Preaching Isaiah 42:1-9
We embark on an entire season of the church year devoted to raising our awareness and expectation of God's showing forth in the world. Aside from the richness of baptism as a focus for preaching today, the readings offer a number of directions the preacher could pursue in sensitizing the gathered congregation to how God presents Godself to them and to the "gentiles" of our era.
For this is surely the thrust of the Isaiah passage, that the servant is to be a "light to the nations." What are the characteristics of that light?- Certainly gentleness (described in the first four verses in poetic and familiar terms) and justice (the word itself repeated three times in those same verses, and described programmatically in v. 7). The strategy for preaching from this text, however, will probably be determined by how the preacher wishes to identify the servant himself. Is he a literary type for Jesus Christ (certainly the people who put together our lectionary saw him so)? Is he, as the authors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible vote, the people of Israel? Or is he an individual prophet?
One way to structure the sermon might be to adopt the servant-as-type explanation first, and develop the characteristics of Jesus as servant (with reference to today's gospel, where his humility may be said to be a chief attribute). One might branch out to mention Luke's use of verse 7 (Lk 2:30-32) as a presentation of Jesus' own understanding of his ministry. Then refer quickly to the ways in which Jesus' ministry, teaching, death and resurrection "showed forth" the gentleness and justice of our creator-God in our world.
But surely the writer himself was not thinking of Jesus but probably of the place of Israel in a world dominated by non-believers. How does the congregation relate to that understanding of the servant? Do they consider this text an historical document, or do they see themselves a members of a New Israel, to whom the prophet now speaks a direct word of hope and challenge? The preacher might use the historical understanding as a bridge, but once again the embodiment of the biblical message will have to be sought in the world of current, personal experience. An "epiphany," after all, is something that cannot be apprehended second-hand. We may not all have visions of the Blessed Virgin or of Christ himself speaking to us; but at some level, our own epiphanies must depend at least on contact with other people whose lives have been transformed by startling encounters with the Divine. And so we turn again to the here-and-now to meditate together on what the prophet might be saying to us. In what ways have we—Christians, or Americans—been called to be "a light to the nations?" How do we fail? When has God broken through in spite of us?
At the time of writing, justice is a tender subject on the national mind. We are still reeling from the verdict in the Rodney King beating case and its violent aftermath—where was justice? What is justice? Earlier, we sat through hours of testimony by and about Anita Hill and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas—was justice done? Unemployment is at a high. The battle continues about how to define justice on the issue of abortion. And now we are immersed in the promises and posturing of the candidates for public office, all of whom promise justice—rebirth for the cities, security for the middle class, equality for everyone under the law. At the time of publication, new public servants will be about to take office. Does the prophet's understanding of servant-hood have any bearing whatever on how they perceive their ministry? Or on how we, the electorate, perceive it?
Our Christian vision today is of gentle justice. If we do not see our nation or our leaders embodying that vision, where are we to turn for hope? Does the church as a whole do any better as a model of gentle !-- Generation of PM publication page 6 --> justice? Is the vision of Jesus as servant so anachronistic that it provides no hope, either?
Here, again, is the opportunity for the preacher to reach into immediate experience for examples that stir hope. What have been the sources in the preacher's experience of true showings-forth of God's glory? The result of praying and meditating on that question may yield contemporary counterparts for the servant-as-individual reading of the text. Is it possible for an individual to be "a light to the nations?" Or a small band of individuals, like a parish, or a youth group, or the women who make ornaments for the Christmas bazaar? Can a young man be a "light" on the basketball team? Can an elderly person be a "light" while volunteering at the Blood Bank? Have you heard of anyone revealing "light" on the assembly line, or at the office, or at the club? Are there age limits to servanthood? Can an invalid still be a servant?
The hope offered is that any of us can be the vehicle of God's self-revelation to our starving world. The caution is that we don't have to go out looking for dark places to enlighten: God in Jesus Christ has done that for us once and for all, as redeemer, as type, and as a model. Our usefulness as "lights" is derived not from a messianic compulsion of our manufacturing but from our faithfulness to God's call.
Linda L. Clader