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The Gentle Chain

January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9

My first trip to Israel included eight days in the Holy Land, followed by a three or four days in Italy. There were a huge number of memorable moments on that trip, but one of the most unusual happened on one of our final days — it was when we visited Assisi, the former home of St. Francis. 


There we saw a modest chapel that we were told Francis rebuilt himself along with a couple of his followers. As I remember it, it was two stories tall — not counting the roof and steeple — and was barely any bigger than the church office downstairs. In other words, it was a perfect reflection of the humble man who built it. 


However, at some point in time, the Catholic church decided that a good way to honor Francis would be to erect a massive cathedral around that tiny chapel and fill that cathedral with elaborate and, at times, even gaudy, decorations. The contrast between the two styles was jarring to me. It seemed to be abundantly symbolic of the fact that they really didn’t understand the humility or embrace the poverty that Francis stood for. 


It’s like the old supposedly true story of an American missionary who served an unsophisticated tribe in Africa. When he was scheduled to come back to the United States for a furlough, he wanted to give his people some sort of gift that could be useful to them in his absence. 


He wasn’t quite sure what that could be, so he thought long and hard about it and finally decided to give them a sundial, thinking that it might be helpful if the natives could learn to tell time. When the missionary returned, he discovered that the natives were delighted with the gift. In fact, they prized it so highly that they immediately built a house around the sundial to protect it. 


Don’t we all have our moments of misunderstanding like that — of admiring things like our faith as if it were a museum piece that needs to be placed under protective glass rather than being a call to action to serve others in God’s name? 


The person who wrote our Old Testament lesson today — the second of what may be three people who called themselves “Isaiah” — wrote to the ancient Israelites at a time just like that. 


Last month, we spent the Sundays of Advent thinking about the emotions of the ancient Israelites who waited 800 years for the coming of the Messiah. This passage puts us right back in the early years of that time frame and it touches on the last major issue that we didn’t cover in our Advent series — a crisis in faith. 


For centuries, the ancient Israelites were told that they were the chosen people and that the glory of God lived in the temple in Jerusalem. Because of those two things, they were taught that God would always protect them from disaster. 


Unfortunately, that belief occasionally led them to do the equivalent of kicking sand in the face of the neighborhood bully. They must have thought, “Why not, since we’re supernaturally protected?” So they did that to the Assyrians after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom and scattered its people throughout the vast Assyrian empire. 


The result was that the Assyrians surrounded and besieged Jerusalem. But the Bible tells us that God agreed to defend Jerusalem and 185,000 Assyrian soldiers were killed in their sleep overnight. So the Assyrians returned home to lick their wounds and didn’t return since the king became preoccupied with defending his throne from two of his sons, who eventually assassinated him. 


That success led the Israelites to later kick sand in the face of the Babylonian king, too — not once, but twice. Both times led to disastrous results. Sadly, the lesson they learned from the miracle with the Assyrians was that they could stick their tongue out at bullies and then run and hide behind God, expecting him to protect them regardless of the circumstances. 


That wasn’t the lesson God wanted to teach them. The lesson God actually wanted them to learn was to develop a genuine, full-life faith that added richness and color to every moment of their lives, not a faith that only peeks out in times of tension. 


The result of their theological misunderstanding led to two major defeats by the Babylonians. The first one was relatively mild by the standards of ancient empires. As long as they paid Babylon massive amounts of protection money, the Israelites could go on their merry way, doing pretty much whatever they wanted — within limits. 


However, when they later rose in rebellion against the Babylonian protection racket, that result was significantly harsher. The temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem was reduced to rubble and the leading citizens of the nation were carted off into exile. 


But the deadliest damage of that conquest wasn’t done to architecture. Their massive defeat caused an equally massive crisis of faith. The central foundation of their lives had been stolen away and they were unsure of how to interpret that new reality. Had they been abandoned by God? Had they been lied to by their leaders for centuries? Did God really exist at all? 


Perhaps you’ve had your own moments of doubt similar to that. Pressures in your world, dangers and disappointments, unexpected losses and so many other blows from a seemingly uncaring world can shake or even shatter your faith as you struggle to regain your footing in a world that has newly proven to be more threatening and more lonely than you had ever imagined. 


That’s when Isaiah’s reassurance from today’s Old Testament lesson comes in — the one about God’s servant who has God’s own spirit within him. We’re told that that servant won’t break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. In other words, that servant is all about sheltering those who feel their lives are falling apart. 


As Frederick Buechner’s puts it in his book, The Son of Laughter, God is sometimes called “the Shield,” meaning that God “is always shielding us like a guttering wick [...] because the fire he is trying to start with us is a fire that the whole world will live to warm its hands at. It is a fire in the dark that will light the whole world home.”


Isaiah’s words are directed to a people who had been exiled from their native land for at least 50 years. People had lost all hope that they would ever be able to control their own fate again. 


The truth is that whenever a powerful life crisis like that hits us, we are confronted with the choice to be crushed under the pressure or to reexamine our earlier assumptions and grow into a new maturity of faith that both makes sense of the new circumstances and still clings to God. In any crisis, some will choose to move away from God, while others will find their faith strengthened by realizing there really is nowhere else to go. But God’s promise is that both will be nurtured and protected and given every chance to thrive. 


The interesting thing about Isaiah’s reassurance is that the identity of the servant he is talking about shifts over time. When Isaiah was writing, the servant he described was the faithful remnant of the nation of Israel. 


Those who held onto their faith through all the disasters that had befallen Israel would then become the ones with the passion to first notice and then protect people struggling on the margins who were ignored by the vast majority of people. 


Eventually, Christians came to see that servant as being Jesus since no one else fit that role so perfectly. Since that’s the case, it now becomes incumbent on us as Jesus’ followers to take up that responsibility in his name to help bring forth justice. 


As Sally Foster-Fulton puts it, “People of faith, don’t trample others underfoot in a race to the top or a race to be right. Speak gently and thoughtfully, don’t drown out the voices on the margins or silence those whose voices are muffled by poverty, fear or oppression. 


“God’s justice is not about one side winning and another losing; no, it is an embedded reality where power realigns and is shared. The widows and the orphans and the stranger — those most vulnerable, pushed into corners and too easy to overlook — their voices and stories are raised up and pulled into the centre of the community’s concern. God’s justice opens the eyes of the blind — those who cannot focus past today because of hunger and fear and those who cannot see because they are blinded by greed and the fear of losing their place of privilege. It is the same with the image of the prisoner being freed — there are different ways to be bound up and held back.”


“As […] servants in whom God delights, how do we […] reach out and embrace our place as an important cog in a wheel rolling towards justice? […] It is our job to be living expressions of the new things God is calling into being, to get on with doing good, when the temptation is to shrink back in the face of unfavourable odds.” 


Janet Hunt adds, “[…] perhaps I cannot much impact a world where injustice and cruelty seem to rule. But I can bolster up the bruised reeds around me. I can protect the struggling flame of the one standing next to me. And maybe in doing so we can together find a way to see how God is calling us to be even more fully human together. Together. For the sake of one another. For the sake of the world.” 


We can all be God’s servant, faithfully bringing justice in big and small ways, opening the eyes of those who are blind, and bringing hope to prisoners who sit in the darkness of this world’s real and figurative dungeons. 


We can be God’s servants as we deal with other people, demonstrating compassion and God’s love. Not just through splashy, earth-shaking actions, but with quiet, moment-by-moment deeds of persistent and loving faith. 


That’s what it means to be the servant of God who brings justice and who wouldn’t dream of breaking a bruised reed. We are called to be God’s servants who heal the broken things of this world — minute by minute, person by person. Through our persistence and faith we can bring a true vision of God to the world. 


Isaiah quotes God as saying, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” Let us offer ourselves to make sure those things spring forth in our time. Amen. 

by Jim McCrea


Rev. Jim McCrea



    Sundays, 10 a.m.


    Adults: Sundays, 9-9:45 a.m.

First Presbyterian Church

106 N. Bench Street

Galena, Illinois 61036

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    Sundays, 10 a.m.


    Adults: Sundays, 9-9:45 a.m.

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