Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, MDiv
When I was a child, my sister and I, along with other neighborhood children, played various versions of “freeze tag.” At some point in the game I would inevitably end up “frozen” and this required me to remain stationary while the game went on around me. I would stand there hoping and praying that someone would come, touch me, and unfreeze me. Until that moment of liberation, I would be consumed by disappointment, frustration, and a sense of being abandoned. These are feelings that Israel likely felt during the two centuries documented by the book of Isaiah.
The book of Isaiah compiles prophetic writings and theological reflections during an extended period of political upheaval, exile, and eventually, attempts by the people of Israel to rebuild a nation that had been torn in pieces. Isaiah is comprised of three sections: chapters 1 – 39 are linked to the 8th century B.C.E. when Israel faced internal conflict, the rise of the Assyrian Empire, and then domination by Babylon. These chapters describe Israel’s corrupt practices, proclaim God’s judgment on their broken relationship with God, and extend promises that God will raise up a faithful remnant who will see the restoration of their people and experience great glory. The second section of Isaiah is dated in the 6th century B.C.E after the Persian Empire displaced the brutal reign of Babylon. Israel was still in exile, but with better ruling authorities. The third section of Isaiah was written about 20 years later, when Jews had returned from exile and had begun rebuilding their community.
The passage we read this morning appears in the middle section. Israel is still in exile, subject to Persia. The people long to be back home, they long for the restoration of Jerusalem and Israel, and they wrestle to understand the goodness and faithfulness of God in the face of prolonged suffering. Perhaps they feel frozen in place, consumed by disappointment, frustration, and a sense that God had abandoned them. Into their yearnings for deliverance comes the voice of the prophet, bringing two poetic pronouncements.
Verses 1 through 4 make up the first pronouncement:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
Or make it heard in the street;
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Up until this point in Isaiah, the focus of agency, or action, has been God. The movement of history is understood to be governed by God. However, chapter 42 introduces the idea of human agency, the important role of one who is called by God.
This pronouncement speaks of a servant who is upheld, chosen, and delighted in by God – a servant who will bring forth justice. Who is this servant? Most scholars believe that this was not a Messianic prophecy, that Israel is the described servant. As a servant of the Lord, Israel has a significant calling: it is to bring justice to the nations, to bring justice to the whole earth. Echoing the promises God made to Abraham that his offspring would bless all the nations of the world, the prophet states that Israel has been upheld, chosen, and delighted in by God, so that it might truly be a servant who brings justice to the nations.
Verses 2 and 3 describe the character of the servant. Firstly, he will not be known for a loud and domineering voice, drawing or demanding attention to himself. It is not through shouting that his voice will be heard. Secondly, he will be deeply mindful of the experience of those who are most vulnerable. He will be attentive to the bruised reeds and the dimly burning wicks, and will see that they are not broken or extinguished. The servant of the Lord is attuned to people who feel like they are barely making it and who long for words of hope and acts of faithfulness.
The servant of the Lord comes with power, but not the kind of power associated with political might or privilege. This is a servant leader who reorders the systems of power and the social structures of oppression so that the vulnerable (the widow, the orphan, the alien; the poor and the marginalized) may experience security and well-being.
Israel is invited to see itself as called to draw on its own experience of defenselessness under the dominion of Babylon, to then become a profound advocate for those who are most vulnerable in their midst. Israel, loved by God, is called to be a servant to the world, bringing justice and dismantling oppression. This theme is picked up and explored further in the second pronouncement where the voice of the Lord says:
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
To open the eyes that are blind,
To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
From the prison those who sit in darkness.
Once again, Israel hears that it has been called, taken by the hand, kept, and then given to others as a covenant. They are to experience relationship and love from God and then have that as a model for their own behavior toward others. They are to extend care and protection and then also help energize and embolden others for works of justice.
They are to tend to the blind, to those imprisoned in darkness and lowliness. The language here is poetic and the repeated use of prisoner, prison, and dungeon, along with images of light and darkness, probably suggests both kinds of imprisonment: physical and emotional. Debtors prisons were common at that time and perhaps justice would involve the forgiveness of debts that kept people in jail. Likewise, justice might also require bringing truth and love to those who are spiritually blind and enslaved by their own patterns of thought.
Israel is called to be a light and a liberator, and in such a way that those who experience deliverance become liberators themselves. Light brings forth more light, justice more justice as those who are grateful for what they have received seek to extend the gift to others.
The voice of the Lord says, “See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare: before these spring forth, I tell you of them.” A new day is declared, and a new day that Israel as faithful servant, is called to bring into being. The work of the servant is the work of new things, whereby Israel will come into a new place, and all nations will come into a way of life that the creator desires for them.
That, the prophet tells us, is the heart of God; that is the glorious possibility that Israel can embody. This advent we have considered what it means to step away from ways of living small, and to boldly choose to live large. In this passage, Israel is offered a picture of what it means to live large.
Later writings in Isaiah and elsewhere indicate that upon receiving its final freedom and restoration, Israel did NOT use its freedom to build a radically just nation. Scripture documents a return to old patterns of injustice, exploitation, and greed. As the Old Testament ends we feel the tension between renewed prophecies of a glorified Israel and the continued chronicles of Israel’s struggle to remember her identity.
And then Jesus arrives and the gospels seem to suggest that Jesus is the new Israel, the Israel that nation always had the opportunity to become. We see in Jesus a voice that is heard not through shouting but through relationships and patient instruction. We see one who does not dominate or diminish others, but who in fact becomes the friend of the leper, the blind, the cripple, and the poor in spirit. We see someone who moves toward the humiliation and horror of the crucifixion that the world imposed upon him. And we see one who defeats even death, revealing in his resurrection that the love and faithfulness of God are ultimately more powerful than any force of evil. In Jesus we see what Israel had the opportunity to become, perhaps still has the opportunity to become, and what we can become.
In our baptism, we entertain the radical possibility that through the presence of God in us we can renounce evil in its various forms and work together to bring forward a new day. We are embraced and empowered by God through the sacrament of baptism, and every time we celebrate a new baptism in our midst we are reminded of who we are and who we are becoming. Today we remember our baptism. It is an opportunity to celebrate the call to live large, to live as light and as liberators, to be emboldened and in turn, to embolden others.
As we remember our baptism today, let us marvel at what God has been doing in the lives of every one of us. Where are we, individually and collectively, experiencing greater freedom? Where are we becoming emboldened participants in the unfolding kingdom of heaven? How is Epiphany a servant of the Lord?