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Sun, Jan 19, 2020

I Will Give You as a Light

Duration:16 mins 7 secs

“I Will Give You as a Light”

Sermon on Isaiah 49:1-6

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

            This is a story of a crisis in confidence by one of God’s own hand-picked servants. We don’t know who exactly this Servant was: some scholars say he stands for Israel, or a part of Israel; others say he might have been Isaiah himself, or Jeremiah, or a future messianic king like David. In the church, we read about the Servant and think immediately of Jesus Christ. It’s possible that the Servant was none of these people. Maybe his real importance to us is what he tells us about what it means to be a servant of God.

          Whoever this Servant understood himself to be, his mission on earth was not his own idea. God has been deeply, intimately involved in the Servant’s life since before the Servant drew his first breath, and has marked him for a particular kind of difficult service.  The Servant’s job is to bring the exiled people of Israel back to Jerusalem and back to God. He’s supposed to speak words that will turn their hearts around, give them a message that will cause them to turn their lives around. 

          Of course, God doesn’t ask for such a huge and difficult thing without giving the Servant some tools. God gives him a “mouth like a sharp sword,” words that will pierce and slice, shattering people’s illusions and showing them the truth. God has made the Servant a “polished arrow,” someone fitted and equipped to hit a target. God keeps this arrow “in his quiver,” like a concealed weapon.[1] But the weapons of the Servant are peaceful ones – all the power he has to work with is the power of God’s Word and Spirit.

          To the Servant, that doesn’t seem to be enough. The task is too difficult, and he is ready to throw in the towel. “It’s no use!” he cries. “I have labored in vain.”  I’ve used up all my strength, the Servant says, and I have nothing to show for it.

          This is the voice of biblical despair, and we have heard it before. It is the despair of Abraham, old and worn out with year after year of waiting for an heir. It is Elijah hiding out in the cave, too depressed to move. It is Naomi saying she has nothing to live for. It is Moses complaining to God about the impossible people God has saddled him with in the wilderness. It is the disciples telling Jesus that they cannot and will not try to feed the 5000 people sitting on the hillside with expectant faces and growling stomachs. Clearly, even God’s best friends are subject to the malaise of despair. Even God’s best friends suffer burnout.

          Does this sound at all familiar? It’s a feeling we get in the church sometimes, when it seems so often that a handful of hard-working people have to keep the whole thing going. There is, after all, so much to be done, and just a few busy, overscheduled people to see that the hungry are fed, the children are taught, the worship goes on, the roof doesn’t leak, and the coffee gets made. It’s a tremendous job, holding the whole thing together, and when we stop to breathe, we find ourselves asking, “Are we doing any good?” “Will the church even survive?” “Are we spending our strength on nothing and vanity?” It seems that the world will go on the way it does whether or not Christians gather to worship, to teach and learn, to pray and serve.

          That’s how it looks to the Servant, too. His mission has been a failure so far. He’s exhausted, discouraged, and defeated. You’d think God would give him a break, send him to Cancun for a couple of weeks, let him de-stress and chill out a little. You’d think God would say, “I’ll find something easier for you to do.”

          Have you noticed that the God of the Bible never does that? God never lets anyone God has called give up easily. God always says, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get going. Get out of your tent, out of the cave, out of the blue funk you’re in. But don’t worry so much – I’ll be with you, and things will be all right.”

          So God is not sympathetic to the Servant’s complaint. The Servant reports failing at a task, so God gives him an even bigger one to accomplish. “It is too light a thing that you should … raise up the tribes of Jacob and  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.”  In other words, I’ve just expanded your mission field from Israel to include all its enemies as well. So get out there and light up the world!

          How do you get to be a “light,” anyway? I don’t know, exactly, and Isaiah doesn’t explain it. Maybe you stop thinking about the burden of the job and think about what it would be like to let the light of God shine through you. I don’t know what the magic formula for that is, either, but maybe it means not to worry so much, to do what you’ve been called to do and equipped to do with a sense of expectation about what God might do through you.

          I once took classes at a ballet studio where a sign on the dressing room wall said DANCE SMARTER, NOT HARDER. It took me a while to figure out what that meant, believing that hard work should be rewarded, but I gradually realized it meant something like, “Don’t focus on the effort it takes to execute a turn, leap through the air, or hold a difficult pose: instead, listen to the music, feel where you are in space, and just do what you’ve learned to do – let something move you other than your own physical and mental effort.”

          Now this is easier said than done, but if you’ve seen a dancer who just executes the steps and one who is a “light,” you know the difference instantly. One plods, while the other shimmers.

          How do you become a light? Maybe you think about how God has been calling you since “before you were born,” and how God’s light reaches down into the deepest recesses of your soul to awaken in you all the gifts God most needs for the world: your compassion, your concern for justice, your sense of beauty, your love.

          Whatever it takes for the Servant to be a light, it has nothing to do with his personal power. It is God who sharpens him, polishes him, and fits him to God’s purposes. The Servant has no weapons of strength of his own, only his faith and his willingness to be used by God for God’s purposes. From God’s perspective, the Servant is not supposed to worry about his effectiveness; that is for God to judge. A servant’s job is simply to do faithfully what God has called him to do, and trust that God can do something amazing through him.

          When you look at it this way, everything begins to look different. A job we call boring becomes an occasion for the light of God to transform it into something beautiful, because of the faithfulness of the person doing it. A job we call difficult becomes an occasion to trust more in God’s resources than our own, and then to rejoice at the unexpected results. A job we call thankless becomes an occasion to feel God’s pleasure in what we do out of love.

          The elders and deacons we are ordaining and installing today have responded to a call for greater service. Those who have already done a lot to carry out the church’s mission are now being asked to do more. Much of what these new church leaders will be charged with doing will have elements of drudgery and tedium, and they won’t always be thanked for their efforts. Most of the time it will feel like there is too much to do. They may be worried about the church’s future vitality, and wondering if they can really make a difference. But today’s words from Isaiah are meant to give hope to all God’s servants, of every time and place; they tell us not to worry and not to despair.

          And our baptism tells us that we belong to God forever. That means that we, like the Servant, are the arrows in God’s quiver. It means that from God’s point of view, whatever genuine service we do in the name of Christ will not be in vain. It may not be rewarded in exactly the ways we would like, but God will continue to use us as long as we let ourselves be used, and God will never leave us without resources. Whatever we do in love and faith will have a hidden power given by God.

          The only question is, do we dare to be the kind of servants God can use? Do we dare to fail at a task, only to be given a larger one? Do we dare to let God polish us and sharpen us and aim us where God most desires, even if we don’t know what the outcome will be? Do we dare to “lighten up” enough to let God do something marvelous with us?

            If we dare all this, we can find out what it feels like to “be a light.”

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

January 19, 2020


[1] Suggested by Gary W. Light, Isaiah, Interpretation Bible Studies (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001), p. p. 70.

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