By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 8, 2023
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Isaiah 42:1–9 (ESV)
1 Behold 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. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 5 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 on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. 9 Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany. I do not know if you have ever had an epiphany or not, but if you have, or ever do, you will notice something spectacular. Things begin to make sense. All at once the struggles you faced, the classes you were required to enroll in, and even algebra suddenly come into focus and life makes sense for a moment. An epiphany is a revelation. In the church calendar we celebrate the great revelation on January 6. For centuries the church on the closing of the twelve days of Christmas, celebrate this revelation. We, with the saints of old, are reminded just who the baby born in Bethlehem is.
It is on Epiphany we remember the day Jesus was presented in the temple. That presentation we often overlook. By law the first male child born of a woman is dedicated to God. This means that by law the first born male is to be devoted to God, or belongs to God. This sounds odd but it was one of ceremonial laws in Torah that provided an image of a tangible reminder to Israel about their relationship with God. Since Jesus was the first born of Mary, Jesus belonged to God.
This dedication was to illustrate to the people that everyone in Israel has a place and responsibility to God. So the first born male of a woman would be taken to the temple and the father would redeem the son from God. Offering a ransom and a sacrifice, and once the sacrifice was made the child would be released from the obligation and their responsibility would be given to those within the tribe of Levi. The presentation of Jesus at the temple reminds us that our Messiah is a priest. But this presentation Is not the only Epiphany we celebrate on this day, we also celebrate the visit of the Magi.
Last year David, our clerk, presented a great message about the Magi when I was away due to COVID. The revelation of the Magi reminds us that the child was not an ordinary child, but a king. I want us to really contemplate this. Magi, wise men from the lands of the east, most likely religious leaders or scientists from the land of Persia traversed across the desert bearing gifts fit for a royal courts. They made their way to an ordinary town, visited an ordinary house, and fell l to their knees in honor and reverence to present these royal treasures to seemingly ordinary people. And they left these gifts there. I want you to really consider that image in your mind. They were not in the palace of a king and yet in their mind the child Jesus, was the rightful king of the people of Israel.
Even the royal epiphany does not fully encompass what we celebrate in this season of revelation, there is a third mystery. During the second temple period of ancient Judah, there was confusion or a diversity of thought around the messiah. There were some scholars that believed that there could be not one but three messianic figures. This comes from the concept of the three offices of power spoken about in scripture among the people of God. The priest, the king, and the prophet. The presentation of Jesus at the temple honors the priestly office. The visitors of the magi spoke to the royal office. But what about the prophet?
We often have a skewed understanding of prophets and prophecy in our contemporary era of church history. We believe that prophets receive messages from God that predict the future. This is one aspect of the office of the prophet, but it t is deeper than this. I do not believe that God is in the habit of baking fortune cookies. In the introductory verses of most books of the prophets there is a similar story, they have an experience where they are given a direct message from God and commissioned to a particular mission. Many of these stories speak of the prophet being transported in some manner to visit the very throne of God. Meaning the prophets are commissioned and anointed for a particular mission in the very presence of the Most High God. Jesus was anointed and commissioned for his unique mission when John baptized him in the Jordan. The season of epiphany is the revelation of mission and person of the Messiah.
Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one that was hoped for. He is the true priest, king, and prophet. He is the one on a mission from the Most High. Jesus is the light that will illuminate all people and nations. But what does that mean?
Today we read two passages of scripture. The first, from Mark, is a question from the religious scholars of that age of history. They ask what the greatest commandment is. We look at words like commandment, and our mind usually goes to sin and guilt. We regard the commandments as law. This is not wrong, but if we only look at the commandments as law we can often fall short of the beauty and richness of scripture. I often refer to life as a journey, and the commandments are in many ways the markers, or sign posts that direct us along the path. These scholars ask Jesus, what is most important. They ask this for a variety of reasons, but at the heart of the question is something we all ask. What is our purpose? What is the point of this life?
This is also the question that faced Israel in the exile. Isaiah wrote his oracles prior to this disgraceful point of their history. But within the words of condemnation there are songs of hope. Isaiah outside of the Psalms is one of the most quoted books of the Hebrew scriptures within the writings of the 2nd temple period, which also includes the writings within the New Testament. It is quoted because during the exile Israel lost everything. They lost their homes, their nation, their future, and worst of all they lost their God. I say this not because this is a reality, but emotionally. Their faith, their identity, their world hinged on the temple and it was in the temple that their God lived. How do you live? How do you remain a distinct people or nation when you lose it all? What is your purpose? You were once walking along the path and all of a sudden you find yourself lost in the thorns and weeds without a compass.
In the first half of Isaiah, we learn that God needs to send someone out on a mission to warn the people of the impending disaster. This is where Isaiah is caught up in a vision, standing before the throne of God. He saw God sitting on his throne with the shining ones singing and dancing around him, and Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Then all at once one of the Seraphim flew at him with a burning coal from the alter. Imagine what this man was thinking at that moment! If an angelic being came swooping in on me with a burning coal, I would probably think the end was at hand, it would not even have to be an angel swooping in. If you were running toward me with a fiery torch my fight or flight instinct would kick in. This angelic being touched his lips with the coal and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Immediately after this Isaiah hears the voice of God say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah saw something dramatic. He saw reality. He saw God’s commandments fully lived before his eyes, and he saw that he himself with all of his self-righteousness was lacking.
According to the kingdoms of men, Isaiah was good. He was a member of the court of Judah, he was a high ranking member within the government of the covenantal kingdom of God. He was righteous. But when he saw the throne, he knew that he fell short.
What is our purpose, the scribes asked Jesus? Who are we? The exiles of Israel asked as they wandered in Babylon. There is one commandment Jesus, our Epiphany says, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He goes on to say the second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
They are simple words. Words that we can easily memorize. Some of us may even have pillows on our couch that have these words embroidered on them. But if you were standing in the midst of angels before the throne of God could you say these words were incarnate in you?
This was the purpose of humanity from the dawn of our creation. This was the purpose of God calling Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This was the point of King David, the purpose of the temple. This was all God wanted, and all God wants. And each step along the journey of life we have an opportunity to live into that purpose, but we tend to stumble off the path.
“Do you earnestly seek to maintain a life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ?” The Faith and Practice of our Yearly Meeting asks, “Do you practice the daily reading of the Scriptures in your families, giving time for waiting upon the Lord? Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? Are you careful to avoid all places and amusements inconsistent with a Christian character?”
“Behold my servant,” Isaiah writes here near the end of his teachings. In this first Servant Song. What he is saying here is, “Look at this!” It is not just fancy words, but it is like the emergency alerts that every cellphone receives at once. “Behold my servant!” And why does God want us to look at this servant? Who is it anyway?
Scholars have debated over this for years, even though history and tradition within the church has told us who the servant is. They debate, maybe the servant is Cyrus the king of Persia, maybe its Israel, maybe its us. Even 2nd century Jewish writings would tell us that the servant is the Messiah and not anyone else. Isaiah after he has borne witness to the devastation of Israel is telling them, “Do not lose hope, behold God’s Servant is coming.”
“Behold 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.” Justice is one of those triggering words in our contemporary culture. It grieves my heart that it is because it speaks to the very core of our faith. This one word is used three times in this song.
What is justice? Justice or Mispat can mean judgment, court, case, decision, justice, law, plan, share, or custom or practice. We can see this as a legal term, but it is more than that. God’s justice is Eden. It is the Edenic life where Humanity and Divinity walk together in the cool of the evening chatting about the day. God’s servant will bring forth or restore God’s original and only plan. That may not be exactly what you consider when you think of justice, but it goes back to the command Jesus gives in Mark. God wants us to love him, and our neighbor. That is the plan that God has always had, and it has never changed. What would our community be like if this was truly how we lived?
“He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” When we look at these words at face value we do not get the fullness of the statement. He will not cry aloud, does not necessarily mean speaking with a loud voice, but is in reference to a cry out to God in Lamentation. Isaiah, God really, is saying that his servant will not just pray, “Lord help me.”, but will take an active role in the situation. When we pray, the answers to our prayers and the prayers of others are often ourselves. We pray, not just for God’s deliverance but for guidance and clarity. The servant of God does not utter empty words, but becomes the very words made flesh, willing to work.
Isaiah then continues by saying, “lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” Although this looks like Isaiah is repeating himself in English, these verbs are different. The first is despair and the second is protest. In ancient times the people of the city would often gather at the gates or a central location, to present their case before the elders. The elders would hear the case and make a judgment, and that judgment would be the law of the land. If you felt you were on the wrong end of the ruling what could you do? Nothing really, the judgment had been made. All that is left is screaming at the top of your lungs that you were treated unfairly.
I had an epiphany moment, during my study this week at this point. These are the things that God’s servant will not do. God’s servant will not cry out in despair, seeking pity but not lifting a finger to participate in the solution. And God’s servant will not protest about the injustices endured, without participating in activities to remove the opportunities for these injustice to occur. Pity and vain protest are empty words. They are vessels of brokenness and division, not true justice. When we participate in these empty words, we puff ourselves up thinking we have accomplished something, but in reality, all we have contributed to is more brokenness and suffering. As I read about these words I noticed my social media feeds were filled with stories about January 6th two years ago. I read this after listening to countless stories of rigged elections and pleas to take our country back. That is not justice, but a riot. And it is wrong.
Isaiah continues, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”
To us these verses might just seem poetic, but there is more to these words than we might realize. This is why it is important to study and to learn to use tools available to us. The words used for bruised reed and grow faint or be discouraged, come from a similar root word that means splintered or broken. Isaiah uses this poetry to illustrate the true purpose of the Servant of God, and those that follow this servant.
Isaiah acknowledges that life will not be fair. Life is filled with suffering and will always be filled with suffering because humanity has diverted its attention away from the original plan of God and has instead replaced it with plans of their own. Russia states within their media, that Ukraine is filled with fascists and satanists. We say Russia is filled with fascists and communists. Ukraine is living in that no man’s land between two powerful entities and people like me are sitting in their recliners spouting off empty words of what they should do. This is not justice. Ukraine and so many other people groups and nations within our world are bruised reeds. They are splintered and broken. They like us are walking their journey through life attempting to find the path. And forces of human distraction are coming in telling them what they should do.
But God comes in through his servant. God reveals himself and instead of splintering the reed and increasing the brokenness the servant becomes a conduit of healing and encouragement.
“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 on it and spirit to those who walk in it: ‘I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no others, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.’”
What is our purpose? What is our point in life? To Love God and love our neighbors. To become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We are to join the Servant of God in restoring Eden to the earth. And this begins right here in this meetinghouse, in our families, and in our communities. As we go out this week let our life be filled with God’s justice. Love for him and those around us. And let us not perpetuate the brokenness of the human kingdoms with empty words and vain activities. May the love and light of Gods Epiphany, Gods revelation, illuminate the pathways of our life.
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