Over the past few Sunday of Advent, we’ve been exploring what it looks like to have faith in God’s promises. We first looked at this through the eyes of the prophet Habakkuk, who directly challenged God with his question, “How long?” And who heard God’s response, that “the righteous will live by faith.”
Last week, we explored the story of Esther and what it looks like to respond to injustice with leadership and courage. What it looks like to be called “for such a time as this.”
Today, we move to the writings of Isaiah. Isaiah is an interesting book because it spans centuries. It covers both the time before the exile of the people of Judah and also their return from exile, some 200 years later. Because of this span, scholars have recognized for a very long time that major portions of the book were composed by writers other than Isaiah.
Isaiah is, generally, broken into two parts. Chapters 1 through 39, called the First Book of Isaiah. And, then, chapters 40-66, called the Second Book of Isaiah. First Isaiah covers the time before the exile. Second Isaiah covers the conclusion of the Babylonian exile and the rise of King Cyrus of Persia, plus later years.
Our reading this morning is from Second Isaiah, Chapter 42.
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.
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,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them. Isaiah 42:1-9 (NRSV)
“Here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight.” This is how today’s reading opens. We, with our 21st century eyes, immediately think of this as a prophecy of Christ, the Messiah. The king long promised who would rescue Israel. After all, in our first reading this morning, we heard the writer of Matthew proclaim that it was Jesus who was the fulfillment of these very words from Isaiah 42.
Yet, there is much disagreement over who this servant is. In the time of its writing, the exiles believed that this servant - this chosen one - was King Cyrus, whom they believed God had used to restore them back to their land. Yet, if we back up one chapter, we read these words: But you, Israel my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham, whom I love, you whom I took from the ends of the earth and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant…” As time progressed, the Jewish people came to believe that it was they, as a people, who had collectively been called as God’s servants. This is a belief that remains today.
And, then, we have the coming of Jesus, who has been identified as this chosen servant. This servant for whom the world has been waiting.
But, who is the servant that this text speaks about? Well, perhaps to answer this question, we have look at who this servant is. And, also, what this servant will do.
First, who is this servant? In the first verse, we are told. One whom God upholds and chooses. One in whom God delights. One on whom God’s Spirit has been poured out.
Then, what does this servant do? What is this servant’s ministry? To bring forth justice to the nations. To not raise his voice in the streets or break a bruised reed or quench a burning wick. But one who faithfully brings justice. Who will work tirelessly until justice is established in the earth. One who has teachings that the coastlands - the faraway lands - wait for. One who has the support of God. One who is given as a “covenant” to the people. One who is a light to the nations. Who will open the eyes that are blind. Who will free the prisoners from the dungeon - those who are in darkness. One who is part of the “new things” that God is up to.
This servant is one who has been chosen by God for a mission of global scope, a mission that includes healing, teaching, and establishing justice.
Justice. We throw that world around a lot. I throw that word around a lot. But what does justice really mean? Anyone want to give it a shot?
In Hebrew, the word for justice is mishpat. Like love is a one-word foundation of the New Testament, mishpat is a one word description of the ethical foundation for all of the Hebrew scriptures. Mishpat is best defined as a plumb line. That line or standard in society by which behaviors are to be measured. The prophet Isaiah insists that to be God’s people, Israel is not only to engage in the worship of YHWH, their God, but to also adhere to the behaviors that are consistent with God’s plans for Israel.
According to Isaiah, God’s plan extends not simply to the king and his minions, but especially to the vulnerable, the “orphans and widows,” the poor, and others who are outside the halls of power. One of the major themes in Isaiah is the futility of pride, whether it is individual or collective national pride. And those who manipulate the legal and political systems to make themselves rich and to cheat people in need. Isaiah challenges this human pride and arrogance. And claims that it will inevitably be thwarted by God. In Isaiah, mishpat represents fairness and equity. A society in which everyone flourishes. Where all find peace and fullness - which are the plumb lines of society. In Isaiah, mishpat is the equivalent to shalom. Mishpat is the equivalent to the kingdom of God.
Given all of this, it is hard to specifically determine the historical identity of this “servant” in today’s reading. What we can say with certainty, though, is that the servant is the focal point of God’s promised activity. That the servant is not only the hope of Israel, but also the hope of the entire world.
Perhaps the writers of Isaiah intended it to be that way. To not fully explain the identity of this servant. Perhaps it is left so open-ended because this is what God’s kingdom looks like when it arrives anywhere, anytime. Whether it is the 6th century BCE. The 1st century CE. Or the 21st century CE. Whoever the servant is, the servant is the center of God’s promised activity.
I’d like to tell you a story about James. James is a member of our food pantry. He’s 76 years old. Retired. In his work life, he was a warehouse supervisor, managing an inventory valued at over $28 million. At one point, he also owned his own machine shop. James is also a veteran.
Five years ago, out of the blue, he received a divorce summons from his wife of many years. It turned his world upside down. Emotionally. And financially. Living on a fixed income that was a combination of Social Security and a small pension, by the time he paid his bills each month, only $5 remained. He refused to file bankruptcy, even though everyone, including the judge on his divorce case suggested it and his attorney told him to. He started going to food banks near his house in southern Louisville. But, in his words, “It was snatch and grab, knock the old man out of the way.” There were fights for food. And, because he’d had knee replacements and was a little unsteady on his legs, he didn’t want to fight for the food, even though he so desperately needed it. One day, one of the volunteers at one of the pantries mentioned our food pantry here at Grace & Glory. He called the church to find out when it was open and was asked if there was anything specific he needed. He mentioned coffee. When he arrived that first time, coffee was waiting for him. That was five years ago.
In these five years, thanks in part to the food he’s received here - food that has allowed him to use his money to get ahead in other parts of his life. Thanks to this, his financial situation has improved. He has been able to pay off the debt left behind by his divorce and even put a little in savings. Last year, he was able to buy his first home through the VA. So, now, even though money is still tight, it is going into his own house, instead of paying rent.
Receiving food at our pantry has allowed James to improve his financial life. It has helped in other parts of his life, too. James says that he always thought people who were poor were lazy. Coming to the pantry, he has learned that there are a lot of people who need help, just like him. This has led him to reach out more, to help others who need help, and to share his new understanding with others, too. But, mostly, James says, his experience at the pantry has renewed his faith in God. Five years ago, he felt like he was losing faith in God. He wasn’t active in his church. Since then, he’s become more active and will soon take a position as a trustee in his congregation.
This, my friends, is what justice - what mishpat - looks like. It is when all people have an opportunity to flourish instead of just a few. When we help those in need so they can reach that plumb line, those standards of fairness and equity and of wholeness that God desires for all people. That all might be brought into God’s kingdom, into life and wholeness, into shalom.
The birth of Jesus and his death on the cross has won us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But this is not all that Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection has done. Jesus’ coming has initiated the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world, with a promise that, when Christ returns, God’s kingdom of shalom, God’s kingdom of mishpat will reach its fullness.
So, as we wait for this mishpat, with faith in God’s promises, may we also act. May we be God’s servants at the center of God’s promised activities in our world. May we, upon whom God’s Spirit has been poured, continue to proclaim justice in all that we say. And, especially, in all that we do.
“You are my servant, whom I have chosen, whom I love, whom I took from the ends of the earth and called from its farthest corners. You are my servant, “ God says to us. “I chose you!” As we wait for mishpat, may we live fully into our call to be God’s servants to a world in need. Amen.
Preached December 16, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 12:15-21