January 8, 2017
Acts 10: 34-43
Throughout the month of January, I wanted to focus on prophets. I felt that with the new year, the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the inauguration, that it would be an important time to have a prophetic view of things. I realized in our Bible Study time this week, that the word prophet is understood in different ways by different people and that for some it brings up negative images. I am using the word and image of prophet as the person who calls out the alternative vision of reality. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there was a prophet associated with each of the rulers of Israel. The ruler would rule, most often making decisions in their own self interest, and the prophet would speak against that, calling out the alternative vision of justice for all the people. A modern day American example would be that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who in the midst of great oppression of Black people, lead non-violent efforts for equality and civil rights. No prophet comes to say “Keep doing what you’re doing. Steady as she goes.” Rather, they push us, at times out of our comfort zone, to do better than we have done in the past. We will turn our attention to the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 42: verses 1-9:
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.
Before I can speak specifically to this passage in Isaiah, I want to remind us about the journey of the people of Israel. You may remember that God delivered God’s people from bondage and slavery in Egypt. God made a covenant with them, and brought them through decades in the wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for the Lord. For centuries, they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but prophets always called them back. Then, in the sixth century BCE, the unthinkable happened.
The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, they took the people as slaves, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains, prompting these words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries. If you cannot imagine this, think of Syria today, think of Allepo.
For we Americans who have not experienced combat and defeat on our own soil, it is just difficult to imagine just how devastating it was for God’s chosen people to be handed over to enemies, humiliated and destroyed, and taken into bondage. They wondered where God was and why God did not intervene in the disaster. How could God let this happen? Had God abandoned them? They had been carried off from the temple and from the land, were they still God’s people? Was God still God? In exile they could only believe that God had withdrawn favor and allowed the Babylonians to punish them for their sins and disobedience.
Into this identity crisis Isaiah speaks a word. The prophet reminds the people who God is and how God works. The prophet speaks a vision that the people cannot see. He draws their attention from the particular historical moment, in which they live to the larger vision of God. As Isaiah speaks, it’s as though we see the camera lens zooming slowly out from a close-up shot to a wide-angle view, to a cosmic view. The prophet paints a larger picture.
To me this passage reminds us of a few simple things. The servant of whom Isaiah speaks is a community, not a person. The call to faithfulness to God’s vision is a call for all of us. Gods servant is spirit filled. God’s justice is for all of the earth. God’s servant is to be a light to the nations. As you read further in Isaiah, you can see that in that time and space, the call was to the people Israel.
Let’s imagine today that the call is for us. We as the community of faith here at the United Churches of Olympia are communally the servant that God calls forth. To fulfill that role, we start by being filled with the Spirit. I imagine that for each of you, that might mean something different. At the very least it would mean to take time every day to connect with the spirit of God, to draw deeply from that well of endless resource through prayer, meditation, spiritual reading and imagination. At the very least, that means drawing together as a community of faith to pray together and to connect our intentions for justice. If we do not rely on the Spirit of God as our center in this work of Justice, then we are like these words from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann: “social radicalism has been like a cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions.” Our works of justice making need continual nourishment of the Spirit of God. We will dry up if we rely only upon our human courage and good intentions.
Based on the words of Isaiah, we know that God’s justice is for the entire earth: for every people group, for every system, for every being. It is not justice if the justice only benefits some. Justice is the chief sign of people blessed by YHWH. In such a system, all people have equal access to the goods and services of that place; all people know inherently that their primary responsibility and goal is the welfare, the shalom, of all and each of their neighbors; all people of such a place know that when any member suffers, all suffer, too.
We as God’s justice bearers are a light to the nations. Being a light implies being a presence of hope: hope that the blind will see, hope that prisoners will be released, hope that all will stand as equals in the light of grace. Hope in the capacity to imagine a future different than the one in which we live.
I invite us to the servanthood that Isaiah is calling forth. I invite us to engage in the prophetic stance that calls forth an alternative view of reality. Can we imagine such a reality? When I was in the seventh grade the hip student teacher we had for English class was taken by the words of John Lennon’s song Imagine I won’t repeat all of the lyrics, only a few: Imagine there’s no heaven..Imagine all the people living for today. Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too Imagine all the people living life in peace,… Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope some day you’ll join us. And the world will be as one. Our teacher wanted us to write our own alternative reality of the world in which we live. That is the assignment that she gave us.
It will take our imaginations of an alternative reality to create the capacity for a world that is one, in which justice is for everyone. It will take our deep connection to the Spirit of God and the community of faith to bring this alternative reality forward.