Sunday, January 15, 2017

"True Greatness" (Isaiah 49:1-7)

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry goes to buy his wand at Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Mr. Ollivander himself helps Harry, and is surprised when the wand that chooses Harry is the twin of the wand that chose Voldemort.
This leads Mr. Ollivander to say: “I think we must expect great things from you, Mr Potter … After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great.”
Ever since Harry’s first visit to Ollivander’s, Harry Potter fans have wondered just what Mr. Ollivander meant. Great? Voldemort? What does Mr. Ollivander mean when he says, “great?”
President-elect Trump has promised to “Make America Great Again.” He success- fully used that phrase to win the election. But what does Donald Trump mean when he says, “great?”
In the Bible’s New Revised Standard Version, the word “great” appears over one thousand times. In the story of creation, God creates “two great lights,” the sun and the moon, and God creates “the great sea.” But then, a few chapters later, scripture says that the “wickedness of humankind was great.”
Already we see that the word “great” can be used in different ways, with meanings both good and bad.
However, reading through scripture, we can discover just what true greatness is in God’s eyes. And one of the places where this true greatness is on display is in the servant songs of Isaiah.
There are four Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah. The four Servant Songs describe the ideal Servant of the Lord, the anointed one, the one who, it could be said, is truly great.
Our scripture today is the second of these four servant songs.
But reading through the servant songs presents another question: just who is the servant, the one described in these four songs? That is a question that has intrigued students of scripture for countless generations.
Listen to these passages, and see what you think. Who do you think the servant might be?
From Isaiah 42: “here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.” God says to the servant: “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.”
In Isaiah 49, today’s scripture - the second servant song - God says: “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The servant is described as despised, hated by the nations, and the slave of rulers, yet God will be glorified through the servant, who is chosen not just to serve his nation, but all the nations.
In Isaiah 50, we read that the servant was insulted and spit upon, yet did not hide from his abusers. God gave the servant strength to stand, to carry on, and an educated tongue so that the servant may continue to do what he has been called to do.
The final Servant Song begins in Isaiah 52 and continues into Isaiah 53. There it says that the servant is despised and rejected by others, disfigured and appalling to even look at. He was a man who suffered, who knew sickness. The passage goes on to say that it was our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. He was oppressed and tormented, yet he did not complain or cry out.
So. Who is the servant?
There are several possible answers.
It could be the prophet Isaiah himself. The book bears Isaiah’s name, and much of the Servant Songs is written in first person. Isaiah was indeed chosen by God to be a servant to the people, a prophet whose task was not easy and did involve suffering, a prophet in whom God was glorified and the people of the nations found healing and wholeness.
Perhaps the servant is a ruler or king, one who puts the welfare of the people ahead of his own welfare to such an extent that he is truly a servant of the people. I don’t know that any actual king could fulfill the description Isaiah presents, but it is an ideal that a good king could strive for.
The Servant could also be the nation of Israel as a whole. In our passage today, God even calls the servant, “my servant Israel.” You caught that, right?
Israel is a chosen nation. The people of Israel are a chosen people. Countless places in scripture describe Israel this way. Yet Israel never did become as great as other nations. As a united nation, it barely lasted more than a generation before it was divided into two. Then, the two parts were conquered by other nations and segments of the population were taken into captivity or sent into exile.
A chosen nation that endured much suffering.
Now, some of you, as you listened to the descriptions of the servant, thought to yourselves, “Wait - that all sounds familiar.” Perhaps to you, the servant sounds like Jesus.
In the early years of Christianity, shortly after the time of Jesus, the church took a look at these servant songs that were then some 500 years old, and saw in them a description of Jesus. Jesus, the one chosen by God. Jesus, the suffering servant. Jesus, the one in whom God is glorified. Jesus, the one who bore the punishment by which we are made whole.
If you see Jesus in these servant songs, that’s fine, as long as you understand that Jesus is not who Isaiah was talking about. Jesus lived five centuries after Isaiah.
However, Jesus emphasized many of the ideals of the prophets, their dreams and their hopes. There is a continuity of thought. So, in this way, one can say that Jesus is the servant Isaiah talked about, that he is the anointed one that Isaiah talked about.
Just don’t ignore the context when you do so. These servant songs have a meaning that was present in their own time and which is true with or without Jesus. It is not responsible to read these songs and ignore their context, ignore the prophet, ignore the nation of Israel. It is not responsible to take passages from Isaiah out of context and apply them to Jesus or anything else.
Some today have even gone one step further. They read passages in scripture that talk about a chosen one or a chosen nation, and they connect that to modern America. “America is a chosen nation,” they say. “America is the nation in which God’s glory is made known.”
It’s fine to say these things. It’s fine to say that America is a chosen nation. It’s fine to say that America is the nation in which God’s glory is made known.
But you can’t say such things and ignore their context. You can’t say such things and ignore what it means to be a chosen nation, according to the prophet.
If you are going to say that America’s a chosen nation, you need to know what that means.
So many who talk about America’s greatness and America’s chosenness have no clue what it means to be great. They have no clue what it means to be chosen. They talk about the glory, but ignore the suffering. They talk about the greatness, but ignore how the chosen one is called to serve.
Everywhere in scripture where it speaks of a chosen nation or a chosen people, it speaks of a people who are called to serve.
Being the chosen one does not mean you stand on stage or on a pedestal above everyone else. Being the chosen one does not mean you have the most wealth or the most prestige. Being the chosen one does not mean you are the most beautiful, gleaming one in the room.
Greatness in the Bible is not about being raised on a pedestal, or having wealth or power.
In scripture, the chosen one is often a servant who is despised, disfigured, rejected. I’m not sure the people who say that America is a chosen nation understand that.
Being a servant is a struggle. It’s not easy to be the chosen one. You have to work harder, and others may not appreciate your work. You work for justice and righteousness; in the first servant song, those Hebrew words for justice and righteousness - tzedek and mishpat - usually they are translated as “justice and righteousness,” but here they are translated into English as “success and prosperity.” I’m not sure the reasons for that, but clearly in the minds of the translators, success in God’s eyes means fighting for justice and equality. And prosperity in God’s eyes means prospering in the ways of peace and what is right.
These are the things that make for greatness.
If you want to be great in God’s eyes, it would be wise to read carefully these Servant Songs. Because they show what greatness really means to God.
If you want this country to be great in God’s eyes, it would be wise to read carefully these Servant Songs. Because they show what a great country really looks like to God.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew how God defines greatness. King said that greatness is determined by service. A person who is great is a person who serves, and a nation that is great is a nation that serves. The one who is chosen by God is one who is chosen to serve. The nation that is chosen by God is a nation that is called to work for peace and justice in our world.
So if we’re going to talk about greatness, let us be clear what we mean by that. Not all definitions of greatness are the same. Great doesn’t always mean good.
But a greatness that is defined by service to others, by working for justice and equality and wholeness … that is a definition of greatness that comes from God. And in that sense, we are called to be great.

We are called to be great, because we are called to serve.

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