by David Baer, December 14, 2014
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9
The words we heard today were spoken to a people living in exile. They, or their ancestors, had been forcibly removed from their homeland by a conquering army. The leading citizens of Judah were transported to Babylon, where they expected to live out their days. This kind of exile, the exile of having to leave your home because of armed conflict, still happens. There are refugees from Syria living in Turkey because of the civil war in their home country, and others who have fled areas of Iraq threatened by the group calling itself the Islamic State. Like the Jews who endured exile in ancient times, they are not where they most want to be, where they truly feel at home. And perhaps home isn’t quite the same as when they left it, either. Like modern-day refugees, the Jewish people knew that many of their lands and homes had been claimed by others. The Temple where they worshiped God was in ruins. Not only were they physically separated from all that they knew, all that made them who they were. Much of what they missed, what they longed for no longer existed. Their home was lost to them.
Most of us have never experienced that kind of exile, and it’s important that we don’t minimize the experience of those who have. Being an exile, being a refugee, is not just a metaphor. It’s a real hardship that millions of people are enduring right now. But it’s also true that most of us can relate to being separated from and longing for something that makes us who we are. There’s a woman who raised her children in a small town, formed lasting friendships, planted deep roots, only to move cross-country when her husband was transferred. There’s the immigrant, eager to build a life for himself in this country, but homesick for the music and food and humor of his native land. We’ve prayed recently for any number of older folks who are going into assisted living, giving up homes that they may have lived in for decades, moving away from communities where they had a sense of belonging and identity, and it’s incredibly painful and disorienting, even if it’s necessary, from the perspective of health and safety. Maybe you’re someone who feels displaced in time—that there’s a season of your life, now past, where you felt secure and happy—maybe your childhood, maybe a close-knit community of now scattered friends. We know something about separation and longing.
Advent is a time for living with these feelings. One of the ways we get ready for celebrating the birth of Jesus is to remember all the reasons why we and our world are so desperately in need of a Savior. Folks like us who are mired in destructive relationships, in destructive behaviors, who are part of destructive systems, who live with guilt and regret, who can’t quite see our way toward wholeness—we feel a separation from and longing for our true selves, for our well being. We feel a separation from and longing for grace, for peace, for God. That’s why we listen to these words spoken by a prophet sent to give hope to exiles.
The prophet’s message points to a Servant. The obvious move here is to say, “Aha! The Servant is Jesus!” But Jewish people have been listening to these words since centuries before Jesus’ birth, and the hope they found in the message didn’t have to do with a not-yet-born Messiah. This part of the book of Isaiah speaks about this Servant a lot. Sometimes he’s identified as the whole Jewish people, the whole people of God. Sometimes he’s a lonely figure who suffers for the people—maybe the prophet himself. It’s difficult to pin down just who he’s supposed to be.
But this Servant is someone who’s chosen, protected, and forgiven by God. He’s someone who has a job. His task is to raise up and restore the exiles, to gather them from all the places they’ve been living in captivity, to reach them and deliver the startling announcement that God is going to bring them home, and to restore their ancestral homeland. But it’s too small a thing for God just to be concerned about the Jewish people. In restoring them, in making whole a people that was broken and scattered throughout the world, in reconstituting them as a nation, God will be doing something so great, so amazing, so unmistakably miraculous, that all the other nations of the world will sit up, take notice, and pledge their allegiance and their service to the God of Israel.
The Servant will bring justice to the nations. All nations will acknowledge God’s rule, and they will honor God’s people, not in the usual way—through military conquest—but through the quiet, gentle witness of the servant. He doesn’t need to cry out and lift up his voice, he doesn’t need to resort to violence, because of the awesome power of God. This is a God who frees captives, who gives the light of hope to a people who couldn’t see any kind of future. When the nations see what God is able to do, they are going to come chasing after the Servant, saying, “Wait! Tell us more about this amazing God who did all this for you!”
Now, that happened. God kept this promise to the Jewish people when they rebuilt their Temple 500 years before Jesus was born. These words, before they meant anything else, were meant to give hope and encouragement to a people living in exile, to tell them that their fortures were about to change, and that in saving them God would be reaching outward to the whole world.
Now, the God who did this is the same God who sent Jesus. And so the shape of what God was doing here, some 500 years before, are going to look familiar. While we don’t want to forget the first, the primary meaning of this message, while we don’t want to say, “It’s about Jesus, and nothing else!”, it’s not totally wrong to look at these words and see something there that tells us what God was doing in Jesus. Jesus certainly did. More than any other prophet, Jesus seemed to draw from the words of the book of Isaiah when he wanted to express who he was and what he came to do. And so did Jesus’ friends, as we read in the gospel of Matthew this morning. Jesus cured crowds of people of their diseases, and he wouldn’t let them speak about it, because just as with the Servant in the book of Isaiah, he wanted to let God’s power speak for itself. The shape of Jesus’ work—bringing back folks like lepers whose diseases excluded them from their homes, bringing reconciliation between tax collectors and those they had cheated, giving new hope about God’s presence and work in the world which he called the Kingdom of God—was the same as the shape of the Servant’s work. God was giving hope to exiles through him.
The same God who rescued the exiles, the same God who sent Jesus, is the God we’re waiting for this Advent season, in our own places of exile. The shape of your life is unique, and so are your wounds, the parts of you that cry out for healing and deliverance. Part of the way we get ready for the coming of Jesus is by naming the things that hold us captive and recognizing our need for new eyes to see. But we’re also a people already being led and changed and healed by God. One of the beautiful things about all the passages about the Servant in the book of Isaiah is that we’re never sure who he is. Is he someone sent to save God’s people, or is he God’s people themselves? Yes. He’s both. We need to be saved, to be delivered, from our sin, from our indifference, from the hurts that we’ve given and suffered. And we feel that need.
But we’re also living, walking evidence of God’s grace and faithfulness. We’re still captives and exiles in so many ways, but we’ve also been freed by the promise that we belong to a God who doesn’t forget God’s own. We’ve been given fresh eyes to see ourselves as God’s forgiven children. Separation and longing are very real, and they hurt. But they aren’t the final word. There’s something more, something new that God has in store for us, that God has begun to whisper in our ears: “See, the former things have come to pass, and the new things I now declare.” Because we know these “new things,” we’re capable of acts of mercy that speak for themselves, that transmit hope to captives and light to darkened eyes. Your kindness and your generosity matter. There are others who need to see for themselves that their exile, their hurt is not the last word. When you give a gift to a child of a prisoner, or help put food on a family’s table, you’re freeing others in the way that you’ve been freed.
Jesus is on his way. It won’t be long before the doors that imprison us will be flung open, before sunlight streams into dark cells and God takes us by the hand to guide us home. In the mean time, let’s talk about God’s new things, and let’s give them shape. Let’s brighten the dark days of winter with hope and grace. God is speaking new things to us. Listen… Listen… And watch them spring forth. Amen.