15 January 2023 – Second Sunday after the Epiphany
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we share a story with younger children, we often begin discussion with a couple of questions: what do you notice? what do you wonder? If you’re like me, in response to today’s passage from Isaiah, you might be wondering: who is God speaking to? At one point, it sounds like God may be referring to the nation of Israel – “You are my servant, Israel,” God says, “in whom I will be glorified” (v. 3). At other times it seems that God is speaking to a singular person who is being called upon to prophesy to Israel (v. 5). If this question was occurring to you as you heard this passage, it turns out you’re in good company. Interpreters of Isaiah have disagreed over the answer ever since the words were written down, it seems: it could have been Israel being called to repentance; it could have been a faithful individual being called to a life of service to “restore the survivors of Israel,” as the text says, and to be “a light to the nations” and beyond (v. 6).
As we think about this passage and try to comprehend its messages for us, some context might be helpful. Isaiah as a whole is one coherent text that was created from at least three different stages in the history of Israel: Assyrian exile in the 8th century BCE, Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, and the return to Jerusalem. A Hebrew Bible professor of mine offered the image of a quilt to help understand the construction of Isaiah. If you can imagine a collection, snippets of cloth – different colors, different sizes, remnants from different times holding memories from the past. An artist takes those pieces and with creativity and skill and – in the case of a biblical text – a theological intention. She sequences, and places, and stitches the pieces together to create a coherent new piece – a new way of seeing the past, alive in the present.
The idea is that the scribes pulled from Israel’s long oral and written tradition to construct Isaiah – a way of making sense of the trauma of exile and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We can imagine that these snippets, these pieces, pulled together in this way, were an effort to understand where God had been through their experience, where God continued to be as they rebuilt their way of life, their way of worship.
And stitched into this quilt we find today’s passage – but stitched into the same quilt there are three other pieces cut from the same cloth. You see, this passage is one of a set. They’re called the “servant songs,” and they are placed in the middle part of Isaiah, between chapters 42 and 53. The poems are written about a “servant of YHWH,” and for us, they contain some of the most resonant verses in all of scripture – verses that have entered our consciousness.
Perhaps this is in large part because early Christian writers resolved that question we started with – that question of “who is God speaking to” – by identifying the “servant” in Isaiah with Jesus, who, in the words of one commentator, “emerged as the ultimate Suffering Servant…who through his sacrifice on the cross brings healing and salvation for all.” And this was envisioned of the servant in Isaiah [Source]. In the context of their Jewish faith, Isaiah offered a language that helped the gospel writers understand their experience of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke all draw heavily on Isaiah’s imagery, as does Handel.
When Jesus is in conflict with religious leaders over healing on the sabbath, Matthew quotes from the first servant song, describing Jesus as a fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy:
“This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah,” Matthew writes.
“‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the gentiles’” (Matthew 12:17-18).
And Matthew continues, quoting Isaiah for five verses. You’ll also hear that language in Mark’s baptism of Jesus – my beloved, in you I am well-pleased (Mark 1:11).
Luke draws from the “Servant of YHWH” as well. His story of the visitation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary before Jesus’ birth is resonant with today’s portion of the servant song: “The Lord…formed me in the womb to be his servant” (49:5a). Luke then has Simeon speak words from Isaiah’s servant song when he encounters Jesus as Jesus is presented at the temple:
“Lord, you now have set your servant free,
To go in peace as you have promised.
For these eyes of mine have seen the savior,
Whom you have prepared for all the world to see.
A light to enlighten the nations,
And the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32, as passed down through the Song of Simeon, BCP, p. 120, based on Isaiah 49:6)
And finally, we all could put a melody to the description offered in the final servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) [Source]:
“He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
“Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows!”
“He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.”
“And with His stripes we are healed.”
In a parish that hosts a Messiah sing every December, many of you probably hear the melody as I speak.
These are some of the associations that early Christian writers made between Isaiah’s “servant” and Jesus. These words are woven into our hymns, our prayers, our memories. In a way, early Christian writers were taking the pieces of fabric from their tradition – the Jewish tradition – and stitching together a new cloth of their own – calling on the tradition to help make sense of this new thing that had come into the world. Trying to make sense of who God was in Jesus.
This person or persons – whoever it was who inspired the poetry stitched into Isaiah – this servant is described as a faithful individual who was called to be God’s instrument for healing and liberation. In today’s portion we hear the servant express doubt, disappointment, dejection: “I have labored in vain,” the servant says in verse 4. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” And yet, he ends with hope: “surely my cause is with my God,” he says (v. 4). And God’s faithful response in return? Not only will you “raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel,” God says, but with you I will do even more. “I will give you as a light” to Israel and beyond “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v. 6). You see, both in this passage and in the larger quilt of Isaiah, the images move inexorably toward redemption, renewal, hope.
On this of all weekends I am drawn to think of another “servant of YHWH,” one who lived in Christian hope despite the circumstances: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Richard Lischer, reflecting on Dr. King’s collected sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, describes King’s experience: “A war rages,” Lischer says, “between hope and despair in the preacher’s own heart” [Source, 236]. But in the end, hope wins out. Lischer describes King’s theology – as reflected in these sermons – in this way: “If the world is really governed by God, and if that governance will one day be made plain, then the most appropriate Christian stance in the world is one of hope” .
I think of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington. His vision – his dream – is a soaring expression of hope:
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair,” he says. “…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…”
We all know these words. They resonate in our hearts as much as the words from Isaiah:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice…[and] oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today…
And then, in this half-improvised oration, Dr. King reaches for Isaiah:
“I have a dream,” he says, “that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
“This is our hope…” He says. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Here we are, 55 years after his death, and we’re not there yet. And still we hear Dr. King’s words, “let us not wallow in the valley of despair” [op. cit.]
Whether we interpret Isaiah’s “servant of YHWH” as a prophecy – a foretelling of Jesus – or as an anonymous faithful individual lost to history – that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that these passages live in our hearts. They place a claim on us. They call us to recognize that we are of God – known since before we were born – that even in times of disappointment and despair God can work through us to bring healing and to work toward liberation in the world. That, even when dejected, our faith calls on us to continue in hope.
So, what does your quilt look like? How – in the way that the composers of Isaiah did, in the way that early Christian writers did, in the way that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did – what treasures from your past, from our tradition, can you stitch together to form a vision of hope? And with that hope, how are you being called to bring light and healing to the world? Amen.