Covenant: Salvation and Sacrifice 1-8-17

Isaiah 42:1-9 “Here is my Servant whom I uphold my chosen one, in whom I delight!  I have endowed you with my Spirit that you may bring true justice to the nations You do not cry out or raise your voice, or make yourself heard in the street. So gentle that you do not break a bruised reed, or quench a wavering flame, faithfully you will bring forth true justice. You will neither waver nor be crushed until justice is established on earth, for the islands await your teaching!

Thus says YHWH, who created the heavens and spread them out, who gave shape to the earth and what it produces, who gave life to its peoples and spirit to its inhabitants: I, YHWH, have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken you by the hand, and I watch over you.  I have appointed you to be a covenant people, a light to the nations: to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon. I am YHWH!  This is my Name!  I will not yield my glory to another god or my praise to idols! See how former predictions have come true.  And now I declare new things!  Before they spring forth, I tell them to you.”

Within our series on Covenant – for the next two weeks, we will listen particularly closely to the words of Isaiah – a very popular book during the Christmas season and now during Epiphany. Isaiah has at times been called the fifth gospel; it has been that important in shaping Christian theology and our understanding of Jesus. The reading today and the one next week are two of four Servant Songs in Second Isaiah, who wrote during the exile in Babylon. The Servant Songs, as you may hear, were particularly important in shaping the story of the servant Messiah, the suffering Christ, the ruler who lives a life of sacrifice.

Before we dig deeper into that passage, let’s read from the book of Acts, in which Luke claims that Peter had a broad view of Jesus coming not just for Jews, but for all humanity. This shows an evolution in Peter’s thinking that I doubt happened during his lifetime, but which evolution is still happening in the church which claims him as one of our earliest leaders.

Acts 10:34-43 So Peter said to them, “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality— Rather, that any person of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. This is a message God has sent to the people of Israel, the Good News of peace proclaimed through Jesus Christ, who is savior of all. You yourselves know what took place throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee with the baptism John proclaimed. You know how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and now Jesus went about doing good works and healing all who were in the grip of the Devil, because God was with him. We are eyewitnesses to all that Jesus did in the countryside and in Jerusalem.  Finally, Jesus was killed and hung on a tree. only to be raised by God on the third day.  God allowed him to be seen, not by everyone, but only by the witnesses who had been chosen beforehand by God—that is, by us, who ate and drank with Christ after the resurrection from the dead. And Christ  commissioned us to preach to the people and to bear witness that this is the one set apart by God as judge of the living and the dead. To Christ Jesus all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes has forgiveness of sins through this Name” 

January 8, 2017

Covenant: Salvation and Sacrifice

God bless my cousins, Christine, Joanna Sue, Stephanie, Kim and Mack. They are the five children of my mother’s sister Sally. They grew up and most of them still live in Western PA where we would visit them most summers while I was growing up.

They introduced me to county fairs, with 4H clubs showing off their prize pigs, cows and rabbits, and huge tractor contests, racing or doing monster tug-of-wars. I loved visiting them.

I can’t help thinking of them when I read this passage about the gentle servant, because so many of my cousins and their spouses and my brothers’ spouses have been so present to my mother during her difficulties the last few months. I have to say, I am thankful to all of you as well for listening to my stories about my mother and my family during this time. She is doing well right now, better than we had expected.

When I read this passage I think of Stephanie and Joanna sitting with my mother and massaging her feet, which are turning purple from lack of circulation and lack of use. I think of the people on her rehab unit going above and beyond the call of duty to help her do everything she needs to do. There are so many unsung servant heroes in this world, at Inglis House, Simpson House, the Methodist Children’s Home and thousands of places like them taking care of millions of people, with love and duty as motivation.

This passage from Isaiah, the first servant song, is using these images that we have of gentle, loving servants and attaching it to a bigger concept, perhaps a more central figure. Isaiah has just had seen horrible sights – a country crushed in war, a remnant taken away to a far away imperial city where they are a tiny minority.

Yet, Isaiah’s vision of the Servant is stunning: “I have endowed you with my Spirit that you may bring true justice to the nations You do not cry out or raise your voice, or make yourself heard in the street. So gentle that you do not break a bruised reed, or quench a wavering flame, faithfully you will bring forth true justice. You will neither waver nor be crushed until justice is established on earth, for the islands await your teaching!”

This vision of the Servant God or Servant leader causes some scholars to call Isaiah the first monotheist. Isaiah certainly portrays a new image of God – informed by his experience in exile – God who is God over all people, God who is involved in creation and caring of that creation, God who calls the people Israel to be a light to the nations – just when they feel like dirt under other nations feet. This is real chutzpah to create such a vision of the divine.

Now I mentioned that Isaiah helps to shape our understanding of Jesus. Unfortunately, I think we go off track a little. On Christmas Eve we began the service by reading Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” Original blessing. Many services begin with Genesis 3 and the sinfulness of Adam and Eve. Original sin. When we begin with original sin, we work toward Jesus on the cross taking the punishment that this angry God intended for us.

Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

Let me suggest that Isaiah is in touch with God enough to understand that we humans often get cause and effect mixed up in this way. Each week in this sermon series on Covenant we are looking at a pair of terms that have this kind of odd relationship. This week, we are looking at salvation and sacrifice.

We tend to think that God saves those who are especially good, those who have sacrificed themselves for others. Isaiah declares that God loves all people, all of God’s creation, and calls all of us who know God’s love to be a blessing for others, even if being a blessing means sacrificing ourselves, giving of ourselves.

I heard a talk this week about another dichotomy like this – between gratitude and happiness. We tend to think that when we find happiness, we will be grateful, that happiness precedes gratitude. But psychologists find that when we are grateful, we are happier – that gratitude more often leads to happiness than the other way around.

Next weekend, besides examining another dichotomy like this, we will have two opportunities as a congregation to put our faith into action. On Human Relations weekend, Martin Luther King’s birthday, we will have a Day of Service and a Day of Action. We take these actions not because we hope to earn or win God’s love. We pack the clean-up buckets, sacrifice a little of our money and time, as a response to God’s love, not trying to earn it.

We march on Monday in a Day of Action because we know God loves all God’s people, not just those who can afford to pay for education or healthcare or housing. We walk and sacrifice part of a day off not to get God or other people to appreciate that we are good or righteous. We know that we too are broken, wounded people, and we respond to the gift of God’s love by giving of ourselves. We respond to the gift of God’s sacrifice for us with a little bit of love for God’s people, for God’s creation.

We received this love in the simple act of our baptism, in the taking of our first breath and our first bath. Every time we fall God picks us up and kisses the places that hurt, and encourages us, gives us to courage to keep walking, keep loving, keep hoping, keep living, keep blessing, keep massaging people’s feet, keep helping people sing, keep washing people’s back, keeping picking other people up in God’s name.

It’s not complicated. It doesn’t require showing or seeing an ID or a credential. We’re just talking about living out our baptism. Living out God’s love, living out God’s liberating, saving, heart-healing, life-giving love.

*Responsive Hymn     No. 3045     Down by the Jordan