Creekside Church
Sermon of January 12, 2020

"Taking Sides"
Isaiah 42:1-8

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! We have an Old Testament text from the prophet Isaiah to consider this morning. I have a particular affinity for January and Isaiah (Eye-ZI-ah, if you’re British), which is more coincidence than anything. During my student days at AMBS, I took a January intensive course on the book of Isaiah; the class met from 6:30 to 9:30 pm every Monday to Friday for three weeks. Fortunately it was one of my favorite professors, and it was a great class, but even now, I associate studying Isaiah with feeble sunlight, snow flurries and driving in the dark. It may be helpful before we get into the specifics of Isaiah Chapter 42 to consider some of the broader context of this book and prophecy in general.

Prophets are an integral part of Jewish history and religion. The Hebrew Bible, what Christians typically call the Old Testament, is made up of four kinds of writings: the Law, History, Writings (poetry such as the psalms) and the Prophets. The New Testament has prophecy as well -- much of it referencing the Hebrew Bible. Scholars estimate that prophecy makes up more than a quarter of the total material in the Bible. Prophecy is sometimes defined as predicting the future, but that doesn’t capture the whole picture. It’s more like this: a guy telling a friend, Well, I finally went to see the doctor this week. Yeah, what did the doctor tell you? He said I need to stop drinking, stop smoking and lose 50 pounds, or I’m headed for a heart attack. So, do you know what you’re gonna do? Yeah. It’s going to be tough, but I’m going to have to find a new doctor.

There it is. Prophets are people who speak the truth, typically to people in power -- kings, priests. And human nature being what it is, people don’t always take kindly the hearing the truth about themselves, and would rather continue on a path to destruction than to give something up or change their behavior. Sometimes a prophecy is about personal behavior, like in 2 Samuel 12, when Nathan confronts King David about his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah: neither of these are things which David can change, but he does repent. More often, prophecy warns of the consequences to society when those in power worship false gods, turn their backs on Yahweh -- or still perform the rituals but don’t follow Yahweh’s commandments -- or when those in power ignore or mistreat the poor. As you can imagine, these prophecies are rarely well-received, and it is a tribute to Jewish culture that these expressions of dissent and warning were even preserved, let alone revered; although that usually came hundreds of years later.

Isaiah is 66 chapters long, the sixth longest book of the Bible if you go by word count -- which you probably shouldn’t because it wasn’t written in English -- but take it from someone who spent a lot of time one January reading it all, there’s a lot of material here. Scholars can discern from the writing style and historical references that it is not all the work of one author, it is written in sections by at least three “Isaiahs.” Our text from Isaiah 42 is from the second section of Isaiah, written to the people suffered because rulers did not heed the warnings of the first section of Isaiah; government officals and leaders have been taken into captivity in Babylon. Isaiah 40-55 actually includes words of promise and comfort -- some of which resonate with us through the music of Handel’s Messiah or other hymns: Comfort, comfort ye my people (Isaiah 40:1); For he shall feed his flock like a shepherd (Isaiah 40:11), How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace (Isaiah 57:2)

Now it should go without saying, that especially when it comes to entire societies of people, that good news is rarely good news for everyone. “The war is over!” is not good news if your side lost. “The stock market is up!” is not good news if you don’t have money to invest, and the price of goods is going up, too. Isaiah 42 is one of those passages where the good news depends on where you’re standing. The chapter begins by talking about the servant in whom God delights, who has God’s spirit upon him, and will faithfully bring forth justice and will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice.

This should be good news, right? Aren’t we all on the side of justice? But listen to verses 6 and 7: 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 prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. Wait a minute, if we’re releasing all the prisoners, isn’t that the opposite of justice? We usually think of justice as folks getting what they deserve -- fines, punishment, imprisonment. Are we just supposed to ignore why they were imprisoned in the first place?

Let me read another passage, from Isaiah 61:1-2. There are some similar themes and images here. The prophet says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And if you are wondering, where have I heard that before -- the answer is Luke 4. When Jesus begins his ministry and returns to synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, he’s asked to read scripture, and this is what he reads. He didn’t flip through and choose Isaiah 61 -- you can’t flip through a scroll very easily-- it is where the scroll was opened to. And do you remember what he said when he was done reading? Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. And the people were amazed and impressed by the authority with which he read, and Jesus extemporized and preached to them for a bit, and they tried to throw him off a cliff and kill him. It’s all there in Luke 4.

What happened? Jesus changed sides, or rather, he made it clear to his home supporters that he was not on their side, as they had assumed. They were not, in fact, the poor wretches whom God was going to liberate and bestow with favor, they were the folks who had turned their backs on God and oppressed other people; they should not be expecting God’s favor anytime soon. It was a brazen first sermon, and was almost Jesus’ last. So know that I am trying to proceed carefully here, that my comments are not directed toward anyone present, and that I’m counting on the topography of Northern Indiana and trusting that the odds of being thrown off a cliff in Elkhart are pretty low.

It is idolatry to claim that God is on our side, whatever side of whatever issue that is. It is pretty gutsy even to claim that we are on God’s side, and if we’re going to do that, we had better be able to back up our side with a lot of study and prayer and humility about the fact that none of us has the inside track on the mind of God. Here’s what we can demonstrate from study of the prophets, including the prophets of the New Testament -- especially Jesus, who was standing on the shoulders of folks like Isaiah. Justice is liberation, release and light for those who are oppressed. Justice is not a system which imprisons or marginalizes or excludes. Isaiah was speaking to people who had been in captivity for an entire generation -- of course they were going to hear the news of freedom from captivity as comfort and promise. Jesus was speaking to people who had been going their own way and simply wanted this nice young man to reassure them that they are fine people and that God is on their side. Instead, Jesus gave them a blistering commentary about how they could not simply do their own thing and assume that they were God’s chosen -- of course they were angry.

When I began studying this scripture two weeks ago, I thought this sermon would be about service -- about Isaiah’s challenge for us to be a light to the nations, to work for the good of others, and to give God the glory. That would have been a nice sermon; I may still preach that sermon sometime -- stay tuned. But it is on my heart that Isaiah 42, and especially Luke 4 are prophecies which carry an undertone of caution, as prophecies nearly always do. So here is the caution I will give you: it is inevitable that we take sides. We have opinions, informed or not so informed, we have places where we stand as white citizens of the United States, and as people who have been formed by the experiences of our families and our work. I trust we are also people who have been formed by the Bible -- how it has been shared with us, how we have read it ourselves, and especially what we know of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. It is possible to be a committed follower of Jesus Christ and devoted to the Word of God and to find yourself on a different side of an issue than someone else who also claims to be a Christian. God is not glorified when we throw mud at each other; and I don’t think God is pleased when different sides each claim that God is in their corner. God has heard that kind of grandstanding since the beginning of time, and I doubt if has changed God one little bit. If you find yourself claiming that God is on your side, take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind yourself who is most important. (hint: it isn’t you)

Here is something I hope we can all agree on. It’s Isaiah 42:8 and it says, I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. If we are giving allegiance and glory somewhere besides the Lord our God, that allegiance is misplaced. This was true for Isaiah, it was true at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it is still true for those who claim the name of Christ today. Justice is never served when we claim to speak for God and try to take some of that glory for ourselves. Christ will not rest until he has established justice in the earth; we participate in justice when we work for the release of those who are oppressed and good news for the poor, and when we give God the glory. Amen.

 

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