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 TRANSCRIPT of the homily. It may vary considerably from the prepared version. Please do not cite without permission.
When we share stories with younger children, a fruitful approach to discussing the stories with them, is to ask a couple of questions. What are you hearing? What are you wondering? When I approached the text of Isaiah this that we heard this morning, I was asking myself those very questions. I was wondering who who is God speaking to? Who is God speaking to at one point, it sounds like God may be referring to the collective nation of Israel. You are my servant Israel, God says in the text, in whom I will be glorified. At other times, it seems that God is speaking to a singular person who’s being called upon to prophesy to Israel. So if this question these questions, these wonderings were occurring to you, as you heard this passage as they were to me, it turns out that we are in good company. interpreters of Isaiah have disagreed over the answer to that question. It seems since the words were written down, 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, to be a light to the nations and beyond. So as we think about this passage and try to comprehend its meaning, its message for us today, some context might be helpful. See, Isaiah as a whole is one coherent text that was created from at least three different stages in the history of Israel. We had the Assyrian exile in the eighth century BCE, the Babylonian exile and the sixth century BCE, and the return to Jerusalem following that. A Hebrew Bible professor of mine offered an image that I have found helpful in thinking about the text of Isaiah. It’s the image of a quilt. If you can imagine a collection of snippets of cloth, different colors, different sizes, remnants from different times, holding memories from the past. And then an artist takes those pieces and with creativity, and with skill, and in the case of a biblical text with a theological intention. She sequences and places and stitches the pieces together to create a coherent new piece, a new way of understanding the past that is alive in the present. The idea is that the scribes pulled from Israel’s long oral and written tradition, to construct the book of Isaiah, a way of making sense of the trauma of exile, and deportation, and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We can imagine that these snippets, these pieces, pulled together in this way, where their effort to understand where God had been, through this 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 of cloth, cut from the same piece. You see, this passage is one of a set. They’re called the Servant Songs. And they’re placed in the middle part of Isaiah between chapters 42 and 53. The poems are written about a servant of Yahweh. And for us, they contain some of the most resonant verses in all of Scripture, verses that have entered our consciousness. know 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 of Isaiah, in Jesus, who, in the words of one commentator emerged as the ultimate suffering servant, who through His sacrifice on the Cross brings healing In salvation for all, and that image, the experience of Jesus is consistent with the descriptions of the servant in Isaiah. 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 draw heavily on the on Isaiah as imagery as it does handle. When Jesus was in conflict with religious leaders that were healing on the Sabbath, Matthew quotes from the first servant song, describing Jesus as a fulfillment of Isaiah as 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. And Matthew continues quoting Isaiah For five verses. You will also hear that language in Marks baptism of Jesus, my beloved, and You I am well pleased. Luke draws from the servant of Yahweh as well. His story of the visitation of Angel of the angel Gabriel to Mary before Jesus’s birth, is resonant with today’s portion of the servant song. The Lord formed me in the womb to be his servant. Luca then has Simeon speak words from Isaias servant song, when he encounters Jesus, as Jesus has presented in the temple. Lord, you now have set your servants 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. And finally, we all could put a melody to the description offered in the final servant song. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Surely he has 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 his stride, 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. So these are some of the associations that early Christian writers and later composers, made between Isaiah servant, and Jesus. These words are woven into our hymns, our prayers, our memories. In a way, the 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 them 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. But in today’s portion, we hear this servant expressed doubt, disappointment, dejection. I’ve labored in vain. The servant says in verse four, I’ve spent my strength for nothing, and vanity, and yet he ends with hope. Surely my cause is with God, he says, 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. And you see both in this passage, and in the larger quilt of Isaiah, the images move inexorably toward redemption, toward renewal toward hope. So on this of all weekends, I am drawn to think of another servant of Yahweh, one who lived in Christian hope, despite the circumstances. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Richard Lisha, reflecting on Dr. King’s collected sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, describes King Things experience this way.
A war rages. literature says, between hope and despair, in the preacher’s own heart. But in the end, hope wins out last year describes King’s Theology at least 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, it’s a soaring expression of hope. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. He says, even though we face the difficulty of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. And we all know these words, they resonate in our hearts as much as the words of Isaiah do. I have a dream that one day in 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 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. And then as he concludes, in this half improvised oration, Dr. King himself 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 in the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of God 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. So here we are 55 years after his death, and we are not there yet. But still we hear Dr. King’s words, let us not wallow in the valley of despair. So whether we interpret Isaiah as servant of Yahweh as a prophecy of 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 too, 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 torque toward liberation in this world. That even when dejected, our faith calls on us to continue and hope so what does our quilt look like? How and the way that the composer’s of Isaiah did and the way that the early Christian writers did, in the way that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Did how do we construct our quilt what treasures from your past from our shared tradition? Can you stitch together to form your vision of hope? And with that hope How are you being called to bring light and healing to the world? Amen.