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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Tired Servant (A Sermon)

John 1: 29 – 42
Isaiah 49: 1 – 7
Psalm 40

Last week we read of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer, and of his visionary experience – seeing the sky ripped open and the glories of the kingdom of heaven exposed and all the demands of righteousness. Jesus rose up from those embryonic and chthonic waters, waters symbolizing both a new birth and a coming death, full of anticipation of the work he was called to do, ready to go and to do the will of God. Ready to be the servant of God. Ready to meet all the demands of righteousness, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to the low and the poor and the lost. 

Our texts for that day combined Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3: 13 – 17) with a reading from the first of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs.”(Isaiah 42: 1 – 7)  In that reading we saw Jesus / the servant as a passionate spirit, endowed and emboldened by the Spirit of God to do a great work – confident that he would not grow weary, would not be exhausted until he had been successful in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to all the world.

This week the lectionary moves forward only slightly to combine the beginnings of Jesus’ mission – his movement away from John the Baptizer and the calling of his first disciples – with a reading from the second of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs.”

We might have expected the same victorious spirit, the same eagerness to dare and to do – that same bold confidence  to grab the world, the sort of exuberant (though perhaps naïve) confidence expressed by high school graduates who believe that they will go out and challenge and change the world.  There is no challenge too great, no obstacle too large, no enemy or opponent too powerful…

Like “God’s Soldier”:

God's soldier marches as to war,
A soldier on an alien shore,
A soldier true, a soldier who
Will keep the highest aims in view.
God's soldier goes where sin is found;
Where evil reigns, his battleground;
A cunning foe to overthrow
And strike for truth a telling blow.

We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory
we’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown
we’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story
we’re going to turn the world upside down.

So it may come as a bit of shock to find this particular combination of texts this morning. Instead of the courageous and undaunted servant, ready to do battle against the world, we instead have a broken and tired servant, a cynical and despairing servant who is almost resigned to failure and his inability to complete his mission.

“My toil has been futile.” He says.
“I have exhausted myself for nothing, to no purpose.” (Isaiah 49: 4 New Jerusalem Bible)

What happened? Why the despair? Shouldn’t the good and faithful servant always be happy? (Smile, smile, smile and not frown…) Shouldn’t the good servant move from victory to new victory, and from glory to ever-increasing-glory? We’ve been taught that the good follower of God, the good Christian will always be positive, and never entertain feelings of dejection or worry. The good servant of God will succeed, will be victorious and more than a conqueror. Right? These are the marks and signs of doubt – and doubt is bad. Failure is bad.

Perhaps this attitude is naïve, and this expectation unrealistic.

We are not Hollywood movie action heroes. We are not plaster saints. We are fragile. We are we fallible. We get tired. We grow weary. We despair.

I think of Martin Luther King Jr, who we celebrate and remember tomorrow who was no plaster saint to set upon a pedestal. As inspirational and heroic his work was, he suffered the same despair we all feel at times, the same despair as Isaiah’s suffering servant. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, facing stiff opposition and 30 – 40 threatening phone calls and letter a day, he reached his “saturation point” (King.)  

“I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn't sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered, and then I got up. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I'd come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn't take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, "You can't call on Daddy now, you can't even call on Mama. You've got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way." With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone" (King).

But neither Martin Luther King jr. nor Isaiah’s suffering servant were allowed to give up. They suffered. They hurt. They failed. They faltered. They despaired. But they were not allowed to give up. They were not allowed to resign from the fight.

As he prayed that night the faltering Martin Luther King jr. seemed to hear the voice of God saying to him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world” (King).

And so too Isaiah’s suffering servant. In his moment of despair when everything seemed like failure and lost, the voice of God said to him, ‘It’s not enough for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and the survivors of Israel – I shall make you a light to all the nations of the world.’ (Isaiah 49: 6 – 7)

"If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12: 5)

Not only were they not allowed to give up – but they were challenged to do more, their mission was enlarged.

“A monk was once asked: What do you do there in the monastery? He replied: we fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again” (Ware 129).

We all struggle. And we all fail. We all wrestle with doubt and disappointment. It is naïve to expect otherwise. It is unrealistic to demand a perpetual victory march. But disappointment and doubt, faltering and failure are not stop us. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up again and again with the strength of the spirit that leads us forward. He lifts us up from the miry clay of our failure and despair and puts our feet on a solid rock again.

The challenges loom large, and the obstacles seem insurmountable. Our enemies are strong and our failures are real. But when we are knocked down by life, by trial, by opponents and enemies, we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again.

“My brethren, do all that is in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall, but, if you do fall, get up again at once, and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times, because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again at each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written: ‘If a righteous man falls seven times,’ that is, repeatedly throughout his life, ‘seven times shall he rise again’ [Proverbs 24:16].”

St. John of Karpathos, from the collection of letters to monks in India

King jr., Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King jr. Ed. Clayborn Carson. New York, NY: IPM / Warner Books. 2001. Print.

Read, Harry. “God’s Soldier” The Salvation Army Songbook. London. The Salvation Army. 2015. Print.

Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Way.  Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1979. Print. 

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