“Humility: The Source of True Justice”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.
2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick
he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6I am the Lord,
I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them. (NRSV)
Isaiah 40 begins what is almost universally recognized as “Second Isaiah.” And it opens with words that are commonly read and, thanks to George Frederic Handel, sung during Advent: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The prophet proclaims these words to a community that has been defeated, humiliated, and scattered by Babylon.
A homiletics professor named Richard Ward says that Second Isaiah enters the scene “to stand with the people in the space where a center used to be.”1 He comes to refocus Israel, to lead them toward a God-drenched memory so that they may envision a future of renewed hope and renewing purpose. According to Second Isaiah, the center is Yahweh, and only in Yahweh can Israel rediscover her identity as the people through whom God has chosen to reveal righteousness and to do justice in the Creation.
While prophecy can be hard enough to proclaim, it’s almost always harder to receive. And when that prophecy offers hope to a people broken and demoralized by the injustices of others, a prophet struggles to find willing listeners, especially when that prophet, like Second Isaiah, is trying to declare God’s justice. The exiles may have considered this prophecy suspect because it proclaimed that holy justice would come through the work of one who “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; [one who will not break] a bruised reed [or quench] a dimly burning wick.”
It seems to me, and unfortunately so in my opinion, that fewer and fewer people expect or want humility in their leaders. Exiles who have been vanquished and disgraced are not looking for a meek and mild deliverer. And when people who are used to privilege and authority feel their dominance threatened, they’re not eager for leaders who appear accepting and generous. When people are either in chains or in charge, they often want a justice that looks more like hostile revenge or self-righteous supremacy than anything associated with humility.
Into a world addicted to hostility and self-righteousness, God sends a prophet to say, “Here is my servant…I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” And the nations will know this servant by his humility—by his quiet voice and gentle ways.
Who is the servant? Biblical scholars have wrangled over this question for millennia. Is it King Cyrus of Persia who eventually vanquished Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem? Is it Israel herself? Is it Jesus of Nazareth, as Matthew 12 claims by quoting Isaiah 42? A contemporary scholar named Paul Hanson suggests another angle on the question. Instead of associating the servant with a particular person or community, Hanson says that Second Isaiah is challenging his audience to reflect “on the nature of the response demanded of those who have received a call from God.”2 We’re all The Servant, he says.
In the opening verses of today’s reading, Second Isaiah says, “Here is my servant.” Then, the prophet changes the pronoun: Here are you.4 “I have called you…I have taken you by the hand…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon…” God calls all of us to live as servants who “faithfully bring forth justice,” and who do so humbly, non-violently, and without calling undue attention to ourselves.
The justice to which Second Isaiah refers is not retributive justice because God’s justice cannot be imposed through punishment or payback. Having to do with invitation rather than obligation, it can’t be forced in any way. God’s justice is grace, so it’s a gift. Over the generations, some have connected the embodied grace described in Second Isaiah to the humble and Creation-altering ministry of Jesus so closely as to call the book of Isaiah “The Fifth Gospel.”3 (Calling it the first might seem more appropriate, though.)
As Christians, we do see Jesus’ ministry following the spiritual ethic laid out by Second Isaiah. And now Jesus calls and empowers us to continue the work of humble, servant-hearted prophecy in and for the Creation. The trouble is that we live in very loud, scream-on-the-street-corner times when bruised reeds are exploited and cast aside, when dimly burning wicks are snuffed out and forgotten. In these times, loudness and brutality are not only tolerated, they’re encouraged, even praised. In all times, however, the call of a true servant is to speak kind and edifying words, to help and to heal those who have been damaged by this world and its relentless selfishness and violence.
How do we do that? Especially as privileged people, how do we re-center ourselves so that we can hear and then desire to speak truth and grace into the midst of cruelty, arrogance, fear, and most difficult of all, into self-serving religion that regards the temporal privileges of power as divine blessing?
The first four verses of today’s reading constitute the first of a series of four passages known as the “Servant Songs.”5 They’re intended as liturgical resources for a community in exile. They’re songs to be sung as centering prayer, as ways to remember an identity and to equip worshipers for prophetic action. “Songs,” says Richard Ward, “express the hopes and aspirations of social movements for renewal and liberation. It is difficult to think of a movement that does not sing itself into transformation. The pulse and rhythms of a song in performance arise out of the spirit of the movement, but they also give it stability and inspiration.”6
It’s easy to understand why songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” have become anthems of awareness. Groups rallying against all odds have used them to proclaim that true justice and lasting peace come not through preparedness to injure and dominate others but through a humble yet fierce willingness to engage, share, and to heal and be healed.
To affirm our faith this morning, we’re going to use a simple, fourteen-word verse from the epistle of James (4:10): Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. Youth groups and churches have been singing these words for decades as a centering prayer. Now, remember, while our voices do the singing, the words are scripture. So, they are God’s word to us. Each of us individually and all of us together are the thyself of whom we sing.
Let’s also remember that the lifting up by God is not a promotion to worldly glory and privilege. It is God calling us to a new and renewing life, the humble and humbling life of servants in, with, and for all that God has created and all that God loves.
1Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 219.
2Stephen A. Paulsell, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 220.
3Jennifer Powell McNutt, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 220.
5Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-7, and 52:13-53:12
6Ward, p. 221.