* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on December 7, 2014 *
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9
As we consider these words from Isaiah, and the world in which we live, please pray with me.
God of all things;
God of life;
God of peace;
God of justice;
I was a camp counselor for only one summer. It was one of the best summers of my life, one of the most transformative. That summer, I was made acutely aware of the bane of every camper’s existence: lights out. Ahhh, yes. When the time comes to hit the switch and go to bed, but all anyone wants to do is stay up and talk…about the week, about pool time, about existential crises, about Jesus, about the pros and cons of mushrooms as a pizza topping…basically anything to keep from having to lie down and shut our eyes.
Lights Out is pretty much the worst thing ever for anyone under the age of 19…parents, am I right? “A forced time of darkness and quiet?!? Lame!!!” And all the parents are like, “Are you kidding me?!? I’d give a limb to be able to sit in darkness, and shut up, and just breathe for a moment!”
And here we have Isaiah, relaying a message from God, calling the servant to bring people out of the darkness of dungeons and prisons. And no offense to Isaiah, but if it’s dark and quiet in there, can I just go back? I really wouldn’t mind it…
For the past 3 weeks, and for the next 2, I’m facilitating an adult Sunday School class on Isaiah. It’s a good time, and we’ve got plenty of room, if you’re interested. We’re talking about 4 sections in the book of Isaiah that are called the Servant Songs, or Servant Poems. The first 4 verses of our reading today comprise the first poem. And these poems all reference a conversation between God and a person who has come to be known as the Servant of God. The identity of this servant isn’t always clear in these poems, and that’s one of the questions we’ve been asking and wrestling with in the class: Who is the servant of God being talked about here? Is it Isaiah? Israel? A representative from the people of Israel? Cyrus the Persian? Jesus…?
It’s not always clear. A couple of times in the poems, Israel, collectively, as a people, is called the servant. A people who, at the time this part of Isaiah was written, were living in and amidst the Babylonian captivity. At other parts in the poems, the reference to the servant of God feels more individual, maybe a singular representative from the people of Israel. In any case, it’s fair to say that the servant talked about is “God’s chosen.”
And this begs the question for me, are we God’s chosen? Aren’t we, gathered here, in this place, collectively offering our prayer and worship to God, also chosen by God? Aren’t we all chosen and named and claimed by God in our baptism; called “precious child of God?”
And if that’s true, how might these verses from Isaiah be speaking to us? God says to the servant, “I have called you in righteousness…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Jesus uses a version of this phrase in his Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus tells the people gathered there “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…”
Jesus is not discriminate in his teaching, He doesn’t say, “If you do A, B, and C, then you will be salt.” Or, “If you say X, Y, and Z, then you will be light.” No, Jesus says, “You. Are. Light.” Well that sounds wonderful, and thanks for that, Jesus, but what if I’m not feeling very luminous today?
…And right here is the crux of the whole thing for me, from Isaiah to Jesus. God says we are light, and I don’t know about you, but most days I’m fumbling around just trying to find the switch, much, much less worried about how brightly I’m shining…
Here’s the good news, people of God: it’s not about us. We’ve been conditioned in an individualistic society. We’ve been taught to think that it’s all on us individually. I’m telling you this morning that that’s a lie. We do not live life off on our own. We live it with and alongside others. Around members of our faith community. Members of our neighborhood. Our city. Our country. Our world. This is one big collaborative effort. And it takes all of us, together.
We’ve become terribly good at turning the lights out on each other. We can’t even hear each other because we’re shouting our own version of truth so loudly. Our world loves dichotomies. If you’re not with me, you’re against me. You’re either one of us, or one of them. I’m right, and you’re wrong…
God offers us a third way. One where we can disagree, but still come together in demanding a world of peace. One where our differences are respected, and we treat each other as equal, valuable members of the same beloved human community. One where we come together around the same table, and engage in civil dialogue, working toward a just society.
We do not live life in a vacuum. And that, to me, is the greatest scandal of Advent and Christmas; that God would come to earth and walk among us as one of us, as human. So when we say Emmanuel, God-is-with-us…when we talk about the Incarnation, this idea of God-made-flesh…we’re speaking of God’s solidarity with humanity; God’s most clear way of saying that no way is God going to abandon us. And I think that if God says so clearly that God is not going to abandon us, then how much more are we being called to be in solidarity with each other?
Called to solidarity with the homeless, with those who spend days and nights out in the bitter, unforgiving Chicago weather. Pastor Tim’s fond of mentioning a number of songs around this time of year. One of them is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Long As I Can See the Light.’ It references an older time when a candle was put in the window to let travelers know, “You can stop here if you need to. This is a warm home, and there is room for you here.”
We don’t have that anymore. Largely, we aren’t telling people that they can pull over and stay at our place for the night.
We still decorate our windows though… And especially around this time of year, we make a point to pull our curtains back and expose our front rooms so that everyone that passes by can see what a grand and glorious tree we have and how warm and inviting our home is… But we don’t mean it… You can look…I want you to look…but there isn’t a room for you here… Some traveling new parents heard that same line a couple thousand years ago when they went looking for a place to stay too…“There’s no room for you here…try the barn out back…” We put our candles in the window, but we might as well blow them out…
Called to solidarity with those who have violence perpetrated against them. Over the past two weeks, our country has been ripped in half at least twice, as systems of power decide unilaterally what a human life is worth. Whether you agree or disagree with the decisions that were made, the recognition for me is that our society is seriously, seriously broken. We live in a world that is rife with injustice. Our cries of “Come soon, Lord Jesus” feel more urgent and timely now, more than ever.
For me, my questions swirl around the word ‘hope.’ What does it mean to hope? I remember last Tuesday, just feeling utterly and completely without any kind of hope for our world. I remember talking with Pastor Tim and saying, “I can’t pretend to be hopeful. I know we’re supposed to preach hope in the midst of hopelessness, but I don’t believe that today.” And he said, “Don’t say it if you don’t believe it.” My response was, “Sometimes, I think we just need someone to say it for us.”
Sometimes we need a community that dares to speak words of hope together, offering their prayers in the wide open, when individually we struggle to know what to say.
So when we find ourselves unable to even whisper the word “hope,” know God is there, right alongside us, in the dark places, in the dungeons and prisons in our lives, speaking and holding hope when we’ve forgotten how to form words…
And that’s what this community is for, sisters and brothers, to live life collaboratively. Here is a place where sobs of hopelessness are heard alongside shouts of hope, however distant hope may seem. Here is a place where we embrace our dark moments and live into moments of light, however insignificant the light may feel. This is that place. Please stay as long as you need.
The light stays on here…