Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shining Light Into Darkness

Shining Light into Darkness
Isa. 42:1-9; Matt 3:13-17[1]
  There are places in our world that are so dark that most of us really don’t want to look at them.  Nations where law and order have so broken down that people’s lives are in danger just because they belong to the wrong faith or the wrong political party or the wrong tribe.  Cities where the government is so corrupt that money that should provide basic services for those who need them instead lines the pockets of the rich and powerful.  Neighborhoods where crime is so rampant that even murder becomes just another part of life.  We can see all these dark places in our world just by turning on our TVs and watching the evening news.  Many of us have stopped doing that because it’s too disturbing, because the darkness in our world is too close. 
  Our lesson from Isaiah for today speaks to this.  It addresses one whom God would appoint to bring light into the dark places of the world.  It speaks of “the Servant of the Lord” who would come to right the wrongs in this world, who would bring God’s justice.[2]  As I’ve said many times, I think our idea of justice is very different from the Bible.  In our world, “justice” is something that happens in courtrooms.  Justice is about arbitrating disputes and determining guilt or innocence and handing down punishments for crimes.  But in the Bible, God’s 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, and the immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them.  Simply put—God’s justice is the light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally. 
  It’s important to notice the way in which the “Servant” in Isaiah establishes this kind of justice.  Our lesson says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3).  I like the way Gene Peterson renders it in The Message translation: “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”  In addition, the “Servant” is to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:6-7).  If you’re thinking that sounds like a very strange kind of justice, I’m not surprised.[3]
  In fact, it would seem that this is the very opposite of the way we think authorities ought to “establish justice” in our world.  They are to “crack down” on criminals, without lifting a finger to do anything about the social conditions that create criminals.  We want them to carry out the “war on drugs,” but I’m not sure that includes coming up with ways to help those who use illegal drugs to find peace of mind.  And when anyone anywhere does violence to us or to our people, we believe that we have a right and obligation to respond to that violence with violence--whether that means waging war or executing violent offenders. 
  I’m afraid, however, that our version of “justice” has only served to spread the darkness in our world.  Our “justice” certainly looks very different from God’s justice.  Our justice is a justice of vengeance and force and hostility.  Rather than creating the conditions that make for life, it only leads to a “culture of death.”[4]  But God’s justice takes place not through vengeance but forgiveness.  God’s justice takes place not through violence but compassion.  God’s justice takes place not through hostility but mercy.  It is a justice that leads to peace.  And in order to achieve God’s justice that rights the wrongs and creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, we have to employ God’s ways instead of ours.[5]
  I think that’s what the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew’s gospel is about.  Jesus approaches John to be baptized, and John objects, “I need to be baptized by you” (Mt. 3:14)!  Jesus’ response might seem strange at first glance: “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).  One would think that if anyone had “fulfilled all righteousness,” it was Jesus.  Once again, I think The Message captures the meaning well: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”  I think, in a very real sense, in his baptism Jesus was making a public declaration that he was going to take the side of God’s justice.  He was going to set about promoting God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed.  He was going to shine the light of God’s truth into all the dark places of the world.[6]
  And that’s what he did.  And the world responded in the way it always does--we don’t much like having our ways criticized or our misdeeds exposed.  And so they tried to stifle him by labeling him a criminal and executing him.  But those of us who have shared in Jesus’ baptism cannot give our approval to the ways of our world.  By sharing his baptism we have taken on the same calling as his--to shine the light of God’s truth and God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s mercy--in short, the light of God’s justice--into all the dark places of our world.[7]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/12/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 42-43.
[3] cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 45: “Is it possible that the reign of justice can be promoted by ... the express renunciation of force, even by special attention and care to fellow victims who are on the verge of collapse and death?”
[4] John Paul II used this phrase to describe American culture his Homily at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, January 27, 1999.  He issued a challenge to us in that homily: “If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. It you want life, embrace the truth–the truth revealed by God.”
[5] Cf. Presbyterian Church (USA), The Study Catechism, question 41, which answers “How did Christ fulfill the office of King?” with the response, “With no sword but the sword of righteousness, and no power but the power of love, Christ defeated sin, evil and death by reigning from the cross.”  Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 46.
[6] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 60: “Thus John and Jesus perform their respective roles, fulfilling ‘all righteousness’ as the salvific will of God now receives expression in the inauguration of the kingdom and the arrival of a new and crucial stage of salvation-history; cf. also Douglas R. A. Hare, 21-22; W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 327.  Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:15, where he suggests that the “righteousness” Jesus fulfills is the judgment of God announced by John, which he takes upon himself at the cross.
[7] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 46-47: “The community called and upheld by God, by discharging the patient faithful witness assigned to the Servant, becomes the instrument through which the nations are drawn into the covenant relationship marked by God’s reign of justice.”

1 comment:

Jacques van Rensburg said...

Really enjoyed your thoughts"