The Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Jeffery January 12, 2020 ~ Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
I was glad when I read the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. Well, I am usually glad when I read scripture, but for today there were three reasons for my joy.
1. I heard echoes of familiar Christmas hymn themes in the reading from Isaiah, and for various reasons I did not get a big enough “fix” of Christmas hymns this year.
2. Conflating of stories to fit them into one night can end. The Christmas story is bigger than that. Now here is time to look more deeply at one scripture for understanding and inspiration.
3. Isaiah 42, and 2nd Isaiah in particular says more about God the Creator, and God’s value and desire for care of Creation than any part of the bible except Genesis 1 – 3.
Those of you who have heard me before or see my business card will know that Ecology and Eco justice is my favourite topic. When I was here last in July, I preached mostly on our responsibility to make wise choices in the coming (now past) 2019 Federal election, choices that would consider the current Climate situation of our world. Analysts have told us that 75 % of Canadians voted for real climate action. This was expressed in many ways. So I was glad in my initial reading of the texts.
There are four so called Servant songs in Isaiah. The Prophet’s choice was to fashion his / her word of hope in song. One may wonder, why not make a bold announcement, why a singer not a street preacher? Why a poet instead of a herald? The prophet knows something about the power of song. From the pulse and rhythm of a song in performance arise the spirit of the cause, but also stability and inspiration. For me song can be very close to a way of prayer. The Servant songs and Isaiah 42 in particular give this sense. This First Servant Song also has a strong message of Justice though the references to justice (v. 1, 3, and 4) are not totally clear. The Hebrew term mishpat used can refer to an ordinance, regulation or law as in Exodus. In this case) mishpat seems to refer to “the true way”, “how things ought to be” or justice understood in very broad general categories.
This is distinct from procedural justice (the proper application of laws in the courts). It is NOT talking about retributive justice or punitive justice, even though too often that is the public perception of the word. Isaiah is using the term justice more in the sense of distributive justice (equitable distribution of resources and of responsibilities). Interpretative controversy has surrounded Isaiah 42 for centuries. Who or what is the servant? Some suggest that the poetic style of the passage requires that the servant be understood symbolically, representing different people from various times seeking to bring about justice. This is my reading of this passage also. Historical interpretation of Isaiah by Christians from Middle Ages to the Reformation and beyond has fluctuated and evolved.
Is the servant Cyrus of Persia, the prophet himself, the Messiah, the Israelite Nation as a whole? It is most likely a reference to the nation Israel or a subset of the nation, the faithful within Israel. But the identity of the Servant – how important is it to interpretation today? If the servant is a just ruler, is the description consistent with contemporary and common depictions of justice?
Some declare that the Servant’s identity is intentionally vague and that attention should be directed at the Servant’s work rather than the Servant’s identity. We can find many modern models of the Servant today: Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Greta Thunberg, and ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr – an eloquent preacher in the American Civil Rights movement (he was assassinated) but could hardly be described as the servant in V. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; Nelson Mandela – a champion of treating all with respect in the apartheid era of South Africa (imprisoned) – V. 7 to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. -more in need of the servant himself. Greta Thunberg – a teenage advocate for climate action sensitive to her own environmental footprint in her actions, sometimes quiet, sometimes aggressive (her speech to the UN “How dare you, how dare you …” addressed to world leaders and adults, blaming (justified) for the lack of response to climate change and the cries of the world itself. V. 4 slight paraphrase (S)He will not grow faint or be crushed until (S)he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait (welcome) for his her teaching. Greta is still young but she seems to exhibit perseverance and singleness of purpose. We can easily be tempted to see ourselves or our heroes as the Servant, but how close are they to the biblical text? It is wise to use caution in making too sweeping use of the Servant Songs as model.
I certainly see myself in some of these lines – persistent, but ‘timid’ or should I say studious. I prefer preaching, book clubs, study with groups but not overt activism (marching, demonstrating are not my thing). Establishing justice in the earth v. 4 is associated with the Servant’s teaching role (Torah: law). I can find some self-justification from (again in paraphrase) V. 3 a bruised reed (I) he will not break, and a dimly burning wick (I) he will not quench; BUT he will (my passivity) faithfully bring forth justice? I know each person makes their own choices about responses to the cause of justice, climate or otherwise. I hear in this passage counselling towards “gentle justice”, compassion, consideration, persistence. Jesus was seen as “The servant”. Some, especially Orthodox and evangelical Christians, go as far as to declare that Jesus alone fulfilled all the qualities ascribed to the Servant. His character completely exemplified the gentleness, righteousness and justice described in this passage, moral qualities came directly from God.
Other biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus himself adopted these songs as the model for his ministry which began with his baptism by John. The authors of the four Gospels nowhere cite Jesus himself quoting from these songs. There is little doubt, however, that these writers had these passages in mind as they told the story of Jesus’ ministry and passion.
How do we fit or not fit the Servant model? Is the central message not a model for identity but a course for action? Establishing justice is to be carried out not with violence or use of overriding strength BUT through humility, passivity, reserve and endurance. Biblical scholar Paul Hanson finds in this passage a reference not to an historical figure or community but a “catalyst for reflection on the nature of the response demanded of those who have received a call from God”.
Lest we think only of ourselves and our own small communities, we know that the Servant has a function not only to his own people but to the nations of the world (v. 1, 6c). The justification for climate action and for social justice work is not just for our children and our grandchildren. It reaches far beyond these interests. It calls us to leadership and empowerment where it really matters.
The community of Israel was fractured geographically, politically and spiritually. The feeling of spiritual dislocation was pervasive in both locations of the people of Israel (in Babylon and in Judah). Their God had (apparently) been surrounded and bested by Marduk, Nebo and the rest of the Babylonian pantheon. How much does this feel like our self- centered society, our “me too” movements, or “Me first” movements? Probing and difficult questions arose and still arise: How does our God stack up against these others who claim allegiance? (In our world - consumerism, materialism and grasping for power)? What is the character of our God? Does God have power to protect us? Hope springs from a sense that a Centre is present, even if it is hidden by difficult circumstances.
If the passage is about leadership, we learn that true leadership protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own. Isaiah insists that this form of leadership is tougher than most.
True leadership described here gently supports new ideas among the young, the timid and those whose voices are too often silenced. Like hands cupping a tiny flame, true leadership provides protection while the flame grows. Where the silenced or timid are developing, true leadership does not bruise with harshness, nor strident calls for action but leads into a place of thoughtful engagement.
If we take the message of Isaiah 42 as a call to the church, it is encouraging. God doesn’t ask us to be aggressive in evangelism, but to quietly provide care for people and work for justice in the world, and through that bring the message of God’s love and grace. So let us not confine the reach of this Song to one individual or even one servant community.
In this season of light, this season of epiphany, this season of revelation, this season of new beginnings, the light can shine forth. Anyone who brings light and (God’s) promise of hope to the nations stands in the place of the Servant: he or she will be blessed with the spirit, and strength that is God’s gift to the Servant. The prophet’s words can make a claim on us, and guide us into practices that prompt us to respond as intentionally as Jesus did at his baptism. Can we hear this text as Jesus did, with our whole hearts, and can we respond as Jesus did, with our whole lives?
Justice for all people and all living things is the major theme in Isaiah 42.
We can be Servants in this cause.