A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Advent 2, Dec 8, 2018
Our passage tonight is from a section in the book of Isaiah that speaks of God’s suffering servant. Other servant passages are in chapters 49, 50, 52, and 53, if you want to look at them this week.
The identity of the servant is up to interpretation.
Some people read that God’s servant is the nation of Israel, who has suffered under exile.
Others read these verses and see it as descriptive of God’s Messiah, the anointed one who will come to save.
By reading this in the season of Advent, I hope it isn’t a spoiler to suggest that Christians have often seen Jesus as the embodiment of God’s servant described in Isaiah. And after Christmas, when we mark Jesus’ baptism, we’ll hear the echo of these words from Isaiah as the heavens part and God’s voice is heard:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.
The authors of the New Testament intentionally echo Isaiah as they talk about Jesus.
Jesus came to serve, not to be served.
Jesus will bring justice.
Jesus will set the prisoners free and restore sight to the blind.
Jesus is the light of the world.
So many of the stories of Jesus’ life are echoed in these passages in Isaiah.
And it is worth noting God’s chosen one functions not as a powerful, wealthy ruler, but as a servant. A gentle servant who doesn’t injure a bruised reed, a servant who doesn’t yell in the streets and shout their opinions to the world or on Twitter.
You may be thinking that a gentle servant may have been enough for Israel, but we need power. We need military strength and a strongman who isn’t afraid to stand up to our enemies.
Israel knew more about the dangers of military conquest than we do— Invasion by Babylon, Assyria, or whoever wanted their strategic piece of land. Israel knew what it was like to have their leaders fail them—there are plenty of kings who worshiped their own success more than they worshiped God.
And it is to a servant leader that they still place their hopes.
God’s servant—sent as a covenant to bring light to the nations, sent from the almighty God who created the universe— won’t even quench a dimly burning candle.
Picture that level of gentle leadership on the world stage today for just a minute.
If you can.
For all of the times we are told God chooses a servant in whom to be well pleased, we still seek power, endorse and excuse violence, and settle for fame when integrity and compassion are what we need.
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
Picture a candle with a dimly burning wick. They don’t give off much light. They are not the candle you want when the power goes out and you have to walk through a darkened room.
But they still give light.
And this is where we come in.
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 upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
God’s got plenty of power, and for those times we confuse ourselves with God, we’re reminded just who can create the heavens and stretch them out, who can give breath to life. (Hint—it’s not us).
And God offers the servant as a light to the nations.
God’s servant is not the dimly burning candle. Jesus, light of the world shine upon us.
One could argue that the Light of the World doesn’t really need a bunch of poorly burning candles in order to “faithfully bring forth justice” and do all of the rest of the servant savior work.
That’s what we see too often in human interactions—we decide there are ‘throw away’ people, and conclude it is easier to move society forward without them than it is to take the time to nurture their barely burning flames.
We find ways to not see them as we walk past, excuses to not stop, to pause and shelter their tender flames.
Efficiency in a busy world would put the emphasis and energy on the big, strong candles, with the wicks that don’t need tending, trusting that their light will trickle down to those who need it.
For me, the ultimate measure of God’s goodness is this: the light of the world chooses not to quench a dimly burning wick, and instead calls us to protect, shelter, and encourage each other’s little flames.
I confess I am often on the side of efficiency and haste, too busy to remember to stop and look for the people whose candles are sputtering, whose wicks are in need of trimming.
This week, while I’ve been recovering from knee surgery, I have been less likely to confuse myself with the light of the world, and more able to recognize myself in the image of the bent reed and the dimly lit wick.
I’m grateful for people who offered to care for me, bringing me food, wine, and cookies—the main food groups.
And I know in this season of holiday parties, and gift shopping, and year end reports, that the gift of time is a big one. I’m grateful for the time people spent with me this week.
I recognize my problems are minor ones. I have good health insurance, access to medical care, a warm home in which to recover, and a job that allows me the flexibility to take time off.
And I’m extra mindful this evening of those people whose challenges are real and life threatening. Migrants at the borders of many nations, including ours—seeking safety. People dying in Yemen of famine caused by war. Families displaced by wildfire, natural disasters, and climate change. Epidemics of gun violence, drug addiction, and systems of racism that steal hope and push families into shadowy corners, far from the clear light of tomorrow’s promise.
As we enter the weeks of the year with the least amount of daylight, what can we do to help other people tend their flames, to dispel their shadows?
We aren’t the light of the world, but I’m mindful of what a bunch of dimly lit candles can do when they join together.
Psalm 146 has language that is very similar to our passage from Isaiah:
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
In the psalm, it is God who sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind. In Isaiah, it’s God’s servant who does that.
We aren’t called to be the savior of the world. Thanks be to God.
The fact that God’s servant, the light to the nations, sees fit to tend our dimly lit flames, reminds us that we have a part to play in God’s work in the world.
Later in Isaiah, in chapter 58, God says this:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
In the longest nights of winter, look for the light. Be the light. Care for and protect the light. Participate in the work of God’s light. From our dimly lit, fragile candles, may our work and our witness join together to be light that shines on the world like the dawn.