Text: Isaiah 42:1-9
Two very different groups of people first heard the Servant Song from Isaiah 42. One group was a hodgepodge of Judeans the Babylonians left behind in Jerusalem after they hauled away the hardiest and healthiest citizens into exile. Of those left behind, Richard Ward writes, “Their homeland had become a . . . wilderness of a different kind. It was not a wilderness where bushes burned with a Word from God, where manna fell from the sky, or where a rock yielded up fresh water. It was, rather, a landscape littered with the ruins of war . . . They were looking for assurance that God had not abandoned them like a delinquent parent.”
The other group had been taken hostage and exiled in Babylon. These Judeans faced a different predicament. “To survive, they had to make accommodations with the surrounding culture. . . . The lure of assimilation was strong, and the foreign gods seemed powerful. Had their God become mute . . . The primary concern of the exiles was . . . how they were to live in relation to others of different faiths, different mores, different understandings” (Richard Ward, Feasting on the Word, Advent Through Transfiguration, Year A, p. 245).
To those weeping in the ruins of a Jerusalem ablaze and to those sitting in a Babylonian as a Second Language class, Isaiah sings:
NJB Isaiah 42:1 Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have sent my spirit upon him, he will bring fair judgement to the nations.2 He does not cry out or raise his voice, his voice is not heard in the street; 3 he does not break the crushed reed or snuff the faltering wick. Faithfully he presents fair judgment; 4he will not grow faint, he will not be crushed until he has established fair judgment on earth, and the coasts and islands are waiting for his instruction. 5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and spread them out, who hammered into shape the earth and what comes from it, who gave breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk on it: 6I, the Lord God, have called you in saving justice, I have grasped you by the hand and shaped you; I have made you a covenant of the people and light to the nations, 7to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon. 8 I am the Lord God, that is my name! I shall not yield my glory to another, nor my honor to idols. 9 See how the former predictions have come true. Fresh things I now reveal; before they appear I tell you of them.
May God bless this reading of this God’s holy word.
Isaiah sings, “Here is my Servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Just who is this anonymous Servant spoken of by Isaiah? Some say the Servant is not an individual but biblical Israel, Abraham’s community that God created as “a covenant to the people.” If so, the Servant’s humble posture is certainly not like the typical posture of modern-day Israel that too often lives as a conquering master and not as a community instructed “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
Isaiah does give us one important clue about the Servant’s identity; the Servant is “chosen” by God. For those whose English grammar is a bit rusty, “chosen” is the past participle of the verb, “to choose.” It has a long history of use in our Presbyterian tradition, often beginning with the definite article, “the,” “the chosen.”
Many early founders of our country claimed that America was “the chosen” Servant of God with a manifest destiny to own and occupy all the land. For natives whose lands who were taken and then were themselves uprooted from the land and for those who were taken from their native African and Caribbean lands to work this new land as slaves, I am sure that they heard Isaiah’s Servant Song in quite a different way.
Years ago, in Geneva, John Calvin heard the same Servant song and warned: “Isaiah points out the secret will of God . . . that Israel might not think that he had been selected on account of his own merits” (Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 4:21). Calvin knew that to think of yourselves as “chosen” can easily lead people and churches to preen about in conceit, concluding “God has chosen us and therefore has not chosen them.
Thankfully, Calvin actually bothered to read the Bible. He knew that throughout Scripture those whom God chooses almost always respond not with conceit, “Of course God chose us!” but in stunned wonder like Mary, “This must be a mistake. God; you can’t be talking about me?”
Whatever the identity of the Servant, Isaiah says that God has chosen the Servant not to revel in her good fortune but to get to work in God’s good world, to be a “light to the nations” where darkness is absolutely everywhere, to shine God’s justice in every pocket and corner of the world where injustice seems set in concrete.
Stephanie Paulsell from Harvard Divinity School adds these wise words about the work to which God’s Servant has been chosen, “All of life is your business, God sings to the Servant—every nation, every person, every life . . . All of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim” (Feasting, Adv.-Trans. A, p. 246). Her words are not unlike those of Marley’s ghost who tells the narrow-minded, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge: “[Humanity] Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business! "
Stephanie adds, “Embedded in [the Servant’s] call to be a light to the nations is a call to know the world in which we hope to shine. Through study and encounter, through travel and prayer, through seeking to understand the results of our choices of what to buy, what to wear, what to eat” (ibid., p. 246).
Now what I am about to suggest to you may make my Protestant Reformation ancestors turn in their graves, but one Servant of God who is a consistent shining light of compassionate justice in the world today is Pope Francis I. To Christians or churches, Catholic or Protestant, consumed with debating who belongs in God’s good graces, who is “chosen” and who is cast outside, the Pope speaks these words: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person's life . . . Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices . . . or anything else – God is in this person's life."
To those of the Christian faith who decide that they need not bother caring for God’s annoying world because they are already “chosen” by God and because no one out there cares if we bother or not, the Pope speaks this word of wise counsel: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, sourpusses" (Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel). I never thought I’d live long enough to hear a Pope call anyone, much less, so-called “chosen” Christians “sourpusses.” I love it!
To Christians who see “being a light to the nations” only as paying the light bill for our sanctuaries and waiting for anyone interested to come pay us a visit, Pope Francis offers a far more expansive vision. He says: "Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend . . . to those who have quit or are indifferent . . . But that takes audacity and courage."
This is the Sunday when the church celebrates that like Isaiah’s Servant, Jesus is baptized to serve as a light of God’s compassionate justice for a world that far too often settles to stumble about in the dark. Those who are washed in baptismal waters are “chosen” by God not to preen about in self-satisfaction, not to waste their time making sure that only the right kind of folks come in here; they are “chosen” by God to go out there, to serve in the manner of Isaiah’s Servant and in the gracious footsteps of the one we call “The Light of the World.”
In the words of Pope Francis I, to do so: “takes audacity and courage.” Who is Isaiah Servant, God’s “chosen” one? Maybe it is anyone with the audacity and courage to seed hope in this world of despair, to seed forgiveness in this world of pain, to seed love in this world awash in hate.
In this new year, may God make us such a Chosen Community of faith, chosen not for privilege but for service, chosen not to lord our special calling over others as if we are enrolled in the advanced spiritual class and they are not, but to point to the Lord who chooses all the world to love, all the world to forgive, and who gives us the power to love even in the dark.
Who is Isaiah’s Chosen Servant?
Could it be us?