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 laboured 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 honoured in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
‘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.’
Arrows and Lights- Isaiah 49:1-7
"I'm not walking for myself. I'm walking for my children and grandchildren." This was the reply of one woman who was in the midst of a long walk home through the streets of Montgomery, Alabama in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. One of the volunteer drivers saw her walking and stopped to invite her into his car. He said to her, "Jump in, Grandmother. You don't need to walk." She, like many others who were choosing to walk in order to be a visible sign of their protest, politely declined his offer. "I'm not walking for myself. I'm walking for my children and grandchildren." Our acts of justice are not simply for ourselves. They are for the people that surround us and who will follow us. We don't just walk for ourselves. We walk for our children and grandchildren and our neighbors and people we don't even know.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the political action that helping bring a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence, though he was not the only leader in the city. Because he was minister, a very public job, and had been chosen as the primary spokesperson for the Montgomery Improvement Association, he was one of the people at whom much of the racist ire was directed. As I explained a couple weeks ago, the white community in Montgomery was incensed that the black community would push back against the humiliation of Jim Crow laws. Their anger would become violent. That was already evident days into the strike. People intended to do him harm in order to break the boycott. He was certain that his family was in danger. Scarcely a month into the 381 day strike, Dr. King's family was receiving 30-40 threatening phone calls and letters per day. As you can imagine, the threats began to take their toll on Dr. King.
In his autobiography, Dr. King shared a story about what it was like to live under these threats of violence. In late January of 1956, about a month after the strike began, late one night, after a hard day, Dr. King got one more threatening call at his home. They said that they would make him sorry that he every came to Montgomery. Even though he had gotten hundreds of threats at this point, on that day, as he laid in bed next to his sleeping wife, this call was simply one too many. He couldn't sleep. He said, "It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point." He got up and began to pace through his house. He ended up in his kitchen, warming up some coffee, and wondering if he could be the leader he felt like he was called to be in Montgomery. He wondered if his daughter or his wife would be killed by the white supremacists who hated him so. He wondered if he would be killed and taken from them. He wondered if his own fear would shake the nerves of people boycotting the segregated buses. He sat at his kitchen table, wracked with doubt and fear, and unsure if he was up to the task before him. He realized that he needed to pray.
In his autobiography, Dr. King described what he prayed aloud for in his kitchen that night. He said he still remembered saying:
"Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they, too, will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
I wonder if anyone here has prayed something like that before. I wonder if anyone here has faltered under terrible strain while still be utterly sure that what they were doing was right. I wonder if anyone here has prayed like that.
Dr. King described what happened next as a kind of quiet assurance. He said that it was as though an inner voice told him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." Dr. King described this moment, the moment where he knew clearly that his mission was to stand up for truth, justice, and righteous, was the moment in his whole life when he most clearly felt the presence of God. His fear and uncertainty faded away. He said that he was ready to face anything that came his way because he knew that God was with him on that journey. He said that it was this night of fear and prayer that helped him to face a terrifying event just three days later. While he was at a mass meeting, someone bombed his home. His wife and daughter were there, but were unharmed. As he met concerned neighbors in the street, he restated his commitment to non-violence as well as his certainty that they were on the right side of history. He said, "I want it known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. If I am stopped our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us." He knew that his work of justice and mercy was not just for him. It was for his children and grandchildren and neighbors and people he didn't even know. And, God was with him.
Just like Dr. King was certain that God was directing him towards justice, the prophet Isaiah was certain that God would direct the people towards justice and righteous. This portion of Isaiah, one of the three servant songs, describes how God will direct the people. A leader, or the whole people of Judah acting a leader among nations, would be called up and sharpened by God to rebuild God's reign on earth. The Servant will be both certain of their calling and fearful that they may not be able to fulfill all that God needs of them. See if these words sound familiar to you: "God 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 God." Did you hear that tension between mission and exhaustion, calling and fear?
Just as Dr. King felt God's presence at the kitchen table, in this beautiful, ancient poetry, God brings quiet assurance to the Servant, too. God said that this Servant will be able to help more than simply the tribes of Jacob and the survivors of Israel. God says, "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." The wicked ones will be overturned. God will raise and empower a ruler from the ones who have been most despised and most abhorred. God says that yes, this calling is hard. But, you have been made for this. And, you do this not simply for your people, but for your neighbors and their children and grandchildren and for people you will never know. And, I will be with you. Even unto the end of the earth.
Part of the beauty of Isaiah is that these servant songs aren't simply directions to one specific leader or monarch. As I have said before, Christians often read these words as prophecy regarding the life and mission of Jesus. In some of the Gospels, Jesus roots his own mission in the words of Isaiah. That being said, I think it's also pretty clear that this song isn't just to help us understand Jesus. It's to help us understand our own calling, too. Through our faith in Christ, we have gotten adopted into this ancient servant nation, a whole people who have been shaped and molded from creation to serve as light in God's darkness and as advocates for the oppressed. We don't have to be Jesus or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to fulfill this mission. We can simply be the grandmother who walks so that her children and grandchildren will one day be able to ride with dignity. We can be the ones making phone calls to our leaders, making sure that they are caring for the ones who Jesus cared for: the sick, the aged, the isolated. We can be the ones who shop at the Middle Eastern deli, supporting our newest neighbors. We can continue make sure that this church is one place in the whole community where everyone knows that they are safe and that they will be greeted as beloved children of God.
And, when we grow weary, because being God's light in the world can be exhausting and frightening, maybe we can remember those words that Dr. King heard at his kitchen table: "Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." And, we'll keep walking.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Juliana Claassens: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3126
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4793
Amy Oden: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1939
Bo Lim: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=807
Dr. King's retelling of the kitchen table story: https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230026/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/autobiography/chp_8.htm
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.