Sermon, Epiphany 2, RCL, Year A, January 15, 2017, St. Thomas, Oakmont, JDMurph
My very first job was to mow the lawns of the neighbor who lived behind us; I was maybe 11. I still remember being so excited when he first hired me. He was an older man and his yard was a bit bigger than ours but on Saturday morning, after doing our own yard, I would go over and mow his lawn and do the trimming and, if I remember correctly, got paid $3–although, after a couple years, I think it went up to $5. For whatever reason, I was the only boy in our neighborhood who was interested in mowing lawns, so after building up regular customers, I could earn some money. Many people I know started their work experience by doing some kind of serving work: mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, washing dishes. I know that I did all three of those things. If those folks were like me, then they were excited to get paid for something for the first time. The older a person gets, however, especially the jobs that require muscle and hard labor can get a little more difficult and sometimes less enjoyable, because our bodies begin to protest. In fact, maybe that is why that older neighbor of ours hired me to mow his lawn in the first place. I start with this example because our readings today start with a portion of what biblical scholars call one of Isaiah’s servant songs. God is calling us to do a job for him. “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’”
But if you read the passage, you might ask, who is really the servant? It seems, at first, that Israel, the nation, is the servant–“my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But then things switch and it seems that it is maybe a remnant of the nation or even that it is the prophet who is the servant, “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,…”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.” We Christians, of course, say that it is Jesus who is the servant that Isaiah foretold. After all, isn’t Jesus the one who is the light to the nations so that the salvation of the Lord might reach to the end of the earth? That’s what today’s opening prayer said, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Grant that thy people, illumined by thy Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth”. But if we read further, we discover that it does not even end there, because Christ’s PEOPLE are supposed to shine as well. Paul, who was called to be a servant of God on the road to Damascus, in his first letter to the Corinthians, reminds the Christians in Corinth of their own servanthood, “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for he revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.“ Remember, the gifts of God are given for a purpose! Paul says that, “by him (that is, Jesus)”, these Corinthians were “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” But that fellowship is not only just some dinner club, its mission is to meet the sin and pain of this broken with the love and forgiveness of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. This fellowship, which is the church, of course, is to model a new way of being human that directly confronts and empties the power and overturns the mindset of this broken world; and more often than not, it happens through servanthood. Even the gospel points again to servanthood; this time the servanthood of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus, “This is he of whom I said, ’After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And, at the end, as soon as a couple of John’s disciples start following Jesus, he renames one of them, Simon, “You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)”–or in English, “Rock”–the rock upon which he would build his church. As soon as Simon follows Jesus home, he gets a job. Yes, by his cross Jesus, the true Israelite, is the one who accomplishes salvation for the whole world, without our help. Remember, John says about Jesus, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” But that does mean that the world and the human race are simply passive thereafter! No, of course not. God continues to work his salvation in Jesus Christ THROUGH his people, us. And the payment for this servanthood we have as followers of Christ is not money but rather the chance to be finally truly LIKE God, which is what Adam and Eve wanted when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden eons ago. Remember how the serpent tricked Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”. The desire to be LIKE God was the main reason Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But now, of course, in Jesus, however, we finally get to be truly like God and in the right way. God, by working in and through us, enlists us as his partners in the work of redeeming the world–a calling that even the angels do not share. So what does this mean?
Despite the victory of Jesus on the cross, the world is sometimes overwhelmingly full of sin and pain. Even people who live in warm houses and can pay their bills sometimes live lives of aching loneliness and contend with sorrows unknown even by the ones they count as friends. Others live in regular fear or anxiety perhaps because their debts are so high or their work is precarious. Some go to work every day but their jobs are so corrosive that they hate every morning. Still others live with chronic pain, illness or depression, or may be afraid that their marriage or other relationships are unraveling without being able to do anything about it. Some, because of their own pain, have either alienated themselves or alienated everyone around them to the point that they are cut off from meaningful human contact. Finally, far too many in our community live with addictions of all sorts. What does Jesus have to offer to people with this kind of fear or despair or trouble?
Jesus offers forgiveness. He offers the love of God–that is always more abundant and urgent to fill our lives than we expect. He can offer meaning and purpose to lives that are lost and confused. He can offer healing–especially when we are ready to receive it–healing of the body, the heart, the mind and even our relationships. And so many times, he does this in and through his servants, his followers, those who trust in him. Consider an early example of this way that God works. In Acts 9, we are told of the conversion of St. Paul, who had been a fierce persecutor of the church. He sees a blinding light on the road to Damascus and hears a voice. After this experience, he is literally blind and must be led into the city. After this happens, the Lord came to a believer in a vision named Ananias and told him to go to the house where Paul was staying and heal him of his blindness. Ananias responds, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” It was always interesting to me that Ananias felt it necessary to acquaint the Lord with this information, as if he might not have known. The Lord tells him to go anyhow–and Ananias, a servant of the Lord, bravely does as he is instructed. Now, why did God need Ananias to go heal Paul–certainly, he could have done it himself, and in fact, when Ananias arrived, all he did was lay his hands on him and pray–the Lord accomplished the healing. Perhaps he needed Paul to know that it was he, Jesus, who was giving the healing (because Ananias identifies Jesus with the healing when it happens). But if Jesus could appear to Paul on the road then surely he could have appeared to him at the time of the healing. I think Jesus sent Ananias to Paul in order to connect him to the church in Damascus. In fact, later the Christians help Paul escape the city by lowering him from a window in the city wall when others were lying in wait to kill him at the gate. And the Lord uses other Christians to accomplish this purpose; the same thing happens when Paul later is finally brought into service to the church when Barnabas recruits him to help teach the new Gentile Christians at Caesarea–since they know nothing of Scripture. Though knowledge and teaching, as well as worship and divine experience, are essential parts of spiritual growth for a Christian, isn’t it really the compassion and care and love of other Christians that really bring a person to know the love of Christ? Doesn’t St. Paul tell us that we can have all kinds of spiritual gifts, like prophecy, knowledge and faith, but that if we do not have love then we are nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Think of your own experience; maybe you believe in Jesus because you were raised in the church, or maybe you read the Bible and the Holy Spirit touched you, or maybe you stumbled into church and God met you here. But I will bet that somewhere along the way, some Christian showed you love and compassion and they did that because the love of God had already filled their own heart. That is what it means when the opening prayer asks for Jesus’ people, “illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory”. When we shine with Christ’s glory, then we reflect his light, we act as his servants, and we join with him in saving and healing the world. Amen+