“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.
“The Kingdom as Neighborhood”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (NRSV)
The message of Genesis 1 and 2 is that God is the generative force behind the universe. Everything, animate and inanimate alike, derives from the willful act of the one whose essence is creativity, love, and relationship. The metaphor the ancient storyteller uses for God’s creative process is speech. The eternal energy that precedes imagination and thought hums, vibrates, and eventually explodes into an incarnate reality, aq unified voice, a uni-verse. God speaks and water, earth, wind, and fire tumble forth: “Let there be light…let the dry land appear…let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…let us make humankind in our image…”
As people of faith, we look within and without and make the conscious decision to trust that the Creation, fraught as it is with violence glorified and suffering ignored, is still a magnificent wonder. As the Psalmist says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” (Ps. 19:1-2) To affirm God’s presence is to proclaim that the Creation has purpose, and if it has purpose, then all that has being must be connected. God is the invisible connective energy at work in the Creation. To bring all things together, God creates community, possibility, and love-actioned hope.
In his paraphrase, The Message, Eugene Peterson rendered John 1:14 this way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”1 The term neighborhood can be applied to far more than streets lined with houses inhabited by people, pets, and possessions. Anywhere that created things exist together in cooperation, contrast, and even conflict are neighborhoods. Our bodies are neighborhoods. Congregations are neighborhoods. Forests are neighborhoods. Rivers and lakes are neighborhoods. Oceans are the largest neighborhood subdivisions on the earth’s surface. Beneath the atmosphere, the earth itself is a neighborhood; and beyond it, our solar system is a neighborhood.
“What has come into being in [Christ],” says John, “was life, and the life was the light of all people.” As life and light, Jesus comes to scatter all the neighborhood-crushing darkness, all the selfishness, fear, and greed that not only seem to be constantly trying to disrupt God’s creative purposes in the world, but that always seem to be gaining an upper hand.
Increasingly, humankind does seem hellbent on denying its interconnectedness. Families, communities, and nations are choosing to close ranks and reject kinship with other families, communities, and nations. We’re choosing to define ourselves by skin color, national origin, language, religion, political opinion. We’re choosing to see those outside our subjective boundaries as other, as villains against whom we must strive, and whom we must defeat. We’re even choosing to reduce God to a tiny, vindictive, human-imaged idol who, we say, is on “our side,” as if God could actually be “against” anything that God creates and loves. Our self-inflicted chaos destroys community and condemns us to death and darkness. So, says John, God sends Jesus to reveal God’s heart, to declare that God’s desire and intent for the Creation is life and light, connection and neighborliness.
While John wrote his gospel long before our New Testament canon was established, he also wrote it well after all the other canonical gospels and epistles were written. When he begins his version of Jesus’ story, he specifically connects the Jesus narrative to the beginnings of Creation in Genesis, and to the beginnings of the Jewish community in Exodus. To me, this says that the scriptures, laden as they are with conflict and contradictions, create a kind of neighborhood. The stories and teachings say and mean the most when we read them in the context of the whole, and specifically in the context of foundational utterances such as: Love God. Love neighbor. Do justice. Follow me. Jesus’ own life says and means the most when we understand it as a presence in and for all of Creation, from its light-drenched inception about which we are continually learning, to the future about which we can’t really know anything, to the present in which we live as momentary stewards.
In his version of the Gospel, John acknowledges and distinguishes between the light and the darkness in Creation. And the two words he uses are Logos, the Word, and kosmos, the “world.” For John, the kosmos is eternally beloved by God, but it’s also a neighborhood in need of redemption. So, God sends the Logos, but not to condemn the kosmos. Jesus, the Logos, enters the Creation to declare the Creator’s love for all things. Jesus’ work as the bringer of light and life is the work of restorative justice. He comes to set us on paths of prayer, empathy, and loving action for the sake of neighbor and earth.
In talking about John the Baptist, John the Evangelist says, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…He himself was not the light, but he came to witness to the light.” As ones who claim to follow Jesus, our calling is to live as grateful and humble witnesses to the light. None of us do that perfectly, but to commit ourselves to living as witnesses to the Logos in the midst of the kosmos is, as John says, “to become children of God.”
When talking about the importance of being children of God, doing justice, and demonstrating neighborliness, one person comes immediately to my mind. Few contemporary people have more publicly and gently lived and shared the Johannine vision of the kingdom of God than Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers held to and literally broadcast a vision of God’s holy intervention of the Logos into the kosmos, and he did so without condemnation and spite.
Said Mr. Rogers: “I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”2
To me, that statement of faith is a beautiful reiteration of John’s theology of the Logos, in particular, the great affirmation of John 3:17: “God did not send the (Logos) into the (kosmos) to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The work of the children of God in the kingdom of God is the work of neighboring one another in the name of Christ. Our purpose is to live by the light and love of the Logos in the midst of a kosmos that always needs to be reminded of its Belovedness.
What are your gifts for bearing witness to the Life, for reflecting the Light of God’s creative and redeeming presence? Our particular gifts reveal God’s purposes for our lives. They teach us that as children of God we are blessed to be blessings to others. And that blessedness leads each of us into our own truest and deepest joys, and all of us toward a more grateful, generous, just, and connected world.
(Another Mr. Rogers quotation used as the charge prior to the Benediction.)
“The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my ‘neighbor’ (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh, sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person… as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud… the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.”3
1Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2002. p. 1916.
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve, 2019
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
Luke’s infancy narrative is a familiar story, and a great story, if a bit of a mess. Luke’s details are a little suspect. His particular confluence of imperial and local leaders at the time of Jesus’ birth don’t agree with those of Josephus and other first-century historians. And while the Romans apparently had a fondness for census-taking, there’s no evidence to corroborate Luke’s account of a census requiring everyone to return to ancestral homes.1
We can let such things bother us. Or, we can remember that Luke, like all gospel-writers, is telling a faith story, not writing history. Luke understands that faith stories are situated within a much deeper and wider Story which is always populated with real people in real socio-political contexts.
This wider Story is God’s Grand Narrative, and it’s layered deeply and concurrently throughout past, present, and future. Each of the gospels, then, is more complex than one man’s record of another man’s life. They’re creative utterances—collaborations of individuals, communities, the Creation, and God. So, I like to think of this account of Jesus’ nativity as something that finds Luke. And when Luke finds his place within it, the Story tells itself through Luke’s openness to it, his passion for it, and his generosity with it.
Because of all this, Luke takes interest in the timeless and history-saturating truth of that deeper and wider Story over the accuracy of details. Now, Luke doesn’t fabricate characters, so his use of real people seems to acknowledge that we all come and go. We succeed and fail, live and die. But The Story is a different matter. It’s continuous, and it says stunning things like: “Let there be light…Say to them I AM has sent me to you…What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” It also says, “you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” (Genesis 1:3, Exodus 3:14, Micah 6:8, Leviticus 25:10)
I think that in Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, we hear God announce not just a year of jubilee. We hear God announce universal Jubilee. For Christians, Jesus is a kind of fulcrum in history. With his birth, the time—the Kairos—has come for everyone and everything to return to its “family,” its origin. Isaiah calls Jubilee “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), and only in Luke’s gospel do we hear those words on Jesus’ lips. He speaks them when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and he does this when he himself has come home to Nazareth. Theologically speaking, to come home is to return to a primordial, archetypal source, an eternal identity.
Christmas Eve is one of my favorite days of the year. For many of us, it’s a time when we return home. Many of us have treasured traditions that include things like a hike or some other outing, candlelight worship with communion, sharing a meal with family and friends. For me, Christmas Eve has become a time of uncanny wholeness and belonging. The mystic at-home-ness of this day reminds me of words from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Out on a cold parapet, Hamlet’s friend Marcellus says:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad.
The nights are wholesome. Then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.2
One need not be in their own hometown to experience the “wholesome…hallowed and…gracious” Kairos of Christmas Eve. Luke illuminates the point of home when he says that Joseph goes home to Bethlehem, which may or may not have been the town of his birth and childhood. He goes there because, according to Luke, Joseph traces his roots back to King David.
In the context of the deeper and wider Story, home has less to do with some geographic location than it does with our truest identity. Home has to do with belonging at the most primordial depth and the most unrealized height of who we are in God. To return home for God’s Jubilee is to return to our true and eternal Self from which, by grace, none of us can be forever alienated.
John understands that kind of home. The opening of his gospel is brief and dense, but I consider it consistent with Luke’s nativity story. In the beginning was the Word, says John, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…[And] what has come into being in him [is] life. (John 1:1-3a, 3c-4a)
Being is itself home for the one whose birth into human existence we celebrate tonight. The lives we live are expressions of that same life. So, Beingitself, Life itself is home for us, regardless of where we lay down our sweet heads. To me, this means that home, real and everlasting home, can always be found anywhere in the Creation.
In many Christian churches, the words spoken over the Lord’s Supper build a fence around Christ’s table. I used to speak those exclusive and life-diminishing words. I no longer do that, because I can no longer demand that anyone say or do something to secure a place at a table from which, I believe, we have all ultimately come. And while this is the Easter table, a table of remembrance and redemption, it’s also the table of Christmas Jubilee, a table of mystery and reunion.
All of you are welcome at this table. So, I invite you to come, and I pray that you will feel here the welcome of the home from which we have all come, to which we all return, and which, at Christmas, comes to us.
1Lewis Donelson, Feasting on the Word, John Knox Press, 2008, pp,117-118.
2William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 1, lines 157-163.
“Salvation: The Family Business”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)