A Great Light | 3rd after Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 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.

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

3 You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy.

They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice.

4 As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. (CEB)

A Great Light

This text might sound familiar to you. Some of you might recall that we read Isaiah 9 verses 2-7 on Christmas Eve. Those are the verses that state, “Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulder. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5-6 CEB).

We might ask, why we’re reading this again so soon. One reason might be that the Gospel according to Matthew, which we heard earlier in the service, uses part of Isaiah 9:1 and the whole of 9:2 to announce the beginning of Jesus ministry (c.f. Matthew 4:12-17). This text from Isaiah shines a spotlight on Jesus and his ministry, while Jesus and his ministry opens a window for us to see the vision of Isaiah in a new way; a broader way.

The fullest meaning of the gospel is to liberate the oppressed from bondage. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why God came down from heaven and became incarnate as a human being. When John the Baptizer was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the one who is to come, or should they look for another. Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:4-5 CEB).

In Luke, we’re told that Jesus began his ministry after visiting his hometown synagogue where he quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 42:7, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 CEB). Every kind of bondage and oppression is reversed in the vision Isaiah presents, and those reversals are exactly what Jesus came to inaugurate on earth.

Isaiah 9 turns our eyes to examine the world and see the deep darkness that we, ourselves, or others languish beneath. The opening verse reminds us of a time when the people of Judah lived under a cloud of gloom because of their distress. For Isaiah this was the recent past and present.

There is a significant translation problem in verse 1. I know Hebrew grammar lessons in a sermon are super boring. I promise to spare you the technical intricacies, but this is significant enough that I think it should be mentioned. Most popular English versions of the Bible translate the Hebrew in a way that doesn’t follow the rules of Hebrew grammar. Adjectives and nouns are supposed to agree. Wouldn’t it be nice if people agreed as readily as our adjectives and nouns?

There are also two past tense Hebrew verbs, but the major English translations render one in the future tense. The verb will make glorious should be past tense.

Lastly, the English translations miss the sense of the Hebrew for will make glorious. The verb essentially means to make heavy. That can lend toward something weighty and profound, like glory, or something that weighs down like oppression. And, like I said, it’s supposed to be past tense.

I hope I haven’t put  you to sleep yet.

A more accurate translation would be: “Surely there will be no gloom on her for whom there has been distress, like the time the former [ruler] treated contemptibly {as insignificant} the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali and the [ruler] who followed treated harshly {weighed heavily upon} the Way of the Sea, Beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the Nations” (Isaiah 9:1 my translation).

Nothing in this verse points to glory. Rather, it all points to oppression: specifically to the oppression of Israel’s northern lands by two successive rulers who were likely Syrian kings.

While verse 1 is about oppression and suffering, hope (in the form of release from oppression) is injected into Isaiah’s vision. Even as Isaiah points to the cause of his people’s suffering and oppression, he rejoices in a prayer-song about God’s light invading his people’s darkness. God has made a way for the people of Judah when no way was visible. God shined a light, a ray of hope, a rising of the sun so the people could find their way out of the gloom and anguish.

That brings up another point that’s important for us to remember. Isaiah didn’t speak this oracle as an outsider who was watching from the sidelines. Isaiah spoke as an insider who was experiencing this oppression with his people. There is something significant about solidarity. That’s why the church talks about ministry with people rather than ministry to or for people. Our call to ministry doesn’t invite us to be outside actors, but rather, in the trenches. Our call to ministry isn’t an invitation to point and nod at problems from a distance, it’s a call to walk through the mud alongside people who are oppressed and hurting. It’s a call to love boldly, powerfully, meaningfully, even self-sacrificially.

In verses 3 and 4, Isaiah bends our sight to events of the past when his people had experienced oppression. Judges 6 recounts how the Midianites and other peoples oppressed the Israelites. “Whenever the Israelites planted seeds, the Midianites, Amalekites, and other easterners would invade. They would set up camp against the Israelites and destroy the land’s crops as far as Gaza, leaving nothing to keep Israel alive, not even sheep, oxen, or donkeys” (Judges 6:3-4 CEB).

So, God raised up Gideon and led him to defeat the Midianites and other oppressors. The day of Midian is the day the Israelites prevailed. The yoke that burdened them was shattered, the staff over their shoulders and the rod of their oppressors was broken. On the day of Midian, the Israelites divided the plunder of the enemies who had come against them like a swarm of locusts. Then, in their newfound release from oppression, they were able to plant and reap their harvest where there had been no harvest. The nation was emboldened by their victory and, because of this liberation, there was joy among the people again.

This was God’s act of liberation for the Israelites, and the fact that it’s God’s act is driven home in Judges 7 by the fact that Israel began the day with 32,000 warriors. But God didn’t want the Israelites to think they had saved themselves. So, God told Gideon, you have too many people. God dismissed the Israelite warriors until there were only 300 left. Three-hundred warriors against an army that was described as a swarm of locusts. The day of Midian was the day the Lord, the God of Israel, liberated the Israelites from bondage and oppression.

In the Christian Faith, we understand liberation in two ways. The first is a spiritual kind of liberation in that we are liberated from our bondage to sin. Jesus came to release us from the hold that sin has over every aspect of our lives: our actions, our inactions, our speech, our thoughts, even our deeply-held-yet-sinful beliefs and self-interested politics. We are set free to see God’s glorious and infinite reality beyond our own limited and impoverished one. We’re set free in this way because when we believe in Jesus Christ, it’s then that Christ lives in us (c.f. Galatians 2:20). We experience a transformative, spiritual renewal that makes us new creations. But we’re new creations that still need to grow.

The second is that liberation of peoples from oppression, like that which the Israelites experienced under the Egyptians and Midianites is something God continues to do. And we who follow Jesus Christ are called to partner with God in that work of liberation. We are liberated to respond to God’s good news which most definitely includes liberation from racial, social, gender, and economic divisions of human society.

Not only are we enabled to respond to God’s good news, we’re empowered to go forth and become co-operators with God to work against the very real physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual oppression and bondage of the world’s vulnerable people. We’re empowered to become justice-bringers and heralds of the very good news that freed us, and in which we continue to grow. We are empowered and enabled to see and experience a foretaste of God’s coming rule and reign, live—fully—the values of God’s design for the human family, and roll up our sleeves to work for it in the here and now.

As new creations in Jesus the Christ, we are given a new yoke. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 CEB). The yoke of Jesus is love. The burden of Christ our God is love.

The continuing work of God is liberation. The meaning of the good news—as described by Isaiah and interpreted by Jesus—is liberation. And liberation has that duel sense: both spiritual and practical. Liberation, in both senses is a kind of divine enabling. We are enabled by God to become children of God, to be followers of Jesus Christ, to have our sins forgiven, to participate in the saving work of our God that leads to eternal life.

And we are enabled to serve and love as Jesus Christ served and loves us: to work so that others within our human family, who are even now under the rod of oppression and injustice, might be liberated from their gloom and anguish so that they, too, may experience joy as on the day of Midian, when harvests are gathered in and the plunder from our oppressors is divided and shared with equity, when peace and security are the rule of the day.

Our God is, has always been, and always will be a liberating God who sides with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the suffering. It only follows that those who believe in this God should share in God’s continuing work of liberation. This is our task as those who have seen the brightness of God’s light shine into our own dark places to illumine a way for us that we could not see without the grace of God.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Lamb of God | 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)

John 1:29-42

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.’ 31 Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.” 32 John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. 33 Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”

35 The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.

38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?” They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”

39 He replied, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

40 One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ). 42 He led him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (CEB)

Lamb of God

I want to start my sermon by examining the text from Isaiah before moving to John’s Gospel so we can look at some of the connections that we make between the Old Testament and Jesus Christ.

Last week, we looked at one of the Servant Songs and here, again, Isaiah describes the Servant. First, the servant addresses the world about himself. Then, the Lord speaks about the servant. As I said last week, while the exact identity of the servant can’t possibly be determined for certain, Christians have long interpreted these poetic Servant Songs as prophetic oracles which point to Jesus Christ. The Scripture readings for the season after Epiphany tend to focus on the identity of Jesus as well as his role in God’s plan of salvation. This Servant Song seems to say much about both.

The servant of Isaiah addresses the world about himself by saying, “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you people from far away!” (Isaiah 49:1 CEB). Jesus has a message for the world, for all people. There is no person in any nation or circumstance who is not meant to hear the Good News of God’s kingdom. God sent the Son into the world, born of a young woman: Mary of Nazareth. Jesus had a purpose before he was born, as John the Baptizer later states: “This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me’” (John 1:30 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 the power of his word and teaching.

The words of Christ can be piercing because they force us to recognize our sin, and they also offer us joy because, if we believe the words and teachings of Jesus, we find comfort that is beyond anything we could imagine for ourselves: the gift of life eternal and the power to become children of the Living God.

The Lord says to the servant, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I show my glory” (Isaiah 49:3b CEB). The interpretation of this suggests 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.

We Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The whole of Israel’s history looked forward to the Person of Jesus Christ, and in Christ the present looks toward the future when the kingdom of God is brought forth in all its fullness. 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—his gospel—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.

Yet, the servant answers in a peculiar way by saying, “I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4b CEB). In these words we see a foreshadowing of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. He was beaten, and killed on a cross, cursed by the religious authorities, rejected by his own people, and abandoned by his disciples. His life and work didn’t end in triumph, but in failure. Even Jesus asked the Father why he had been abandoned while he hung on the cross (c.f. Matthew 27:46). But that failure was not the end of the story. The cause of Jesus Christ was with the Lord, and 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. Jesus came to reconcile the human race to God. It was for this purpose that he was born. Everything he did and every word he said was meant to honor God his Father, and we know from Jesus’ baptism that the Father was well pleased with his Son.

Then the purpose of the servant is expanded beyond anything we could have been imagined. God said to his servant, “It’s 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 49:6a CEB).

Jesus was not a savior for Israel or Jews alone. Rather, Jesus has been revealed as the savior for all people. He is not the savior of religious people alone, but has been revealed as the savior of sinners, the lost, and the forsaken. God has given his Son to be the light of the world, as the prophet Simeon said when he saw the infant Jesus as 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 NRSV). The salvation of God will reach to the ends of the earth through Christ and Christ’s Church.

The servant was deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers. These words also foreshadow Jesus Christ who was despised and abhorred. He was bound, beaten, and slaughtered by the ruling authorities. But those same rulers and, indeed, all the kings of the earth shall stand before, and prostrate themselves before, Jesus. He is the chosen one of God and the agent of our salvation.

John the Baptizer bore witness to Jesus by saying, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, “He who comes after me is really greater than me because he existed before me.” Even I didn’t recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he might be made known to Israel.’ John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.’” (John 1:29-34 CEB).

Jesus has come to take away our sin. Even though John the Baptizer was roughly six-months older than Jesus, John recognized in Jesus one who ranked ahead of himself. John came baptizing so that the Son of God might be revealed. In the baptism of Jesus, John saw the Holy Spirit descending upon our Lord and remain on him. This was the sign that John was looking for. This sign told John that Jesus was the one who would baptize the world with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Son of God!

Imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be there and hear John’s words. The long-expected, long-awaited, prophesied-about, talked-about, hoped-for Messiah had finally come, and he has come to take away the sins of the world! It would probably have been one of those moments where everyone just stops and doesn’t quite know what to do.

In the same text from John, the very next day John the Baptizer watched Jesus walk by and said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” This time, two of John’s disciples heard him say this and they followed after Jesus. They ended up spending the day with Jesus, and one of those two disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, went and found his brother and told him that they had found the Messiah.

Andrew took Simon to Jesus, and we have this disarming moment when it appears that Jesus already knows all about Simon. Have you ever had that happen to you, when someone you meet for the first time knows everything about you and all you know about them is their first name? Jesus said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)” (John 1:42b CEB). So not only does Jesus know Simon’s name and his father’s name, but gives Simon a new name on top of the one he’s already got.

In giving Simon a new name, he gives him a new vocation and a purpose. The name Simon means one who hears. His new name, Peter, means rock. Peter became the rock upon whom Christ built his Church. He became the foundation for all the believers in Christ who would come after him.

So who is Jesus? He is the one who gives us new life, and through that new life a new vocation: to make disciples of every nation, and to teach them about Jesus. At our baptism we were made new creations in Christ, called to be saints together with everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

In Christ we are sanctified and given strength to live holy lives. You see, we also are servants of the Lord. We have a purpose, and a vocation to serve God in all that we do. We’re servants even when times are tough, and it looks like everything we’ve done has been little more than a vanity and a chasing after wind. No matter what, we are servants of God. Our cause is with the Lord, and our reward is with our God. He is our strength in all things, and he has shown us the path of salvation.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

My Servant | Baptism of the Lord

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)

My Servant

For those who study Isaiah, the “servant” has been a particularly difficult theme, at least, when it comes to the matter of 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’s 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 Jews in Babylonian exile were likely 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 we 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’s Jesus who does God’s work in the world. It’s Jesus who reveals God to us, and who has given us God’s teaching. The identification with the work and person of 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.

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 relationships 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: Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 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” (Isaiah 42:2-3, 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 justice 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 practices vulnerability while being attentive to the way others are vulnerable. The servant’s ways are quite different from the ways of Babylon and—and every other worldly power—which prefer to snuff out vulnerable wicks and break vulnerable reeds.

The servant also perseveres and is able to accomplish the purpose God has given. In verses 3 and 4, the Hebrew suggests that the “bruised reed” and “dimly burning wick” of verse three highlight the metaphors of verse 4. So, the servant will not burn dimly [or be extinguished] or be bruised [or broken] until the work of establishing justice on the earth is accomplished. The servant will honor the weak, but the servant will also be strong enough to do the work that 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’s the power of God that is at work in the mission of this servant.

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 human society should be re-ordered against every 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 the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42: 6b-7 NRSV). 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. This 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 delights” (Isaiah 42:1a NRSV). The Christian Church exists as a missional body. If you’re part 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 or if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you are a member of the church. If you’ve been baptized, then you are a missionary. If you’ve 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 of the world, but not the way the world usually thinks of justice. The world tends to think of justice-bringers as gun-slinging vigilantes who wield power in order bring others to justice, to use force as a means of bringing justice upon the stereotypical bad guys. That’s why superhero movies are so popular. But worldly powers break bruised reeds and snuffs out dimly burning wicks. Worldly powers breathe threats and cry out in attempts to justify their violent words and actions which, ironically, often lead directly to injustice and atrocity.

As servants of God, we are called by God to operate very differently from that model. We are not to lift up our voices to scream in hatred, nor should we breathe threats. We’re to care for bruised reeds and protect dimly burning wicks.

God’s servant brings justice into the world by loving others—especially the most vulnerable, by caring for the needs of others, by building equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships with everyone we encounter, by working to re-order 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, the widows, the refugees, and the displaced 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. God empowers us with the Holy Spirit, which blows in strange and unpredictable directions. The grace of God empowers our lives and enlivens our souls. God enables us to do God’s work.

Right now, we are a people who are facing tough times. We might wonder if anyone in our government has a brain. The violence taking place here and across the world every day is frightening.

We’re nowhere near the state of despair that Israel found itself in during the exile, but we are in troubled times. And in the midst of these troubled times—when we tend to focus more on ourselves, to be self-preoccupied—God 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: to 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.

What 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 each of us has already been called. We’ve been called whether we recognize it yet or not. How will we answer our summons to the ministry of a servant?

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

Saved | 2nd after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

7 The LORD proclaims:

Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation.

Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The LORD has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!”

8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth.

Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here.

9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back.

I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.

I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.

 

10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands:

The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.

11 The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.

12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the LORD’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds.

Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more.

13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in.

I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.

14 I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the LORD. (CEB)

Saved

We don’t often get to hear the Scripture readings for the second Sunday after Christmas Day. Usually, we move the readings for the Epiphany, which is fixed on January 06, to this Sunday. We do that, often, because Epiphany is an important holy day for the church. We celebrate the moment when Christ was first revealed to the Gentile peoples on Epiphany. That’s us, by the way. Anyone who is not Jewish is a Gentile. Epiphany is when we celebrate the Magi arriving to meet the child Jesus and presenting the Son of God with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Epiphany celebrates that these Gentiles recognized the Son of God for who he was: a similar recognition, by the way, to that of Simeon and the prophet Anna (Luke 2:25-38). At the temple, when Jesus was a mere 8 days old, Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaimed, “…my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32 CEB). The prophet Anna praised God and began to speak about Jesus to everyone in the temple who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Epiphany is one of my favorite holy days. Not because it marks the end of Christmas, but because it happens to be my wife’s birthday. But officially, as of today, Christmas is not over yet. That’s why the Christmas tree is still up, the sanctuary is still decked out in Christmas greens, and the Nativity scene is still front and center. Technically speaking, the Magi should still be on their horses because we don’t celebrate their arrival at Jesus’ house until tomorrow. (Yes, horses. We don’t know what they rode, but Persians were horse people. The Magi might have ridden elephants for all we know).

Yet, before we get to Epiphany and the Magi tomorrow, we have more Christmas to celebrate today. The text from Jeremiah points to why Jesus came into the world. It reminds us of God’s promise to redeem and restore in the midst of brokenness, homelessness, exile, and suffering. With the birth of Jesus the Christ, a new age began: an age of grace and God’s mercy that are with the human race in a new way (c.f. Hebrews 1:1-2). The manger of Emmanuel in Bethlehem points to the cross in Jerusalem on which the redemption of the whole world was accomplished.

When you think about the situation at hand, Jeremiah must have sounded like a nutcase when he preached these words. The northern kingdom of Israel had been carried off into exile by Assyria long ago, and now Babylon was in the middle of its program of conquering and carrying off the people of Judah into another exile. Jeremiah either spoke these words right before or during the exile of Judah. The Judean world at this moment was one of abandonment, dispersion, defeat, and exile, and here was Jeremiah preaching about God’s care, redemption, restoration, and homecoming.

Anyone might ask how or why Jeremiah was able to do that. The Judean kingdom was ending—the kingdom and nation of people God said belonged to God; the kingdom that was supposed to be under God’s divine protection. How could this prophet speak of singing and dancing, which were expressions of joy? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt through the sea, Miriam and the women of Israel took up tambourines and danced in jubilation (c.f. Exodus 15:20). When David took the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, he danced before the Ark with all his strength. But exile is not a time for dancing.

When the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried off its holy utensils and treasury, the dancing stopped. The book of Lamentations tells us, “Elders have left the city gate; young people stop their music. Joy has left our heart; our dancing has changed into lamentation” (Lamentations 5:14-15 CEB).

Psalm 137 recounts how the captive Judeans could not even sing because of their distress. “Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: ‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?” (Psalm 137:1-4 CEB). How can anyone sing songs of joy when there is no joy? How can anyone dance when there is nothing to celebrate?

The kingdom was being torn down around them. All sense of security for themselves, their families, their people as a whole, was demolished. You really have to read Lamentations to get a sense of the horrors that the people went through. In addition to the terrors of being conquered and ravaged by invaders, they were being carried off into a foreign land as captives of a conquering empire whose hand was too strong for Judah to withstand. How can Jeremiah call people to sing, let alone to sing joyfully?

Jeremiah’s message was one of intense hope. It definitely wasn’t about what was reality at the time he spoke, but about what was possible through God. And not only what was possible, but what would yet be! It begins with a call to worship, which is an invitation given by God. Sing joyfully… Shout… Raise your voices with praise… call out, “The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:7 CEB).

The prophet declares that God will bring the people back from all parts of the Earth. The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob. That hand, which was too strong for the people, is powerless to withstand the Lord. The assembled masses include the most vulnerable members of a community who would embark on any journey: the blind, the disabled, expectant mothers, and those in labor. These are the people who would require some assistance along the way.

God will sustain the whole needy delegation of people by leading them on easy paths, smoothed so the people don’t stumble, and alongside quiet streams. It’s a scene of homecoming filled with peace and serenity. God will keep the people safe as a shepherd watches over their flock. And when the people get home, God will sustain them with abundance. The gifts of grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds are images of richness and well-being in the Scriptures. So is the image of a lush garden.

Under God’s care, the life of the exiles will be like a well-watered garden that never wilts. It’s a return to a garden like Eden, where people flourish, and where crops and livestock thrive. Joy and gladness supplant grief and sorrow, and there is dancing again. There is a newfound joy that can only find expression in dance. “The young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them” (Jeremiah 31:13 CEB).

The Hebrew of verse 14 suggests the priests’ lives or, possibly, appetites will be saturated with fat and the people will be satisfied with good things. As everyone knows, saturated fats taste the best, and recent medical studies have shown that they might not be as bad for you as previously thought. And, if the studies turns out to be wrong, there’s always Lipitor.

(Don’t take medical advice from a pastor).

Two verbs, in particular, require some attention because they’re rich in theological and covenantal meaning in the Bible. The Common English Bible translates verse 11 by saying, “The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are” (CEB). The New Revised Standard Version, however, uses the more familiar religious-ish terms ransomed and redeemed, and puts the verse in the present tense: “For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him” (NRSV).

Ransom or rescue conveys a sense of liberation. God ransomed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (c.f. Deuteronomy 7:8, 9:26, 15:15). When Saul’s son, Johnathan, unknowingly broke his father’s solemn pledge, the soldiers of Israel ransomed his life when his father intended to put him to death (c.f. 1 Samuel 14).

Redeem or deliver includes a sense of a person’s obligation to members of their family. Boaz redeemed Ruth along with the field of Elimelech by purchasing the field from Naomi (c.f. Ruth 4). Jeremiah redeemed a field in Anathoth by purchasing it from his cousin Hanamel (c.f. Jeremiah 32:8).

Both of the words, ransom and redeem, are used to describe the liberating acts of God. Here, the words are used to describe another kind of Exodus: a glorious and joyful homecoming from exile and oppression in another foreign land.

There is something incredibly persistent about God. Even tenacious. One thing God says over and over in the Scriptures, in one way or another, is: “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (c.f. Genesis 17:7, 17:8; Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Psalm 50:7; Jeremiah 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, 30:22, 31:1 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20, 14:11, 36:28, 37:27; Hosea 2:23 [compare 1:9]; Joel 2:27; Zechariah 8:8, 13:9; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:3, 21:7). I found that phrase six times in Jeremiah alone, and twenty-two times from Genesis to Revelation. And that was just a quick search.

God’s grace is coming for us because God intends to save us. No matter how we’ve sinned. No matter what we’ve done. No matter how we’ve squandered the gift of grace or misused the abundant life with which God has drenched us. God loves us, and the word of Jeremiah reminds us that God refuses to give up on us.

God is our hope. God is our help. God is our present. God is our future. God is our home. Through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us. And God will never let us go. Even when we feel like our lives are little more than failure, fatigue, deficiency, and hopelessness, God is with us, and God will not let us go.

The story of Christmas—this coming of a child born in Bethlehem—is the story of our God’s tenacious love that will not quit on us no matter what, and our God’s absolute determination to be our God. We will be saved because God has declared that we will be God’s people. That, my friends, is reason enough for a song and a dance and a shout for joy.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay