Isaiah 49: 1-7, Psalm 40, John 1: 29-42
It is interesting that during a time of adversity and conflict that God calls for a style of leadership that is not ashamed of vulnerability but sees in it an opportunity to share experience and strength with other people who are equally or more vulnerable. God uses words and servants to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.
This message is expressed so eloquently in Isaiah 49, today’s reading, which is the second of what is known as the servant songs in the book of Isaiah, written at a time when southern Israel, Judah has almost been destroyed and many of the people have been taken into exile in Babylon. The servant leader here speaks for himself of his work that he has done for the Lord, about his sense of failure, yet how he still has a profound sense that he is a servant of God and that God has a purpose for his life even yet. This sense of purpose and calling has been known to him from his childhood, even understanding it to have been with him before he was born. He speaks like the psalmist in Psalm 139 vs 13–“for it was you who formed my inward parts: you knit me together in my mother’ womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” ……
What a profound experience and gift to have that kind of confidence, even when there may not be visible results in your work, or when things still seem to be getting worse. I imagine that many of us can resonate at some points in our lives, and maybe in these particularly chaotic times when the political climate seems to be getting more violent and hard-hearted causing so much turmoil and death and when nature herself is entering another tumultuous period as climate is changing. We may be feeling vulnerable as well that we have been trying so hard to make a difference in the world through our work, paid or volunteer, or through our studies and we wonder what kind of a dint we are making.
Yet even as this servant prophet in Isaiah admits his own sense of feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand, to restore his people to Judah, the Lord now has a turn to speak, reminding him of the gifts that were given to him, inviting him to rely on God for his strength, purpose and direction. God even gives the prophet a greater vision and purpose than he had ever imagined on his own, more than just bringing exiled Judeans back home, but to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth! In this passage though, it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the servant was one individual or perhaps this was to be the role of Israel – to be a light to the nations, even though they would suffer in doing so.
So that is a surprise for sure – just when you are feeling sorry for yourself, lacking self-confidence, searching for your purpose, that is when God calls you to a renewed purpose and an even greater vision. So there is no shame in acknowledging when we are having these feelings as it is part of our shared humanity, for out of it comes the reminder that we need our relationship with God to be secure, for God will provide us with the ongoing strength we will need to face the journey ahead, even if it will involve suffering.
So you can see why the early church understood Jesus and his ministry as the suffering servant, the one prophesized by Isaiah, who would rely entirely on God for his strength through his suffering, whose call was implanted within him from before he was born. In these early weeks in January, the stories and songs of Christmas may still be ringing in our ears, when we have sung of the infant Jesus known by God from before he was born. And we recall how Mary sang the Magnificat, identifying that her son would possess the vision and gifts to bring God’s justice and truth into the world, bringing light to all people, especially to the poor, the blind, the oppressed.
Now as the season of Epiphany progresses, we begin to see how God is working in Jesus’ life, raising him up to be his prophet, the servant leader, through his baptism by John. The way write John structures his story in this first chapter, it is as though God is beginning a whole new act of creation in the life of humanity through the anointing of Jesus as the servant leader, beginning his gospel with day one in verse one of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…..what had come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jn 1vs 1-5
As the next few days progress in this John’s gospel, we begin to see how Jesus takes on the prophet’s mantle and begins to bring light into the world. John the Baptist fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah by bringing a message of hope and renewal from the wilderness places, making a way for God to enter the scene, with an urgent message for people to seek renewal of their relationship with God who would give them purpose and strength for their lives. The waters of purification prepare for the entrance of God’s servant, the one who would bring salvation to the world and so on day two, Jesus appears coming toward John, who names him as the Lamb of God, a rich image in Judaism, pointing to a life of sacrifice and atonement, so that people could be restored to God’s covenant. Jesus is identified as the one who would bring the Spirit to touch people’s lives, to spark their creativity and engage them in god’s mission. Day two is the day of Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit, descending on him like a dove, anoints him with his purpose.
The third day of this new creation comes, and the spotlight is now on Jesus as he begins to gather other people who will be engaged in his work. It always fascinates and encourages me that Jesus does not act alone in living out his purpose, that he invites other people to join with him, and even without being particularly specific about he wants them to do or become. Much of that revealing will be a mystery even to the followers themselves as they work out their own purpose with God. We hear this kind of mysterious invitation as Jesus meets the first of his followers, as he literally turns to speak to the men who are following him out of curiosity asking them, “What are you looking for?”
Our call from God (Jesus) often comes from that kind of questioning of ourselves, perhaps coming from a time of self-doubt, in a time of frustration or unhappiness, and we find ourselves asking – What am I looking for? What am I seeking? ” What do I really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being?” These are questions worth wrestling with — as individuals, as congregations, as communities — since our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there.
What is the purpose of my life, now that I am 20 years old, or 30 or 55 or 90? For you see, I believe that God’s call in our lives is not just a one-time thing, but it requires a constant discerning, a constant listening and exploration. As I reminded you last week, our baptisms are not one-time events, but a spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ that supports us throughout our lives. So, there is never any command from Jesus to follow, no coercion in the spiritual journey, but only encouragement, deep questioning, seeking, curiosity, and ongoing learning.
The disciples in the story of course respond with a literal kind of retort asking Jesus “where are you staying?”, to which Jesus replies, “Come and see.” They go to where he is staying and remain with him for the rest of the day. What was said, we do not know. Were they given a blueprint for their lives, laying out what their purpose would be? It is never said. Rather, a relationship begins where they will explore life with Jesus, with God who says “come and see” – explore, observe, be tested, grow, question – and we know from the life of Jesus, that suffering and failure may be part of the journey. Come and see.
There was some kind of spark that took hold of one of those followers, the one named Andrew, because he left that place and found his brother, Simon Peter and brought him to see Jesus to receive that same invitation to ‘come and see.” The next day, on day 4 of this journey, God is creating something new yet again, for Jesus continues to call more people to follow him – Philip and Nathanael – and so the light begins to spread through people who choose to follow this one called Jesus, whom they believed was the Messiah, the suffering servant that would bring healing to the world.
The journey is just beginning, and these two passages, from the servant song in Isaiah, and from John’s brilliant storytelling, we anticipate the revealing of Jesus’ ministry during the season of Lent and Holy Week and how his wisdom, strength and capacity for suffering will be revealed. We will also see how Jesus’ himself learned to rely on the strength of God to direct and sustain him throughout his travels and trials.
Thousands of years after the original words of this Servant Song were spoken and John baptizes Jesus, God continues to call people to service, to be leaders in church and society. In the same way, our own journeys are just beginning in this new year, always hard to pick up with enthusiasm when we are immersed in the depths of winter I know, but we have this slate of a new year in front of us, with projects still lingering from last year longing for completion, perhaps carrying with us emotional or spiritual work we have been doing for many years, perhaps infused with a sense of rejection or failure. But today we are called again by God to join in with others to bring healing and light into the dark places of the world.
Whatever task you have been called to do – helping refugees build a new life, completing a university degree, searching for a medical cure to some disease, finding housing for the homeless, creating a new life for yourself, reconciling a relationship with another person, group or even nation….whatever the task is the God has set before you…. Know that you do not go alone as we share in this important task of bringing light into the world.
On Epiphany day and season,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule,
with deep joy and high hope.
~ written by Walter Brueggemann in Prayers for a Privileged People