Inspired by Isaiah 42:1-9
But I am also very much looking forward to reading from the Gospels again. We started back at the beginning of September with the story of the Flood and quickly moved to stories from the family of Sarah and Abraham—stories that laid the foundation for the rest of our readings since then. All of which, in turn, have laid the foundation for our upcoming readings in Matthew. In particular, I’m reminded of the promises that we have heard.
In the story of the flood, God promised to stick with this creation, faults and all. And in the story of Sarah and Abraham, God tells us how God will do that, with another promise, through Sarah and Abraham’s family. God told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you…All the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” You may remember that Sarah and Abraham had a difficult time leaning into that promise.
It was difficult for them to see how it could really come true. But that’s because they weren’t looking at it using the right lens. It’s like trying to drive with reading glasses on. Nearly impossible! Reading glasses are for seeing things up close, right in front of you. However, this promise, couldn’t even be seen with distance glasses on, they needed more like a telescope! No, they needed more like a crystal ball that could see into the future.
You see, even though this promise did, in part, come true in Abraham’s lifetime, the promise was even bigger than they could have imagined. It wouldn’t be completely fulfilled for well over a thousand years! And in that time, God’s people would travel that long and winding road, filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, celebrations and tragedies. At some points it would seem that the promise had been fulfilled and then at other times they couldn’t even remember what the promise was.
They had been thrown into slavery and rescued from slavery. They had seen the rise of their kingdom only to see it fall. They had been exiled out of their homeland and been allowed to return generations later. So much time had passed from those first promises to this point in their history, that Isaiah finds it necessary to remind them of what this long and winding road has been about.
The promises had not been forgotten. They had not been fulfilled yet either. They were still in the making. And God’s people, like their ancestors before them, were witnessing it in real time, even though it was hard for them to see. In our reading for today, the prophet Isaiah reminds them of their calling, and that calling is a calling to servanthood. But God, through Isaiah, begins by telling them about a particular servant. The identity of this servant of God’s is left ambiguous, mysterious. And for the next thousand years or so, Jewish theologians left it that way. However, even though Isaiah doesn’t identify who it is, he did give a pretty detailed description, characteristics of this particular servant. This servant is upheld and chosen by God, which God’s own spirit rests upon. And this servant will bring justice to the nations, but probably not in the way that we would expect.
When we think of someone bringing justice we think of power and might, maybe even by force, like an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the Rock. But that’s not the figure that Isaiah paints here is it?. This servant will bring justice while not shouting, while not making his voice heard in public, while not breaking a weak branch or blowing out the weak flame of a candle. And yet, God says through Isaiah, that he will surely bring justice, and he will not be extinguished or broken until he does.
Now, this may very well be why the identity of this servant was left a mystery, because who could possibly fit this description? Who could bring justice in this way—so quietly, so unpretentiously, so peacefully? This is not where we thought the long and winding road was going to lead! But it’s no wonder that so many Jews saw Jesus and made the connection to passages like this.
God ends the description of this servant by saying that the coastlands await his teaching, not just him, but his teaching. And that’s when there’s a shift in God’s words here. God goes from speaking about this servant, to speaking directly to God’s people, saying, “I have called you for a good reason.” And before there’s time to get frightened by that prospect, God reassures by saying, I will hold your hand, and I will guard you. Having said that, God goes on to spell out what this calling is—to be sent as a promise to the people, as a light to the nations—so that blind eyes will be opened, prisoners will be set free, and those sitting in darkness will be liberated. All while holding our hand, down a long and winding road that just seems to have no end!
Before the weight of that responsibility crushes us, I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Tarfon, who was a Jewish sage during the same time that the Gospels were being written. He wrote, “The day is short, the work is heavy, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is insistent. However, do not think that you alone can finish the work, but you aren’t free to desist from it either. Know that you are part of the living chain of people who have dreamed, worked for a better world, and carried on this mission, for four thousand years in an unbroken promise.” And that was 2000 years ago when he wrote that! Our Jewish siblings can certainly commiserate with us on this long and winding road.
Whenever this work of justice that we are called to in this text becomes daunting, we would do well to remember the description of a servant that God gives us. We are called by God, the one who created the heavens and the earth, and that should count for something. We are promised God’s very spirit in this work. Not to mention that God will hold our hand and guard us in this work. And let us also remember that this work sometimes entails big tasks like working for social justice, whether that means donating to your favorite cause or protesting in front of a politicians office. And sometimes it’s in seemingly small tasks, like being the best parent or spouse or friend that you can be.
The world is waiting for the servant’s teaching, for Christ’s teaching, and we have been tasked to deliver it. Thankfully, we are not called to do this work in a way that brings attention to ourselves, or alone, but rather we are called to do this work in our everyday lives: unpretentiously, peacefully—with Christ. Be patient dear friends, it is a long and winding road indeed, but it is a road with a promise, it is a road with God, as these ancient stories have assured us. Thanks be to God. Amen.