Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2A, Sunday, January 15, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who is the Servant in our OT lesson today? Is he Israel? The prophet? Someone else? Why should we care? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
In our lesson from Isaiah, we read the second of the so-called “Servant Songs” that describe the person and character of the “Servant of the Lord” (see also Isaiah 42.1-4, 50.4-9, and 52.13-53.12). But who is this person? The prophet at first identifies him as Israel (v.3), but later in our passage the servant is to rescue Israel (v.5). How can God call Israel to rescue itself? Is the prophet just really confused here? Maybe had some bad coffee or something?
Whoever Isaiah had in mind, Christians of course believe that Jesus is the Servant, in part, because we believe Jesus is the light of the world before whom one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess as Lord (Phil. 2.9-11). And as we saw in our gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist certainly saw Jesus fulfilling the role of the Servant (and more). After seeing the Spirit descend from heaven and stay on Jesus, the baptizer declared Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This, of course, alluded to God’s call to Israel to be God’s light to the world. God had called his people Israel through the patriarch Abraham to bring God’s healing love to a sin-sick and evil-infested world, but Israel had proven itself to be every bit as sin-sick and evil-infected as the world to which God had called his people to heal. But now at Jesus’ baptism, we see the confirmation of our Lord’s vocation to be for Israel and the world what Israel could not be for itself—God’s faithful one who would bring God’s healing love to the nations, to folks like you and me. While John doesn’t tell us here, Jesus would take away the sin of the world by bearing its collective weight himself on the cross. In Jesus we see God in person coming to his world to free us from our sin sickness and to defeat the dark powers that had thoroughly corrupted God’s world and God’s image-bearing creatures. We know this because the baptizer used Passover language in describing Jesus as being the Lamb of God. Just as God’s ancient people had been commanded to smear on the posts of their doors some of the blood of the lamb slaughtered so that the Destroyer would pass over their homes and spare their lives as God began to rescue them from their bondage to slavery in Egypt, so we who put our whole hope and trust in Jesus’ blood shed for us will be rescued from a far darker bondage to sin and be spared from the ultimate evil of death, thanks be to God!
At this point, we tell ourselves it’s all good. God is doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves—freeing us from our slavery to sin and death. Time to kick back, pour ourselves a drink, and relax, basking in the glory of God and the knowledge that we are God’s special people. After all, as we have just seen, Jesus is the true Servant celebrated in the Servant Songs, the one who will bring God’s light to the nations and rescue the world from all that ails it. Not so fast, say the NT writers! Don’t get too comfy, dudes. While it is true that Jesus is the light of the world, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and rescues us from our slavery to the dark powers and death, this doesn’t give us license to be passive observers. No, worryingly enough we are also called to be servants in the manner of our Lord Jesus himself.
Why is that you ask? Because as the whole of Scripture attests, God in his strange and astonishing wisdom has always called human beings to run his world in wise and just ways on God’s behalf. That’s why God created us in his image in the first place. But almost right from the start, we didn’t get that memo and decided to run the world on our own authority, not God’s, and we all know how well that’s turned out. So God in his wisdom and mercy ultimately became human to defeat the dark powers who used our sin and rebellion to usurp God’s rule over his world and to free us from their grasp. We’ve just talked about all that. But as Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, until Jesus returns to complete the redemptive work he started at his first coming, we as his rescued people are called to carry on his healing and saving work on his behalf.
But, but, we want to protest and whine. We are not equipped to do that work. We’re not perfect like Jesus. We’re a bunch of sad-sack ragamuffins and losers, some more than other. We can’t possibly be Jesus’ light to the world on his behalf. Sure you can, comes our Lord’s reply. Of course you are ragamuffins and losers and can’t possibly do what I ask on your own power. But here’s the thing. You are not operating on your own power! I have poured out my Spirit on you to heal and transform you so that you can bring my mercy, love, and justice to each other and the world.
Paul tells us the same thing. We are God’s Church, he reminds us, the very body of Christ. We are called to do the healing work of Christ together as the Church and only secondarily as individuals. In other words, God has called those of us who believe in the saving and healing work of Christ to shed his light on others like us who desperately need that light. Before we can do that, we must first and foremost remember Whose we are because we are not our own. Paul tells us we are God’s saints, God’s called-out people, who are to be Christ’s light-bearers. This too makes us really nervous because when we think of saints, we think of goody-two shoes who never do anything wrong and who have very little fun in the process. But this is a lie and a delusion. We must remember that Paul wrote these words to a church that was plagued by internal divisions, sexual immorality, discrimination, divorce, and other sins. In other words, the church at Corinth consisted of a bunch of ragamuffins and losers just like us! Never mind that, Paul exhorts! Put all that behind you! God has called you to be his people in Jesus. Despite your faults and foibles, you are God’s called-out, Spirit-filled people, and you are given the power, however imperfectly you display it, to love each other, to forgive each other, and to bring God’s love to the world on behalf of your Lord who loves you and gave himself for you.
How do we do this? Like the baptizer and his disciples, we first and foremost proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord and therefore we have chosen to follow him and his ways, not the world and its evil ways. We call on his name to help us look out for each other as much as we look out for ourselves. We laugh with each other, cry with each other, support each other, and build up each other, even (or perhaps especially) when we don’t necessarily like each other! We choose to forgive each other when we are wronged and we ask others to forgive us when we wrong them. We don’t make us and our desires God, worshiping ourselves and doing whatever it takes to fulfill our needs. We look to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, taking care of those who are the least and the lost, the poorest and the weakest. We don’t do this perfectly and like the prophet in our OT lesson, we sometimes wonder if the good we do in Jesus’ name makes any difference. Of course it does, our Lord reassures us. Is using you as my light to the world too difficult for me? I created this vast cosmos! I conquered death! So have a little humility, consider my mighty acts, and have faith in my ability to be good to my word and use your work to help bring about my kingdom, even if it remains obscure to you..
None of this happens automatically, of course. We have to do our part. We have to put in our sweat equity so that we can be reminded of God’s truth and saving action in the world. This means we have to learn the story of Scripture and where and how we fit into it all. It means we come to worship God each week and be changed and refreshed. It means we partake in the eucharist each week to literally consume Jesus to be changed and strengthened by him to do his work.. It means we take an active role in our fellowship with one another so that we can support each other and build each other up. It means we are people who pray regularly that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven and are willing to let God use us to help carry out his will. Sacred privileges, those. And participating actively in those privileges are the ordinary means of grace God uses to equip us to do the work he calls us to do as his people.
As we begin 2017, let us rededicate ourselves to be Jesus’ people, new creations in Christ’s love for us (2 Corinthians 5.17), who gladly and joyfully proclaim our Lord Jesus’ name to the world as we are transformed little by little into his perfect image and equipped to work alongside him as his servants. The work won’t always be easy. But what a sacred privilege! The world will hate us. But we are called to take heart because Jesus has overcome the world in his death, resurrection, and ascension. This the Good News we are to live and proclaim in 2017 and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.