The Servant’s Servants

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2A, Sunday, January 19, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; St. John 1.29-42.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

So who is this mysterious servant about which Isaiah speaks in our OT lesson and what does that possibly have to do with us who try to live faithful Christian lives today? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

In today’s OT lesson we encounter the second of the four so-called “Servant Songs” fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We heard the first song last week in Isaiah 42.1-9. So who is the servant in today’s lesson? In v.3 the Lord identifies Israel as the servant only to identify him as an individual God has chosen from birth to rescue Israel from their collective sin-sickness two verses later! To help us make sense of all this, we need to quickly review the unfolding story of salvation contained in the old and new testaments. There we learn that God created his creation and creatures, declaring it all to be good. Scripture makes it crystal clear throughout that creation matters to God. Furthermore, God created humans in his image to run his creation wisely and lovingly on God’s behalf, but our first ancestors didn’t quite get the latter part of that memo. They wanted to rule God’s world on their own; they weren’t interested in ruling on God’s behalf and we’ve followed their lead ever since. All this got us booted from paradise and resulted in God’s curse on his creation. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 8.18-25, all creation groans under the weight of its slavery to the outside and hostile powers of Evil, Sin, and Death that human sin unleashed as it waits for God’s children—that would be those of us who give our lives to Christ—to be redeemed at Christ’s Second Coming. I don’t have to explain further. We all have groaned many times under the weight of our own sins and folly and from God’s good world gone terribly wrong.

But because God cares for his creation and us and wants to free us from all that oppresses us and weighs us down, especially from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death, God chose to rescue his good world and us from the clutches of the dark powers. Fittingly God chose to do that through human agency, specifically through his people Israel whom God called and formed through Abraham and his descendants. But Israel was as broken as the people they were sent to help heal; and now we return to our OT lesson. God still chose Israel as the human agents to bring his healing love to broken and hurting people and nations, but Israel had to first be healed before they could fulfill their mission. And so God called his servant to heal Israel and through Israel the world. Of course, we Christians believe Jesus Christ was and is that servant and Israel is now reconstituted around those who follow Christ, both Jew and Gentile. The NT calls this reconstituted Israel the Church but the most important thing for us to remember is that Christ is the servant who will bring healing to Israel and ultimately to the world.

And how will he do that? St. John tells us in our gospel lesson this morning when he tells us that John the Baptizer recognized Christ and declared him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John knew this because God had told him how to recognize the Messiah (or the Christ) and John proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ to his followers. As it turned out, the Servant would be God himself, God become human to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and the inevitable death that our sins produce. For his contemporaries, John’s declaration that Jesus was the Lamb of God would have had clear Passover implications. Passover, of course, was the main Jewish festival that celebrated God’s rescue of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Jesus, as St. John and the rest of the NT writers proclaim, will bring about an even more powerful and dramatic release by rescuing his followers from our slavery to Sin and Death and reverse the curse under which the entire creation labors. 

But why does this matter? Why do we need to know about the Servant and his songs? Well, besides the obvious—after all, being rescued from an eternal death separated from God forever and the hell that that separation brings is no small gift to us—in Christ the Servant we find our ultimate healing and peace because we know that our sins are forgiven and we can enjoy a real relationship with God the Father won for us by the death of his Son. And with that forgiveness comes real healing and health so that we are made ready to be servants of Christ who engage in the ongoing work of healing and redemption in the power of Spirit. More about that anon. 

But we want to protest. That is ridiculous! We don’t feel healed! We still labor with our guilt and doubts and fears, and many of us sure don’t feel forgiven! Nor do we act the part on a consistent basis. Well, my argumentative friends, you are in good company because the promises we read today in our OT lesson were written for a people who would be living in exile, for them the ultimate punishment of God, and it would seem incredible and even arrogant on the part of the prophet to make such promises. How could they as God’s chosen people be God’s light to the nations to bring God’s healing love and relief to them when they were held captive themselves. Ridiculous!

But the promises and faithfulness of God are not to be denied and we would be wise to reconsider our protests because God’s rescue plan looks beyond what is seen and behind what may seem to be all too futile to that which is unseen and unexpected as Father Bowser preached so well last Sunday. Never underestimate the power of God to surprise and rescue and restore. After all, we worship Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead to rule forever and ever by the power of God. 

Here is where our epistle lesson can help us. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, St. Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that they are God’s saints, NT code for being holy people. Being holy in the NT means that we are called by God to be his servants organized as the one holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic Church to bring his healing love to the world around us. Holiness does not mean we walk around with halos over our heads or that we spend 24/7 reading the Bible and praying (although those activities must be central in our lives if we ever hope to fulfill our mission as God’s servants in Christ). Holiness means we act like Christ to show the world a better way of living. Every time we forgive when forgiveness is unwarranted, every time we work to establish justice for those who have been denied it, every time we work to help the most helpless and needy in the world around us, every time we work for peace and not for rancor, and every time we proclaim in our deeds and speaking that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we fulfill the Servant’s role as Christ’s servants. If you are doing these things, however imperfectly you do them, you are being a holy person despite being the losers you are. But here’s the thing. We cannot and will not do any of this on our own power. We do these things in the power of the Spirit. Without the Spirit’s help and presence we are incapable of these behaviors because sin is so deeply ingrained in us. Neither are we likely to engage in this work if we think we are still under God’s condemnation for our sins and therefore feel alienated from God (those who believe this know who you are) so that we suffer anxiety and live in fear, hard as we try to suppress and deflect it. Even those of us who have accepted God’s forgiveness won for us through the blood of the Lamb want to protest from time to time along with those who haven’t. We do that stuff you just talked about (OK, not real well but we try to make a good effort) but nothing seems to happen. We’re still a hot mess emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically (the latter especially if we’re enjoying Geezerdom in all its glory). Sure doesn’t feel like we’re holy or making any kind of difference. 

To these complaints St. Paul would tell us the same thing he told the church at Corinth. Get over yourselves. It ain’t about you. It’s about the power of God working in and through you, a power made available to you by the Lamb of God. Look, I told the Corinthians they were God’s holy people and I wasn’t lying. This is the same bunch I also had to admonish for condoning a man sleeping with his stepmother, squabbling over leadership and turf, believers filing lawsuits against fellow believers, spiritual pride, and abuse of the Lord’s table to name just a few. Talk about a hot mess of a church! It almost rivals you at St. Augie’s! Despite all this St. Paul was bold to declare that they (and we) had every spiritual gift they (and we) needed to be Christ’s servants and assured them (and us) that they (and we) were and are his servants. St. Paul understood better than most that the power of God at work is not always obvious and often shows itself in unexpected ways, but it is nonetheless stronger than our folly and fears and sins and shortcomings so that we need not fear or lament when we miss the mark. We are truly beloved by the Father because we have faith in the Lamb of God who takes away our sins so that we can find wholeness and healing and life, despite the travails of living this mortal life in a fallen world. That is why we are to await eagerly for Christ to return to finish his saving work. We don’t bring in the kingdom in full, only Christ can do that, but he calls us to wage war on his behalf by being his humble, faithful servants and embodying his great love for us in our lives. We cannot give what we do not have and that is why our healing that comes from a real sense of sins forgiven, undeserving as we are to receive it, is so critical to our discipleship.

The psalmist also has some useful insights to help us overcome our doubts and fears as we live out our faith in the power of the Spirit. He tells us to remember the mighty acts of God in our personal lives and in the lives of God’s people. Do you stop to remember the many times God has answered your desperate prayers and made his presence known to you in the living of your days? Do you read Scripture to recall the new Passover of God won in Christ’s death and resurrection? If you don’t, you help close yourself to Christ’s healing love for you made known in Scripture. 

Let me close by giving you a quick example to illustrate how God’s grace works in all this. I am ministering to a woman who is dying of cancer. She is in her forties and has a family who is shell-shocked and angry at this massive injustice that has been inflicted on their beloved mother, wife, and daughter. I have prayed ceaselessly for a mighty act of healing but it did not come and it is utterly heartbreaking to watch. I don’t know why God allows it or why God won’t answer our prayers. Here’s what I do know. Without Christ’s help in and through the power of the Spirit I could not bring myself to even visit her, let alone be her pastor. Whenever I feel overwhelmed and/or despondent, I remember God’s mighty power made known in Christ’s resurrection. I remember that if God can call into existence things that did not exist and give life to the dead, God will surely heal this woman when she enters his glory at her mortal death. And when Christ raises her on the Last Day and welcomes her into the new heavens and earth made possible by his death and resurrection, justice will be fully served. She will have new life, a new body impervious to illness and death, and she will be fully restored to God the Father who loves her and sent his Son to die for her so that she could ultimately live. She will also be restored forever with those whom she loves who died in the power and peace of Christ. Justice will be fully restored and the evil of cancer that resulted in an unjust and wicked death will be vanquished forever. None of this makes the work any easier and we will all grieve her death when it comes. But here’s my point. When I feel inadequate in ministering to her, when I feel helpless that I cannot heal her, when I feel anger at the injustice and evil inflicted on her, when I am weighed down by my own great sin, I remember the power of God and I am strengthened to do the work Christ calls me to do on his behalf. That same power is available to each and every one of you, my beloved. As we walk through our dark valleys and the messiness of our lives and faith, rejoice that we have a God who loves and honors us enough that he has acted decisively in and through his Son on our behalf to restore us to himself so that we can be his people and do the work he calls us to do. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.