This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 15th January 2017. It was the first sermon which I wrote in Lakes Entrance.
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:40-42a
Listen to me O coastlands, pay attention you peoples from far away! says the prophet Isaiah. Wow, if ever there was a call to the people of the Gippsland Lakes, and especially to those who live behind Ninety Mile Beach, this seems to be the perfect introduction. My work of a sermon writer, and the preacher and pastor to this specific place, was made all that much easier this week when God and the prophets all-but named my new home town in the declarations of scripture. So listen up, O people of Lakes Entrance, Lake Bunga, and Lake Tyers Beach, this word is obviously for us.
In my study bible, the one I use when writing sermons, the passage from Isaiah 49 has been subtitled “The Servant’s Mission”. Now those little subtitles in the Bible are not actually scripture, they are editorial guides to help us read the Bible better; as indeed are the chapters and verses themselves, they weren’t part of Isaiah’s actual writing back in the day either. For this reason, I usually don’t comment on them at all; but today I am commenting, because I think it gives us a great focus. This passage is about the servant’s mission and its subheading leads us to ask two great questions: who is the servant, and what is his or her mission?
“I have been called by God”, says the servant, “and God has shaped me for the work to which I have been called. This call was announced in the moment of my conception and this call typifies my life’s span. I was shaped in the womb by this call by God’s design and I was born ready to get to work”. That’s a remarkable introduction, and in fact the image we get here is of the archetypical prophet, indeed it’s practically a job description for the role of prophet and is pretty much a combined biography of Isaiah and Jeremiah in who it describes. God has chosen this individual as a prophet, and he or she has a specific message to declare. Now, remember, a prophet is someone who speaks the truth plainly and loudly. Prophecy is not about telling us what will happen in the future, it is about explaining what is happening right now under the noses of us everyday people but which we are too blind or distracted to see for ourselves. “Look at what God is doing,” says the prophet, “look and see right now”. The people who heard Isaiah recite this in Isaiah’s day would have been able to draw that conclusion, that Isaiah is describing a prophetic person, someone called from childhood to tell the nation what God is doing and what God is wanting that prophet to do. But the people would also have known that Isaiah was not actually speaking about himself, since the description doesn’t actually match his known biography. So who was he speaking about? Well to answer that we need to ask what this prophet’s message is.
So, Isaiah goes on to describe the work of this one born as a prophet to do prophetic work. After a time of shaping and training in quietness, through both childhood and spiritual retreat, the prophet’s specific message will be revealed as one of bringing God’s people back to God. In other words, this prophet is specifically a reconciler, a friend-maker, an ender of dispute and a restorer of broken relationships. We might think of this prophet as both a healer and restorer, but also as a networker. He, or she, is that one at parties who moves through the room introducing people to each other to form new friendships, but also as one who perhaps reacquaints people who were close but who have drifted apart through life’s circumstances.
Such a reintroduction need not be about grief or angst. In my life, I have moved in and out of people’s lives simply because that is where life took me and them. For example, when I was at university in Darwin I was very close to a young man named Daniel. We were studying education together, training to be primary school teachers, and Daniel and I used to sit with each other in classes and we would pair up for group work. At the end of uni Daniel went to work at the primary school in Nakara, one of the northern suburbs of Darwin, and I went to England. After nine months in England I returned to Darwin and began work as a day supply teacher, ranging across the northern suburbs where I lived, teaching as required. I met Daniel again when I did some day supply work at Nakara, and whilst I cannot say we rekindled our friendship, it was initially an odd feeling to be introduced a year later by Nakara’s principal to someone who had practically been my best friend, at least on campus. Perhaps like me you have had relationships which drifted apart, only to be reacquainted with that person later. That is the first part of the work of this prophet, reacquainting the people of God with God. There’s no blame here, the people are not at enmity with God, they’ve not “wandered away” in any meaningfully religious sense, they’re just no longer as close as they once were. Intimacy has become acquaintanceship, and the prophet has come to rekindle a friendship. Daniel and I were never as close as teachers as we were as uni students, but I’d sit with him and his new friends in the Nakara staff room at morning tea whenever I was there. He and I did this ourselves, but it might just as easily have been a mutual friend who reintroduced us, that mutual friend would have been like the prophet in this story.
But, returning to Isaiah, it doesn’t end there. The servant’s mission also involves calling out to those who have never heard, to be a light to the nations as well as a reformer of Israel. In the context of my teaching career this might have looked like my introducing Daniel to one of the other day supply teachers whom I had met at another school. This teacher would not have studied at NTU alongside Daniel and me, and might not have been to Nakara before, but when the three of us were in Nakara’s staff room I might have made the introduction and then they two might have gone on to be friends without me, sitting together when the other teacher was at Nakara but I was not.
So, what is the identity of this servant? Who is this person who was conceived with the gifts and graces of prophecy, raised in obscurity, and then sent out into the world to reconnect God’s people with God and then to go to the other peoples of the world and introduce them to God for the first time? Well Isaiah states it explicitly in 49:3, the missionary servant is Israel.
This passage is one of four passages in the book of Isaiah known as the “Servant Songs”, and this is the second one. Christian readers tend to connect the “servant” himself with Jesus Christ, and even though this is not who Isaiah had in mind, since he was speaking in his present day to the people of his day and Jesus was still 700 years away in the future, to consider Jesus in this role is not too much of a stretch. So we can and should think of Jesus as being the one who calls the religious people back to God, back to righteousness, back to right relationship with our Father in Heaven. And we can and should think of Jesus as being the one who calls the lost and the unreached people to God for the first time, to right relationship with the Father they have never heard of or of whom they have heard only a misrepresentation. That is Jesus, that is what he did, and that is what he commanded the Church to do in the Great Commission and throughout his prophetic word to Paul and Peter and the missionary servants of the first century Church.
But that is not the whole truth. It’s not untrue, but it’s not the full story. Remember that Isaiah has no Jesus to shift the responsibility on to, for him the responsibility to go and tell and to make disciples and to remake relationships falls upon Israel. He, or they, is or are to be a prophetic nation. We as Church are the same. It is the responsibility of you and me and us to do this work.
So, as with last week, I have two points to make. And, as with last week, you’re getting the second one first.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and we find these words in 1 Corinthians 1:7, that those who belong to the Church are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you await the revealing of Jesus. Father will strengthen you and be faithful to you so that you can be blameless and called into the fellowship of the Son. There are two meanings here: fellowship with the Son means fellowship with Jesus himself, and fellowship of the Son, or perhaps in the Son, means fellowship with others who fellowship with the Son, which is the Church. Because we each worship Jesus in intimacy with him we are also in fellowship and intimacy with each other. Now intimacy with God is a good thing, a very good thing, because we know from 1 John 4 that God is love. To be intimately relational with the One who is Love is indescribable. The problem, if there is one, is when there are others there too: intimacy within the Church can be hard. I remember when I was working in gaol greeting one of my friends one morning with “how are you” to which he responded “I’m great, it’s the others you need to watch out for.” Happily, no-one has said that to me in Lakes Entrance, and to be fair to my friend he was joking and that’s actually a pretty common response to that question among peers in England, part of their slang I suppose. But it’s true, isn’t it. “I’m great, it’s the others you need to watch out for”. But look at what Paul says to the Corinthians, people we know from previous readings of this letter who were a rather quarrelsome and divided, clique-ey mob: you are not lacking in any spiritual gift and God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless. “I know it’s hard”, says Paul, “but God is looking after you, making you strong enough to cope and to be nice”.
And look, remember what I was saying about those little subheadings Bible editors put into our modern scriptures? The ones which are not part of the original text but there to help us find the bit we’re looking for? So, do you see the heading for the next bit of 1 Corinthians where it says “Divisions in the Church”? Cool, it looks like Paul knows where we’re at. (Listen to me O coastlands, pay attention you peoples from far away! said the prophet Isaiah.)
So here’s the bit where those of you who are taking notes need to write something down. It is your responsibility, (and by “your” I mean mine as well), your responsibility to tell the world that God loves them and wants them to love Jesus. And, it is your responsibility to tell the other people in church that God loves them and wants them to love Jesus. That’s what Isaiah said, sort of, and that’s what Paul goes on to say later in 1 Corinthians and in lots of other places. So that’s point two, tell everyone you know about the love God has for them and how God wants them back in relationship. Tell even the people you don’t want to be in relationship with, because God has gone ahead of you and given you grace, patience, perseverance, and self-control. God’s got your back in this; you’ll be fine.
And so, finally, we come to point one. Flick over to gospel of John 1:40. This little story of Jesus calling his first disciples, and again we are given one of those little headings, follows immediately after apostle John’s account of John the Baptiser seeing Jesus for the first time. So we’re in the zone of last week’s message, minus the forty days in the wilderness and the temptation of Jesus. We know this doesn’t happen in John’s account because in John 1:35 he says [t]he next day. So there is Jesus, the day after John the Baptiser’s identifying him as the saviour in view of the dove-shaped spirit’s presence, walking near to the Baptiser and the Baptiser’s disciples. Andrew hears the Baptiser identify Jesus, so he approaches Jesus and asks Jesus, who he addresses as ‘teacher’ where he is going. Jesus tells him, and apparently invites or at least allows Andrew to come along. So we see the Baptiser doing the work of the servant messenger. “See that bloke, that’s God’s salvation right there” he says, speaking to two Jewish men who know what that means. Then what happens? Well then Andrew takes up the role of the servant messenger and he finds and tells his brother Simon the same thing. In words that only make sense when one Israelite is speaking with another Andrew says “we have found the messiah” and then he brings Simon to Jesus and makes the introduction.
There it is. That’s how it’s done.
I have heard it said of Andrew that in John 1:42a he has the best epitaph of any man who has ever lived. In the Greek original text of that verse Simon is not actually named, there’s just the masculine third-person singular pronoun: the verse reads “he brought him to Jesus”.
And again, there it is, that’s how it’s done. I’d love that to be my epitaph, the words on my gravestone, should I live long enough to have one and Christ has not returned first. What can we say of Damien, well we can say “he brought them to Jesus”. That’s what I’m here for, and you as well. Whomever “they” are; be they Christians in worship who I encourage to go further in their discipleship, or Christians in the community who still believe something but are somewhat distant from God and the Church, or other people who know little or nothing about Jesus at all, it doesn’t matter. My job is that I bring them to Jesus, I work to rebuild old and establish new connections between my fellow men and women and the God who made us and loves us and adores us. Andrew introduced his sibling to Jesus, Paul exhorted the church to be reconciled to each other and re-introduce each other to Jesus, and Isaiah declared that the purpose of the whole people of Israel was to tell the world about the greatness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The purposes of God for we people of the coastlands and from far away is not rocket surgery. Love God in the power of the Spirit as we heard last Sunday, and in that same love and that same power tell other people about Jesus, starting with the people sitting on the opposite side of the building.
As my English friend from gaol would say, “let’s have at it!’