Big Call

Big Call

January 15, 2017
Written by Karen Georgia Thompson

Sunday, January 15
Second Sunday after Epiphany

Weekly Theme
Big Call

Weekly Prayer
Steadfast God, you have enriched and enlightened us by the revelation of your eternal Christ. Comfort us in our mortality and strengthen us to walk the path of your desire, so that by word and deed we may manifest the gracious. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Isaiah 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
   pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
   while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
   in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
   in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel,
   in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God."

And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength--he says,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

Thus says the Lord,
   the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
   the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up,
   princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
   the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

All readings for this week
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
I Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Focus Questions

1. At this point in your life, what is your sense of God's call?

2. Have you felt unworthy of the call you've received?

3. How joyfully and/or uncertainly have you responded to God's call?

4. How has God's call changed over the course of your life?

5. To what unexpected places has God's call led you?

Reflection by Karen Georgia Thompson

Call and vocation in ministry lie at the heart of this week's lectionary texts. Here, on this second Sunday after Epiphany, there is more revelation and expectation as the text points us toward the unknown servant of Isaiah 49:1-7. This is the second of four Servant Songs from Second Isaiah written during the exilic period. This prophetic address puts the servant in dialogue with God, even as the prophet confronts human failings in the midst of desire to fulfill the calling of God which was determined in his mother's womb. The unknown servant in the text brings an address which identifies a call to the nation of Israel and "you peoples from far away" (Is. 49:1).

The text brings its fair share of challenges this Second Sunday after Epiphany. Among them is the unknown identity of the servant in the text. Scholars have spent their fair share of time trying to determine who this servant is. The servant is named as "Israel" and later sent by God to Israel. Walter Brueggeman identifies the challenges of the text especially in the unidentifiable servant: "It is characteristic that Jewish interpretation identifies the servant as the community of Israel. More classical Christian interpretation (as in John Calvin) has found here anticipatory allusion to Jesus, whereas standard historical criticism has sought to identify a nameable, known historical characterÖ.The question of identity is at the present time an enigma beyond resolution." Brueggemann and others suggest attending to the text rather than trying to identify the servant.

Struggling with the call

Traditionally, Christian interpretations of this Hebrew narrative attempt to own the servant of Second Isaiah as a type of Jesus. Here coupled with the Gospel text with John identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God, certainly this text too could point us in the direction of contemplating Jesus' ministry within the call and context of that of the servant. "It may turn out that Second Isaiah's servant is not only a type of Jesus," Gene Tucker writes, "but may also be a model for understanding the vocation of the church." Yet, there is merit to the message in its time, a message brought to a people in exile. There is also relevance for us in the call of the anonymous servant struggling with call, who is then invited to embrace an even larger mission.

The servant speaks (vv. 1-4), first addressing coastland and people (v.1), then identifying the call that came prior to birth, while in the womb (vv.1-3), in the same vein as the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5). The main theme at the beginning of the pericope is the servant's declaration of being called by God to a specific task. Tucker notes that "the passage is like prophetic vocation reports found in other prophetic books (Isa. 6; Jer. 1:10-17; Ezek. 1-3; cf. Isa. 40:1-11)." These are familiar passages of prophetic call where God calls and in all cases the prophets deem themselves unworthy for various reasons. The servant here is no different. While stating firmly the call of God, the servant states frustration with the call--"I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity" (v.4).

Listening for our call

The message of hope the servant brought to the people in their time of exile was probably not well received. Andrew H. Bartelt points to the outrageous and even ludicrous nature of the message to the people: "Cui bono [for whose benefit?] might well have been the question of the exile as well as of Isaiah himself and his successors, who only saw their prophetic warnings unheeded and God's people fall deeper into the abyss of their sin and God's judgment. And if a message of judgment would go unheeded, then certainly words of joy and restoration would fall on deaf ears (49:4)."

This is the beginning of another year in the life of the Church. What is the message for our congregations? What is the mission to the community around and what do we anticipate will be the response to that message? There are those like the servant and the prophets of old who find themselves with a message, one of hope in the midst of hopelessness, crying out for justice where there is injustice. Many are experiencing their own sense of frustration with the on-going lack of response and the myriad of justice issues that need attention but go unattended.

Light and mission

Epiphany brings with it themes of light and mission. The light of God comes to shine forth through the darkness. The expectation of Advent yields to the revelation that is the light. With the light comes the mission of ministry, even as we read accounts of the beginning of Jesus' ministry in this season. The mission of the servant is perplexing and twofold. The servant is first sent to Israel, but after naming frustration in v. 4 is told, "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth" (v. 6). Do we have a sense of ministry and mission this second Sunday after the Epiphany? What do we do with the frustrations experienced in the midst of yielding to call to ministry?

This Sunday holds much promise in community as it is also the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It seems rather fitting to be dealing with the words of the servant and the struggles of accomplishing the work of ministry where call by God is recognized and accepted. The on-going struggle for racial justice is frustrating for many. Even as legislative strides are made, there is change in civil discourse around this issue. The message goes forth that there is more work to be done, yet that message seems to fall by the way. Bartelt notes: "Yet God's plan looks beyond what is seen and behind what may seem all too futile to that which is unseen and unexpected. There is something even greater yet to come."

Unworthiness, and divine assurance

"Modern hearers of this passage may find it possible to identify with any or all of the human parties," Tucker observes. "As individuals and as a church, we experience vocations and may experience unworthiness or frustration as well. In such cases, there is the divine assurance in verses 4b and 5b. As servants of God, we may hear a call to set captives free and to make the reign of God visible throughout the world. We may recognize ourselves in captive Israel, and then for us there is the proclamation of the message of release, the good news that God intends restoration (vv.5-6a). Or we may even be able to see ourselves in those other nations, to whom the good news comes."

God's plan requires our willingness to be participants in the world around us. God's plan requires that we give all that we are to make a difference in the world around us. How do we bring this message of call to vocation in ministry and call to do justice to the world around us? Like the servant, the message moves beyond local community and is a call to the world in our day. What is the message that we bring for this Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the United Church of Christ Office of General Ministries.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 20th century
"Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice 'out there' calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice 'in here' calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
"Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

Theodore Guerin, Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin, 20th century
"We are not called upon to do all the good that is possible, but only that which we can do."

Therese of Lisieux, 19th century
"[God] does not call those who are worthy, but those whom [God] will."

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, 20th century
"Faith walks simply, childlike, between the darkness of human life and the hope of what is to come."

Annie Dillard, 21st century
"I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you."

Stephen King, 21st century
"If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?"

Unknown
"God doesn't call the qualified; God qualifies the called."

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