The First Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
“Prisms” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Look around — All the decorations are down; the Advent is back to looking like she looks most of the year long. The chronological calendar turned to 2017, and the liturgical calendar turned to the season of Epiphany — a word that means “manifestation” or “appearance” of Christ to the Gentiles in the person of the Magi (who, you may have noticed, made their circuit of the church from just to my right all the way around to the creche). Now on this first Sunday of Epiphanytide, we read the first of four songs from Isaiah about a mysterious figure called “the Servant” (42.1), a figure God will send to bring justice (42.1), to bring back ethnic Israel from the exile caused by their disobedience (49.5-6), and ultimately to suffer vicariously to redeem those he came to save (53.4-6).
Let me say this up front — Barrels and barrels of ink have spilled debating the identity of this “servant.” But there is a Christian consensus about the issue. Simeon in the temple recited the nunc dimittis, saying the child he held was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” (Luke 2.32), language directly from Isaiah 42.6 — Somehow he knew the infant Jesus was the long awaited servant of God. And the ancient church fathers agreed. Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the 4th century, said:
Although this very great person is not the one who was in the mind of those hearing the prophecy the first time . . . clearly the Christ of God is meant here.
So let us assume, for the sake of this sermon, that Jesus Christ is the messiah, the ultimate embodiment of the “servant” in Isaiah. If he is that servant, then what do we learn from Isaiah 42? I believe that it tells us: (1) Jesus’ kingdom brings justice; (2) his kingdom crosses boundaries; and (3) Jesus wins his kingdom by losing.
First: Jesus’ kingdom brings justice
Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. (42.1) He will bring forth “justice.”
How many flavors of Law & Order are there on TV? That’s what we think when we hear “justice” — finding out whodunnit. This word mishpat, or justice, occurs some 400x in the OT, and it does mean to judge fairly on the merits of every case, not out of prejudice or preference, regardless of race, class, or anything else.. But more than that, it means giving people their rights under law. That’s why over and over again mishpat shows up connected to orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor — people sometimes called “the quartet of the vulnerable.” In Generous Justice, Tim Keller says:
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there as any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat.
This tells us that Jesus’ messianic kingdom is about more, much more, than just forgiveness and going to heaven when you die. God sent Jesus his servant to do justice to restore dignity to every human being, to deal with all the effects of sin in the world, to bring about absolute flourishing for every creature under heaven. That is biblical justice.
Hold that thought. Point two: Jesus’ kingdom crosses boundaries
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations . . . . (42.6)
Israel’s destiny, as God’s chosen people, had always been for blessing to overflow through them into the ends of the earth. In Genesis 12, God told Abraham “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Leave all that behind, and I will do three things: I will make you a great nation, I’ll give you a great name, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12.1-3) That’s why God chose Abraham — not for his sake alone, some special privilege just for Abraham’s family, but in order that God could bless the whole world using Abraham as his channel of blessing. That’s why we make so much of the magi making their way around the church finally to arrive at the crèche — the Epiphany is the manifestation, the dawning, the appearance of salvation not just to Israel but to the goyim, the Gentiles — the whole world.
And that’s why Lesslie Newbigin calls the gospel, the message of God’s kingdom, “public truth.” In Truth to Tell, Newbigin writes:
The church lives by the faith that . . . Jesus is Lord. That means that he is Lord not only of the Church but of the world, not only in the religious life but in all life, not merely over some peoples but over all peoples. He is not just my savior, but the savior of the world . . . . If it is true, it is true for all and must not be concealed from any.
Point three: Jesus’ kingdom is a just kingdom, it crosses every racial and national boundary, and he gains his kingdom in the strangest way — Jesus wins his kingdom by losing
He will not cry aloud of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth . . . . (42.2-3)
This is only hinted at here, but it’s clearer in the other Servant Songs in chapters 49-53, — notice this king doesn’t become king the way normal kings do. Normal kings field armies to conquer through force or coercion; bending the enemy to their will and plundering their lands. But look at this king — he is gentle: He won’t break even the slenderest reed; he won’t snuff out the faintest candle. We are in a position to understand better what Isaiah only hinted at — that Jesus the servant of God didn’t save us by force; he saved us by weakness. Isa. 53.10 says “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” In other words: Jesus came not to bruise us but to be bruised; not to snuff us out but to be extinguished. That’s why he won his kingdom not on the field of battle but on the cross.
One last point: We’ve covered a lot of theology. But what about application? What about us? Well, every Epiphany I think of a song. Richard Shindell is my favorite songwriter, and my favorite song of his is called “Transit,” a long song about a nun named Sister Maria. Sister Maria often drives to the state penitentiary to direct a choir of convicts, a motley crew of “car thieves and crack dealers, mobsters and murderers.” And here’s how Shindell describes their song:
And so it began in glorious harmony
Softly and Tenderly, calling for you and me
With the interstate whining way off in the distance
And the sun going down through the bars of the prison
They poured out their souls, they poured out their memories
They poured out their hopes for whats left of eternity
To sister Maria, her soul like a prism
For the light of forgiveness on all of their faces
. . . her soul like a prism . . . .
Epiphany is about light dawning in a dark world. And here’s the application: First — Let that light come to you. Maybe you feel like a bruised reed, like your light is almost flickered out. Come to Jesus — he is the medicine your soul most desperately needs. And second — Be prisms.
- Be prisms and refract God’s justice into the world everywhere you can. Stand with the vulnerable — widows, orphans, immigrants, refugees, the poor, anyone with little or no social power.
- Be prisms and cross every boundary with the gospel — Be evangelists. Don’t let the postmodern spirit of our pluralistic age dampen your zeal to take the gospel to the whole world.
- Be prisms and advance God kingdom in the world not from a position of strength but weakness. The church must be a place that is loving and kind and welcoming to the most broken among us. “Christ disarmed his enemies with love and grace and gentleness.” We must do the same.
God manifested his son to the Magi, and he did so to you. Now be prisms for the light of Christ’s star. Make him manifest for all the world to see.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Go Deeper //
- For Eusebius of Caesarea, see Ancient Christian Cmt. on Scripture, Mark W. Elliott, ed., vol. OT XI, p. 32ff.
- Shaphat,” in Theological Wordbook of the OT, Harris et al., eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1980): Vol. II, p. 2443-44.
- Tim Keller, “What is Biblical Justice?”, Relevant, 23 Aug. 2012 (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/what-biblical-justice) (last visited 6 January 2017).
- Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010): 4.5.
- John N. Oswalt, Isaiah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003): 474.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 33-34. Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism where we are free to have our own opinions provided we agree that they are only personal opinions. We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically different human cultures. Ibid., 59-60.
- Tim Keller, Gospel Christianity (2003) (“Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. And those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit they are weak and lost.”).
- For audio of this sermon: https://www.dropbox.com/s/0dzmt7gedeuixx0/Prisms.m4a?dl=0