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Given As a Light

For Presbyterians, the Westminster Catechism is one of several fundamental documents. It’s in our Book of Confessions, and for many, the first question of the catechism is very familiar (although I’ve taken the liberty of updating the language a little)- “What is the chief end of humans? Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” We may know and affirm those words, but functionally, we tend to act like some people’s chief ends are to glorify God more than everyone else. Like if you’re a minister or even an elder or deacon, if you’re in “ordered ministry” you have a call that maybe means more than everyone else. That is myth #1. Everyone is called by God. It just looks different for some of us.

I think sometimes people operate under the mistaken idea that to be called by God requires having some intense magical kind of experience. That is myth #2. In 1959, Joan Thatcher of the American Baptist Convention asked Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King about his call experience. She wrote to him asking about his call to ministry, saying, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called."[1] Dr. King replied, “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.”[2] I think you’ll agree that even without the fanfare of a Hollywood “come to Jesus” moment, Dr. King’s ministry was real and Spirit led.

We also are also likely to believe or behave as if a person is called rather than a community. That is myth #3. The people of God are called. Full stop. The people of God are all called. Sometimes that calling is for an individual and sometimes it is for the whole community, but it is for everyone. In 1995, an abandoned Catholic church in North Philadelphia was taken over by dozens of homeless families. When the Archdiocese threatened to arrest them, the budding community hung a banner outside that said “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” From that initial movement, six recent graduates of Eastern University pooled their money and moved into a house in the poorest neighborhood of Philadelphia. They called themselves The Simple Way. Together they committed to loving their neighbors by planting gardens, creating community, running a store, and helping to feed their neighborhood and make it a safer place to live. At one point, when the city banned food distributions on the street, The Simple Way avoided breaking the law by explaining that they were not distributing food- this was The Lord’s Supper.[3]

Our text this morning confronts all of these myths, and it helps us to see the truth of what it means to be called. We’re reading today from a section of the book of Isaiah known as “2nd Isaiah” or “Deutero Isaiah.” The book of Isaiah spans a long period of time, and forms three distinct sections. Second Isaiah, which includes chapters 40-55, takes place during and immediately after the time period where many Israelites had been captured and taken to Babylon. In these years, the people of Israel lived in exile until they were released by Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE. They had lived as captives for about 50 years, and when they were finally allowed to go home, home didn’t really exist for them anymore. Most people had been gone for their entire lives, the walls of Jerusalem were destroyed, the Temple sat in ruins, the people themselves were scattered.

So, in the midst of this crisis, we read our words today- a poem of sorts which reveals the heart of the prophet. For centuries scholars have debated if this text is the voice of a single person or a voice representing the entire nation. Is it the words of a prophet who is sharing their calling, their frustrations, the assurance they find in God? Or is it a reminder to the entire nation, a call to rebuild and regenerate as well as a reminder that their flourishing should be for a gift to all the nations? One of my favorite things about the word of God is that the answer can be “yes” to all of the above. This is one person’s story, it is the story of a nation, it is your story, and it is our story.

The text shares this strong sense of call and purpose. I love the authoritative voice here- “Listen up, y’all. God has given me something to say to you, something that is more fundamental to my existence than even my own breath, something as true as my own name.” The author speaks of the sharpness of their mouth, the strength and accuracy of their mission, the identity that is rooted in servanthood. And yet- the author is also frustrated. Despite this sense of calling, it seems to have yielded nothing- v. 4 says, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”

But “now!” says the author, “now” God tells them, “it isn’t enough for you to simply live in service of the restoration of Israel. I am giving you as ‘a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” Commentator Amy G. Oden writes “In an astonishing phrase God says that this restoration of Israel is “too light a thing” (verse 6) in and of itself. God’s people do not exist for themselves alone, nor is their restoration an end in itself.”[4] The point was never simply to bring the people of Israel home, for them to rebuild and have a happy life. The point, God’s intention, is for them to be a beacon for all the world, for all the nations.

And yes, there will be suffering- in God’s own mouth describes the author as “deeply despised, abhorred” yet there will come a time when the powerful ones in this world will be humbled before the prophet, God’s anointed.

Before Jesus was born, Jews read this text as the story of a prophet and the story of their own nation. The early Christian church read this text and saw Jesus reflected in the words- named before he was born, called, hidden away, labored faithfully yet ignored, a light to nations proclaiming salvation, one despised, yet destined for glory nonetheless. And today, I offer that we are invited to find ourselves in this story.

I wonder, do you know that you were created and called for a purpose? Do you realize that your life has meaning beyond yourself, that you are being invited into holy work that only you can do? And all of that is true for us too- we, the people of Pocket Presbyterian Church. Like the prophet, our world is in deep need. And we have the opportunity, the gift, the requirement to do the work of healing. We have been called together at this place and this time for this good and holy work. Like Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, James, John, Mary, Paul, Priscilla and Aquila- God has created and called us to a life of glorifying and enjoying God forever. This is true for you, and this is true for us. I believe with my whole heart that God has brought us together for a reason and it isn’t just to warm the pews and to fund the budget- God has brought us together to be the church- to be wholehearted and hospitable, to pursue righteousness, to serve our neighbors, to live generously, to care for the earth, to seek justice, to heal, to create peace, to love. It isn’t an accident that you are here. The words of Mordecai, uncle to Queen Esther ring in my ears- perhaps you have been brought here for such a time as this?

And just like the author of Isaiah 49 says, we are not just called, we are equipped. The prophet knows and trusts that their gifts are from God, “God made my mouth like a sharp sword…God made me a polished arrow.” Friends, we too are equipped for the work God is calling us to. We have, within this community, the knowledge, the talents, the time, the energy, the money, the spirit, to do what God has called us to do. I am reminded of Moses who, when called to go speak to Pharoah, says he can’t- he isn’t good at talking, he’s sure he will mess it up. But God reminds Moses that God does not call the equipped, he equips the called. So again, I say to you, we have everything we need to be the church God is calling us to be.

And finally, back in Isaiah 49, God tells the people of Israel that it isn’t enough for them to rise up, for them to be restored. They have not been rescued and returned from Babylon simply for them to now be comfortable and cozy back at home. Their survival is not just for themselves; their survival is for the good of the world, for all of God’s creation. And in the same way, I do not believe that we exist simply to be Pocket Presbyterian Church- a nice, friendly, country club of a church where you can ride out your days until you are buried in our cemetery. We have been called to be a light to the nations that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth. We have been equipped to do the work of feeding the hungry, being a friend to the lonely, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, caring for one another, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what the calling of this church is or how it will look. I can’t tell you what our work will look like next year or in five years. It would be wrong for me to cast a vision that was not our collective work. But I will tell you this- it is my fervent prayer that we will be listening, that we will be ready, and that we will be courageous as we discern the call. The author Flannery O’Connor used to say that every single morning she would sit at her writing desk, even if she didn’t have a single word to write, even when she was all out of ideas, she would sit at her writing desk. She wanted to be ready when the idea came. In that same way, we must be faithful in our work, attentive in our spiritual lives, and prepare ourselves for where God is leading us. Pastor Bruce Epperly puts it this way: “The passage from Isaiah challenges us individually and congregationally: Are we thinking too small? Does God have bigger plans for us than we are currently imagining? What great adventure is around the corner for us and our congregation?”[5]

May we live as people who are ready for revival, confident in our calling, trusting of our talents, and steadfast in our service. Amen.

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