I had a summons to jury duty this week. The training video told us it is not a duty so much as it is a service to which we are called. I have to admit, I did not feel called and I did not want to serve in this way. I wanted to leave and get back to work, to the work I truly feel called to do. And I knew had a lot that needed to be done at work.
The Isaiah passage we read, from chapter 49, probably took place some time around 540 BCE, during the time the Persian Empire had taken over from the Babylonians. Israel was still oppressed and displaced. They were either unhappy in their foreign circumstances, or they had managed to adapt to the ways of their oppressors. The passage we read is a call passage, known as one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. The servant speaks of being called even before birth. We know that when God calls, God equips, so this prophet has been equipped to speak for God. Yet he complains that his work is in vain, that it is not rewarding, except for the honor of knowing he does it for God. So then God speaks, sounding a lot like when Jesus says, “For to those who have, more will be given.” Your burden is light, says God (though the servant did not think it was light). Or, in other words, God says – “Let me tell you, this is a big deal, it is a big job, and it is bigger than you think. You are to be a light to the nations.” That IS a big deal! That is too much, the servant must have thought, because who can be so much to so many? It seems beyond most of us, if we have any sense about us. Who can do this? Of course, Jesus can do this. Jesus can be a light to the nations. And this is why many Christians see Jesus in the portrayal of the servant in the Book of Isaiah, though that was not the original intent of these writings. Yet these words do indeed seem to describe Jesus as we know him, as the Light of the world, the one who shines through the darkness.
Some interpreters think that the servant in Isaiah is not one person, but is actually Israel. It is God’s chosen people. So maybe it is the people of the church whom God is calling to be a light to the nations, not just an unknown prophet or servant, not just Jesus, but ALL of us. WE are to be a light to the nations. That is a tall order!
By the time Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, God’s people had more of a vision of what it meant for Jesus to be the light to the nations. The church at Corinth had been founded by Paul about five years earlier. Paul had spent some time there while establishing it, but then had moved on. Things were not going well in his absence. There were factions with different leaders, and they had issues with the way others were doing things. They were disagreeing about how the Lord’s Supper was served, and about the resurrection, among other things. Some members were suing others, and some were joining in the immorality going on in a commercial city full of diverse people. Some of the Corinthians had sent Paul letters telling him about these problems. Paul wrote back to address the issues.
Formal letters usually start with a salutation, and that is what we read today – the salutation, the beginning, the greeting. When we start such correspondence, we usually begin with something nice to say about or to the addressee. Maybe we talk about the weather, the news about ourselves or our families, maybe we wish them well. Paul usually began his letters with praises. So he laid it on them, maybe a bit thick. He talked of his own calling, to be an apostle for Christ. Then he talked about how the church at Corinth had been called and blessed. He called all the church members “saints.” Knowing that he would soon address the issues disputing who knew the most about Christ, how they were speaking harshly to one another, and their disagreements over who had gifts of the Holy Spirit and who did not, Paul praised them for their knowledge and their speech. He prayed that they were not lacking in spiritual gifts, and that all might know they were blameless before God and beloved. He set them up, in a way, for the lengthy letter to come. But he also affirmed them and assured them of their gifts to overcome the issues in front of them. He started by pointing out the positive in the midst of controversy. Then, in the chapters to follow, he addressed each of the issues before them. And in perhaps one of the best known of all Scriptures, the Love Chapter, chapter 13, he declared in beautiful prose, in words that still inspire, that the greatest gift of all is love. Maybe he set them up to hear his message, but he did so in the way only a prophet and preacher can. He told them what is most important in God’s eyes rather than in the eyes of the world. He let them know that God equips us with the gifts that are needed to be the church in the midst of a chaotic world.
Like the people of Isaiah’s time, and of Paul’s time, we are called to be the church in the midst of a world that seems in many ways to be falling apart. We are not necessarily surrounded by like people. Many worship sports or celebrities, money or success, many things other than the God we are called to put first in our lives. The values of our neighbors, our state, our nation, may not match the values by which we seek to live, and they tempt us to follow along, to go astray. Political leaders are distorting facts to their own benefit, and urging us to believe it is the truth (post-truth). Courtesy and manners seems to have gone out of vogue, and people have been given permission by leaders to be angrier and crueler to others than was acceptable in the past. And, our natural inclination is to strike back in a similarly angry way, or to walk away in disgust. Even the church has gotten involved in reacting in ways that are painting a very bad picture of “the church” for many. Many are deserting churches as a result, never to go back.
It should not be this hard to follow God and to live as a faithful and loving people in the midst of the world. Yet it is hard, it is very hard. Tom Ehrich, who is an Episcopal priest, church consultant, and author based in New York, writes a column that appears in many newspapers. He wrote a commentary in which he said:
“Religion shouldn’t be this hard. An assembly that exists to help people shouldn’t be so willing to hurt people – by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable, or strangers at the gate. An assembly that should relax into the serenity of God’s unconditional love shouldn’t be so filled with hatred and fear. An assembly that follows an itinerant rabbi (Christ) shouldn’t be chasing performance, stability, and property. Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal… But the institution whose sole justifiable purpose is to help us deal with those difficulties shouldn’t be making matters worse. Yes, I understand that church is a human institution and therefore it will participate in humanity’s brokenness. But church should be seeking to redeem that humanity, to heal that brokenness, to show better ways to live.” There is more. I commend the column to you. It is from January 7, 2014, in the Washington Post. But it is still relevant today, and perhaps always.
As a light to the nations, we are called to be a different kind of church, not one that criticizes or categorizes. We are called to be inclusive, not exclusive. We are called to see the Christ in everyone, regardless of the different ways people look, worship, or even live and love. We are called by God to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
Richard B. Hays, professor at Duke Divinity School, points out that in this salutation for the letter to the Corinthians, Paul sets this thanksgiving salutation he has written within the context of a not-yet-fulfilled hope. We are in a time of waiting for Christ, he tells us. And in the meantime, we are called to live as God’s people. We are called into the fellowship of the church to encourage and support one another as we seek to live as followers of Christ in the meantime. When done right, the church is the work of God in the world. God enables us by grace, a gift for which we did not ask but that God gives freely. God’s peace also comes unbidden and fills us, defying the chaos all around us. Paul promises that we can do God’s work in the world, knowing that God will strengthen us, that God will equip us to do the work, and, perhaps most especially, that God is ever faithful. God is ever faithful. We may falter, but God does not. God stays with us, no matter how far astray we go, and waits patiently for us to return faithfully to the flock. Church life is all about being community, a covenant people so that we can be a light to the nations.
At the end of my day of jury duty, the Clerk told us that we had given a service, and that was a good thing. We had not been called to serve on a jury. And I did not feel like I had done anything but sit and wait, rather impatiently. Yet the county felt I had been useful (at least enough to pay me $12 for the day).
Maybe service to God is a bit like that. Like the prophet, we are not always sure we are doing much good. But if we are faithful, if we try anyway, if we keep at it, God can work through us to do wondrous things. We just need to be present and to be open to God’s calling.
Yesterday, millions of women, (including many from this church family) and men who support them, stood up for their rights and the rights of their fellow human beings. They marched, peacefully, around the world, to speak for justice in our country. In some ways, this may seem like a small thing, but it spoke loudly. Regardless of one’s political views, one must see this movement as striving to be a light to the nations. As we seek to be a light to the nations, we will have to be vigilant to see that we do so with the backing of the Gospel message and mission of love.
“Listen to me,” says the servant, “The Lord called me before I was born…” The Lord says, “I will give you as a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49:1, 6).
And Paul says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ… [God] will strengthen you to the end….” And “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The Word comes to us, calling us to be a light to the nations, a light in the darkness. God will make it so. And we follow, together we follow.
Thanks be to God! Amen.