A Light to the Nations – Jan. 19, 2020

A Light to the Nations

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Isaiah 49:1-7

January 19, 2020

Main Idea:  We are called to reveal God to the world.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week the Burlington Free Press had a photo of the Williston Federated Church on its front page with the headline “How Vermont Lost Its Religion”.  Frankly, the article was a lazy piece of journalism, quoting a survey from 2014, equating religion with only Christianity, and neglecting to speak with any religious leaders or church members from Vermont, not even from the churches whose photos they used.  The pastor of Williston Federated wrote to the Free Press as did other clergy expressing their concerns.  The Free Press responded by reprinting the article in their weekly Hometown paper.  Some times it feels as though the wider culture would like us to fade away, to stop critiquing the status quo, and to leave Sunday mornings to Starbucks and sleeping in.  But to paraphrase Mark Twain “The report of our death is an exaggeration.”  We are still here and we are still called to share the Good News of God’s love with the world.

“Listen to me O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!  Yoo Hoo!  Everybody, listen up!”  This is how our Scripture text for today begins.  It is a call to the world, to pay attention to what God is doing.   What is extraordinary about this text is that the speaker was a nobody, an anonymous person from an exiled community, written more than 2500 years ago.  Second Isaiah spoke to a community who was discouraged, whose influence and prospects were diminished.  They were a people who had been defeated and forcefully removed from their home, trying to hold on to a sense of themselves in the midst of an alien culture.

Within the writings of Second Isaiah, today’s text is the second of 4 Servant Songs.  These songs refer either to an individual known to Second Isaiah or to the exilic community as a whole.  The songs had particular relevance to Jesus’ own understanding of who he was and to what he was called. The Servant recognizes that God called him before he was born and hid him away.  He was to speak with sharpness and clarity.  But he felt like a failure. “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (49:4), even as he continued to trust in God.

In this time of discouragement, God speaks to the servant again.   “And now the LORD has resolved – He who formed me in the womb to be my servant – to bring back Jacob to Himself, that Israel may be restored to him.” (49:5 Tanakh)  This is the task of the servant; to bring the exiles back to Jerusalem, to reform the community, and to restore their relationship with God.

But not only that!  God 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.” (49:6) “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! Yoo Hoo!  Everybody, listen up!”  God’s love and attention is not only for the small band of exiles, or only for the Jewish people, or only for the Christian church.  God’s love and attention extends to the ends of the earth.  We are called to be a light to the nations, so that all the world can see and experience God’s love.

Last week I talked (on Facebook) about how Jesus’ self understanding was illuminated by these texts.  Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who also took comfort and guidance from these texts.  Dr. King’s life was spent working to bring God’s light of justice and peace to the world.  His powerful preaching ability was a sharp sword that cut through racism and inspired millions.  His willingness to be with the people was a model for other people of faith. He was a great challenge to those who did not want to change.  Dr. King was called to lift up the civil rights of African-Americans and he did that.

But that is not all that he did.  God said “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.”.   After the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Dr. King expanded his work by tackling housing issues in Chicago and other northern cities, and labor issues around the country.  He organized The Poor People’s Campaign which he described as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity”  (https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/poor-peoples-campaign).   He spoke out against the Vietnam War as an unjust war that disproportionately effected poor men and their families.

Dr. King was widely criticized for these efforts, especially for his anti-war stance.  In 1968, the year of his death, 75% of Americans disapproved of him. Think about that for a minute.  He was definitely no longer one of America’s most admired people.  His insistence on non-violent resistance was dismissed by younger more militant African American leaders.  President Johnson was furious with him and other Civil Rights leaders felt that his wider concerns would hurt the work of the civil rights movement.  He was isolated and discouraged but he did not stop. As we know, his last march was in Memphis Tennessee on behalf of striking sanitation workers.  What you might not remember is that Dr. King has organized a march in Memphis one week earlier that devolved into a riot when some marchers broke windows and looted stores leading to a violent confrontation with police. By the time the violence ended, one person was dead and 50 were wounded.  Dr. King returned to Memphis one week later to try again.  He was assassinated the night before the rescheduled march.

Today, 52 years later, the man who had such low approval ratings at the time of his death, is now considered one of America’s treasures, a moral giant, an American saint.  Isaiah tells us, “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.”

Now, we are not Jesus and we are not Martin Luther King, but we too are called to to make ourselves known, and reveal God’s nature to the world.  We aren’t fancy or powerful.  The Free Press has discounted us, but God has not!  Listen!  Pay Attention!  Yoo Hoo!

We have been called from before our birth.  God has known us from our very beginning and has named us and claimed us as children of God. 

God has made our mouths like sharp swords, capable of speaking the truth to power.  For a while we have been hidden away but now God calls us to act.   We may feel discouraged or that our work has been insufficient but God see us and values us and empowers us.  God calls us out beyond our immediate concerns.  Our ministries are not just for those in the room, or just for those who think or believe as we do.  We are called to reach out to the whole world.

So how do we do this? How are we a light to the nations?  How do we bring salvation to the end of the earth?

First, we listen and we learn.  We listen to Isaiah and to Jesus.  We listen to Dr. King.  This past week I participated in the Combating Racism workshop led by Rodney Patterson, the founding pastor of New Alpha.  There are three more sessions and I encouraged you all to consider participating.  It will widen your knowledge and your understanding.

Second, we speak out.  We know that God wills for all of humanity, all of creation, to live in peace.  We can speak about and work for this reality.   Our faith informs our decisions about how we live, how we spend our money, and how we vote.  Speaking about our faith in public, matters in how we live together as a larger community. 

Finally, we are present and engaged in the world.  Madeleine L’Engle has a wonderful quote that states,  “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art).  God’s salvation is for the whole world.

On this day when we have remembered and reaffirmed our baptism, may we be empowered and inspired by God’s servants to live out our calling as servant of God.

As our closing prayer, I will read the closing of Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.

May “God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace.  And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons (and daughters) of God will shout for joy. God bless you.” Amen. (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, p. 278).