January 12, 2014

Here is My Servant

Passage: Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
Service Type:

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.

I once read a news story (Nov 8, 2012) about a graffiti-removal worker who created overtime pay for himself by creating his own art in Burbank, Calif. parks and later cleaning it up on the city’s tab. He subsequently lost his job at Graffiti Protective Coatings and was tagged with a court date charged with vandalism and fraud. (It gives “make work project” a whole new meaning.)

When I read the story I thought it a very apt parable of humanity. Every age has its ideas about how to make wrongs right but we never seem any closer to cleaning up human ills. The inhumanity that plagued human society of yesterday still runs rampant today. And the very people we put in office to stem this tide we find also have feet of clay; all too often is the story that some trusted official engages in the very behavior they have sworn to eliminate or fight against.

And for some reason we, of course, blame God. Why did you create such a mess or let it get so bent out of shape? What we read today as Isaiah 42:1-9 is written and preached to a people wondering about God. Some of the Jewish people were living as captives in exile in Babylon with no citizenship rights and few protections; the rest were in the rubble of a destroyed Jerusalem and Judah so weakened as to be unable to defend against theft and depredations and whim of malicious invaders. Israel is abandoned to its enemies. How could the Mighty Deliverer allow this to happen? Had God abandoned them? Removed from access to the temple and to the land, were they still God’s people? Was God still God?

Our tendency is to reach for an answer that makes sense to us; we are ever prone to try to make some sense of the situation so we don’t go crazy. In exile Israel could only conclude that God had withdrawn favor and allowed the Babylonians to punish them for their sins and disobedience. We do much the same sort of reasoning. Right behaviour triggers God’s blessings; bad behaviour throws the “punishment” switch. But on the ground things don’t compute so easily. There were pious God-fearing people like the prophet Jeremiah who suffered the depredations and devastations of Babylonian invasion. The senselessness of evil does not surrender itself to such easy calculation.

It is also my experience that when we engage in these kinds of questions we are reluctant to see ourselves as part of the problem. I am much more prone to seeing myself as part of the solution; to consider myself occupying the moral high ground. Thus, whatever is troubling the world is “out there.” Those people responsible need to be fixed or neutralized. God—if there even is a god—needs to get on the case and straighten things out!

1. The gospel—the good news that is Jesus Christ—is not presented to us as a kind formula for the solving of a complex equation; as if all you needed were the missing piece of the formula and once you have it, well, voila—the correct answer emerges. When the gospel addresses the injustice of our world it does not come to us as a set of principles for being more just, a better kind of juctice; as if all we needed was a better idea of fairness.

Rather, God comes among us in Jesus Christ. Or as Isaiah would foresee: “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.” We demand all kinds of answers from God but he keeps directing us to Jesus—“Here is my servant.” In the midst of all our experience of exile and injustice God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” But we want specific answers to our questions; the voice from heaven at Jesus’s baptism picks up God’s word through Isaiah; “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

It is clear that Matthew has Isaiah 42:1 in mind here at Jesus’ baptism and on the second occasion when we hear heaven’s voice; this time at the transfiguration of Jesus the voice repeats—“this is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased,” adding, “Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5) We know that Matthew has this text in mind as he writes his story of Jesus because he says that Jesus fulfilled what Isaiah had spoken here citing (essentially) what we read as the first four verses of Isaiah 42. (Matthew 12:16-21)

Recently I attended an event at stadium in a city I am unfamiliar with and finding a parking place can seem a daunting task. I so enjoy it when those, whose city it is, make it very obvious where to park. Big well-lit signs reading “stadium parking” and people at the entrance waving you in; for a fee, of course. Nonetheless for the person in unfamiliar territory it is usually a welcome thing.

Friends, when it comes to the questions of evil and injustice and how this all looks to God, we really don’t know the landscape; we don’t see it from God’s perspective. We may think we do, but more often than not God directs us to reassess our questions, recast our suppositions. We need God to show us. We presume to know a lot about God and the nature of the world when, for example, we ask—why don’t you just fix it? When God says, “Here is my servant”, “this is my Son,” and says it again in case we missed it at Jesus’ baptism, “this is my Son,” God is waving us is in, so to speak. It is in him that you will learn about what really is going on. How much bigger a sign does God need? Does he need to say it more often? Has his answer changed? God will answer all our questions, will help us reshape our questions, lay bare the fallacies in our suppositions, and does so this way—namely, by showing us more of his Son.

2. “Here is my servant,” says God, “he will bring forth justice to the nations.” When we wonder why God has allowed things to get into such a mess we presume to know what a just world would look like; we presume to know what God ought to do to fix it, or at least what the outcome should look like. But let me ask, when you are in one of those moments of life when everything is working, when you think this is life as it should be—is your immediate thought that God must be doing his best work here orchestrating things just as it should be? Do you find, like me, that self-satisfaction is more what crops up?

Listen again to what the Isaiah text says about what it looks like when God’s servant “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.”

In Matthew’s gospel there is a story of an encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees at synagogue one Sabbath day; the upshot of the incident was that “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Matthew notes that “when Jesus became aware of this, he departed” and that he ordered the crowds following him not to make him known.” (Matthew 12:9-21) Jesus doesn’t hang around in order to ram it down the throats of these Pharisees so to speak. Matthew tells us that this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy—the text we know as Isaiah 42:1-4. In other words Matthew cites Jesus withdrawal from confrontation here as in character with the servant of Isaiah’s prophesy: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

In our imagination of justice, we much prefer a confrontation and the gnarly one put in their place. War is a bad idea so God should just rip the hearts out of all warmongers and be done with it! As we observe Jesus it is apparent that the problem, from God’s perspective, is much more complicated than we imagine. The Pharisees were scrupulous about keeping the law of God; they are the upstanding ones endeavouring to do what was right. They were the people many considered had it all together. They conspire to destroy Jesus. We like to think that we would have been cheering for Jesus but when he upsets our cherished pieties it isn’t so straightforward.

I think it important that we pause for a moment and come back to the word justice. If you put the word into the search engine of your internet browser the first page will be links to the Justice clothing store. Justice is used widely by various groups pushing what are considered social justice initiatives like eco-justice, racial justice, and food justice. We read the word justice in this text and visions of something like fairness for everyone come to mind.

I remind us of something I have observed with you before. In Hebrew there is no word for justice. The Hebrew word, in this Isaiah text for example, is MISHPAT, judgement. The King James Version of the Bible translates “he shall bring forth judgement to the Gentiles” where our NRSV says “he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Judgement is very different from justice. Justice is a philosophical principle, an abstract category; judgement, on the other hand, is a personal category. Judgement is the activity of a person. Here judgement is the activity of the living God himself—whose heart is mercy. Judgement is therefore to be welcomed. We should run to God for his judgement. Why? Because God judges us for the sake of saving us. In other words, there is mercy in God’s judgement; in fact mercy is the ultimate purpose of God’s judgement. There is no mercy at all in sheer justice. God bothers to judge us only because his compassion aims at saving us. To put it another way, the great physician pronounces the starkest diagnosis only because he intends the greatest cure.

When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John objects. He objects because his preaching was to call sinners to repentance and he knows Jesus needs no such repentance; John knows that he should be being baptized by Jesus—it is rightfully the other way around. Jesus insists for in this way they “fulfill all righteousness.” In this act of baptism Jesus is identifying completely with sinners for whom he has come. The baptism of Jesus constitutes the opening move in a sequence of events that will culminate in the cross and thus fulfill all righteousness. Righteousness being right relationship with God—which is the deepest human need.

Keep in mind that the cross acquaints us with the bad news of God’s judgement of sinners; but does so only in acquainting us with the good news. For the good news is good just because the cross highlights our sin for us only in the course of bearing it and bearing it away. The cross acquaints us with the disease only in the course of providing us the cure. The cross informs us of our condemnation only in the course of telling us that someone else has borne that condemnation for us.

When it comes to thinking about justice in our world the believer’s view of all of this is through the prism of the cross; through the prism of God’s judgement that we stand condemned as sinners and that someone else has borne that condemnation for us. There is no moral high ground from which to gaze down upon those “sinners” singled out for condemnation. Faith is always soaked in humility.

Let us bring our consideration of the servant who brings justice a little closer to home. “Toronto mayor Rob Ford promised to end the gravy train at city hall, but no one imagined a train wreck like this.” This was the opening line of a blog posted by Rev. Phil Reinders, the senior pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto. This posting (Nov 11) was in the midst of what Reinders called “a giddy Rob Ford pile-on”. He writes: “I was confronted by the biblical text our church studied yesterday. The timing of this fifth beatitude within this week’s political circus was astonishing. “Blessed are the merciful,” says Jesus, “for they will receive mercy.
Seriously, Jesus. Mercy?
In the face of these words of Jesus, I can feel a resistance movement organizing. “What about justice? Where is the accountability? Isn’t mercy a free pass when something has to change?”
I’m struck by how deeply we trust condemnation as the most effective means for seeking and motivating change. The desire for justice, honesty, transparency, and good government are right. Yet when those are threatened we resort to rejection and condemnation because we want no mistaking that what is happening is wrong. We use condemnation, ridicule, and harsh judgment as the means to insulate us from what is wrong and produce change in whoever is causing the problem, getting people to shape up through condemnation (really, now, has anyone been condemned into a better way of living?).”

I thought Reinders’ comment insightful: “We use condemnation, ridicule, and harsh judgment as the means to insulate us from what is wrong.” We like the line drawn between us (on the high moral ground) and them (on the slippery slope). We are loathe to admit what the gospel declares that the line between good and evil runs through my own heart. God’s mercy in which the believer knows herself forgiven is the mercy we ought to extend to others. Our Lord’s posture is to be embraced: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

Why is it that we are so quick to judge, so wary of mercy’s power to season justice? Let me reiterate the desire for justice, honesty, transparency, and good government are right. Still, would you want your life so transparent that every aspect were made public? Our energies are better spent praying for our elected leaders instead of pillorying them.

The believer’s posture in life is shaped and guided by Jesus Christ; ever informed by the glorious giving of his life for us. “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.”