Sunday, January 12, 2020

First Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 42: 1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10: 34-43

Matthew 3: 13-17


It has been a loud and upsetting week.


The sounds of drone strikes exploding into targeted vehicles in distant lands; the sounds of missiles streaking toward military bases in retaliation; the sounds of leaders threatening each other with further acts of terrible violence and destruction; the sounds of anguished voices mourning the loss of innocent lives so senselessly snuffed out in a scene of tragic violence, followed by accusations flying about who should be permitted to determine whether such a brutal tragedy was accidental or intentional.   Threats of violence and escalation; wars and rumours of war; politicians pointing fingers at each other, seemingly pushing us all towards the brink of global conflict.


It has been a loud and upsetting week.


But now we are in church – here for rest and restoration, here to hear a good word, an encouraging word, perhaps even a hopeful word in this loud and upsetting time.


As we do so, we are invited, on this particular Sunday in the church year, to turn our attention to ancient words from the prophet Isaiah.


But even as we do so, we begin to realize that these ancient words, were first offered to a people who were also in a time of calamity, in a world torn apart by violence, by uncertainty, by threat, by injustice, by fear.


And it was at such a time that the prophet set before their imaginations the vision of the coming of a blessed and powerful servant of God.


“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

My chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him,

He will bring forth justice to the nations.”


The lectionary invites us to read these words alongside the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the baptism of Christ.  “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” wrote the author of Matthew.

Which sounds a lot like Isaiah’s vision.


“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

My chosen in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him,

He will bring forth justice to the nations.”


But what is equally intriguing and wonderful are Isaiah’s words about “how” that servant would act, and how justice would come to the nations.


Specifically, the way of that servant would not be loud and upsetting.  Rather, the servant would act quietly, and in unassuming, perhaps almost unnoticeable ways.


“He will not cry or lift up his voice,

Or make it heard in the street;

A bruised reed he will not break,

And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

He will faithfully bring forth justice.”


For all of the times that I have read or heard this passage, I have never really paid a great deal of attention to those particular images of the bruised reed and the smoldering wick.  What was the prophet seeking to convey with them?


Often, the passage is interpreted to suggest that these images of bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks refer to the fact that the servant would not act in ways that would further crush or weaken those who were already feeling crushed or weakened.   It is a perfectly good way to understand the prophet’s words.


But there is another way to understand them.  That is, these images are offered alongside words about the servant not crying out or lifting up their voice or making themselves heard in the streets.  In other words, the passage suggests that the servant is going about their work in such a quiet, peaceful and subtle way that one might not even realize that they are there.


A broken reed might easily be knocked over by someone who is loudly blustering through; a dimly burning wick might easily snuffed out by someone who is quickly rushing by.  But that, according to the prophet, was not how the servant would act.


Rather, the servant would act quietly, peacefully, softly, and in subtle, unassuming, perhaps even overlooked ways.   The servant in Isaiah’s vision would not call any attention to themselves, nor cry out or lift up their voice, nor make their presence heard in the streets – in fact, they would move slowly, gently, and with sensitivity.

And yet, in that quietness, in that peacefulness, in that presence, there would be great and ultimately triumphant power revealed.


It is good for us to remember that this was exactly the way that Jesus began his ministry.  The opening chapters of the Gospels take place in tiny villages, as Jesus and his friends move from one small town to another, chatting with farmers and fishermen along the way, stopping to pay attention to sick and hungry people, grabbing a bite to eat in each other’s houses, stepping in to quietly defend the excluded and the abused.   Yes, people began to pay attention; but it was not because Jesus was doing anything to draw attention to himself.  To the contrary, in a number of sections of the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly stated that people that he helped, and even his disciples, were not to tell anyone what they were seeing.


There would come a time when he told his followers to go and tell the world about him, but the way of the servant, at least in the initial parts of his story, was to act quietly.


Which did not mean that the purposes of the servant were remaining unfulfilled and unaccomplished.


Justice, compassion, kindness, peacefulness, goodness — these things were being, and would be accomplished.   Change, transformation, and justice were being realized because of the work of that quiet, unassuming, humble servant.


So it was, and so it is.


In the summer before I entered seminary, I had the opportunity to travel in Central America, and specifically to Nicaragua, under the auspices of a program run by the Presbyterian Church in Canada, in partnership with Nicaraguan religious and community organizations.  It was not a “missionary” trip, per se, but more of an opportunity for cultural exposure and education.


It was an interesting time to do so.  The trip took place in the early 1990s; the Berlin Wall had recently come down, the Cold War was drawing to a close, tensions between the USSR and the United States were easing, and as a result, both politics and society in Central America were going through a time of great transition.  Throughout the long years of the Cold War, Central America had been a place of great conflict as the superpowers vied for hegemony and control, often in covert ways.  In fact, much of what I had heard about Nicaragua, before that trip, had been shaped by reports about the conflicts that had plagued that country throughout the 1970 and 1980s — Sandinistas and Contras, Ortega and Somoza, Oliver North and the Iran-Contra scandal, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries; all of which had been influenced and shaped by vast global tensions.  It had been a war-torn, violent, ravaged country.


It had been a loud and upsetting time.


And we saw evidence of the carnage – communities that had been scarred by years of violence and oppression; children living in slums and barrios and favelas; bullet holes in the walls of buildings and churches.


But what we also saw – and what had a profound influence on me – was the presence of the church in the midst of it all.  The church was right there with the people, humbly and quietly serving in spite of the challenges and struggles and injustices that had so deeply affected that beautiful land.  We visited a little mission, in one of the barrios, in which the church not only provided food and education, but had formed a youth orchestra so that the children in the area could experience the power and the gift of music.  To hear them joyfully practicing and playing their instruments was an amazing thing to witness.  Regardless of the challenges, the struggle, the vast global tensions that had been played out for so many years, the church was simply there — there to serve, to be with people, to be a blessing, to sing and play and teach, to share food and friendship, joy, and life.


Yes, we all know that there are times when the church fails in this calling to serve with integrity and humility – times when we get coopted by the lure and temptation of power; times when we expend energy calling attention to ourselves; times when we think that being powerful means that we cry out in the streets and make all manner of loud, often self-righteous pronouncements about all of the failures of others; times when trust has been broken and atrocities have been perpetuated in the name of religion – these things do, in fact, happen and they can neither be denied nor ignored.


But we also need to hear the other stories, the quiet stories – of the music teachers in the barrios; of the humble nuns in Calcutta; of the woman who simply sat down on a bus and sparked a flame of civil transformation; of the dedicated volunteers serving a warm meal on a cold Monday night, or getting up to make breakfast on a Tuesday morning; of the visitor in the lonely Alzheimer’s ward; of the hand held in the palliative care unit; of the encouraging word spoken in a time of loss and sorrow; of the people who give – faithfully and selflessly – of their time, their energy, their attention, their abilities, so that others will be quietly blessed in the name of Jesus Christ.


In so many ways, the church continues to share in the power of the quiet servant – even in loud and upsetting times.


Without doubt, there comes a time to cry out in the streets, to lift up our voices.  But we should also remember that the kingdom of God comes in quiet and humble ways as well, and that justice will be brought forth to the nations.


And we can be a part of it. And why?  Because we have been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of the humble servant, the beloved Son, and it is not, ultimately, we who live but Christ who lives in us; we have been baptized with the Spirit which was alive in Christ, and which continues to be offered to each and every one of us.


Which means that we are called to live our lives in such a way that what the prophet Isaiah envisioned, so long ago, might be said of us.


“thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,*
a light to the nations,

to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.


Which means that even in the loud and upsetting moments we can live with faith that the quiet servant — who is also the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth – is still at work.


Thanks be to God.