The readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany are…
Old Testament Isaiah 49:1–7
Psalm Psalm 40:1–11
New Testament 1 Corinthians 1:1–9
Gospel John 1:29–42
Isaiah 49 sets the tone for this Sunday’s readings, describing Servant Israel as a hero who marches to a different drummer. The servant lives according to God’s just and compassionate order in a disordered world, and for the sake of redeeming that same world for God.
Guesses as to whom the prophet is writing about in the series of servant poems in Isaiah vary. Some say the Servant is Israel. Some say it is the ideal prophet. Some say it is the Persian King Cyrus. Some say it is Jesus. We can be safe in saying that there is some truth in all these possibilities.
In this text, verse 3 says unequivocally it is Israel, and yet, verse 5 says this servant’s mission is to bring back Jacob or Israel. We may then say that the servant here is a population within Israel who lives true to the nation’s calling to be the people of God. And the aim of living in this way is to be an example to others—to prick the conscience of others and move them to return to their true calling and authentic identity.
Key to the entire message of this text is the word translated as “cause” in verse 4, according to the NRSV. The servant is discouraged that it seems she or he has acted in vain, “…yet surely my cause is with the Lord…”
The Hebrew word for “cause” in this translation is mishpat. It is used 425 times in the Hebrew Bible, and is translated variously as decision, judgment, dispute, case, measure, justice, or law. But scholar Paul D. Hanson has described it as “The order of compassionate justice that God has created and upon which the wholeness of the universe depends.” (Hanson, P. D. (1995). Isaiah 40-66 (p. 129). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.) It is certainly an important idea in this portion of Isaiah, as evidenced by Isaiah 42:4, which declares that the Servant “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established mishpat in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
We could then say it is the demanding job description of a servant to live according to God’s order of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” while the world around is working within an order of “do unto others before they do unto you.”
When the Servant here complains about working in vain it is obvious that this Servant is not the Word made flesh, Jesus. This one, at least, is not a superhuman. In spite of discouragement this is someone like us, but one who lives by different rules, and marches to a far different drummer. This Servant lives counter-culturally, against the grain, within God’s order of compassionate justice, while those around do not.
This past week, after Kevin McCarthy was finally named as Speaker of the House, we have had a living example of how might makes right. Majority rules in Congress. Everything changes with the shift of a few chairs. All the priorities of the losers are swept away by the winners. We will stop protecting abortion rights and protect anti-abortion activists. We will stop investigating Trump and gear up for investigations of Biden. We will stop restoring funding to the IRS as they go after tax cheats, and start looking for ways of shrinking government altogether.
They say the golden rule is, “Those with the gold make the rules.” But it may be more accurate to say, “Those with the power…those who have wrangled the most votes…those who live according to the rule book of a fickle, self-serving, survival-of-the-fittest world, make the rules.”
In this way it seems Qoheleth was right when he wrote that “all is vanity—a chasing after wind.” It is the eternal pain of true Servants of God that to live for justice with compassion is like beating your head against a stone wall.
But true Servants do it anyway, knowing that, while their “cause” is with God, so is their “reward” (Isaiah 49:4). And God’s order is certain to win.
Meanwhile, as we wait for the ultimate “reward,” Servants do as the poet in Psalm 40 does, and celebrate those mini-triumphs along the road to social justice and perfect compassion. It is especially sweet and worth celebrating when a true Servant trusts God enough to resist the temptation to sell out by turning to the proud (Psalm 40:4).
Our Gospel reading from John lifts up Jesus as the highest ranking Servant of all. But even those of us who are easily discouraged, are called.
I for one would love to see more state officials in Illinois quit caving in to the proud purveyors of fear who are attacking two vital changes to the laws of this state: one that ended cash bail and the other that outlawed the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in the state. Fear sells, and gets votes. And it has convinced a guy named Andy Sullivan that he is my sheriff in DeKalb County, Illinois. But he is not my sheriff when he tells people that only those who can afford cash bail deserve to be free as they await trial. And not when he tells people that we all need 50 caliber, semi-automatic weapons, and unlimited bullet capacity magazines, to defend our families.
Andy Sullivan is not a legitimate sheriff when he claims the right to decide which laws he will enforce. He is not my sheriff when he defends the right of gun dealers to sell, and others to own weapons of war, but will not defend my right, and the right of my neighbors, not to be mowed down by those same weapons.
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