Called to be a Covenant People - A Sermon for Epiphany 2A (Isaiah 49:1-7)
When Elwood Blues picked up his brother Jake at the Joliet Prison, they set out on a “Mission from God.” They felt called to raise money to prevent the foreclosure of the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up. It’s a movie filled with music and car crashes, but the main point is this “mission from God.” Nothing was going to stop them from raising the money to pay off the creditor before it was too late. It was a race against time, but nothing would stop them from saving their home.
In our reading last Sunday from Isaiah 42 we heard God speak to a group of exiles, reminding them that they were God’s covenant people. God said to them: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Is 42:1).
This morning we’ve heard a second Servant Song as found in Isaiah 49. In today’s reading, we hear that God called the Servant to be a light to the nations while still “in my mother’s womb.” The words “covenant people” don’t appear in our reading, but if you drop down to verse eight, we hear God say to the Servant, to Israel: “I created you and appointed you a covenant people” (Is. 49:8 Tanakh). So, what does it mean to be God’s covenant people?
The people who heard this word from God lived in exile. Their homes and their Temple had been destroyed. They had lost their sense of identity. We hear this lament in the Servant’s complaint to God: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” The Servant confesses that “my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God,” but I don’t sense much enthusiasm in that confession.
Do you ever feel that way? Do you feel like this religion thing isn’t working out the way you had hoped? Last Sunday evening, Brett and I gathered with a group of interfaith friends for our semiannual Tim Horton’s summit where we try to solve all the world’s problems. As you can see, we’ve not figured it all out yet, but we keep trying. While we were discussing the challenges facing our different faith communities, Amin raised a good question. What good is it to believe in God and practice our faith? What difference does being devout mean in daily life? What benefit does it provide?
The exiles were asking that same question. It’s the same question the author of Ecclesiastes raised. Here is what Koheleth had to say, as it’s rendered in the Tanakh.
Utter Futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a man
In all the gains he makes beneath the sun? (Eccl. 1:2-3).
Have you ever felt like that? Maybe we should adopt the Epicurean vision, and “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The Servant may have felt like this Covenant People thing was futile, but God didn’t give up on Israel. In fact, God laid bigger plans on the Servant, saying: “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” (Is. 49:6).
God would restore Israel to its former home, but that was only the beginning of God’s plans for Israel. The Servant may have had a narrow vision of Israel’s calling as a Covenant people, but God has a universal vision. So, God said to the Servant you will be “light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
This morning we gather as a covenant community on Martin Luther King Weekend. Dr. King’s witness continues to call out to us. His dream remains unfulfilled, but the call for justice is still there. We also gather on a Sunday we receive and vote on our annual budget. On a Sunday like this, it’s good to remember the Servant’s complaint: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Sometimes we feel as if we have spent our strength for nothing, but then we hear God call out to us, reminding us that we have a calling. We’re called to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation might reach to the end of the earth. This morning as we look at the budget, we have two questions laid before us. First, what are the resources God has provided us? Second, how should we use these resources?
We ask these questions at a time when people across the globe are letting fear take hold. We watch as people circle the wagons to protect themselves from perceived threats. We see this in the growing anti-immigrant sentiment here and abroad. We see it in responses to refugees. Consider the decision of the governor of Texas, who has shut the door on refugees coming to his state.
We can give in to these fears, or we can take up this calling to be a light to the nations. One of the things I like about living in Troy is our diversity. In the nearly twelve years that we’ve been here, my circle of friends has grown to include Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and more. My life has been enriched by these relationships, but getting there can be risky. We may have to let go of cherished beliefs about ourselves and our faith. We might even develop what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “holy envy.”
Our call to be a covenant people doesn’t displace God’s covenant with our Jewish friends. Paul speaks of God grafting us into the family through Christ so that we can share in this work of bringing God’s light to the nations. As we look around at the covenant community to which we belong, we might not seem rich or powerful, but as Paul told the Corinthian church, we’re not lacking in any spiritual gifts as we await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:7).
We have a budget to pass this morning. Yes, we take in less than we spend, but fortunately there are reserves that make up the difference, at least for now. But I wonder whether there might be some undiscovered gifts out there that might help sustain our mission from God to be a light to the nations. While we need to be wise stewards of the gifts given to us, we can’t simply hide them away in the fear that someday we might run out of cash. Remember that the “Lord is faithful.” Yes, the “Holy One of Israel, . . . has chosen you.”
When Jake and Elwood heard their call, they gathered up their old band and headed out on their mission from God to save the orphanage. What about us? What is our mission from God?
Richard Ward suggests that “Our mission is to become a ‘light to the nations’ by becoming agents of God’s order of compassionate justice.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 247]. Amy Oden reminds us that “God’s story is always larger than ours, holding our stories within God’s life and weaving them into the wide-open future.” [Preaching This Week, Jan. 19, 2014]. Timothy Simpson writes that:
What the world needs is not another group scrambling for advantage or clamoring for privilege, but rather a community of people engaged in acts of transcendence that move beyond the interests of self towards the furtherance of the common good. This will happen when the church tells the truth about how and why it was chosen by God and reorders its practices accordingly. [Political Theology, 2014].
If we’re going to join in the work of furthering the common good, we’ll need to think outside the box. We’ll need to think in terms of partnerships with other congregations and faith communities. Since our identity is rooted in our relationship with the Living Christ, he serves as the foundation for our witness. That witness is rooted in the call of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. This calling is mediated to us by the Spirit of God through God’s covenant people, the people of Israel.
Like the servant in Isaiah 49, we may feel as if we are laboring in vain. It’s understandable. It sometimes feels as if we’re not making much of an impact on the world. We may wonder if this religion thing is worth the effort. But, remember that Jake and Elwood had to overcome many obstacles to fulfill God’s mission. That may be true for us as well. Nevertheless, God continues to answer our concerns with this message: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This, I believe, is what it means to be part of God’s covenant people.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 19, 2020