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Visions of Greatness

Watch the sermon here, starting at the three-minute mark. Text is printed below.


Isaiah 49:1-7

The blockbuster Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical tells the story of an unlikely hero. Alexander Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a Scotsman who grew up in poverty in the West Indies. His father left when he was ten; his mother died when he was twelve; he went to live with a cousin and then the cousin committed suicide. But he started writing and word of his brilliance got around. The people in his town took up a collection to send him to America. In the opening song of this powerful musical, they say: “Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and the world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?” And the audience gets chills down their spine when he steps into the light and proclaims, Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton. There’s a million things I haven’t done but just you wait, just you wait… And suddenly you believe him, and you can’t wait to see what he will do.

He had nothing going for him—not money or position or family support. But he had a brilliant mind, extraordinary writing ability, and a drive “to rise above his station.” He became one of our founding fathers, creating our financial system and the coast guard, among many other accomplishments. And the musical about his life has displayed the greatness of countless others.

We like stories of greatness—stories of people who defied all the odds, who seemed to be doomed by life circumstances, but who rose up from the ashes or the slums or any pit of despair, to become someone great. We like stories of greatness that was hidden at first, but when it came out through need or pressure, it seemed obvious that it was there all the time. Destined for greatness.

We like to think of ourselves that way sometimes, or at least we did when we were kids. We were going to be the next Ted Williams or Serena Williams, the next Celine Dion or Deion Sanders. We were going to be great. We were going to hear the roar of the crowd, chanting our name. We had a date with destiny. We just needed to be discovered, needed someone to see how special we were. But then we found out that we were more ordinary than extraordinary, that we were more suited for the audience than the stage, that we would dive into an NFL end zone only if we fell out of the bleachers. It may have happened slowly, a dawning realization, or it may have happened suddenly with an injury or an insult. So much for our visions of greatness.

From there we had two choices. We could choose to give up greatness entirely, or we could choose to redefine greatness. We could redefine greatness to mean the best we could be: the best coach, teacher, or real estate agent we could be, the best parent we could be, the best person we could be. We redefined greatness. Or we said “greatness is not for mere mortals like me” and we gave up the dream.

Either way, we still like the stories. We like the stories of others who found greatness within them. We like those kind of Bible stories, too, like Moses, who was supposed to die as a baby, led his people out of slavery; and David, the boy with the sling shot who became king.

And then we have our speaker in this week’s passage. “The Lord called me before I was born.” It sounds wonderful, to be so clear on one’s destiny, one’s calling. So who is the speaker? It’s the book of Isaiah so we might first think Isaiah is the speaker, but he is not. This is one of four passages in Isaiah about “the suffering servant,” and millions of words have been written about his exact identity. In verse 1 and 2 it seems clear this servant is one individual. In fact, some scholars name him as a particular exiled king, King Jehoiachin.[1] But by verse 3 God refers to the speaker as Israel, which means that the speaker is a representative of the community, the whole people speaking as one voice. Or possibly it is both—both an individual and a representative of the whole.

Regardless of the speaker’s identity, what is really important is the role, the work the servant has been given to do. The context for this passage is the Babylonian exile—remember, that took place after Jerusalem was defeated and its leaders and key citizens were forced to leave their home and go to Babylon. One scholar describes their predicament with these words: “Their homeland has become a landscape of disaster, a wilderness of a different kind [than Moses and the Israelites had experienced.] It is not a wilderness where bushes burn with a Word from God, where manna falls, or where a rock yields up life-giving water. It is, rather, a landscape littered with the ruins of war. What is to keep them from being swept completely from the face of the earth the next time the eyes of the empire notice their plight? They are looking for assurance that God has not abandoned them like a delinquent parent.”[2]

So the servant, the main character in our scripture reading for today, “is convinced that the work to which he/she is called is the … one as often outlined in the post-exilic literature of Israel. The chief task is to return the exiles to the Promised Land of God. Isaiah himself paints the famous pictures of Israel streaming back to Zion from the various places of their exile. When the exiles return to Jerusalem, the glory of God will be revealed and all flesh will see it together.”[3]

This is how the speaker, this “suffering servant,” understands his or her role: to bring those who are exiled back home. Isn’t that a fabulous calling? To be the one who calls the exiles home. He will need a mouth like a sword—he will need to be a great orator to inspire the people, to entreat them to follow. He has been called; he is destined to be that voice.

Now hold onto that thought for a minute. Put a bookmark there in your mind because I’m coming back to it.

In the original context, this story was not about the Messiah, but this passage has been read by Christians through that lens for two millennia. The suffering servant passages have been called “the textual ‘glue’ which held together, at least in the minds of early Christians, the story of Jesus with the much older story of Israel. The early Jesus movement has to fend off charges, both from within and without, that it was propounding a religious novelty, which was never a good thing in a culture in which older automatically meant ‘better’ and newer automatically meant ‘suspect.’ The Servant passages therefore were thought to provide legitimacy to the Jesus movement at a critical juncture in its early development when it was not clear whether the movement would be sustainable or not.”[4]

So now we go back to that bookmark and we add another layer to our understanding. This layer doesn’t cover up that layer—the suffering servant is still the voice of Israel, calling the people of Israel back together as one. But we add another layer—Jesus, a suffering servant who calls us all back home.

But remember how I said the servant is both an individual and Israel? both an individual and the community? The same is true when seen through the lens of Christianity. The suffering servant is both Jesus and … the body of Christ. The church. Us. We also are called from our beginning, called and named and gifted for the task: to call the exiles back home. This doesn’t mean call everybody who drifted away from church back to regular attendance. This means calling those who have left, those who have been forced to leave by hate and intolerance, back to home in God.

For this we will need a sharp mouth to deliver a clear message. This “sharp mouth” is not a weapon of war, a weapon of destruction. An earlier passage about the Servant makes it clear he comes in peace. The sharp mouth is to be pointed in order to pierce the lies, to reveal the truth.

Now, I have described several layers of understanding here so let me review them. The suffering servant in Isaiah is both an individual and the community of Israel, calling the people back home. The suffering servant can also be understand as both Jesus and the church, calling the people back home. But there is one more important layer to add, and it’s found in verses 5 and 6. God has a more expansive work in mind. God says “‘It is too trivial a thing that you should be my servant (merely) to lift up the tribes of Jacob, to restore the fortunes of Israel.’ It is too small a task to speak the word of truth and power only to those you have known and loved and whom you recognize as people like yourself in order that you might create again the community you had before the calamity of exile. No, says, Yahweh! That is simply too trivial in the grand scheme of my desire for the world. ‘I offer you as a light to the nations in order that my saving work may reach to the very ends of the earth.’”[5]

The servant in Isaiah thought his role was just to bring the exiles of Israel back home—and that was an important, beautiful vision and goal. But God had bigger plans. God wanted to redeem humanity, to welcome all people back home.

And still today God says “I have a dream.” God calls us to use our mouths and voices to “pierce to the heart of strange places, of seemingly impregnable social and political structures, of closed military outposts, of faiths and customs steeped in tradition.” [6] God calls us to speak truth to power, to pierce the lies of the empire, not just to save people like us but to bring hope to all—all those in exile, those far from home, those on the margins of poverty and exclusion.

God’s vision, God’s dream, is for nothing less than all God’s children to walk in light. We cannot be part of that if we give in to the dark. We cannot be part of the solution if we refuse to name the problem. We cannot be hoarders of the dream, claiming its power only for us. We are called to greatness … in justice. We are called to be extraordinary … in love. We are called to carry the dream. We still have a date with destiny. If we succeed, we will not hear the crowd shouting our name. But together we will shout: freedom. Just you wait!

[1] Hayes, John H. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 247.

[2] Ward, Richard. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 247.

[3] Holbert, John c. “The Bible’s Lynchpin.” http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Bibles-Lynchpin-John-Holbert-01-15-2014?offset=1&max=1

[4] Simpson, Timothy F. “The Politics of Exceptionalism.” Political Theology Today.

[5] Holbert.

[6] Wallace, Howard.  Year A: Epiphany 2. hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au


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