September 11, 2012 by jmar198013
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’ And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’ (Isa. 49.1-7 NRSV)
Intro: the ham of God
Author Anne Lamott tells a story about her forty-ninth birthday, when she was feeling used-up and useless, and to top it off, she had thrown her back out. Also, there was no food in the house. So, she said, “I ate a few birthday chocolates. Then I asked God to help me be helpful . . . I prayed: Help me. And then I drove to the market in silence, to buy my birthday dinner.” When she got to the checkout line to pay for her food, the cashier told her, “Congratulations! You’ve won a ham!” Anne Lamott was not thrilled about the birthday ham. “What was I going to do with ten pounds of salty pink eraser?” But she reasoned, “If God was giving me a ham, I’d be crazy not to receive it. Maybe it was the ham of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Lamott also reports that it took a full ten minutes for a store employee to return to the front of the store with her ham. As she left the store, she found herself still wondering what she was going to do with it. She was fretting so much over the ham that she didn’t notice the raggedy car moving slowly through the parking lot, which she ran her shopping cart right into. She looked up to see that it was an old friend of hers from a recovery group. She began to chat with the lady, and discovered that her old friend had fallen on hard times. She had no money for gas or food. “I’ve never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I’m asking you for help,” she said, with tears in her eyes. Lamott pushed a wad of bills at her. “I don’t want a handout,” her friend protested, “I don’t need money, just gas and food.” “It’s my birthday present,” Lamott said. And then she gave her old friend the ham she had just won. “She put it in the seat beside her firmly, lovingly,” describes Lamott, “as if she were about to strap it in.” I think this story parallels our reading quite closely. Lamott was feeling useless, used-up, and even a bit annoyed with God for answering her prayer to be useful to others with a grocery store ham. But it seems that this was all God’s doing to make her useful. In the same way, Isaiah draws upon the experience of feeling useless, complaining, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” And in that instant, God reveals to the prophet that he works through the events in our lives to polish us, to make our words sharp, to prepare us for greater things.
“My cause is with the LORD”
When we look at ourselves in relation to our life situations, sometimes it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Even though God says to us, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified,” we might have a difficult time believing it; we can’t even live up to our own standards—how could we ever live up to God’s? We know ourselves well, how we succumb to temptations both grand and petty. We know the areas of our lives that we have tried so hard to clean up to no avail. We have all come up against circumstances that are too great for us. And I think we can all end up like Anne Lamott on her forty-ninth birthday, feeling spent and useless and irrelevant; or like the figure of Isaiah 49.1-7, saying, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But there’s something else in Lamott’s story, and in the words of God’s servant in Isaiah 49—they don’t end with cynicism or resignation. The servant of Isaiah 49 says, “yet surely my cause is with the LORD and my reward with my God.” So even though the servant does feel a profound sense of failure and says, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity,” at the same time the servant refuses to believe that this is the end of the matter. The servant puts the situation in God’s hands, saying, “my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.” This displays the servant’s profound trust in God’s goodness, even when facing a profound sense of personal uselessness. Lamott exhibits a similar sort of trust when she recognizes that God’s answer to her prayer has come in the form of a ham. On the one hand, she says, “What was I going to do with ten pounds of salty pink eraser?” Yet, she tenaciously affirms, “If God was giving me a ham, I’d be crazy not to receive it.” The point is we always need to be open to the will of God. We must be ready to fall upon his grace, whatever form it takes. This is not only essential as we as individual believers make this a spiritual discipline in whatever situations we encounter. This is also a vital practice of discernment and discipline for the church confronting a world in which we may be tempted at times to feel irrelevant. It is to us now that God says, “You are my servant in whom I will be glorified”; it is the church which is given as light for the world, that the LORD’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth. In a world torn to shreds by war and environmental devastation, economic injustice, hatred, addiction, and depravity, we have been entrusted with a healing vocation. Along the way, we may be tempted to say, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” At those times we must cry ever louder: “surely my cause is with the LORD and my reward with my God.” When our strength is spent, we must affirm, like the servant of the LORD in Isaiah 49, “my God has become my strength.” And we ought to recognize that God often arms us with strange gifts to accomplish our task.
“In the shadow of his hand he hid me”
Something really important that Isaiah 49.1-7 has to share with us is that there is a process to grace—and by grace, I mean God working to bless us so that we can be useful to others—there’s a process to grace and we have to trust this process. Furthermore, this process is relational and intimate. It is contextual. And it is often concealed in the events of our lives, both in the mundane and trivial, and also in the difficult and tragic. I mean, look at what the servant says—God was at work on him in the womb. That’s a really hidden place, right? And he says that he was like a sharp sword God hid away in the shadow of his hand; he says that he was a polished arrow in God’s quiver. The events of our lives shape us in certain ways, and it may very well be that it is through these that God makes us into the sharp swords and polished arrows that he will use to battle the dark forces that harm his good world. I mean, look at the language: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.” You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like we’re God’s secret weapons! Now, if you read your Bibles much at all, you’ll find that God really loves to work through secret weapons. Think of the judge Ehud and his left-handed dagger assassination of a vicious tyrant. Think of the shepherd boy David, refusing to fight the bully Goliath on his own terms, instead dropping the foul-mouthed giant with a rock launched out of a crude slingshot. The very things that would have been considered deficiencies or disabilities—Ehud’s left-handedness and David’s lack of military training—assured them success. So we have to trust God, and we have to trust the process of grace. Because God often hides what he is doing, we might not be able to see it clearly, so what do we have but trust?
“I will give you as a light to the nations”
It is precisely here that I want to spend some time looking at the historical context of our passage to make a point about trusting God and his process of grace. I specifically want to address this in light of what I said earlier about God giving strange gifts to make us useful. He gave Anne Lamott a ham, which is pretty odd, but he was at work on something even more startling in our passage in Isaiah. The prophet is speaking to a people in exile, and they are there because of their idolatry, their injustice, their mistreatment of others. Ultimately, they are in the situation they are in because they failed to acknowledge God’s goodness, his claim on their lives. They had been irresponsible humans. So God sends the prophet to tell them that this judgment is not the end of his purposes for them. He has the prophet remind them, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The temptation the people face in that instant is cynicism, to see their situation as irreversible, to languish in this sense that God has simply given up on them. But God says in vv 6-7 of our passage:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth . . . Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.
But in order to accomplish this reversal of fortunes for his people, and here’s the really startling thing, God intends to use an outsider: Cyrus, the king of Persia. Back in Isaiah 44.28, God stated that he would use the invading king to liberate his people and rebuild Jerusalem—and that Cyrus would be footing the bill! In Isaiah 45, God goes on to tell Cyrus: “For the sake of Jacob my servant and Israel my chosen one I have called you by name and given you a title, though you have not known me. I am the LORD, and there is none other; apart from me there is no god. Though you have not known me I shall strengthen you.” So here’s this process of grace I’ve been talking about. God is extending his blessings to this heathen king Cyrus, not for Cyrus’ sake, but “for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen.” Meanwhile, he turns to his exiled people and says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Israel will be useful and serve him again, but not until they are served by the outsider. Cyrus will first have to become a vessel of God’s grace toward Israel, then Israel will be the vessel for God’s grace to the rest of creation. These strange thrusts of grace that God breathes into our lives are not for us alone, not any more than Anne Lamott’s ham was really for her.
To sum it all up thus far: Grace is a process by which God blesses us to make us useful. When we are at the end of our rope, vexed by frustration, futility, and failure, it is precisely then that we must remind ourselves to trust in God and trust the process of grace. Trust is vital to this process, because often God hides what he is doing until we are ready for him to reveal it to us. Or better, until it is revealed in or through us. Trust is also a vital component because without it, we may not recognize that God is imparting his grace to us by means of strange gifts, like Anne Lamott’s ham or the ascendancy of the Persian king, Cyrus. Grace is a process in which we take part, where we become conduits for God’s mercy and his justice. Grace is the process through which God’s salvation will reach the ends of the earth.
“That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”
God’s purpose, “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth,” is the real thrust of the passage. God is making a way, through the broken places of our histories, for his mercy to overwhelm the world. “That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” is the reason God extends his grace to us. Isaiah 49.1-7, like the story about Anne Lamott’s ham, encourages us to look beyond the immediate circumstances, beyond the moment and this little bit of space we inhabit. Our passage this morning encourages congregations to look beyond our neighborhoods and our doctrinal hobbies to see where God’s momentum is building and join ourselves to it. That’s so important for us Christians to recognize, because when we forget that God intends his grace to be a universal experience, something that extends to all corners of his creation, we have forgotten our entire vocation. We have forgotten our identity. I’m so glad that the passage from the first chapter of John was read in our hearing earlier this morning, where John the Baptizer says, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Not the sin of the church. Not the sin of the elect. Not the sin of good boys and girls who barely have any sin in them at all. Jesus is God extending his grace toward all of creation. Our identity as the church is people who recognize that this grace is being extended, and live in a way that acknowledges that grace. The church exists to bless the world. So when fourteen-year-old girls are being exploited in the United States territory of Saipan in the name of “the free market”; when a baby dies in Memphis every 43 hours from the disease of having poor parents in a nation where access to medical care is a market place—well, those circumstances are downright sinful. And we can choose to say, “But preacher, what can I do about that? What can we do? That’s not our community.” Or we can hold stubbornly to the belief that we are a light to the world, and that we are the vessels through which God intends his salvation to reach to the end of the earth. In other words, we can trust the process of grace. And so here in our community, in Jacks Creek, in Henderson, we can set up a house of prayer for anyone to enter and let their needs be known. We can set up a garden right here on the property. We can help each other build our homes. We can have a give-away in the projects. We can be the light right here, and when others see our love and our responsibility and our compassion—how we live in and live out our grace—perhaps this will begin to inspire new values in our communities. Imagine what could happen if Christians just committed ourselves to being the light where we are. War could be abolished. Hunger eradicated. Human trafficking derailed. Ecological catastrophes averted. Perhaps this sounds like too heavy a task, but keep in mind that two hundred years ago slavery was common in this country and a lot of folks didn’t think there was any problem with it. Now, not only has it been wiped out, but most people would be appalled by it. And a lot of the credit for that goes to Christians who modeled another way of being. So if we can do it with slavery, why not war or hunger or human trafficking or climate change? Like our text says, “You are my servant in whom I will be glorified . . . I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Anything less, says God, is too light a task for us.
But in the meantime, we start by being the light where we are—that God’s salvation may reach to the end of this church. Our families. Our neighborhoods. Chester County. We stand here with our candles, being the light. You know, I heard a story once about this guy during the Vietnam War who every night would stand in front of the White House holding a candle. And one night, it was rainy and blustery—I always imagine that his candle was flickering, threatening to go out—one rainy night this reporter asks him, “Do you really believe you’re going to change the policies of this country by standing out here every night with a candle?” And the guy replies, “I do it so the country won’t change me.” Let’s learn a lesson from this fellow. We don’t forget our vocation. We don’t forget our identity. We don’t let the light in us go dark—for if we do, how deep is that darkness! We don’t let the scenery and the circumstances and the politics and the gimmicks change us. And when our candles start to flicker and dim, when we feel that we have spent our strength for nothing and vanity, we will echo the words of the servant of the LORD: “my God has become my strength.” We trust in the process of grace; we trust that God is present and working in our DNA, in the present and in the continual unfolding of our gifts and personalities over the course of our lifetimes. Finally, let us trust in God’s trust in us. He is confident in the capacities for love and goodness and mercy and justice that he instills in us through the process of grace. He is so confident in us that he is willing to stake the future and his reputation on us by proclaiming us his servants that his salvation may reach to the end of the earth.