Becoming : the Light 12/16/2018
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Sojourn Sermon – December 16th – Isaiah 42:1-9
When I was a teenager, probably late high school, it was trendy in the Christian circles that I ran in to refer to ourselves, not as Christians, but as Christ Followers or Followers of Jesus, or any number of alternatives to the world “Christian.” The reason for this was that we didn’t want to be associated with the negative aspects of Christian faith. We thought that through a simple change in our vocabulary we could disassociate ourselves from a culturally pervasive image of Christians as judgmental, often mean spirited or narrow minded.
To be honest, I still feel this same tendency because, unfortunately, I would say it has not gotten easier to align yourself with the Christian camp in recent years. It has probably become much harder.
Now, I know that the image of Christians as judgmental, mean spirited and narrow minded is not universally true. In fact, it’s probably not true for a majority of Christians. But I still feel that same anxiety around the word. Often, when I meet new people, I desperately try to avoid the question, “what do you do?” or I scheme up some really vague answer that technically isn’t a lie but probably wouldn’t lead a person to the conclusion that, in reality, not only am I a Christian but I am a professional Christian.
But there are some problems with this approach. For one, it fails to take seriously the 2000-year history that has brought us to where we are today. To say I’m a follow of Jesus or a Christ follower is to, in some ways, assume that we can just skip over this history and get back to a purer form of faith in Jesus, one that hasn’t been corrupted by this 2000-year history. That’s not possible, and to attempt to do so is irresponsible. It may be tempting to try and view Christianity from a perspective that doesn’t have to wrestle with the Crusades, Colonialism, slavery, segregation and white identity politics. It might seem easier to simply disassociate ourselves from those major blemishes on the Christian story, but the fact of the matter is, it’s just not an option. We have to deal with those histories, at least if we want anyone to take us seriously.
Another problem I see with abandoning the term “Christian” is that it really amounts to abandoning our own religious family. It’s like saying that those who disagree with us politically, those who are mean spirited and judgmental aren’t worth the time and energy needed to offer them an alternative way. It would almost be like if Jesus, after he left the temple, decided, “You know what? I’m not going to call myself a Jew anymore. All the Pharisees and Sadducees are giving us a bad name.”
Jesus never says anything like that. His followers did in the decades after his death and resurrection, but that’s a story for a different day.
So one of the things I want to say tonight is that if it is unwise to disassociate ourselves with this term Christian, then we need a way of articulating what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century where the kind of negative associations I’ve mentioned are so widespread.
In my graduate research, I tried to develop the idea of a Christian exile, or, to be more precise, I tried to develop the idea that the Christian community might very well be an exilic community. Now, the exile motif isn’t one of the theological motifs that Christians have borrowed from the Jewish community all that often. Part of the reason for that is, since at least early modern period, land and place have not figured prominently in Christian imagination and identity formation. Christianity is often described as something that transcends land and place. So this idea of exile, of being displaced or of being separated from your homeland, hasn’t always made much sense from the perspective of Christians.
But there are several layers of meaning when it comes to the term “exile.” The most basic layer of meaning is the physical experience, where a community, namely Jews in this case, is physically moved from one place to another. There are other layers of meaning. For example, what does it mean for the people of God to be taken from the land that God promised them as is the case in the Babylonian exile? At another layer of mean would ask, “what are the spiritual consequences of exile and what do they looks like in lived experience?”
One theologian who talks extensively about exile being more than just about a physical displacement, a man named Norman Wirzba, says this about exile, “To be in exile does not simply mean that we are in the wrong place – a problem of location and logistics. It also means that the ways and manners of our being anywhere do not exhibit a harmonious fit – a problem of moral and spiritual discernment.”
When we begin to think of exile as “a problem of moral and spiritual discernment,” it becomes clear, I think that, we can talk about exile from the perspective of a Christian community. I think that as a community, we, that is Christians, have had problem with our moral and spiritual discernment. We could go back through history and rattle of a whole litany of offenses that would suggest problems in our moral and spiritual discernment. We could look at our own day and come up with a whole new list of moral and spiritual failures. And if we’re honest, we can look at ourselves and find places of moral and spiritual disharmony.
Perhaps it’s the case that the image of exile should figure more prominently in our thinking.
The good news about conceiving the Christian community as an exilic community is that the prophets of the OT have a lot to say about exile, which means they have a lot to say to us. Especially Isaiah.
This book from which we read today is a fascinating book. I love Isaiah. It’s full of beautiful imagery and language. It’s often considered to be the pinnacle of Hebrew poetry, much the same way we consider Shakespeare to be pinnacle of modern English.
Isaiah is also full of controversy. Most scholars today will tell that it is highly unlikely that one person wrote it. Instead, scholars will tell you that at least two different voices, separated by about 150 years, can be discerned in the text. Some will say there are more voices, but there is less consensus moving beyond two. The clearest division separates the book into a pre and a post exilic prophet. The pre-exilic prophet is compiled in Chapters 1-39 and was probably written sometime during the second half of the 8th century BCE. This would make the pre-exilic prophet a contemporary of Micah.
The post-exilic prophet, whose work makes up Chapters 40-66 unless we were to accept more than two prophets, was probably writing during and after the Babylonian exile, sometime between 550 BCE and 500 BCE.
So, you’ll notice that our text for today is attributed to the post-exilic prophet, often referred to as Second Isaiah. In the early chapters of Second Isaiah we find a set of extremely important poems, all of which pertain to someone designated as God’s servant. These are aptly called “The Servant Songs.” Our text for today is one of these Servant Songs.
These Servant Songs are important for a variety of reasons, but one the reasons they’re important is that they are one of the first places early theologians went to in order to understand the Christ event. Since the early church Christians have sought to understand Jesus in light of these texts. Jesus then is presented as this servant whom the prophet was speaking about or, more correctly, Jesus is the kind of servant the prophet was talking about. Because the fact of the matter is, these songs were probably written at least 500 years before Jesus, if not more. While Jesus is the kind of servant that is described here, the prophet is obviously referring to someone else, right? The prophet has an idea of who this servant might be.
And interpreters have spilt gallons of ink trying to argue for a historical person that the prophet is most likely referring to, and there is really no consensus at all. Some say the prophet is talking about Cyrus the Persian who conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Others say the prophet is talking about Zerubbabel, the remaining heir of the Judah’s monarchy. Others say it is purely a prediction of the coming messiah. Literally just about every single scholar has his or her own unique opinion.
So let me tell you who I like. I like a guy named Brevard Childs. He wrote a seminal commentary on Isaiah in 2001 and in it he argued that commentators have relied too much on external evidence for their interpretation of Isaiah. He suggested that if interpreters paid more attention to internal literary clues, Isaiah would open up in new and exciting ways.
So when Child’s comes to our passage for today, this is what he has to say, “For anyone who takes the larger literary context seriously, there can be no avoiding the obvious implication that in some way Israel is the servant who is named in 42:1. No one else is named.
He points out that first occurrences of the word servant in second Isaiah pertain to Israel or Jacob, which is a reference to Israel. In Isaiah 41:8 Israel is designated as a servant. Then Jacob and Israel are named together as servant in 41:9. The next time servant appears is here in our text 42:1. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”
Who else does God talk about in such a way except Israel?
Now remember we’re in second Isaiah, the post exilic prophet, which means the people of Israel are in exile the prophet wrote this. We just talked about exile as a problem of moral and spiritual discernment. It is a place of brokenness. If you remember the back to Habakkuk a few weeks ago, Habakkuk was complaining that the Judean monarchy was producing justice that had been perverted by violence. Well those are the same people we find in exile here. And now Isaiah promises they will “faithfully bring fourth justice”? How can this be?
The reason I like this interpretation is that is says wonders about how the prophet sees the people of God. In the past, God’s people failed to fulfill who they were called to be. This is the message of most of the prophets: that Israel was unfaithful to God’s ways. I think the prophets are talking specifically about a failure of the monarchy and the temple cult to see care for the poor and oppressed as the measurement of faithfulness to God. Rather than presenting an alternative to the adjacent powers, like Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, Israel began to adopt their ways. They began to see power and glory and wealth as measurements of faithfulness to God, engaging in wars of conquest and stockpiling wealth. I’ll point you to Isaiah 58 and Amos 5 the hear the prophetic critique of such ways.
This is what brought them into exile.
But, what I think is going on here, if Childs is correct, is that the prophet not only has faith in God, the prophet also has faith in the people of God. If Child’s is right, this means that the prophet believes it is still possible for the people of God to fulfill their calling.
But there’s more.
It’s important to take note of who is speaking. In our text for today, prophet puts these words of promise in the mouth of God. There are other places where the prophet speaks in first person about Israel, but here God is speaking. It not just the prophet that has faith in God’s people. It seems to me that God also has faith in God’s people.
Despite the flaws, despite the screw ups, despite the fact that Israel miss-stepped so dramatically that she found herself in exile in Babylon, God continues to hold out faith that God’s people could fulfill their calling.
This was probably one of the biggest Eureka moments in my pastoral career. We often talk about faith in God. But isn’t it possible that God also has faith in God’s people? Of course we’re using faith here in two slightly different ways. But why else hasn’t God just thrown in the towel? Why does God continue to seek out the people of God and call them to new ways of being? Is it possible that it is because God continues to hold out hope God’s people?
I’m moved by this image because it means there is hope for us.
There is at least some truth to those negative stereotypes I shared earlier about Christians. It is true that the current administration earned more Christian votes than any presidential candidate in the past twenty-five years, including George W. Bush. It is true that while several demographics are jumping ship on the current administration in the face of policies like family separation, climate regulation roll backs, and undoing police reforms, one demographic seems unlikely to do so anytime soon: Christians.
These are all true.
But what I’ve realized is that if we want to accurately reflect the heart of God, we won’t do so by abandoning our own people. We won’t accurately reflect the heart of God if, in the face of injustice and violence, we try to disassociate ourselves with our own people. If we want to accurately reflect the heart of God, we hold out faith that our own might one day fulfill their calling. Or, if we can’t feel that faith, we trust that God continues to hold that faith for us.
As we are troubled by all the headlines display all the negative side of the Christian community, what would it mean for us if, instead of recoiling in anger and distain, we pulled out our Bible and reminded ourselves that this is God’s attitude toward God’s people.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
This is an advent faith. It’s the kind of faith the believes something new and unexpected is just on the horizon. It’s the kind of faith that says God can use the most unexpected people in incredible and beautiful ways. It is the kind of faith that says the exile won’t last forever.