Monday, April 10, 2017

Who Is This?

Yesterday, in a wonderfully written, wonderfully short Palm Sunday sermon, Seth Olson gave to us the same question the whole city of Jerusalem was asking when Jesus entered the city to much fanfare: "Who is this?" The crowds answered, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee," but, as Seth pointed out, the disciples' betrayal, denial, sleepiness, and violent impulse suggested that even those closest to Jesus were not able to answer that question fully. We, too, are asked that question--a question that can only receive its fullest answer in the light of Easter Day--but we are asked to suspend our knowledge of what lies ahead and wrestle with the question as we make our way through Holy Week. Today, as I encounter some of the poetry of Isaiah that is routinely applied to Jesus, I wonder again whether we really know who Jesus is.

In the first part of Isaiah 42:1-9, the prophet recalls the commissioning of Yahweh's servant: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him." Let everyone see and know that this is the one whom God himself has selected, called, named, and equipped to accomplish his work. And what is that work? "He will bring forth justice to the nations." That's it? Justice to the nations? Not anymore than that? Well, the rest of this lesson as well as the other poems about this servant of Yahweh show us that there's more to say about that justice and how that justice will be accomplished, but the fundamental mission of Isaiah's servant is to bring about justice to the nations.

How will this servant bring about this justice? "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice." Unlike so many of God's prophets, who walk through the streets crying out for repentance or promising a violent end to those who disobey, this servant will not raise his voice. He will be so gentle and careful that even a flickering candle will not go out under his watch. In other words, even those whose future seems dire, whom God presumably has forgotten already, will not be abandoned by this servant.

As the second half of this lesson confirms, in the accomplishment of this work, the servant will point everyone back to Yahweh:

"Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out...
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.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols."

This work will be a light that illuminates the Lord as the creator of all things. This bringing-forth of justice will reveal the true glory of Yahweh to all nations. When the prisoners are released from the dungeon, everyone will see and know that the Lord is the only one worthy of worship and praise. It is the justice on the meek that will point everyone to God's true identity.

For two thousand years, Christians have been reading Isaiah 42:1-9 and applying those words to Jesus. After all of that inherited biblical interpretation, have we forgotten what this is all about? Sure, Jesus is more than the servant of Deutero-Isaiah's poetic identification, but if we are so intentional about making the link that we would read this passage as the first lesson on the Monday of Holy Week--if this is the beginning of our answer to the question, "Who is this Jesus?"--we'd do well to pay attention to what the prophet actually says.

Who is this Jesus? He is the one who brings justice to the nations. He is the one whose care for those whom God has seemed to have forgotten reminds us who God really is. Justice is the right-ness of all things. God's justice is the great leveling out of the world. Those who have climbed to power on the backs of the oppressed are pulled down, while those who have been trampled are raised up. That's true economically, politically, and socially. Jesus is the one who points all the nations back to God by insisting quietly, gently, yet resolutely that God's justice be the way of the world. That gentle insistence is what got Jesus in trouble in the first place. Have we forgotten that that's the Jesus we follow?

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