evil in the world, mourn because of it. We mourn every time we hear of a school shooting. We lament the injustices in the world: that in every 24 hours, thousands of women are raped, thousands of children die of hunger and neglect, thousands of people are victimized by other forms of violence and have no way of receiving justice. We mourn when refugees are denied access to our shores. When we see the workings of evil in any form of exploitation, injustice, and violence, we mourn. Yet, Jesus promises that we who mourn shall be comforted. And the word here includes a nuance of strengthening and encouragement. We who mourn don’t simply receive comfort, but we are empowered to lift up our heads and our hands and work against the evil that we see each day.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (NRSV). Those who mourn the workings of evil tend to recognize their own insignificance in being able to fix this mess. The meek humble themselves before God in recognition of God’s sovereignty over the earth. Meekness is not being timid or passive. It’s not about hiding in a corner. Being meek is about trusting that God’s coming kingdom will ultimately win the day because “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too” (Psalm 24:1, CEB). The meek will inherit the earth because the earth belongs to God, has always belonged to God, and is God’s to give.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (NRSV). Those who are meek seek after the desires of God’s heart rather than their own. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness seek to do good on behalf of others. Righteousness is the way of life for people who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will find fulfillment, contentment, and deep satisfaction in a way of life that is self-giving in service to others.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (NRSV). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness live in such a way that showing mercy to others is something they do in every moment. The merciful are self-giving, compassionate, and ready to show kindness. The merciful are more willing to forgive than to punish because the merciful know that they are recipients of mercy. Being merciful grows out of a closeness to and intimacy with the God of mercy. The merciful will receive mercy because mercy is something God loves.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (NRSV). Those who show mercy are living out one of the very attributes and greatest values of God. The heart describes the inner person: the true self. Psalm 24:4 tells us that only those with clean hands and pure hearts can enter into the Temple and worship. The pure in heart have genuine faith in God and, therefore, see God everywhere: in each person they meet, in every place they go, in everything they see, in every circumstance they encounter.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (NRSV). Those who are pure in heart live peaceably with others. The way they live compels them to make peace in all places, at all times, in every way they can. Peacemakers seek peace in all arenas of life: from calling for an end to wars between nations to seeking reconciliation in broken personal relationships. The peacemakers are called children of God, because peace is the very thing God seeks to bring to a creation that seems to be at war with itself. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who came into the world to restore our broken relationship with God. The peacemakers are God’s children because they are doing the same work that God is doing: bringing peace.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). One of the cold realities of our world is that people rarely love peacemakers. Those who are doing God’s business of bringing peace are often singled out and hated because the hearts of people can be hard. Hard-hearted people would rather hold on to their hate, wallow in their resentment, and seek a way to satisfy their desire for revenge than make peace with their enemies. Sometimes these pesky peacemakers get in their way, and it’s the peacemaker who pays the price, who is reviled, who is vilified for daring to speak a word of forgiveness and peace. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted for the sake of seeking what is good, and right, and pleasing to God. That’s what righteousness is.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NRSV). The ninth Beatitude seems to continue the message of the eighth. Yet, I think it actually points to and wraps up all the Beatitudes that precede it. It reminds us of the reality that if we live, or even attempt to live, according to the righteousness of God we will face obstacles from those around us.

In Matthew’s first century community, persecution wasn’t some remote hypothetical possibility as it seems to be for us Christians in America. For them, persecution was a daily reality, as it is for Christians in other nations. So, this is the Beatitude that becomes personal. The eight Beatitudes before it began with “Blessed are those…” This Beatitude begins with Jesus saying, “Blessed are you…” Blessed are you! I don’t want to get into the argument of whether or not Christianity is being persecuted in The United States, yet, there remains for us the reality that if we are living according to and seeking after the righteousness of God, if we are living for Jesus and obeying his commandments, our lives will meet with resistance. We will come face to face with evil and injustice. The world has done it before. It’s nothing new. The same thing happened to the prophets who were before us.

In the Beatitudes, I think Jesus describes for us a way of life that is intended to shape our community, to mold us and make us into the body of Christ. Because all of the attributes mentioned in the Beatitudes are attributes of Jesus. If we want to be like Jesus Christ, if we want to be God’s people, this is how we’re to live with each other in this community, and in the midst of the not-so-friendly world by which we are surrounded. The Beatitudes may not be imperatives, but I can’t help wanting to live into the indicatives they describe. I want to be like Jesus. And for those who want to follow Jesus, the Beatitudes show us the way.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Darkness and Light | 3rd after Epiphany

Matthew 4:12-23

12 Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.

17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”
20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. (CEB)

Darkness and Light

Today is the third Sunday after the Epiphany. It’s also known as the third Sunday in Ordinary Time. It’s sort of the between-times time. We just finished the Advent-Christmas cycle and, in a few weeks, we’ll begin the Lent-Easter cycle. In other words, in Ordinary Time, we aren’t preparing for or celebrating the promised coming, birth, death, or resurrection of Jesus. The designation Ordinary Time actually comes from the fact that these Sundays are counted with ordinal numbers: first, second, third, and on. I always thought that was an odd reason, though, because the Sundays of every other season are counted with ordinal numbers, too: fourth Sunday of Advent, first Sunday after Christmas, fifth Sunday in Lent, seventh Sunday of Easter, etc.

The season does take on the other meaning of the word ordinary, in some sense. Ordinary Time begins with the first Sunday after January 6, which is the Epiphany, and ends at Christ the King, which is the Sunday before Advent begins. It takes a 14-and-a-half-week break for the Lent-Easter cycle, but the majority of the Christian Year, 33 or 34 weeks depending on when Advent begins and Easter Day falls, is Ordinary Time when the liturgical color is green to represent life and growth in Christ. It’s kind of ordinary in the sense that it’s not Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter.

Ordinary Time is the season in which we are called to the matters of discipleship. Its focus is often on the everyday ins and outs of being a Christian. While the weeks of Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday often focus on Jesus’ identity, and what he is, they also dig into matters of call and discipleship.

The first part of the text mentions that Jesus did one of those itinerant United Methodist pastor things after John the Baptist was arrested. He moved. Jesus made his new home in Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew records that this was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2, which says, “Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned” (CEB).

With his move complete, his ministry began. Jesus picked up right where John the Baptist had left off. He started proclaiming a message of repentance because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Now that Jesus had a new office and started getting his message out on the social media of the day, which consisted of walking around and actually speaking with people face-to-face, Jesus got busy on his recruitment drive. He walked down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and invited people to follow him.

Some of the most profound events recorded in the Bible—at least, to me—are stories that tell us how God called ordinary, flawed people to serve in some capacity. To me, it’s a comforting fact that God never chooses perfect people. For one thing, there aren’t any. For another, there aren’t any. God only calls ordinary, flawed people to do both ordinary and extraordinary things.

Moses was a murderer with a stuttering problem when he stumbled across a bush that burned with fire, but wasn’t consumed by it. God called him as a prophet to speak before Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites home. What did Moses do when God called him? He made excuse after excuse to not have to do it, and finally said, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else,” (c.f. Exodus 2:12; 3:1-4:17). Strangely, that exasperated Thanks, but no thanks from Moses didn’t sit too well with God, and Moses went anyway. When God gets into an argument with you, you’re probably not going to win.

Saul was from the smallest family in the tribe of Benjamin, which was the smallest tribe of Israel, but when the Israelites demanded a king, Saul was selected (c.f. 1 Samuel 9 & 10). When it came time for the people to gather together before Samuel and see the king whom God had selected for them, Saul tried to hide. The people had to ask the Lord, saying, “Has the man come here yet?” and the Lord outed Saul by saying, “Yes, he’s hiding among the supplies,” (1 Samuel 10:22). When God calls you to something, you can try to hide, but God knows where you are.

Amos was a shepherd and a tree trimmer when the Lord called him to go speak as a prophet to the Kingdom of Israel (c.f. Amos 7:14). He didn’t try to hide, at least such an event isn’t recorded. God called and Amos went. But, he still refused to identify himself as a prophet (c.f. Amos 7:14).

Jeremiah was called from the priestly family of Abiathar from Anathoth: a family King Solomon had sent away from Jerusalem because Abiathar had supported Adonijah as king after David instead of Solomon. Jeremiah was afraid he was too young to do what God wanted of him, but God told him not to be afraid of people. Then, men from his own city threatened to kill him for speaking God’s word, but God tells him the tables would be turned before the men could act on those plans (c.f. Jeremiah 11:21).

The call of Samuel resonates the most with my own call to ministry. He heard God calling when he was a boy, but didn’t recognize the voice as God’s (c.f. 1 Samuel 3). My own call to ministry began kind of like that. I remember sitting in the front pew as an acolyte at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville and having this sense that I would be doing what the pastor was doing. I always shoved it away with a big, “NO!” in part, because I’m an introvert and I never thought I would be able to speak in front of people. In fact, the very idea terrified me.

It wasn’t until my freshman year in college at The University of Findlay that I really suspected it was God calling me. The week leading up to Saint Valentine’s Day, 1996, that voice, that nudging, that call, was relentless. It pounded against every protestation I tried to build until I finally chucked my pencil across the room, pushed my chemistry book away and said, “Alright, God, I’ll do it!” It took some discernment with the help of many mentors to figure out exactly what I should be doing, but I knew I was called to ministry of some kind, and I started pursuing it immediately.

Another call came upon me in January of 2014 when God got into an argument with me, and I lost. I knew without a doubt that God was demanding that I write. But, I had already tried once and failed. I didn’t want to share the stories in my head with others. It felt way too personal. But, I couldn’t escape this call. I talked with my wife, who encouraged me to get writing. I bought a writing program so I could get organized, and I started writing the story I’d had in my head for a decade. I attended a writing conference so I could learn more about the craft and hone my skills. I pursued that call to write immediately. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but rejections for publication, but I’m still writing. I’m still sharing my stories with others.

When God calls us to something, it’s hard to ignore the call. In our text from Matthew, Jesus walks by two sets of brothers and calls them to follow him. Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets. James and John immediately left their boat and their father, Zebedee, and followed Jesus.

It has been suggested that the church today has the model of discipleship wrong, kind of backwards, actually. We want people to know God, grow in their faith, and get out there and do something amazing for Jesus. But what happens in Matthew is quite different. Instead of know, grow, go, it’s go, grow, know.

The first thing the disciples did was go. They followed Jesus. They got out there and walked alongside him. They learned along the way as Jesus taught them. And, through their interaction with Jesus and learning from his teachings, the disciples got to know who he was and what he was about. You might recall that many times in the Gospels, the disciples made assumptions about Jesus and were wrong, they often failed to understand what Jesus meant. They didn’t get it until after Jesus died and the Holy Spirit came upon them and reminded them of what Jesus had said.

Christian discipleship is nothing less than hearing God’s call and obeying it. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described discipleship as something God offers to us, not something we can offer to God. Discipleship begins with God seeking and calling us to participate in the mission God has in mind. It’s not something where we do our thing and invite Jesus to tag along and give his blessing. Discipleship is not self-justification, rather, it is self-denial. The call to follow means we subvert our will to the will of Christ our God.

The cost of discipleship is not cheap. God’s call in our lives is not convenient. These four disciples left their careers behind because Jesus called them to follow him. Sometimes discipleship is doing something just like that. The thing is, it’s only through following Jesus that we really get to grow in our faith. It’s only through the kind of growth such following produces that we really get to know Jesus Christ.

The kingdom of heaven has come near. The light of Christ bids us to come and follow him. And we are called to the kind of discipleship that lays everything aside for the sake of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


A Light to the Nations | 2nd after Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Listen to me, coastlands; pay attention, peoples far away. The LORD called me before my birth, called my name when I was in my mother’s womb. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand. He made me a sharpened arrow, and concealed me in God’s quiver, 3 saying to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I show my glory.” 4 But I said, “I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing.” Nevertheless, the LORD will grant me justice; my reward is with my God. 5 And now the LORD has decided– the one who formed me from the womb as his servant– to restore Jacob to God, so that Israel might return to him. Moreover, I’m honored in the LORD’s eyes; my God has become my strength. 6 He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

7 The LORD, redeemer of Israel and its holy one, says to one despised, rejected by nations, to the slave of rulers: Kings will see and stand up; commanders will bow down on account of the LORD, who is faithful, the holy one of Israel, who has chosen you. (CEB)

A Light to the Nations

This admission might put me close to a certain age category or even identify me with a younger generation, but the television station I watch the most right now is The CW. I know, I know, I’m technically in the latter part of Generation X, and The CW is almost exclusively geared toward Millennials. But, according to some, the first year of the Generation Y Millennials is 1976, which means that, at least some of the people who study this generational stuff, say I’m a Millennial. Either way, I figure I’m enough on the cusp between generations that I can get away with watching The CW. So, that’s my oddball justification.

Now, the reason I watch it is because that’s where I get to see The Flash, and Supergirl, and Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. It’s where I get to watch the stories of superheroes unfold. Our culture is fascinated with the idea of overcoming who and what we are to become something more, something potent, famous, wealthy, and powerful. In a nutshell, superhero stories reflect our pursuit and desire for the so-called “American Dream.” Superheroes are people who overcome normal human limitations. Sometimes they just train harder than everyone else and hone their abilities—like the Arrow, sometimes they discover supernatural powers through some external event—like the Flash, and sometimes they have these superpowers because they’re not actually human—like Supergirl. (We should note that Supergirl, Kara Zor-El, would not have superpowers on her home world of Krypton, so her powers come from the circumstance of her location near Earth’s yellow sun).

Yet, the reason why we are enamored with superheroes and their powers, no matter how they got them, is the same. It’s the idea that they have become more than the rest of us. They have risen above being common. They have achieved a kind of greatness beyond our otherwise weak, fragile, and finite humanity. They have become something more.

The thing is, what the Scriptures tell us about God’s salvation is that we all shall become something more. In fact, we will receive eternal life. We are destined for more than what we are. That’s the very vision to which the prophet Isaiah speaks in the Second Servant Song of chapter 49.

In this text, we are faced with the servant who now addresses the world about himself. Then, the Lord speaks about the servant. As I said last week, the exact identity of the servant cannot possibly be determined for certain, but Christians have long interpreted these poetic Servant Songs as prophetic oracles that point toward Jesus Christ. The season of Epiphany in the Christian Year tends to focus on the identity of Jesus as well as his role in God’s plan of salvation. This Servant Song suggests something of both.

You may remember that part of last week’s reading from Isaiah 42 had God saying of the servant, “The coastlands await his teaching” (Isaiah 42:4c, CEB). That song celebrated God’s patient, nonviolent, peaceful servant who wouldn’t extinguish a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed. Now, the servant of Isaiah speaks to the coastlands about himself by saying, “Listen to me, coastlands; pay attention, peoples far away” (Isaiah 49:1, CEB).

The servant describes his mouth as a sharp sword hidden in the shadow of God’s hand, and as a polished arrow hidden away in God’s quiver to be brought out at the appointed time to accomplish his appointed work.

The words that Christ spoke during his ministry are as potent today as they were two-thousand years ago. They pierce hearts like a sword, and souls like an arrow. In one scene in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is described as having a sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, which symbolizes his word and teaching. The words of Christ can make us cry out in grief because they force us to recognize our sin, and they also offer the chance to shout with joy because the words of Jesus offer to us a comfort that is beyond anything we could imagine for ourselves: the gift of eternal life and the power to become children of the Living God.

The servant recalls what the Lord said to him, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I show my glory” (Isaiah 49:3, CEB). This suggests, in one sense, that the servant embodies all that the people of Israel are intended to be: the servant carries Israel’s history, law, and prophecy within him, and is the sum of all that has come or will be. Christians see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The whole of Israel’s history looked forward to the Person of Jesus Christ. Even the present looks toward the future when the kingdom of God is brought forth in all its fullness when Christ returns in glory.

But I don’t think the interpretation stops there. While Jesus encapsulates all of Israel, we are servants of Jesus who continue to carry and live out his Good News in the world. Like I suggested in my sermon last Sunday: the servant is Israel, the servant is Jesus Christ, and the servant is us.

One of the really interesting elements of this text, to me, is the honesty with which it speaks. After telling us what God has called the servant to do, the servant tells us about his failure and frustration in doing God’s work. He says, “But I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4, CEB). That’s real-world stuff. It’s honest to say that the work to which we’ve been called as followers of Jesus Christ is tough. Sometimes it feels like we’re spinning our wheels and going nowhere.

I’ve been there. I’ve had the same feeling, wondering if any of the work I’m doing has any effect on anyone. Part of the reason these feelings come up is because the results and effects of the work I do aren’t always tangible or visible or readily measured. Sometimes I don’t see those results because I’m not paying close enough attention. It’s honest to admit that the work to which we’ve been called as God’s people can be frustrating and difficult.

Isaiah, himself, was called to a work of frustration, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10, CEB). God called Isaiah to speak as God’s prophet, but was honest enough with Isaiah to say, It’s probably not going to work. But Isaiah did it anyway. Isaiah was called to speak God’s word, so he spoke.

The ministry of Jesus didn’t turn out so well, either. He was beaten, killed on a cross, cursed by the religious authorities, rejected by his own people, and abandoned by his disciples. His life and work ended not in triumph, but in failure. Jesus even asked the Father why he had been forsaken as he hung on the cross.

But these failures are never the end of the story. The servant proclaimed that the Lord would give him justice and that his reward was with God. After Jesus was killed, God raised him up from death to glory where he now sits at the right hand of the Father.

Then, the servant says something of his purpose, which was given to him by God. He says that the Lord formed him in the womb to be his servant, so that Israel might be gathered to God. He had a vocation and a purpose from the very beginning. He also says that he is honored in the sight of God, and God has become his strength.

Instead of making the servant’s job easier to manage after the servant describes his failure, God expands it. God says to the servant, “It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. Hence, I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, CEB).

Jesus has been revealed as the savior for all people. He even said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all to myself” (John 12:32, my translation). Jesus is not the savior of religious people alone, but he is the savior of sinners, the lost, and the forsaken. God has given Jesus Christ to be the light of the world, as Simeon said when he saw the infant Jesus when his parents brought him to the Temple for the purification and dedication, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2.30-32). The salvation of God will reach to the ends of the earth through Christ and his Church.

The servant was deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers. These words foreshadow Christ. Jesus was despised and abhorred, he was bound, beaten, and slaughtered by the rulers of the land. But those same rulers, indeed, all the kings of the earth, shall prostrate themselves before Jesus. He is the chosen one of God, and the agent of our salvation. Following Jesus isn’t always easy. If we’re honest, it can be frustrating. But we are called to shine as servants of God who let the light of Christ show forth through us, from the coastlands to the ends of the Earth.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Baptism of the Lord | 1st after Epiphany

Isaiah 42:1-9

1 But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. 3 He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. 4 He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land. The coastlands await his teaching.

5 God the LORD says– the one who created the heavens, the one who stretched them out, the one who spread out the earth and its offspring, the one who gave breath to its people and life to those who walk on it– 6 I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, 7 to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon. 8 I am the LORD; that is my name; I don’t hand out my glory to others or my praise to idols. 9 The things announced in the past– look– they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them. (CEB)

Baptism of the Lord

For scholars who study Isaiah, the “servant” has been a particularly difficult theme. One of the main difficulties is the servant’s identity. There’s no certain historical indication of the servant as an individual who lived during the years of exile in Babylon. The tone of the poem seems to be Messianic but, originally, the servant might have referred to all of Israel. Yet, even that’s a difficult identification because Israel was in exile when this was written. It begs the question, how can a servant in exile serve its master? How can the servant perform their duties if they’re trapped in a foreign land?

It’s a strange and somewhat remarkable theme for Israel to be reminded of its role as a servant with duties to perform and obligations to fulfill while they are in the midst of exile, but perhaps that is part of the point. During the exile, Israel tended to be more self-focused, self-absorbed with their own destiny, and who wouldn’t be? The main concern of many Israelites were the questions, What about us? When the heck are we getting out of here? What about God’s promises of a kingdom that will last? Some of the people surely despaired in self-pity as their time in exile stretched into decades. But, with the words from Isaiah, God changes the subject and summons a grieving people to look beyond their own self-concern to other work.

Another idea that Christians tend to hold is to identify the servant with Jesus Christ, the gentle savior. It is Jesus who reveals the Good News to the world. It is Jesus who does God’s work in the world. It is Jesus who reveals God to us, and who has given us God’s teaching. The identification with Jesus is why we read this text on this Sunday, which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus was identified at his baptism as God’s Son.

And it is a curious work to which the servant is called. The servant’s purpose, according to Isaiah, is just…weird. The servant is empowered by God’s spirit or wind. The Hebrew word has both meanings. And the spirit or wind of God equips the servant to do what the rest of the world thinks is impossible. The impossible new thing that the servant is to do is to bring justice, and to make equitable, trusting, life-giving relations available to the world.

It seems impossible because bringing justice to the nations is not something that is without risk. The list of justice-bringers, Christian or not, is filled with the names of martyrs: Mother Elisabeth of Russia, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero.

And it’s the way Isaiah describes how the servant works that is interesting. “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” (NRSV). God’s justice is brought forth gently, carefully, caringly, quietly. The servant is gentle enough to respect the bruised and abused, and careful enough to respect those wicks that are barely burning with any kind of life left to them. The servant of God has respect for people who are weak, fragile, and in jeopardy. The way the servant brings justice is as important as the fact that it is being brought. Justice isn’t forced, but the goal of justice being brought forth into the world and the means by which it occurs are in harmony. The means serve the end.

The servant also perseveres and is able to accomplish the purpose God has given him. It is interesting that verse 4 says, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” That’s the way the New Revised Standard Version translates it, but the Hebrew suggests that there is a word-play with the “bruised reed” and “dimly burning wick” in verse three. Another possible translation of verse 4 is this: “He will not burn dimly or be bruised until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” The servant will honor the weak, but the servant will also be strong to do the work he has been assigned.

The second part of the poem, verses 5-9, turns to the voice of God who has sent this servant. The God who intervenes in human affairs is the God who founded the earth and gave breath to everything in creation, who breathed into us the very breath of life. It is the power of God that is at work in the mission of this servant. The servant is the Lord’s servant, set to bring forth God’s purposes. The purpose of the servant is one and the same with the purpose of God. The servant enacts in the earth the purpose that has been intended from all eternity. God intends that society should be reordered against slavery and every other form of oppression. God now asserts power to enact that transformation and make it a reality in the world—a reality among the nations of the earth. The Creator intends that the creation should be rehabilitated and restored to its full, fruitful function.

The servant does God’s work and is empowered by God. God says of the servant, “I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from prison those who sit in darkness.” That’s powerful stuff. For some of us, that’s scary stuff. That isn’t how the world works. Yet, this is God’s work. Everything about the servant in verses 6-8 is bracketed by the words, “I am the Lord.” The servant is identified by the self-announcement of God’s intention and sovereignty. It is the Lord, not the servant alone, who desires this transformation of creation and empowers the servant to bring it forth. No other voice proposes the transformation. No other person devises a way to accomplish it. No other person gets credit for it. It is, first and last, the Lord, the God of creation, exodus, and homecoming who works and wills the transformation of the world.

The question still remains, Who is the servant? Is it Israel? Is it Jesus? Or is it us? I lean toward thinking that it’s all three. Have you ever thought of yourself as God’s servant? Have you ever thought that when God looks at you God says, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delight” (NRSV). The Christian Church exists as a missional body. If you are a member of the church—and I don’t mean, if your name is on the First Church membership roll—I mean, if you have been baptized, then you are a member of the church. If you have been baptized, then you are a missionary. If you have been baptized, then you are God’s servant, and you are called to serve in a particular way: a way the world can’t imagine because the world operates differently.

God’s servants are to be the justice-bringers in the world, but not the way the world usually thinks of justice. The world around us tends to think of justice-bringers as gun-slinging vigilantes who wield power in order bring others to justice, to use force or high-handed authority as a means of bringing justice upon the stereotypical bad guys. Worldly powers break bruised reeds, and snuffs out dimly burning wicks. Worldly power breathes threats and cries out in attempts to justify violent words and actions.

As servants of God, we operate very differently from that model. We will not lift up our voices to scream in hatred, nor will we breathe threats; a bruised reed we will not break, and a dimly burning wick we will not quench. God’s servant—all of us—brings justice into the world by loving those around us, by caring for the needs of others, by building equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships with everyone we encounter, by reordering social life and social power so that the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the abused, the poor, the lost, the prisoners, the strangers, the orphans & widows may all live a life of dignity, security, and well-being.

And it isn’t we the servants doing this by ourselves or by our own power. It is God who empowers us with the Holy Spirit—God’s Holy Wind—that blows in strange and unpredictable directions. It is the grace of God empowering our lives and enlivening our souls which enables us to do God’s work.

Right now, we are a people who are facing tough times. Our economy is still a mess. We wonder if anyone in our government has a brain. The violence we hear about every day—from schools to homes to store fronts to nightclubs—is frightening. We’re nowhere near the state of despair that Israel found itself in during the exile, but we are in the midst of troubled time nevertheless. And in the midst of these troubled times, when we tend to focus more on ourselves, to be self-preoccupied, God speaks to us and reminds us that we are servants. God summons those of us who are concerned and worried about our own future to look beyond our self-concern to other work: servant work. The servant who does this work of God—who gently and caringly brings forth justice to the nations—will not burn dimly or be bruised. God is the source of this work of justice-bringing, and we are told that the coastlands wait for the teaching of the servant.

The thing that emerges when the spirit-filled servant does the work of God is newness. It’s a newness, a vision, an act of transformation, that we’re sometimes too bruised and dimmed to imagine. Nevertheless, we are invited by God back into a powerful hope that is rooted in God’s purpose. We are invited back into God’s servanthood. The world needs servants, and we have all been called already. We have, whether we recognize it yet or not. The question that remains to us is this: How will we answer our call to the ministry of a servant? In baptism, that’s what we’re called to be: servants of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!