January 12, 2020, The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the church of Jesus Christ in remembering the baptism of Jesus. In addition, we took some time to ordain and install new officers – in our tradition, that means a third of our elders and a third of our deacons are starting fresh terms. Our texts were Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
I suspect that even if you have not played the board game Clue recently, you are familiar with it. There’s been a murder, and each player represents a specific character (Col. Mustard, Professor Plum, Ms. Scarlett, etc.) who is at once both detective and suspect. The game ends when the mystery is solved and the killer is named, along with the location and weapon.
We like those stories, I think. From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, we appreciate the image of a detective assembling a group of individuals and then walking them (and us) through the details of the crime until finally the murderer is named and the case is closed. Sometimes we anticipate who it will be, and other times we’re surprised, but we always like to have that resolution.
Unfortunately for readers of detective fiction, some of the mysteries in the Bible are a little more obtuse. For instance, the Book of Isaiah contains four sections of poetry that are called, collectively, the “Servant songs”. Chapters 42-53 contain these works, each of which points to a Servant of the Lord who will somehow participate in, point toward, or accomplish the work of the Lord. Our reading today, from Isaiah 42, is the first of these poems.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the years by scholars, rabbis, and teachers who’ve sought to identify the “real” identity of the servant. Many of these folks have treated it like an Hercule Poirot mystery, and have claimed to unveil the identity and thereby point the reader to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Lord’s methods. To be honest, I am not much impressed with this sort of scholarship, and agree with Dr. Paul Hanson, who writes, “The scholarly debate over this text has been preoccupied with…the identity of the Servant… The resulting literature that has accumulated generally offers dreary reading with little genuine insight. Although dozens of candidates have been advanced as the person or group designated as the Servant, the matter is as confused as ever…”
I’ve read articles indicating that “of course” the Servant must be King Cyrus of Persia, who led a military campaign to defeat the Babylonians and thereby brought about the release of the Jews from captivity. Others have speculated that the author of Isaiah was looking back to Moses, or maybe over at Jeremiah, or perhaps even in the mirror at himself.
And, because we’re in church, it’s very common to hear people say that any song with lyrics like “by his stripes we are healed” (such as we find in the fourth Servant song) can only refer to Jesus.
Why is it, I found myself wondering this week, that we spend so much time and energy seeking the precise identity of the Servant? Here’s what I think: if the Servant can be proven to be Cyrus or Uzziah or Jesus or Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump then it can and will mean many things, to be sure… but such identification would also mean, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Servant is therefore, obviously, not me. And, to be honest, I think that life would be a lot easier for me if I was proven not to be the Servant of the Lord.
It’s like the time the preacher was pointing out the fact that the roof of the church was falling in, and at the end of worship one of the parishioners came up and said, “Reverend, I was glad to hear you say that you didn’t know where the money to fix the roof was going to come from. For a minute there, we were kind of afraid that you thought that we had it!”
You see, in declaring that the Servant must obviously be some historical figure or other, that gets me off the hook of being expected to act as the Servant acts. And yet just prior the first of the Servant songs, in Isaiah 41, we read that Israel – the people of God – is called God’s servant, the one who is chosen by God and upheld by God’s hand.
Isaiah 41:8-10 Isaiah 42:1
You, Israel, my servant… Here is my servant,
Whom I have chosen… My chosen,
I will uphold you. Whom I uphold….
And if the Servant is in fact the whole people of God, well, that would include Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah… but it would also include me and you. And, well, let’s be honest: if anything that the Servant is called to do is going to actually get done in 2020, um, Uzziah and Cyrus are not going to be terribly helpful. But if God’s people – if you and I are the Servant – that changes things significantly. And – to be clear – I think that we are called to be the Servant. I’m going to assume that the things that are true of the Servant in today’s reading are, or ought to be, true of me and you as well.
But let’s put the idea of naming names on the shelf for a moment and consider the tasks at hand. I mean, what exactly is the Servant supposed to do, anyway? Here in Isaiah 42, we read that the Servant is called to bring forth justice. The Hebrew word there is mispat, and it means the wholeness, the order of compassionate justice that God has designed for all of creation. The mispat of the Lord is a demonstration of the right rule, the proper fitting together, of all parts of the created order. Other tasks assigned to the Servant in this chapter appear to be revealing light to the nations. Note that the Servant is not called to reveal light to the Servant’s friends, or the Servant’s favorite people; rather, the light is shared with the entire world. All people!
Further, the Servant is called to open eyes that cannot or will not see, and to release those who may have been imprisoned. This is a tall order for the Servant, and you can see why it would be more convenient if the Servant was, indeed, someone else. But if the preacher is insisting (as he is) that the Servant is us, perhaps the next question is obvious: how are we supposed to do all that?
You’re not going to like this. I mean, for all I know, you don’t like anything I’ve said so far. But you’re really not going to like this. The question of how the Servant establishes and reflects the Divine intent is crucial. I mean, few things are more frustrating than trying to accomplish a task without knowing how.
And yet the answer is, well, difficult. The strategy laid out for the Servant is counterintuitive. It’s not what we think it should be, it’s not what we want it to be, and it’s definitely unAmerican and, at least at times, it has been historically unchristian.
What we would like, of course, is to be able to bring about these ends by brute force or the dint of our own efforts. We want to legislate these ends, or to impose them on others with a decree. Isn’t that why we argue about who gets elected? Isn’t that why so many of us are trying to “pack the courts” in one direction or another?
Listen: at least three major religions have turned to the Servant Songs, Isaiah, and the rest of what we call the “Old Testament” for authority and inspiration. Our Jewish siblings have practiced the Milhemet Mitzvah, which can be translated as “a commanded war”. Our Muslim siblings have referred to the notion of a Jihad, or “holy war”. And of course Christians have brought to the world the Crusades and the Inquisition. Each of these Faiths, birthed in the Torah and God’s call to be holy, has an element that says something like, “You want justice? You want to know God’s love? Oh, I’ll teach you a thing or two about justice and love, buster… and you’re not gonna like it. Hold on – Look out – ‘cause I’m about to open up a big old can of God’s purposes on you…”
And yet it would seem by any measure that Milhemet Mitzvah, Jihad, Crusades, and Inquisitions are all inherently inconsistent with the call to the Servant in Isaiah 42 or the life of faith as demonstrated in the baptism of Jesus. The strategies espoused in Isaiah 42 are simply foolish in the eyes of 21st-century Americans: there is no chest-thumping, there are no grandiose announcements, drone strikes, or attacks; the weak are not pushed aside, and faint hope is to be encouraged and not extinguished.
Matthew tells us that Jesus launches his mission in a moment of submission – or perhaps more accurately, submersion. He has to argue with John the Baptist in order to undergo his own baptism, and then he places himself entirely in John’s hands and, holding his breath, he slides beneath the river’s surface, submitting himself in humility and even weakness. Both Jesus and the Servant are called to lead as, well, servants. The predominant posture here is not one of domination or dominion, but of trust and humility.
And all of this is relevant this morning as this congregation ordains and installs a group of elders and deacons who are charged to lead the congregation in the years to come. We are declaring that you have been chosen to create conditions suitable for people here to grow in faith and to grow to be more like Jesus every day. You will have responsibility for the operation of this institution and the stewardship of its resources. How will you do this?
I hope and pray that you will seek to do it in a way that is consistent with the scriptures we’ve read this morning. That means, I suspect, that you will have to do so from a position of humility, submission, and even vulnerability.
Oooh, Pastor, we don’t like that word. I mean, no offense, but it sounds like what you are saying that a part of leadership means being exposed, or at risk, or even weak.
It might sound like that because that is exactly what I am saying.
Every week I get a dozen emails or advertisements from Christian ministries or businesses urging me, as a pastor, to do everything I can to make sure that our church is safe. Right now, there are two overriding themes in these emails.
One is a call for church security. I’ve gotten brochures offering to train our ushers to carry concealed firearms; I’ve seen advertisements for “discreet” metal detectors at the door, and even the creation of what would amount to a church police force. The overwhelming sense that I get from these pieces is that while we can’t always count on God to protect us, Smith & Wesson will keep us safe and secure and send the bad guys packing.
There’s an even greater theological flaw when it comes to the other area: that of child safety. This congregation – like every other wise congregation in the country – has developed a “Safe Child” policy. We have talked about how we can protect children from abuse and train volunteers and staff so that our programs might be safe spaces for children and families. This is good. This is right. This is holy work.
And yet the mail I receive on this topic seems to center around a theme: we develop these policies, have these trainings, and enact these protections… not primarily because it is a pressing issue of justice and love; not because there is a theological imperative to honor, nurture, and protect children. No. These emails and advertisements and warnings are sent to make sure that I know we better have good policies so that we do not get sued and so that maybe even get lower insurance rates.
Listen: the call to follow God in Christ, to serve Christ, and to reflect the mispatof God in the world is, at its core, a call to love proactively. And love, as you know, is inherently risky behavior. Love makes you vulnerable. You know that if you have ever waited for an answer to a text, a card, or a call; you know that if you’ve ever left the porch light on and the front door unlocked hoping that maybe tonight a child would come home; you know that if you’ve ever watched someone you know to be made in God’s image engaging in behavior that is horribly self-destructive but you don’t know how to get through to them – all you know is that you can’t make them stop.
Love involves a handing over of a portion of your heart to someone else. It is risky. It is painful. Just ask Jesus.
And yet, I think that both Jesus and Isaiah would declare, it is the most effective way to bring about lasting change.
In a few moments, I’ll invite the incoming officers to stand in front of the congregation and I’ll ask a series of nine questions. You might be tempted to think of this as one of those dry, procedural occurrences that make for longer worship. But I’d encourage you to pay attention to them – particularly to question #8: “Will you pray for and seek to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” My hope is that the new officers will reflect on that vow and find new ways to live it out in the years to come.
And maybe some of you are saying, “Phew, I’m glad I didn’t talk to the Nominating Committee. I couldn’t put up with that crap. Who needs it?” But you see, my deeper prayer is that everyone will remember that while some small minority of our congregation is up here making promises today, every single one of us is being sent out into these streets for the next 167 hours with the same calling: to offer our selves in love for the life of the world. To give all we are to establish the mispat of God in love and hope. To be the living demonstration of what God intends for the whole world. And 167 hours from now, we’ll be back here, returning for encouragement, for replenishing.
Do you see what we have received? Do you appreciate how we have been blessed? Do we have the courage and conviction to give that away? Thanks be to God for the call to be a Servant people, cloaked in the vulnerability of love. Amen.
 Interpretation Commentary Series on Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press 1995), pp. 40-41.
 See “Holy War: A Jewish Problem , Too”, by Rabbi Reuven Firestone. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holy-war-a-jewish-problem-too/