Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 2A, January 19, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this morning’s OT lesson, we read the second of the four so-called “Servant Songs” in Isaiah that describe God’s anointed one, the Messiah. You might recall that last week we read the first of those songs from Isaiah 42, where God’s Servant would bring God’s healing and justice to the earth, and we saw that Matthew applied that particular song to Jesus at his baptism. As we reflect on this second Servant’s Song from today’s readings, we want to ask Isaiah exactly who is this servant and why should we as Christians living in the 21st century care? His answers (and our other texts’) is what I want us to consider briefly this morning.
We ask this question about the Servant’s identity because in 49.3, Isaiah refers to him as being Israel. But two verses later, the Servant clearly is an individual whom God will use to rescue Israel from her exile in Babylon and all the nations that oppress her. So who is the Servant? Israel or an individual working on Israel’s behalf? Well, both. As this passage makes clear, God called his people Israel to bring his healing love and justice to a sin-sick world. But Israel had failed to do this. Instead of being God’s light to the world to bring God’s healing love to the nations, Israel had fallen into idol worship and practiced all kinds of injustices (among other things), imitating the very nations they were supposed to heal! So now through his prophet, God was reaffirming his promise to his wayward people to give them a Messiah through King David’s line (cf. 2 Samuel 7.8-17) to do and be for Israel what Israel could not do and be for itself, the promise itself being an act of grace.
And since this passage is clearly addressed to the nations, God is also putting them on alert that he will not only rescue his people Israel from the nations’ evil designs toward them by punishing the nations, but that God also intends to rescue those from among Israel’s enemies who will respond to God’s plan of salvation offered through his Servant on behalf of Israel. This is what being “a light to the nations” is all about and we can imagine that Isaiah’s message would have been met with incredulity and scorn by many of his people. They would have liked his message about God rescuing them, but Israel’s enemies? Not so much. It would be like God promising today to forgive and heal [insert your favorite enemies here]. Where’s the justice in that?
“That’s all well and good, Fr. Kevin, but enough with the history lesson and 50 questions. Get on with it, dude. We’ve got brunch to catch and football to watch. What does any of this stuff have to do with us?” Just this. We must remember that Isaiah’s words were written to a people languishing in the darkness of exile. It would have been quite easy for them to dismiss God’s promises to them as hogwash. After all, if God were so powerful, why had he allowed his people to be conquered and exiled to a pagan nation? Now we may not be a people living in exile geographically, but we still have to deal with plenty of darkness that makes us want to ask God the same kinds of questions. I know there are many of you who are facing serious problems in your life at the moment, problems that distract you terribly and tempt you to dismiss as irrelevant passages like Isaiah’s and our gospel lesson with their message of being God’s light to the world. “I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails and you want me to go out and tell others about Jesus? Really?” If we get to this point in our life, it is precisely the time to pay careful attention to what the prophet and our other lessons are telling us.
To those who react in despair or anger (another form of despair) to the darkness that oppresses us, whatever its form, the prophet reminds his people and us that when our present and future look bleak, we must call to mind the many ways in which God has acted on behalf of his people to rescue us from our enemies and how God has always remained faithful to his promises, despite our unfaithfulness to God. We must do this so that we can have confidence that God is with us now and have real hope for our future. Isaiah does this by telling his people that just rescuing Israel from its enemies is too small a thing for God to do. God has bigger fish to fry through his Servant. God will do the impossible. He will heal the nations! A God who rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, who planted them in the land he promised and vanquished enemies that were much stronger than Israel is surely able to rescue us from our enemies and the dark powers behind them that bedevil us, a claim that the NT in fact makes (cf. Colossians 2.14-15). In telling us this, God is reminding us to keep our priorities straight, that there is nothing more important in this life than developing a real and life-giving relationship with God that will sustain us even in the darkest hours of our life, and then sharing that secret with others so that they too will have the power to overcome darkness.
This message is reinforced in our epistle and gospel lessons and both add their answer to our question about the Servant’s identity, reminding us that Jesus is the Servant. In our epistle lesson, Paul is getting ready to address the church at Corinth that has its fair share of problems. Among other things he will address the problems of false teaching, human pride, divisive cliques within the body of Christ at Corinth, and condoning sexual immorality in the name of grace. These folks were in trouble and living in darkness in a lot of ways, but here Paul reminds them Whose they are. He refers to God six times in this passage and to Jesus eight times (nine if you count his indirect reference to Christ’s testimony), and will go on to teach them why having a relationship with God through Jesus is mission-critical to them as human beings and people of God. Clearly their relationship with Jesus had not made them immune to being afflicted by darkness, just as our relationship with Jesus does not make us immune. But in reminding the Corinthians and us Whose we are, Paul is preparing them and us to hear how living as Jesus’ people will allow Jesus to live in and through us in the power of the Spirit so that he can help us overcome the darkness that sometimes afflicts us and enable us to be his beacons of light.
Likewise, John reminds us of the power of God by calling Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In telling us this, John surely wants us remember the Exodus with its story of the Passover lambs. Just as God passed over the houses of his enslaved people that had the blood of the lambs smeared on them as part of his rescue operation on their behalf, so we who are covered by the blood of the Lamb through faith are rescued from an older and darker slavery to sin, precisely because Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Word made flesh. As a result, our alienation from God disappears and we can tap into a real power that will enable us to live our lives with purpose, power, and joy that transcends the circumstances of life.
In each case the respective writers are reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing and not to let the lesser things of life distract us from being the people God created us to be. This is not easy, of course, because dealing with our darkness always seems more immediate and more pressing than our relationship with God. “Not so fast,” they say. If you remember why you were created and what God has done for you in Jesus and is doing for you in the power of the Spirit and the fellowship of his people to help you live in ways that will make you fully human, the darkness will not overcome you.
But John also seems to be expanding on who the Servant really is. In telling us about the Spirit’s anointing of Jesus at his baptism, John is clearly identifying Jesus with the Servant. And in describing Jesus’ interchange with Andrew and the other disciple and their subsequent behavior (new people are called, names get changed), John is reminding us that as God’s Messiah, Jesus is calling his followers to help share in the Servant’s work of bringing God’s healing love to the nations. When Andrew and the other disciple ask Jesus where he is staying, i.e., if he really is the Messiah as John had claimed, Jesus tells them to come and see. And in telling them this, Jesus is not just inviting them to share in his work. Like Isaiah, he is promising them that they ain’t seen nothing yet. Of course Jesus’ disciples didn’t initially understand that this would ultimately refer to his death, resurrection, and ascension, or even that his mission was to bring God’s light and healing to those outside Israel. And this remains the challenge for us today. Do we really understand what Jesus is all about and the work he calls us to do in his name—to announce God’s judgment and salvation to the world in and through Jesus and to engage in acts of self-giving love, healing, mercy, and reconciliation among God’s enemies, ultimately to reconcile them to God through Jesus, i.e., to bring God’s light to the nations?
One thing is for certain. If we don’t show enough interest in Jesus when he invites us to come and see who he is through regular prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and partaking in communion, we will never really be able to embrace the promise that accompanies Jesus’ invitation to us. And if we do not know who Jesus is, we cannot possibly hope to bring God’s light in Jesus to the world. Why would anyone in their right mind want to follow Jesus when they see us living in the darkness just like everyone else? So here’s the question for us to consider, not only this week but on an ongoing basis. If Jesus invited others to come and see him through St. Augustine’s, what would they see if they spent some time with us? Here I want to encourage and commend you because I think we do an overall good job in being the body of Christ. Among other things, folks would see us welcome strangers, preach the Good News, reach out to the poor and needy, visit the lonely, and care for each other in a variety of ways, all in Jesus’ name.
But since each of us goes out into the world every day, an equally important question is to ask ourselves what others would see if they were to come and see Jesus through us. Would they see the love of God pulse through us, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit and tender hearts that are full of love and mercy for God and all people (cf. Galatians 5.22-25) or would they see the works of the flesh with all of its self-centeredness and hard-heartedness (cf. Galatians 5.19-21)? In reality, if folks hang around us long enough they will see both sets of attributes because none of us is completely free of sin while we are still in our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 6.7). The critical question is which group of attributes embodies the basic pattern of our living? Put another way, when people come and see us in the context of our daily lives, are they typically seeing Christ in us or something else? The extent we can answer that they are seeing Jesus in us is the extent we are fulfilling Jesus’ invitation (and call) to us to come and see.
As you consider these things—and please do consider these things on a regular basis— remember this. If there is work to do on your discipleship (as surely there is; none of us is perfect), then don’t despair or feel guilty about it because you are covered by the blood of the Lamb. Simply remember that the God who calls us to follow Jesus also equips us in the power of the Spirit to do the work he calls us to do, both inside and outside the Church (Ephesians 4.12; Philippians 1.6; 2.13; 1 Thessalonians 5.23-24). So rejoice and be glad that God loves and honors you enough to call you to help bring his healing light and love to the nations and remember that nothing is too great for God to overcome, not even your sin or the darkness that currently afflicts you. If you really believe this, you will respond accordingly because you know you have Good News to share, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.