Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Second New Servant Song

RCL Proper 2A
20 January 2008

Holy Trinity Cathedral
New Westminster BC

About two thousand and fifty years ago a rumour swept through the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. A new power had arisen in the east, the Persians, and their king, Cyrus, was proving to be a far different ruler than the present king of Babylon, Nabonidus. Cyrus had defeated a number of surrounding states and incorporated them into the Persian empire. The word was out: Babylon’s days were numbered. Even better news was that the Persian ruler, Cyrus, had a different policy regarding subject peoples. He allowed them a degree of political autonomy. It might be possible that, if he were to conquer Babylon, the Jewish exiles would be allowed to return to Jerusalem.

Among the exiles was a prophet whose words were later incorporated into the great prophetic book we call Isaiah. He was not the Isaiah of the first forty chapters of the present book, but his words stood in continuity with the first Isaiah’s message to the people. This later prophet is often called Second Isaiah.

"(The oracles of Second Isaiah) date from c. 540 BCE, about 45 years after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire and the subsequent deportation of many Israelites to Babylon. This deported community doubted its status as God’s chosen people and even doubted the sovereignty of God. Second Isaiah’s oracles seek to assure the exiles both that the LORD still has compassion for them and that the LORD, despite the triumph of Babylon, is still LORD of the heavens and over history. The proof is that the LORD [956] will act soon to allow the exiles to return home, a journey that will be even more glorious than the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt at the time of the exodus.” (The New Interpreter's Bible, 955-956)

Second Isaiah goes even further and suggests that “ . . . the exile was a necessary punishment for the people’s sins but further proposes, especially in the so-called ‘Servant songs,’ that Israel suffered vicariously on behalf of the nations in order to redeem them and restore them to wholeness or shalom.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, 956)

One of the constant themes of Second Isaiah is that God has a preference for working out God’s purposes through an agent, whether an individual or a people. There are four passages in Second Isaiah where the prophet describes what God is doing through an agent whom the prophet calls ‘the Servant’. Last week’s reading from Isaiah 42 was the first of these so-called ‘Servant Songs’. Today’s reading from Isaiah 49 is the second.

In the four ‘Servant Songs’, all found in this second section of Isaiah, the prophet speaks words of encouragement but also words of challenge. It is a call to remember what God expects of those who have been called into relationship with the creator of the universe, the Holy One of Israel. Despite any and all appearances of rejection and failure, the God who entered into covenant with Israel is still the creator and sustainer of the whole world (The HarperCollins Study Bible, 1071).

Isaiah’s Servant is not, however, some messianic individual who will restore the people. The servant is a corporate image that describes not an individual but a people. It is Israel as the covenant people who will be a sign to the nations and whose covenant loyalty will result in bringing many peoples into this covenant. The people of Israel will achieve the mission entrusted to them by God not by preaching nor by coercion but by being a community whose life manifests justice.

"’Justice’ (mishpat) is one of the most fundamental categories in the prophetic tradition. It characterizes the fair and equitable behavior of human beings in society, established with due process in law, administered without discrimination, and based on the just will of Yahweh. To establish justice is to establish the reign of God." (Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A, 79)

In the latest English translation undertaken by Jewish scholars of Isaiah, the Hebrew word translated into English as ‘justice’ in most Christian translations is translated into ‘true way’. To do justice is to follow the ‘true way’, the covenant path established by God.

In every generation it is the task of the leadership of the community of faith to instruct its members in the responsibilities of living a covenant life, living a life which manifests God’s reign. For the Jewish people this way of life is found in the Torah, the patterns of life that enable the community to be a sign of justice in a world where injustice is more common.

For Christians our Torah, our way of walking in faithfulness with God, is a life lived following the example of Jesus of Nazareth. In him we believe the Torah of God, the Wisdom of God, came among us in human form so that we, being human ourselves, might see with our eyes, touch with our hands and hear with our ears the ‘true way’, the way that leads to fullness of life. In today’s gospel John speaks of Jesus as ‘the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ and ‘the Son of God’. Two of John’s disciples turn from John to follow Jesus and subsequently call Peter to follow this man whom John called ‘the Lamb of God’.

When you and I were baptized, we entered into a relationship with God through a community committed to following the ‘true way’, to being light in the darkness, to liberating those who are enslaved, to do justice. In other words, baptism is not primarily about saving us from eternal damnation nor about having a self-serving personal relationship with Jesus, a relationship that turns Jesus into a personal possession, a piece of spiritual jewellery to dazzle the eyes.

In baptism we commit ourselves and our children to being God’s agents to bring light into the darkness of our world. There are those who are blinded to the needs and concerns of others and the planet by the extensive possession and personal wealth they have accumulated. There are those who are blinded to the possibilities of change and responsible living by various addictions, whether to chemicals or money or sexual gratification or success or alcohol. We, the Christian people who follow the ‘true way’, the just way, shown in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, live to cast the light of God into those dark recesses that exist even or perhaps especially in affluent communities such as ours here in Greater Vancouver.

In baptism we commit ourselves and our children to being God’s agents to liberate those who are enslaved. There are those who are enslaved by economic forces that create poverty and homelessness even in as prosperous a city as ours. There are those who are enslaved by centuries of systemic injustice even in a country such as ours with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We, the Christian people who follow the ‘true way’, the just way, shown in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, live to break those chains, to speak the truth to the powerful on behalf of the powerless, to risk condemnation as ‘do-gooders’ in a society dominated by ‘take care of number 1’ thinking.

In Second Isaiah’s songs there is not ‘a dramatic day when all things will be transformed suddenly’ but a reign of God brought about by the perseverance of God’s people in doing acts of justice (Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year). Just as the Servant of Isaiah will not break or quench or crush the people of the world, even those who oppose the ‘true way’, neither will the Servant be broken or quenched or crushed. The God who began to work on the first day of creation continues to work and will not be thwarted. We who have been baptized have been grafted into the mission first entrusted to the Jewish people, so that we might work with them and all people who seek justice in witnessing to and working for the reign of God.

Just as the people to whom Second Isaiah addressed his message were in difficult times, imprisoned by an imperial power that had destroyed their homeland, uncertain about the future, so you and I live in a time when Christians may wonder whether we are imprisoned by the challenges of being Christians in a society that seems antagonistic to our message, uncertain whether there is a future for this wonderfully rich and seemingly fragile community we call the Anglican Church of Canada. To us the prophet of Second Isaiah speaks words of hope, words of challenge to remind us of who we are and what it is that God has called us to do as people marked by the sign of the cross and grafted into the covenant established so long ago on Mount Sinai. “Be faithful to your covenant,” the prophet sings, “and be a light to the nations by the manner of your life.”

To advocate for the hungry and the homeless is not a matter of politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant. To work for reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians is not a matter of politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant. To make choices in order to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’ and to ‘green’ our homes and businesses is not politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant. To work to make the Church a safe and just place for all people whether gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor is not a matter of politics but a living out of our baptismal covenant.

We do not need to look far for the Servant through whom God will work to establish justice. Look to your right. There is the Servant of whom Isaiah speaks. Look to your left. There is the Servant of whom Isaiah speaks. Look at your hands. They are the hands of the Servant of whom Isaiah speaks. There is work to be done and we are the agents God has chosen.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, we give you thanks and praise that by water and the Holy Spirit you have made us a holy people to love and to serve you. May we, who share Christ’s body, live his risen life; we, who drink his cup, bring life to others; we, whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world. Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so that we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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