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Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Servant's Song

I spoke from this same text[i] on Friday morning during the funeral / Promoted to Glory service for our friend Donna.  I asked Jim to read it during the service, and afterward he came up to me to say that he had been quite unsure why I had picked that particular passage of scripture for the funeral sermon.  I admit; it’s not a text that usually selected for funeral sermons.  It is one of the passages selected for the lectionary readings for this particular Sunday (Epiphany 2A).  But as I was preparing both for today’s sermon and for the sermon for Donna’s funeral, I found that I liked the idea of describing Donna’s life as a life of service.

That the identity of the servant in this passage – which is the second of Isaiah’s four Servant Songs – is not specifically identified certainly allows me a bit of fluidity to apply it to Donna, at least in broad strokes and in application. Some biblical scholars and theologians have suggested that the Servant in question was Isaiah himself.  Others suggest other individuals besides Isaiah with various degrees of probability.  Another common interpretation is that the Servant represents the whole people of Israel.  And later, as Christian authors began to re-read these songs, they found in them a description of Jesus’ life and career.

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 labored 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. (Isaiah 49: 1 – 4 NRSV)

The Servant was chosen by God, named before birth, called to a holy mission, made to be Yahweh’s sharpened sword, his swift arrow. The servant was to restore the people of Israel and to bring glory to God. But in the end, the Servant felt like a failure. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity,” he says.  The sword is chipped and blunted.  The arrows are broken and spent.  And with what result?

We think of our friend, Donna, whose mind and memories had faded away by the end.  All the good she’d done, all the people she’d loved, all the joy she’d shared had been forgotten – lost in the fog of her illness. 

I think of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. who we honor and celebrate tomorrow, and who in his last sermon   - the day before his assassination said:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land![ii]

He saw into the Promised Land.  He saw the good on the horizon – but he was gunned down before he could get there.  We might be tempted to say, “nothing and vanity.”

And Jesus, how woeful, how dreadful these words sound in his mouth, “I have labored in vain.  I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”  The promising young messiah who amazed the crowds with his teaching was arrested and quickly executed.  His friends betrayed him.  His followers fled from him.  He was killed and his body discarded.  Nothing and Vanity.

The servant’s life is a hard life, filled with struggle and disappointment, and failure even.  But this is not the end of the servant’s song. Yahweh picks up the song and continues.

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 honored 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.” (Isaiah 49: 5 -11 NRSV)

Just when the servant (whoever he /she was /is) is feeling bitter disappointment, just when the servant is feeling like an abject failure, God says, “you know what?  The mission I’ve given you so far has been too small.  I should have given you do even more.”  It’s so backwards.  It’s so unexpected.  The servant is looking for comfort, for strength, for help, for rescue.  And God gives more work – and greater glory.

The servant hasn’t failed.  The work just got bigger.

Donna’s mind and memory may have faded away from her at the end, but she remains with us.  The memory of her love moves within us to love and serve others as she did.  Martin Luther King jr’s life may have ended with the assassin’s bullet – but his legacy continues to inspire and motivate millions – bringing light and salvation to the world.  Jesus was crucified and left with the dead, but the servant song didn’t end there.  He was raised up to be a light to the world, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth, and to bring glory to God.    The Servant’s Song does not end in failure.

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He lifted me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay

I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song

How long to sing this song?

He set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm
Many will see
Many will see and fear

I will sing, sing a new song.
How long, to sing this song?[iii]

How long to sing this song? As long as we live, and then some.  The Servant’s Song does not end in failure, but in the salvation of the world, and in the glory of God.  Amen. 

- Also - A Servant's Hymn (based on Isaiah 49 / Psalm 40)

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