Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. (National Archives ARC Identifier 542069)
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3, 5–6
January 19, 2020
Today’s reading from Isaiah is undoubtedly beautiful but is often considered confusing. Who is the servant? Is it Israel, Isaiah himself, or someone or something else? All these positions have their defenders. Yet I think we will see that the editors of the final version which we read have produced is something theologically profound and psychologically accurate.
This passage was composed by someone we have named Second Isaiah. He lived in Babylon at the end of the exile of the Jewish people around 540 BC. To be more precise the exile only ended for those who wished to end it. Babylon was conquered by Assyria and the new king, Cyrus, invited the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their country and temple. His reasoning was colonial. He wanted people indebted to him to be in charge of the locals, and be subservient to him. Enough Jews thought there was a higher force involved, accepted the invitation and returned.
We see the consequences with the beginning of this chapter:
Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
Before this point the LORD only addressed the Israelites, now he is speaking to “the nations.” We remember from last week’s reading of Isaiah:
Until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
From the very beginning of the restoration of Jerusalem, the LORD was thinking about the whole world. He was remembering what he had done in the past:
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name
Before the exile he had called the great prophet Jeremiah with similar words:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
and for a similar purpose:
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
The Lord plays a long game. Indeed, when He chose Abraham he reminded him of his mission:
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”
As we have seen, a theme of all those who chose the name Isaiah has been the belief that the Jews were chosen by the LORD for the world. This was often ignored and sometimes even denied, but Second Isaiah clearly shows that it was and is part of the Divine plan.
That this is part of the divine plan does not mean that it is automatic. In the passage immediately before our own:
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
Yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
The chosen one has met with resistance, but knows that God is with him. Such was also the fate of Jeremiah:
And I will make you toward this people
a solid wall of brass.
Though they fight against you,
they shall not prevail,
What will be accomplished, however, will be because of obedience to God:
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
This is a recurrent point as we read last week:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
There is a great difference between Jeremiah and the Servant in today’s reading. Jeremiah would ultimately triumph against the force of his enemies by the power of God but the servant would transform the Jews into a people more open to the LORD’S wishes, He is a model of what Israel should be and by his obedience to God the means of transformation.
Our passage today concludes with:
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
The northern Jewish Kingdom, Israel, was destroyed in 721 BC and the people scattered. It was the great dream of the Jews to be reunited. This motivated some people to make the trek back to Jerusalem. It is a great goal, but not God’s ultimate purpose:
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
The LORD is God of all and wishes to save all. The election of the Jews is not the end of the LORD’S plan, but a means to its ultimate fulfillment.
We must indeed realize that they are key. The next sentence reads:
Thus says the LORD,
the redeemer and the Holy One of Israel,
To the one despised, whom the nations abhor,
the slave of rulers:
When kings see you, they shall stand up,
and princes shall prostrate themselves
Because of the LORD who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you
The Jews have the highest calling and should be revered for it by those who will experience the intimacy with God they will bring.
As I mentioned at the beginning, there is some confusion about who the servant actually is. In 49:3, the servant is explicitly identified as the Jews:
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
But we read as well: “from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Is. 49:1) This indicates an individual person. Similarly, we read in verse 5: “That Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him;” (Is. 49:5)
Isaiah has understood that the people themselves will be sent on a mission but is uncertain how and by whom they will be motivated. The imprecision in this passage I think shows honesty more than confusion. How could they know that God would send his very own son? Yet they were expected to try anyway. We do know this most glorious of realities, what should be expected of us?
Dr. King’s “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Speech
To commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I include the concluding section of Dr. King’s Paul’s Letter to American Christians speech, which he delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 4 1956. You can also listen to a recording of Dr. King giving the speech or read the full speech online. I suggest you read Dr. King’s speech alongside Paul’s famous instructions to the Corinthians about love, which can be found below.
But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood was spilt in vain. You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.
So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.
At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love