Rev. Peter Faass
As we look in the rearview mirror and leave 2016 behind, I wondered what to name this past year. 2016 was the Chinese calender’s Year of the Monkey. According to a Facebook meme, Dame Helen Mirren reportedly labeled 2016 with her own colorful moniker, but even that elegant star of theater and film isn’t necessarily quotable for a sermon!
I have decided to call 2016 the Year of Vulnerability. Maybe you have as well.
2016 was a year when I came to profoundly sense my own vulnerability; the fragility of those things I previously took for granted, like my health and vitality, and my financial stability for the future. The year started with a thyroid cancer diagnosis and ended with a nasty case of the flu, which is taking forever to recover from. In between were the surgery to remove said thyroid, the much-longer-than-forecasted recovery period, Anthony’s increasingly frustrating twenty-month search for suitable employment, (thankfully resolved in early December) and the utter shock of the direction our country is going in this post-election period.
The last is the one that has caused me to feel the most vulnerable and frightened about the future of myself and our country. I am uncertain about what the next few years will bring regarding marriage equality, voters’ rights, national health care and civil liberties for people who are not considered to be in the mainstream. That makes me and many others feel extremely vulnerable in our personhood. The spike in hate crimes since early November (including this week’s defacing of the sign at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati with a swastika) should have us worried about how vulnerable justice and liberty for all in today’s nation.
As I contemplate my growing awareness of life’s fragility, our Isaiah text for today reminds me that our circumstances are not unique or hopeless. In one of the “Suffering Servant” passages in Second Isaiah, God sends the Servant to proclaim a message of hope to people who have experienced their own great vulnerability, suffering through what they believed to be hopeless times.
At the time, the kingdom of Judah found itself in exile, with the temple in ruins and the kingdom at an end. Zion, in all of its splendor, had been diminished, and some of the Judahites are forced into exile in the foreign land of Babylonia. Without a temple or a Davidic leader, the people’s future was in great peril. They felt vulnerable as this once great nation stared into the face of a mighty ruthless empire. They needed assurance, assistance, and a new vision to assuage their vulnerability.
In the midst of this dire situation, God sends the Suffering Servant.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations . . .
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth.”
Isaiah continues, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
To open the eyes that are blind,
To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
From the prison those who sit in darkness.”
God sends this avatar of hope as a light to all nations (i.e., all people, Jews and Gentiles), to open the eyes of those blinded by their own vulnerability and release them from the prisons of their hopelessness and fear.
Theologically, there has been a tension between Jewish and Christian interpretations of who this redeeming Suffering Servant is. For Jews, the Suffering Servant generally represents all Israel. It might also be Cyrus of Persia, also the leader of the ascendant Persian Empire, who liberated the exiles and allowed the Temple to be rebuilt.
Generally, Hebrew scholarship points to a collective, communal quality to the Suffering Servant. The people, working together in righteousness, will receive their redemption from the fear and blindness that beset them. In a later passage, Isaiah is very specific about this communal servant when he says, “And [God] said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” It is the Hebrew people who are being called by God to be the Suffering Servant, serving and being light to the world.
Christians see the Suffering Servant as an individual, prophesizing Jesus as the Messiah. Centuries later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus has this very self-understanding when he reads this Isaiah passage in the synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
He then tells the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21b)
As an Anglican, I see the Suffering Servant being theologically significant either as communal or individual. It’s not either/or, but rather both/and. That understanding of both/and lays our hope in addressing our current malaise of vulnerability.
Certainly, the individual Cyrus the Great did liberate the Hebrews from exile and restore them to Jerusalem and to Judah. Yet it was the collective, communal efforts of the Hebrew’s who unified as a people to achieve the rebuilding of the Temple and restore the nation to greatness and, most importantly, righteousness before God.
With Jesus, it is clearly an individual who is proclaimed at his baptism to be God’s beloved Son, sent to herald in the reign of God, in the midst of a time of great vulnerability. It was clearly an individual who is sent into vulnerable circumstances so that in word and deed Jesus could show us the way to our redemption.
We Christians also see ourselves communally in that baptism, as we are baptized into the faith and into the Body of Christ. We are together the daughters and sons of God. As such, God is well pleased with us when we live into His reign, especially when vulnerable times occur in our life. .
We are, each of us, called as individuals to live out our lives as followers of Jesus. As a community of faith we are called to work together in harmony as that Body in the world, as Suffering Servants of God, presenting to others the hope of a way of life that will lead to redemption and new life.
Whether as one or as many, we do this through the practice of our Baptismal Covenant, which is the distillation of the ways of God’s reign Jesus taught us. Through our practice of continuing in the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread and in prayer we are bonded in community. Through resisting evil in all of its myriad manifestations we gain strength as one unified together as many. By proclaiming through word and example the good news of God in Christ, we increase awareness of God’s ways in a tenuous world. When we seek and serve Christ in all persons, we remember our own humanity and unity with each other. By striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being, we recognize we all are daughters and sons of a loving God in whose holy image we are made.
Doing these things reminds us who we are, and who is with us in life. It reinforces our belief that, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The practice our Baptismal covenant dispels our sense of vulnerability and gloom. The practice of our Baptismal covenant also brings us hope and empowers us to do God’s will in a world that is broken and sin-sick.
May the dove of God’s Spirit alight on us this day, reminding us of our belovedness, and empowering us to be light in the world for all people.