This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Isaiah 50:4-9a.
Imagine, if you will, a school playground. It doesn’t really matter where or when, because some things seem to be universal; so go ahead and imagine it with details that are familiar to you.
And imagine that among the bustle of children eating and laughing and playing at lunchtime there is someone…. well, different. Someone who comes from somewhere else; whose looks and accent and lunchbox set her apart as distinctive.
And as she moves through her peers, they push her away with their words; label her a freak; dirty; disgusting; insult her intelligence and make lewd comments about imagined sexual deviancies.
And – this is the crucial bit – as she eventually finds somewhere to sit alone, away from their sight, she blinks back tears, holds her head high and remembers that her foremothers were queens, and dreams of a day when her culture and religion might hold sway over a society where no little girl would ever need cry alone.
All of us can relate to that playground scene in some way. And it is, I think, very similar to how we might think about the author of today’s passage from Isaiah. His school playground was one of the large cities of the Babylonian empire, where his people, the Israelites, were living in exile. As they held to their own language, customs and religion they were generally (a few notable exceptions notwithstanding) excluded from power, opportunity and social respect. They were conquered, exiled, downtrodden; and while they weren’t quite slaves, they certainly weren’t free to shape their own destinies as they wished.
But like our girl in the schoolyard remembering that she comes from a line of queens, they remembered that their current circumstances didn’t define who they were. And they dreamed of a day to come when things would be very different; when the ideals of their culture would build a very different sort of society. One in which no one would experience the oppression of forced exile and all that went with it.
And someone in that exiled community, or perhaps a small group of visionaries together, wrote and edited together this part of the book of Isaiah, and particularly, the texts that have come to be called the “servant songs.” The servant songs are a cycle of poems about an idealised version of God’s servant, which gathers up the memories, longings and hopes of that community and builds them into a portrait of a champion; someone who was everything good and right and holy; everything that community longed to experience and aspired to be.
It’s the daydream of the bullied kid in the schoolyard; given shape and content by hundreds of years of legend and history and prayer.
And that’s what we heard part of today, in our Isaiah reading.
So let’s take note of a few of the details of this poem. Notice, to start with, the repeated reference to being woken and having an open ear. While we could take that literally – as if the ideal servant of God wakes in the morning with inspiration bursting in his brain (why are ideal people always portrayed as morning people?! But I digress) – we can take the imagery of being wakened in a more metaphorical way as well.
Someone who’s awake is aware of what’s going on; not lulled into complacency. They see beyond the surface of an apparently thriving society and can recognise injustice, oppression, and corruption. They see the alienation of the world from its Creator, and from the purposes for which it was created.
The ideal servant of God, as presented to us here, suffers in part because he knows the truth and feels compelled to try to reach others with what he knows. He looks around him at a society which is not awake – does not recognise its own shadow side – and feels the burden of trying to make people aware. Not just for the sake of awareness, but for the sake of restoring a right relationship between people and their Creator; and out of that right relationship, building a better, healthier, more just society.
Well, we know how well that usually goes. Comfortable, complacent societies tend to punish people who disturb the status quo.
And this is why the poem goes on to describe the servant having his back struck and his beard pulled out; this standing in the gap between an unaware, but drowning, society; and a God who can put things right if only people will turn to him, is costly. The servant bears the emotional outbursts and the immaturity of an unreconciled humanity. But the servant also sees the potential for things to be different, and it’s that vision and hope which gives him the resilience to persevere. Those who torment him still have the opportunity to turn from their self-centredness and enter a relationship with a holy God, and the community of other people in relationship with that holy God.
It is, as visions of hope go, remarkably sophisticated. The servant isn’t a champion who tramples every enemy into oblivion, but one who holds out a hand in steadfast offer of reconciliation.
Later, of course, the earliest Christians read these passages and reflected that Christ had fulfilled them to a unique degree, more than any merely human person could. In Christ, that hope and that reconciliation are always, steadfastly on offer.
More than that, though, in the Church – this community which is supposed to embody Christ to the world – that hope and that reconciliation are supposed to be always, steadfastly, on offer. The servant songs hold up a picture, one vision of what the Church is supposed to be, and invite and challenge us to live up to it.
In some ways that makes more sense for us now, psychologically, than perhaps it has for centuries. The Church is being marginalised in our society in a way that we haven’t been since before the fall of Rome. For too long we’ve had more in common with the bullies in the school yard than the people they pick on, but now we are remembering what it’s like not to have the world revolve around us. And other writings from other faith communities in our own history which have been in the same place, can offer us some clues to making sense of life on the margins, and some resources for thriving and living faithfully in that new situation.
We do need to allow ourselves to be woken, though. Woken into relationship with God; woken into deep awareness of our own context, woken to hope and inspired by what could be.
Just a little bit further in Isaiah the prophet cries out:
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;…
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up!…
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
It’s imagery of hope, and it calls out to us today as well: Wake up! Put on your strength, claim your beauty, get out of the dust and hold your head high. Tell the good news in ways that shakes others from their sleep, that builds peace and reconciles enemies, that submits every impulse to oppression to God’s justice. It’s time for daydreams and ideals to be forged into action.
Our God reigns. We know that; now how will we live it?