When you visit 34th St. in Hampden in December, you can not miss the light spectacular on one block. Literally every house is decked out, most of them quite garishly and all of them definitely over the top when it comes to the sheer quantity of light bulbs strung on and around the row houses, filling up the tiny front yards, and even running across 34th street, connecting the houses with their neighbor across the street! You know it is definitely over the top on the BGE bill as well. People come from all around to walk the street, buy hot chocolate or fried oysters and soak up the Christmas spirit, appreciating the lights piercing the dark winter night. The lights announce that Christmas is coming. Every display says: “We love Christmas!” and “Hey, look at us!” But then residents of each home also announce their own, more personalized messages with their theme, their banners, their figurines all lit up. One is focused on peace, another on Maryland items like crabs and old bay, another on the figures from the birth of Christ, another on local beers. The light display allows for a lot of creativity, it takes a lot of time and devotion to “the cause”, and it brings joy to many, many people every year. Basically our neighbors on one block of 34th St. are announcing their message without spoken words (although some do have Christmas music playing). They are a light to Baltimore every year.
The prophet Isaiah employs a certain amount of creativity as he includes within his prophecy four distinct poems about God’s Servant who suffers. He uses them to announce a unique, new message about the way God will work in the lives of God’s people, and about the way God will work in the world. The poems have traditionally been called the Servant Songs of Isaiah, describing the one we have come to call the suffering servant. They are scattered between Isaiah 42—you heard the first one this morning—and Isaiah 53. If you want to check the rest of them out, look at Isa. 49, 50, and 52/53. Each song provides a little more description of this Servant of God. Yet the servant is not actually named in any one of the songs, in contrast with the naming we are used to in other parts of the Old Testament, where we read about God’s servant Moses or God’s servant David. Sometimes it seems like the servant is the prophet Isaiah himself, like other prophets before him, who is reviled, abused, even physically mistreated because of his message requiring repentance and change of behavior. No one wants to hear that kind of message, after all. Then at other points it seems like the servant is the people of Israel as a whole, a suffering community who continues to rely on God to help them face their foes. Intentional ambiguity is often a goal of a poet, leaving the interpretation of her words up to the reader or hearer.
The early Christian church interpreted the identity of God’s servant to be Jesus. For Christians, there is an obvious connection between God’s servant described in Isaiah and Jesus who was born in such humble surroundings and then almost immediately became homeless, who was a vagabond street preacher-type, a rabblerouser who claimed to bring the news of God to the people and to represent the people to God. Jesus has long been viewed as THE servant of God who suffered and died on the cross…. Partly because of the unmistakable and loud echo of Isaiah’s poems as they inform the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Partly due to the prayer of praise out of the mouth of the elderly Simeon when he met Jesus and his parents in the temple, using words that sound familiar at this point: “For my eyes have seen your salvation, Sovereign Lord, the salvation you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles…” Partly because Jesus himself refers back to Isaiah’s words about the servant in his very first sermon in the temple. Then he read from the prophet in Luke 4: “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…” In the servant song for today, servant song #1, we heard God say: “Here is my servant… I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…” and then later, addressing the servant directly: “You will be a light to the nations, you will open the eyes that are blind, you will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and bring out from prison those who sit in darkness.” It is hard to miss the link between the 6th c. BCE prophet and the 1st c. CE servant of God. So the Christian church has long followed that way of understanding the servant as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, even though Isaiah makes no mention at all of the servant as a messiah, or having a link to the family of David.
So who is the servant? The prophet is intentionally ambiguous and even fluid in his understanding of God’s Servant. Maybe that is not the primary question. Maybe instead, we should be asking: “What can we glean from better understanding the relationship between the servant, God and those who are waiting for justice, wherever they might be found?”
Clearly the servant, whoever he is, is expected to relieve suffering and to remove the weight of that which imprisons, whether due to natural causes or to human sin. The servant has a mission, or task, that is clearly described three times in the first part of this first servant song—maybe that is because we are good at remembering things in threes? God’s servant will: 1. bring forth justice to the nations—which means the nations outside of Israel, referred to as the Gentiles in the New Testament; 2. faithfully and consistently, and oh so quietly, bring forth justice as truth; and 3. establish justice on the earth (which of course includes all peoples and nations). There is just a bit of repetition here!
The Hebrew word mishpat can be translated as justice, righteousness, and truth. It is repeated three times within 4 verses. So the bottom line is that the Servant’s task is to bring forth mishpat—to create it or to get it started— and then to model mishpat for others to follow. The relationship between the servant, God and those needing justice seems to go in a circle… God uses the servant to bring justice–both to announce it and to deliver it to the hurting world, reeling from race infused accusations of police brutality, investigations upon investigations of police actions, of rape cases on college campuses, of a creeping, harmful, conservative and exclusionary Muslim agenda in parts of Africa and the Middle East. God’s servant touches all who are in need of justice, wherever they might live on this globe. I have to believe that God looks at the earth like this– not with lines drawn between nations on each continent! Those who receive justice at the hands of God’s servant give thanks to God and draw closer to God. And the circle goes on.
The servant is bringing justice/truth/righteousness forth to God’s world. And then the servant solidifies the justice/truth/righteousness, or establishes it as the norm, the standard, the practice of Israel and of all nations. The servant acts gently and humbly, working without violence, without shouting, working with conviction and urgency.
Surely in our lifetime God’s servant has taken other forms. We can all agree that one of God’s servants was Martin Luther King, Jr. Another was Mahatma Ghandi. Another is Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is now a legislator in Myanmar pushing for justice for all Burmese. Others were Lech Walensa and his fellow shipyard workers in Poland insisting on justice in the right to form trade unions in the 1980’s, and who basically began a ripple effect of nonviolent revolution across much of the Soviet Union. Others are announcing the need for justice in peaceful demonstrations in cities all over the country, including ours, in recent weeks, even yesterday, and likely in the days to come.
People in need of justice have not disappeared. It seems there is as much a need for God’s Servant as ever. God’s Servant who brings light to Baltimore, to this nation, to all the world. God’s Servant is Jesus, of course. But maybe God’s Servant is also each of us, tasked with bringing light where we can, piercing the dark winter night. Amen.