A Sermon by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, based on Isa. 49:1-7. ______________________________________________________________________
The Israelites had fallen into troubled times. They felt rather beleaguered living in Babylonian captivity. They had lost their homeland, along with their city of Jerusalem and the temple. Would they ever be delivered from living in exile? Where was their God in all of this anyway? Had God forgotten about them? What about God's covenant with them? Did God really care? Was God doing anything to help them? It was in this life setting that, in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the prophet proclaims a second Servant Song, which not only affirms the calling and mission of Israel, but also promises a future of restoration and hope. This calling and mission; this restoration and hope is given first to Israel, and later, through Israel, to all the nations of the world. This was a tremendous, holy privilege for the Israelites to be God's Chosen People. However, as we all know, along with privileges come responsibilities.
The prophet, struggling inside himself with all of these burning questions; felt an even deeper sense of despair and failure because he believes that no matter how hard he tried to live up to the expectations of his calling, he comes to the conclusion that: "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity."
There are times in our lives too, when we feel like we're living in exile and ask the same burning questions as the ancient Israelites. We, like the prophet, may also feel a deeper sense of despair and failure because no matter how hard we try to live up to the expectations of our calling, our labor seems to be in vain, our strength is spent for nothing and vanity. I think this is especially true for us pastors in general, who often do not see the fruits of our labours because our work is difficult to measure in concrete, tangible ways. Yet, even when our deep sense of despair and failure overwhelms us; when we fall short of our calling; God speaks to us as God did the prophet; to lift us up and give us hope, so that we, like the prophet can say: "yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God."
We, like the prophet, need not base our calling on immediate, tangible rewards, which seem obvious, and are easily measured. Rather, our reward is with our God over the ups-and-downs of our lives; over the long haul of living in the various forms of exile--whether that exile is physical, emotional, socio-economic, political or spiritual--God promises to be with us to see us through all of our exiles. Furthermore, God offers us a promising life of restoration and hope beyond our living in exile.
This promise of restoration and hope is closely related to the mission of Israel, once they have been delivered out of their Babylonian captivity and they return to their homeland. The mission, like the calling is a "tall order," the expectations are extremely high, the responsibilities are enormous. What is this mission anyway? The prophet puts it this way: "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." What a mission! Israel, God's Chosen, to be a light to the nations! How would Israel be able to accomplish such an all-inclusive mission? Is this not too much to ask of anyone?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel relates the following incident: The Protestant pastor, Christian Furchtegott Gellert, was asked by Frederick the Great, "Herr Professor, give me proof of the Bible, but briefly, for I have little time." Gellert answered, "Your Majesty, the Jews."
Gellert singles out here the calling and mission of the Jewish people--thanks to them, the Bible has been passed on down to all the other nations of the world, along with the message of salvation.
Martin Marty tells of an occasion when: A modern Jew was asked: Do Jews believe all the world will be saved when it all turns to the faith of Israel? "No," he said, "Jews believe that the world will not be saved if we(Jews) are not faithful to the covenant."
One aspect of the Jews being faithful to their covenant is being "a light to the nations." How are the Jews a light to the nations? I have asked my Jewish friends this very question. Their answer to me was most interesting. They told me that they believe Jews are not alone in being a light to the nations. Rather, to their way of understanding, this calling and mission involves both Jews and Christians. For them, being a light to the nations means engaging one another in teaching, study and learning; it also means being humble enough to accept and put into practice what God and others teach us. This means Jews and Christians working together to promote justice and peace in the world.
Over the centuries, the Jews have been a light to the nations in several ways--through their great prophets and sages who have passed on to us their scriptures and teachings; also through their gifted artists, musicians, writers, and scientists; all of whom have made a profound contribution to Western civilization. But most of all, for us Christians, they have been a light to us through Jesus Christ, who has revealed to us the One, True God of Israel and the nations. Jesus has shown us the way to God. In him, God has been a light to the nations. Peoples from every corner of the earth have come to see Christ as their Light to guide them as they journey through this life.
During this season of Epiphany, we focus on what light means to us in relation to our faith-journey. Christ is our Light and we are given the calling and mission to spread this Light to all nations. Do we live in this Light and share it with everyone or do we try to deny, forget about or hide this Light from others?
Many years ago now, some Christians came up with the term "coconut theology." This rather novel, creative term was popular among the churches of the Solomon Islands. Apparently, in that part of the world, the coconut was spread from one island to another by way of ocean currents, which carried the seeds to each island shore. For these island churches, this was a living parable of how their faith needed to spread from one person to another and one location to another.
This Epiphany season, may we all follow Christ our Light by reflecting his Light to others. May we also place our future hope in Christ our Light who is able to deliver us from all of our forms of exile; to restore us so that we are able to be his servants and carry out our calling and mission in the world. Amen.