For the audio-only version of this sermon, click here.
For the full text version of this sermon, read on!
Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here. For the nerds in the know, this is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and here’s the sermon I preached on January 15, 2023.
Good morning! Today in Isaiah’s 49th chapter, we read something beautiful and important that maybe passed us by too easily, too quickly. Christians from the earliest times in the first century worked Isaiah like a gold mine to understand the importance of Jesus and applied many of the images we find in the oracles of Isaiah to Jesus himself. Heaps of images we use at Christmas time come from Isaiah. Heaps of images we use during Holy Week just before Easter come from Isaiah. This is all well and good, and we’ve been using Jewish religious texts to understand Jesus for two thousand years.
But sometimes, sometimes it’s good to use Jewish religious texts to understand the world in which they were originally written.
Specifically, Isaiah was written about 500 years before Jesus was born. This was before the Roman Empire had spread as far as Palestine, and it was during a rough time. Five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, the great experiment of Jewish monarchy failed fully and completely in both kingdoms – both the north and south were overrun, and this was the first exile of the Jewish people. And while most kings were nothing to write home about and didn’t particularly honor God, they did provide a lot of stability compared to the total social chaos that occurred before the time of the kings, in the time of the judges. That was a period where the tribes sorted themselves out, occasionally helped out each other, and generally tried to mind their own business. Or, at least that’s the nice view of that period of history. It was also brutal, bloody, deeply lacking in anything we might more modernly consider justice. The tribes sometimes lived quietly, and sometimes just picked fights with their more settled neighbors, and that meant going to battle, taking slaves, wholesale slaughter and sometimes genocide.
So, that’s the period of the Judges. Not a highlight in Jewish history. And then the monarchy rises – and then falls – and here we have Isaiah writing to give hope to a people in exile and what he says here in the 49th chapter just goes beyond all their sordid and painful past and encourages them to stop living in the past. It mows past vengeance, battle, and genocide and paints a beautiful picture of a time of peace, a time where they will understand the will of their God and want to do it.
Remember, the will of their God was, depending on who you asked at that time, periodic genocide and putting your neighbors in slavery, or, honoring a variety of rules designed to allow you to live in peace with your neighbors. Actually loving your neighbors was a concept a few prophets had brought up and was largely unpopular. But it was a movement that was very slowly gaining traction, 2500 years ago, in a time of chaos, pain, violence, and dislocation.
And to those people, and in that moment, Isaiah spoke this prophecy:
One day, we’ll understand God’s will
And we’ll do it so well, we will shine with the light of God
Other nations and distant kings will stand in awe
Scholars and wise people will be drawn to us
Seeking to find out – How? Why? Can we replicate it?
We will be a light not just for ourselves, but for all
We will be a light to enlighten the nations
And this will be the glory of Israel
Obviously Israel isn’t there yet, which all of my colleagues assure me, every time they visit the holy lands and see the persecution of the Palestinians. But this is the dream. This is the dream. This is the goal. Even if its not achieved in our lifetimes, heck, it wasn’t achieved in Isaiah’s lifetime, either. And you can see why the early Christians took prophecies like this and said, ‘okay, we know what that means; it’s talking about Jesus. Jesus is the Jewish Light that Enlightens the Nations’.
Perhaps the point isn’t so much that one person is, or isn’t the Light. Perhaps the point is that in one stroke in chapter 49, Isaiah opens the floodgates and says, ‘no, our God isn’t just for us. Our God is for anyone who is drawn near to the light.’