The readings for today are Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 71:1-14, I Cor.1 18-31, John 12:20-36.
Just a few marginal notes on the Isaiah and I. Cor. lessons:
The Isaiah reading is the second of the Servant Songs. Here, the servant is speaking “Listen to me!” (vs.)
–and we listen to his or her account of God’s call,
“The Lord God called me before I was born,” God named the servant in the womb. (Vs. 1)
God designed, created, the servant with a “mouth like a sharp sword,” a “polished arrow” in God’s quiver. The servant is hidden like a sword in a shield, or an arrow in a quiver, until God chooses to use the servant. The servant serves God’s purpose and is given the gifts to do so. (vs. 2).
Then the servant reports a dialogue with God, an inner struggle–God, having called and given gifts, announces his purpose: “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” This is an important naming of the community–the identity of God’s servant is explicit. But Israel can be understood as metaphor also. (vs. 3). The servant registers his own struggle, resistance to the call and then takes refuge in God. He’s encountered the mysterious holy presence of God, and before that mystery, he sees himself unworthy, and all his pursuits in vain. (vs.4).
The servant offers a prophecy reporting God’s words. The servant is a messenger, preaching good news. He recounts what God has done in calling him, and describes the purpose for which he has been sent–“to bring Jacob back to God and that Israel might be gathered to the Lord.” (vs. 5). He finds strength and honor in serving God.
In verse 6, a new thing happens. The Servant is sent for Israel, and not only Israel, but for all nations. It is not enough “too light a thing” God says to raise up and restore Israel. God expands, escalates, if you will, the mission: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God has everyone in mind. Restoration for the chosen people, and also salvation for all.
Here, God speaks directly to the suffering servant, to one “deeply despised..abhorred by nations…slave.” God addresses the servant’s suffering with a word of hope. Because God is faithful to what God promises, because of God’s agency, God’s action, God’s way of being: All nations, all leaders will be brought to see the Servant as God’s chosen one (vs. 7).
For me, this chimes in with Paul’s insistence in I Corinthians 1:18-31, that God’s wisdom is not the wisdom of this world. Before he was Paul, Saul was a teacher, an educated, deeply literate devout Jew steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. The foolishness of the Gospel was in keeping with the stark paradoxes of biblical prophecy. God’s ways are not our ways. What is low will be lifted up. The suffering sevant will become a light to the nations. God chooses the least obvious person for the job, something the church would do well to remember when they are choosing candidates for ministry. God is full of startling surprises, constantly changing the ground of our certainty: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”
Paul observes: God chooses the weak, the low, the despised–let no one boast of his or her spiritual powers or their spiritual wisdom. But that’s how God has always worked–all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. Paul delivers a cautionary word to wordly self-congratulation, to those who believe themselves powerful, to spiritual pride, or vanity, or human puffed-upness about one’s own spiritual attainment. A cautionary word to anyone who thinks they’ve got God figured out, or holiness, or perfection, or power, or any one of the temptations to vainglory one might experience in the course of a day. God chose “things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” Here comes the cross and resurrection: “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I Cor.1:30).