Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
The word of God for us this morning comes to us through the words of the prophet Isaiah:
I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. The prophet Isaiah has been trying to reach the people of Israel with God’s message. And yet, I have spent my strength for nothing. How many of us have been in those shoes? How many of us have said to ourselves, or maybe even someone else, “I’ve worked long and hard, but what do I have to show for it?”
I’ve worked long and hard raising this kid. I’ve worked long and hard on this relationship. I’ve worked long and hard for this company. But now, this kid is breaking my heart. Now, this relationship is falling apart. Now, this company has laid me off, with no prospects for rehiring.
Maybe you’ve thought something similar about your faith community. “I’ve worked long and hard–for decades–in this church.” Or, maybe you’re newer. “I’ve worked long and hard, too,” you say. And yet, we’re not getting bigger. The future seems uncertain. I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.
Surely all of us have had some experience of Isaiah’s complaint, whether long ago or right now. It’s an honest cry from the heart.
Whatever the situation, if we feel that our efforts have been for nothing, it may be especially difficult if we’re convinced that we’ve done our best, and even, that we’ve been following God’s will. It’s not as if Isaiah looks back on the decisions he’s made with regret. He really believes he’s done the best he can. He says, yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God. In other words, “I can’t understand it. I’ve been faithful; why haven’t things worked out?”
In such cases wouldn’t it be nice to at least get a little sympathy or comfort from God? When we’re feeling discouraged, isn’t God’s job to offer comfort and encouragement? But Isaiah doesn’t get much in the way of comfort. Instead, God seems almost to ignore his good intentions. God says,
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
A light to the nations? How would you feel in that situation? You feel like you’re going down for the third time and then life piles an even bigger burden on you. A light to the nations? I think I’d be tempted to say, “God, you must be thinking of someone else. I don’t need any bigger job description. I have enough just trying to take care of me and my own.”
I was looking through our church constitution this past week. Chapter 4 is our Statement of Purpose. According to our constitution part of our purpose of the church is this:
To carry out Christ’s Great Commission by reaching out to all people to bring them to faith in Christ and by doing all ministry with a global awareness consistent with the understanding of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all.
To serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, caring for the sick and the aged, advocating dignity and justice for all people, working for peace and reconciliation among nations and standing for the poor and powerless, and committing itself to
(See also bulletin’s congregational “Purpose Statement”)
Sounds a little like God’s response in today’s reading, doesn’t it? It is “too little” to take care of your own, God says. That’s important work, too. But your mission—your purpose—is to be light to the nations.
We know our human inclination to think in terms that are safe, practical, familiar and within our control. On the other hand, this past week I was reading our bishop’s monthly message to the synod. In it he says, One of the strengths of our culture is that we like to think big. We want projects that will do big things and fix major issues.
So there’s that tension, isn’t there. On the one hand, we’re tempted to play it safe, to think small and to become preoccupied with ourselves and our own challenges—even with our own survival. On the other hand, at our best, we think big, we dream dreams, our energy is focused outward at least as much as it’s focused inward.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. With a name like that, MLK’s parents must’ve had big dreams for their kid, wouldn’t you say? And he didn’t disappoint. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man who was faced with huge challenges; he would’ve been forgiven if he’d decided to just take care of himself and his own. But in King’s language we find the language of faith, the language of the Bible. When God says, I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth, Martin Luther King took that to heart.
King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” is the basis for our Confession and Forgiveness today. It has not merely his own human vision but God’s vision in mind. He says, When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Martin Luther King took his cue from God’s love for us and for the world. Jesus said, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. If our Christian vision includes anything less than all of humanity, all of creation, we fail to grasp the grand vision of God’s purpose.
We heard echoes of King’s speech and Jesus’ words in President Obama’s address following the tragedy in Tucson this past week, in which he said: We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
In today’s reading Isaiah finds little reason for hope. I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. And yet, to that very same person God says, I will give you as a light to the nations. As we begin a new year, let us set aside the temptation to be fearful or discouraged. Let us be people who trust that God’s purpose for us is beyond what we can see, beyond what we think we can accomplish, maybe beyond even what we want to accomplish. God’s purpose is rooted in love—for God so loved the world. By claiming God’s purpose as our own God’s people will find saving power not only for the world…but even for ourselves.