Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“Do the Right Thing”

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17[1]

This morning I want to revisit a film I’ve talked about before—the 2003 classic Seabiscuit. As many of you know, the film is based on the true story of three men who are broken, wounded, and rejected: Charles Howard, “Red” Pollard, and Tom Smith. Charles Howard was a self-made millionaire whose life fell to pieces when his son died in a tragic accident and his marriage crumbled as a result. “Red” Pollard was a failed prizefighter and failing jockey who was continually fighting against the memories of his family that was destroyed during the Great Depression. And Tom Smith had been a top hand on a ranch in Colorado, but was forced to become a drifter during the Depression, and wound up living in Tijuana, Mexico.

The beauty of the film is that they all find new life and redemption through a horse that was written off as too small and “un-trainable”, but becomes a champion—a horse named Seabiscuit. In a very real sense, they forge a family that brings healing to them all, Seabiscuit included! But the truly amazing fact is that the healing they found through each other had a profound affect on the whole country. In the course of their dramatic transformation, they give hope to millions of average people across the country whose lives had been disrupted and destroyed by the Depression. In a very real sense the horse named “Seabiscuit” became a symbol of hope for average people who had also been written off.

There are some amazing truths tucked away in our lesson from Isaiah for today—first, that God’s “servant” comes to bring justice for those who have been written off. Second, that he does it not by wielding power but through kindness. And third, that part of his goal is to create a community that will practice and promote God’s justice in this world.[2]

First, the servant will bring justice. As we’ve observed many times, from the biblical point of view “justice” means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the strangers have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. It means that those on the margins of social power not only have someone who advocates on their behalf but also someone who takes concrete steps to make their lot in life better. Simply put—justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive.

There are lots of things that people say about God’s servant messiah based on the book of Isaiah, but we often overlook this central truth—the one who serves God’s truth promotes God’s justice.

Second, God’s servant brings God’s justice to those who have been marginalized not by wielding power, but through kindness.[3] There have been many people, kings and popes and preachers of all kinds, who have believed they were promoting God’s justice. But they did so by calling the faithful to some kind of “Holy War” or another. And one of the most important lessons the Bible teaches us about God’s justice is that it cannot be accomplished by just any means. God’s justice can only be achieved through kindness, compassion, and mercy. If it’s done in such a way that it breaks the bruised reeds, then it’s not God’s justice!

Third, God’s servant carries out the work of establishing justice, of “opening the eyes that are blind” and “bringing out the prisoners from the dungeon,” (Isaiah 42:7) not so that those who have been so blessed may simply bask in God’s grace. God’s servant comes to bring God’s justice in order to create a community that will be a “light to the nations.” As Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it, the point of God’s justice is to “transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when He created it.”[4] That may seem like a daunting task to simple people like you and me. But the truth of experience is that every time we practice the justice of God’s kingdom by treating another human being with kindness, compassion, and mercy, we are transforming this world!

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Baptism by John, there’s an unusual interchange between the two. John protests that he is unworthy to baptize Jesus. But Jesus insists that it is important to “fulfill all righteousness.” I think Jesus had in mind what Isaiah said about the servant of the Lord carrying out God’s justice. He came to bring to light God’s justice, the justice of compassion. And he did not stop until he had succeeded in “establishing” God’s justice of compassion in the world—even though it led him to an unjust cross.[5]

As we celebrate epiphany in the coming weeks, we are celebrating the unveiling of Jesus as the Christ who has come to bring God’s justice to all who have been written off. We are celebrating the good news that God is already transforming this world, that the light of God’s justice and kindness has already dawned and is dispelling the darkness. And we are committing ourselves to being a community that practices and promotes this way of relating to the people around us, all the people around us, especially the lost and the least and the left out.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/13/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] See Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 41-47; cf. also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 324-27; Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 96.

[3] Cf. Presbyterian Church (USA), The Study Catechism, q. 41; accessed at

[5] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 56, 59-60; cf. also Adolf Schlatter, Das Christliche Dogma 533-35.

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