Monday, January 9, 2017

“Servant--That is My Name” (Isaiah 42:1-9)

To understand the morning’s reading one must set the scene in its context to the story of Israel.  In the story of Israel we know that God delivered the people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and brought them through the wilderness to the Promised Land--to the land of Canaan.  They became a nation, built a temple for the Lord.  For centuries they went about their business, from time to time they strayed from their covenant with God, but the prophets always called them back.  Then, the unthinkable happened . . . they strayed too far and listened too little.  Devastation came upon them.

Devastation came upon them through the Babylonians . . . the Babylonians defeated them.  They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s riches and took away their livelihood, took them into bondage, and marched them back to Babylon.  The Babylonians completely and thoroughly devastated the Israelites destroying the political, social, economic and religious life that they had known for generations . . . had known for centuries.  It was absolute victory.

This crisis is difficult for us to understand because we have never experienced such defeat as a nation in our history . . . we have never been invaded, defeated, and ripped from the foundation of who we think we are.  It is difficult to understand to imagine how devastating it was for God’s chosen people to be defeated and handed over to their enemies . . . and, not once did God intervene.  How could God allow this to happen?  Were they or were they not the children of God . . . the chosen people?  In the devastation the people wondered who they were and whose they were.

It is into this situation that the prophet must speak.

What would you say?

Now I want us to shift for a moment to an earlier scene in the story of Israel . . . to a time before there was an Israel.  I want to share another story . . . a familiar story.  It is the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush.  Do you remember that story?  And, in remembering that story do you remember the conversation that Moses had with God.  In particular do you remember Moses asking God for a name?              Moses wanted to have a name that he could tell the people . . . a name for God.

In these stories of faith, names are important.  In knowing a person’s name others knew the essence of who that person was . . . a name defined the person and brought a sense of understanding of who he or she might be.  Moses wanted a name . . . a name that would explain God and make God the people’s. In knowing the name, the people would have ownership.  But God cannot be owned . . . nor can God be tricked.  Thus it was that God provided Moses with a name . . . YHWH (Yah Weh).  In that name everything about God was revealed . . . everything that a person needed to understand God was in that name.

Or so it would seem . . . but, as I said, God is not easily tricked.

What does YHWH mean?  Well, when translated from the Hebrew it is usually stated as “I am” or “I am who I am”,  Amazingly this name says it all, while at the same time it says nothing.  Yet, this is the name of God.  Surprisingly, the name fits.

And for many centuries the Israelites thought that they understood the name of God . . . understood what it meant to be a child of God . . . understood who they were and whose they were.  Now they were a crushed people in exile in a strange land.  Nothing made sense.  They needed a foundation upon which they could stand and make sense of it all . . . upon which they could understand who they were . . . understand who they belonged to.  They needed assurance . . . something to hang on to . . . they needed a name.

Into this situation the prophet, Isaiah, spoke.

Isaiah tells the people who God is and how God works.  He draws them out of the moment into a bigger picture . . . to a greater purpose of God.  From a myopic view and understanding, Isaiah pulls their vision and understanding of God and God’s purpose to a more expansive view of God and God’s purpose.  It was bigger than anything they had experienced and known . . . completely different than what they were expecting, because it would encompass all of creation.

The picture that Isaiah paints is one of servant.  God proclaims that their deliverance would come, not through the might and power of a warrior king; but, from a servant.  “Here is my servant, who I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight . . .”  Through this individual, not only would Israel be saved but all of God’s creation . . . all nations . . . and, it would be done through servanthood. There would be justice . . . there would be peace . . . there would be love between one another and with God.  And, this would be delivered through this individual whose life and words would be one calling all to servanthood.  In this individual the children of God would find who they are and whose they were . . . from them they would be witness to the rest of the world.

Servant . . . that is the name the Israelites (and us) hear.

Now flash forward to a story that takes place at the Jordan River.  A man, named Jesus, comes to be baptized.  John the Baptist refuses to baptize the man stating that it should be the other way around . . . the man should be baptizing him.  Yet, the man insists that it has to happen.  In Matthew’s gospel we are told that this then takes place: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah?  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”  In Jesus the “servant” has been delivered.  And, who among us would deny that Jesus’ life and ministry was not based completely upon servanthood?

Time after time, through the words that he spoke and the actions that he did, Jesus lived servanthood.  He even demonstrated this to his disciples on that last night that he was with them all . . . he stripped and covered himself in a towel and then proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples.  He explained that the master had become the servant . . . and, that this was the role that all were called to.  In Jesus this was demonstrated and lived so that all would know how they were to live their lives . . . in service to God . . . in service to others.

The prophet Isaiah delivers his words of hope to the people . . . that redemption and salvation would come in the form of servanthood.  In Jesus the model has been given . . . through word and deed Jesus demonstrated what it mean to be created in the image of God and to be a child of God.  He stated it in simplistic terms . . . love God and love one another.  To bring peace and justice.  To establish the Kingdom of God.  In Jesus we are shown the way . . . in Jesus we are revealed who we are and whose we are.

This is a radical way of seeing the world and living in the world.  It is not of the world, but the very heart of God.  To this the prophet Isaiah speaks to the exile people . . . this is how they learn who they are . . . how they know whose they are.  Through servanthood . . . in serving God and others . . . and, Jesus is the way.

Thus we return to the story of Israel in their Babylonian exile . . . a people searching for meaning and purpose . . . a people desiring their place in God’s family.  Isaiah speaks the word to them . . . speaks of servanthood . . . of being a servant.  They want a name and God gives them a name.  After a long description of the servant’s purpose and ministry, Isaiah--speaking for God, proclaims: “I am the Lord; that is my name!”  

In that name, it says it all.

The tradition is that on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  The mold has been cast . . . God sends a servant who will bring justice, who will establish peace . . . and, it is servanthood.  In Jesus, God sends that servant.  That is the name of God we can understand and embrace.  During Epiphany we recognize and receive the Servant . . . a gift we are called upon to share with the whole world.  Thus said the prophet Isaiah . . . fulfilled in Jesus.  Amen.    

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