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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Sing along if you know this one…“Will you let me be your servant/Let me be as Christ to you/Pray that I might have the grace/To let you be my servant too.”
It’s not in our hymnal, but we used to sing it at my church in Kentucky, and we’ve sung it at the Celtic service. It’s called The Servant Song.
Last week we heard a different servant song from Isaiah “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”
And this week, he continues with another one…”You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified…I will give you as a light to the nations…”
Scholars have identified four servant songs in the book of Isaiah. Two we heard last week and this week (Isaiah 40 & 42); and two that we’ll hear again in Holy Week (Isaiah 50 & 52); when the key turns from major to minor…from exaltation…to suffering… “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high,” and he shall be…despised and rejected…and led like a lamb to slaughter.” (Isaiah 50).
And as Christians, these servant songs appear to be referring to Jesus…Jesus is the one who “bears our infirmities…carries our diseases…is oppressed, afflicted…cut off from the land of the living…”… It’s a legitimate interpretation…John the baptist interprets it this way…Behold, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he says today (John 1:29).
As Christians, we often read the Old Testament…the Hebrew Scriptures… through the lens of Jesus. And that can be fine. It’s easy to do…especially these servant songs of Isaiah…I mean all of the Gospel writers do this…they all us Isaiah extensively to explain who Jesus is and what he is doing here among us. Last week we heard, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, bring out the prisoners from the darkness…” which Matthew, and Mark, and especially Luke echo…it’s a refrain that gets repeated. And certainly, Jesus is here to open our eyes, bring us out of the darkness…shine a light…But is this just a prophesy about Jesus? Or is this a reference ONLY to Jesus…or might the servant be someone or something else as well?
Listen to what Isaiah actually says today, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified…the Lord, formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back…that Israel might be gathered…to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel.” That might be Jesus…and it might be something else.
The identity of Isaiah’s servant…who these songs actually refer to is, as you might suspect, hotly debated. As Christians we can certainly mount a case for Jesus…while Jewish scholars can argue that it’s a messianic figure, but not necessarily Jesus…Arab speaking Rabbis have argued that it could be Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who freed the Israelites from their exile and returned them to Jerusalem. In the passage we heard today, it sounds like Isaiah might be referring to himself…”He made my mouth like a sharpened blade; He hid me in the shadow of His hand” (Jewish Study Bible translation), so maybe Isaiah is the servant, or Cyrus, or the Messiah… It’s not exactly clear.
There’s another possibility. The Jewish Study Bible notes that, “the term “servant” in most other passages in Isaiah (really second Isaiah), clearly refers to […] Israel (the whole body of Israel), or to the faithful within Israel [as a whole], and this is the most likely explanation.” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 848).
In other words, the servant is a corporate identity. Anyone who “fears God and does what is right,” as Peter declared last week…is a servant of God. Jews, Muslims, Christians, agnostics…we are all the servant…or have the potential to be. That doesn’t meant Jesus is not the servant…we can still hear these passages of Isaiah as being about Jesus and as being about something else as well…A call that we all have…
We are pilgrims on the journey/We are travellers on the road/We are here to help each other/Walk the mile and bear the load
That’s what a servant does…that’s what Jesus did…that’s what we do…Jesus is the servant who shows us how to be servants as well….servants in the mold of Isaiah…servants of God… “light to the nations…to open the eyes of the blind, to bring people out of the darkness” (Isaiah 42).
I will hold the Christ light for you/In the night time of your fear/I will hold my hand out to you/Speak the the peace you long to hear.
My teacher Bill Countryman describes this kind of servant leadership…this kind of servant ministry…as “the priesthood of all humanity”. He says, “All of us, knowingly or not, minister as priests to one another, [and] all of us, knowingly or not, receive priestly ministration from one another.” He says, “Everyone is the priest of mystery that someone else does not know: how to construct a budget, how to maneuver through the politics of the workplace, how to roast a turkey…the experience [of being a priest…being a servant…]is so common that much of the time we do not notice it at all. We are constantly serving as priests of mysteries known to us and not to them. And we are constantly being served by those who know what we do not.” (Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, p.3-4).
I will weep when you are weeping/When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you/I will share your joy and sorrow/Till we’ve seen this journey through
The servant songs of Isaiah describe one who walks with us…who teaches us…lights the way… speaks truth…intercedes…and yes, who sometimes suffers…with his life and his actions, Jesus shows us how to do it, but every one of us can be…and are called to be servants…these songs describe all of us…any who walk the way of love…
Will you let me be your servant/Let me be as Christ to you/Pray that I might have the grace/To let you be my servant too