Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A Love Song to the Nations

Isaiah 49:1-7, the First Reading appointed for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany in the Year of Matthew, is a very unusual reading.  The text is addressed to the goyim, the nations.  From the outset the "peoples from far away" are told to listen closely because this pertains to them.  Might this be a word for our time, inviting us also to proclaim Christ to those beyond our usual boundaries?

(The following questions have been developed to answer some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, specifically around how the Word functions.  The rationale for this method and much more insight into Law and Gospel preaching might be found in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This word addresses the nations, proclaiming to them that a Servant has been appointed by Yahweh to give them "a light" so that "[God's] salvation may reach to the end of the earth."  As such, this is pure gospel, announcing to the nations that God has neither forgotten them nor abandoned them.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  While the text clearly assumes that the nations are in need of a Savior, the Law which would show them this need, is not present. There is no word of judgment here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  While it is usually the case that we are called to identify with those being addressed by the Word, it may be difficult for us to do that here, since we are already God's people, and not those addressed here.  We might consider identifying with the Servant, which would mean that this text is calling us to be lights to the nations.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is present if we assume the place of the Servant.  Then our calling is clear:  we are to be lights to the nations to bring God's salvation to the ends of the earth.  We are, in effect, as John the Baptist was in the gospel reading, the ones pointing to Christ, saying, "Look!  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without any Law in this text, we will have to improvise using the terms we are given.  Some suggestions:  darkness/light; bondage/salvation.

6.  Exegetical work:  As in the First Servant Song  (Isa. 42), there is a dispute amongst scholars as to whether the one speaking here is a singular person or a corporate person named Israel.  Abraham Heschel concludes that the nation of Israel is the speaker.  He writes:  "It is as if in fulfillment of Moses' prayer, 'Would that all the Lord's people were prophets,that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!' (Num. 11:29), Israel is declared to be God's spokesman, or prophet (49:2).  Just as the Lord said to Jeremiah, 'I appointed you a prophet to the nations' (Jer. 1:5), He said to Israel, 'I appointed you a light to the nations' (49:6).  The term 'servant of the Lord,' used to designate the prophets..., is now applied to Israel." (The Prophets, p. 155)  Claus Westermann is unconvinced.  He makes the case that an individual is being speaking here, particularly when we read that the calling to this one came "while I was in my mother's womb." Westermann argues that "'Israel' seems a late addition"... the earliest witness to the collective interpretation of the Servant.  (The OT Library, Isaiah 40-66, p. 209).  For our purposes, our gospel reading for the day from John already announces that Jesus is the One who came to take away the sins of the world.  In that line, then, the individual speaking in Isaiah 49 has long been understood by Christian writers to be the Christ.  We could accept that and also understand that, in this text, we are called to be servants, lights to the nations - the collective One.  In this way the ambiguity of the text announces the identity of the Christ and ours as well.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  It is always important to take into account the capacity of the listener to follow an argument, David Buttrick reminded us.  He always advised preachers to be careful to limit their sermon to 4-5 'moves' at the most.  Good advice, especially on a  text like this that might lead to tangents.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Who are the Called and the Chosen?

Isaiah 42:1-9, the First Reading for the Baptism of our Lord in the Year of Matthew, is a text that fits very well with the gospel reading from Matthew 3, where we hear similar words, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  In Isaiah we hear, "Here is my chosen, in whom my soul delights."  As many ancient writers attest, it has long been the practice to understand Isaiah's words to be referring to Christ.  What is not so widely agreed on, even in Christian circles, is to whom verses 5-9 refer.  Could it be that another person or group is being spoken of here?  Could it be the people of God?  It shall be the preacher's task to unpack this.

(The following questions have been developed to get at some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers, specifically questions around the function of the Word.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used with other fine sets of questions which explore texts using other lens.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions in several ways here.  In verses 1-4, the obvious function is to announce the One whom the Lord has designated as God's servant.  This one is chosen by God, blessed with God's spirit, and sent out to bring justice to the nations.  This announcement is certainly a gospel function, an announcement of good news.  In verses 5-9 the Word functions differently.  Here the address is in 2nd person:  "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."  It seems that this is a call to action, the Word functioning not as gospel, but as the call to obedience.  Is this addressed to the Chosen One in verses 1-4?  It seems unlikely.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law in this text, no word which exposes our need for a Savior.  Certainly the need to establish justice on the earth, and the presence of "bruised reeds" and "dimly burning wicks" signals the brokenness of this world, yet there is no judgment given, no word which condemns.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Our identity at first seems to be like the bystanders at Jesus' baptism, witnessing the voice from heaven saying, "Here is my chosen one."  We are given the privileged position of being shown who it is that God has appointed Servant to the Nations.  In verses 5-9, we are no longer bystanders, but those who are addressed.  We are the people whom God has given breath and spirit.  We are those who are given as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.  We are those who are called to open the eyes of the blind, bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and from prison those who sit in darkness.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since there is no word of Law here, we must use the language given to imagine some couplets which work.  A few ideas:  oppressed/given justice; blind/given sight; imprisoned/freed.

5.  Exegetical work:  The identity of the one who is spoken of in both the first four verses, and the final five has been in dispute for ages.  It is interesting to note that in the Septuagint, verse 1 begins with "Jacob, my child, whom I am helping, Israel, my chosen one."  Clearly those scribes who attended to the LXX viewed this passage as referring to Israel, even though the Hebrew text has no mention of either Jacob or Israel.   As pointed out above, for that reason, Christian scholars have for millenia understood this chosen Servant to be the Christ.  No less an Old Testament scholar than Claus Westermann has noted that three crucial questions remain:  "Who is this servant?  What is the nature of the task?  In what context is the designation made?" (The OT Library, Isaiah 40-66, p. 93)  The only thing that is clear is that God has appointed this One, God has equipped this One with God's spirit, and the task given is for the sake of the nations. (Ibid.)  As to verses 5-9, even though it is true that the "you" is yet singular, and could be understood to be referring to the Chosen One in verses 1-4, it seems to me that there is no reason why these later verses couldn't be understood as referring to God's people.  Verse 5 reminds us that God gives "breath to the people upon [earth] and spirit to those who walk in it."  Immediately following that statement we hear, "I have called you."  It also seems quite likely that the job description of the these called ones is the job description for God's people: "to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."  It is not unlike the words we hear in Matthew 25 when Jesus reminds his followers that when they have ministered to the least ones, they have ministered to him.  Westermann, in his commentary, seems to support this when he says, "the sense [in verse 7] is that God has designated Israel to be a light to the world and to mediate salvation to it; she is to bring enlightenment and liberation to others." (Ibid., p.100)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice wanted preachers to help listeners recognize their shared story in a text.  This might be a challenge well worth pursuing with this text.  How might listeners recognize themselves as those who are called, those who are given God's spirit, and those who are given as a light to the nations?

Blessings on your proclamation!