Spending Strength

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.”

Isaiah 49:1-6, excerpt from Isa 49:1-7, lectionary for January 19, 2020

Another week in one of Isaiah’s ‘servant’ texts.  Last week the LORD was the speaker.  We read and saw God as if gesturing to an audience, saying, ‘See — my servant!’ (Isa 42:1), then turning and addressing the chosen one directly:  ‘I have called you … I have given you’ (Isa 42:6).  This week the servant — first spoken of, then spoken to — becomes the speaker:  ‘The LORD called me … said to me …’ (Isa 49:1, 3).  Not every word is the servant’s own — the LORD is quoted — but the LORD’s words are recited in the voice of the servant, who recalls and repeats words first addressed to him:  ‘I will give you as a light to the nations …’. 

But whose voice is the servant’s?  

I wonder this every week as I read.  What license do I have to take the words of scripture as addressed to me, an individual?  How can I appropriate them to my own need when they were spoken to and for and gathered by a community of faith?  Should I not always search the words of the Bible for the Word of the LORD given to the collective, God’s guidance to the public ‘We’ of the community, persons gathered across space and time, not just the personal ‘I’?  

In whose voice — for whose need — should I read?  In whose voice does the servant speak?  Is the servant a community (‘You are my servant, Israel’)?  Is the servant an individual (one formed in the womb to gather Israel in)?  How can Israel gather Israel?  Perhaps this puzzle is itself a cue to a solution?  After all, if the text can so persistently blend and blur the identity of community and individual so that the servant’s identity is more ‘both/and’ than ‘either/or,’ is that not license for me to do the same?  To say this text is to me and not only to me.  To say I can only understand it to the extent I can read my own life through its lens — and it through my own life.  And to say it can only be understood to the extent that it is read and lived in community.

The curve encompassed by this passage is experienced by individuals and by communities:  the conviction of failure, of having spent one’s strength to no avail.  Is that not an implicit disappointment in the LORD who had called so beguilingly in the first place?  

(My mouth made like a sharp sword; my face flint-firm; my stance solid on a sure foundation — Wait! It is wobbling underfoot! I throw out my arms to regain my balance.  And I wonder anew.)  

Read the arc of it how you will:  individual or community. Both pursue calling. Both make decisions about missions and buildings and relationships. Both look up to wonder if they/we/you/I are adrift after all, somehow off-target to the understood goal.  Both ask for what has that strength been poured out?  

This wobble — the speaker’s worry that labor has been wasted — is where the text turns, the arc sharpens.  In v.4 the servant mourns his strength all spent; in v.5 the servant claims God his strength — and in this renewed sense of relationship and possibility (not just God calling the servant ‘mine’ but the servant using the possessive pronoun of God) — comes a new insight.  The servant’s fear of failure is borne of mistaking a waypoint for the end goal.  The servant Israel has thought in terms of Israel alone.    The servant (he/I/you/we) was focused on this particular and mistook it for God’s whole.   But the LORD says Oh, Israel is too light a thing — I am sending you to the world.  To the world.

Is that the lesson?  It is too slight a thing for me to gather just myself (for a community to consolidate just its own existence) — yet even that too-small burden is beyond my capacity.   Stop spending my own strength.  Spend, instead, the strength of the one who called me and formed me and gave me to go.  To the world.

And in being given, and going out, may I find myself (may you find yourself; may we find ourselves) gathered in with all the nations, as God’s salvation reaches the ends of the earth.

Holding Hands

Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Isaiah 42:5-9 (excerpt from Isa 42:1-9, lectionary text for Sunday, January 15, 2020)

My route home from work passes within a few blocks of an elementary school.  A florescent-vested crossing guard monitors the six lanes the students need to cross.   A woman comes with a small child.  They walk hand in hand, step in step.  A daughter holds her father’s hand.  His grip seems inadequate for her desiring:  she takes her other hand and carefully folds her father’s fingers around her own, tightening his clasp.  A woman calls to a child who is lagging behind.  He is studying the ground — that stick there is very interesting — and shows no conception of the passage of time, the need to get across the road, or of any next thing to be done.  She calls again, and holds her arm behind her, hand outstretched, and the child trots up and extends his own and she latches hold of him.  He seems still preoccupied with the various excessively interesting details of the world all around, but as her hand takes hold, his own seems also to respond and grasp.  She holds him, and he holds her, and the two of them cross.

‘I have taken you by the hand,’ the LORD says.  My own hand opens.  I study it as if seeing it anew.  ‘I have taken you by the hand.’  Called, yes — that’s a church word for vocation.  Called and righteousness and keeping and covenant.  All church words.  But not only — not even first — words for use in a sanctuary on Sunday.  Words for everyday.  Words for crossing the street.  Calling.  Taking hold.  

The LORD calls and not only stretches out his arm, extends his hand for my own to hold (the parent not looking behind but waiting for — expecting — the feel of the smaller hand inserted into her own), but the LORD takes hold of my hand.  The LORD grasps.  The LORD holds on to me.  Do I need to carefully curl God’s fingers more closely around my own fist or is God’s clasp already close enough for comfort and strength?  How do I feel God’s hand holding mine?  How do I reach to hold on to God’s?

Looking at my own hand, my own palm.  Fingers curl sightly inward when my hand is at rest; forming a slight hollow, a curve, within it.  I stretch out my arm and reach and grasp my Bible with my hand.  I feel the texture of the cover, the slight heft of its whole within the curve of my palm.  Jesus was handed the scroll and unrolled it (Luke 4:17).  Jesus held God’s word in his hand.  I hold God’s word in my hand.  I open and touch the smoothness of the page with my finger.  Let my eyes rest, again, on the tiny black type.  I am reaching for God’s own outstretched hand.  I am taking hold.  I am held and kept and pulled along (that little boy!) into God’s next new thing.

‘I am the LORD,’ God declares.  ‘My glory I give to no other,’ God proclaims.  But my hand I give to yours, God promises. And you, God says, I give to the work that we shall do together:  open eyes, invite light.  Hold my hand.  It’s time to cross.

A Taught Tongue

The Lord GOD has given to me a tongue of those-taught to know to sustain the weary with a word.  He wakes in the morning, in the morning he wakes my ear to hear as those-taught. Isaiah 50:4 [my translation]

Text for Sunday, April 14: Isa 50:4-9; linked here https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=isa+50%3A4-9&version=NRSV

My translation is clunky.  This is deliberate.  I want to have to think about every word.  I don’t want my eyes to glide across the line merely reminding myself of the text and what I know.

I want to hear it.  I want to know something new.

Which is risky, and frightens me a little.

I’ve bought a book by an author I’ve never read before.  I am excited to hold it in my hands, to anticipate hearing a voice and stories which are to me entirely new.  I open the book, tugging at its still-stiff binding, and suddenly I am aware of a frisson of fear.  What if it is not what I expect?  What if I find I don’t care for the author’s voice, or her story?  Or — perhaps worse — what if I do?  What if I am taken with it all, and am taken thereby to someplace I do not want to go?   My worry is not that I shall have wasted money or time in reading.  It is that I shall have wasted part of my heart in caring.  I am already so tired; I do not have the energy for another’s book-bound pain.

My study Bible helpfully captions Isaiah 50:4-11, ‘The Servant’s Humiliation and Vindication’ just in case I can’t follow the progression from smiting and spitting (50:6) to flint-faced confidence (50:7-8).  Some of my students immediately ‘know’ that this passage is about Jesus; the connection between Jesus and Isaiah’s servant is an early Christian tradition (Acts 8:32-35).  But I assign my students articles that identify the servant as the prophet who wrote, or the prophet Jeremiah, the king Zedekiah, the holy city Zion, or the nation of Israel, sometimes called Jacob (e.g. Isaiah 41:8).  I have in my files as many articles again.  The reams of studies can make it seem as if as if the text was written to be a riddle — ‘Who is the servant?’ — a test of our ability to answer correctly.  

But what if the text does not pose that question?

The Lord GOD has given to me a tongue of those-taught.

The NRSV describes God’s gift as ‘the tongue of a teacher,’ but the Hebrew is ‘taught-ones,’ or ‘disciples.’  The same term recurs at the end of the verse, applied to the speaker’s ear waked to hear.  The organs of hearing and of speech linked by this descriptor of each as taught, each as open to receive the LORD’s gift, the LORD’s waking.

What is the LORD waking me to hear?  Is it even a question?  And if the LORD wakes me, instead, with an answer, then what is the question I am meant to have asked?

What if the point of these verses is not the identity of the servant but of the ‘me’ gifted by the Lord GOD?  The one wakened to hear, wakened to be taught, wakened to speak as one who has heard and learned.  The one who knows that the waking and the teaching are not only for my own, personal, sake, but for the sustaining of the weary.  Even if the ‘weary’ and the taught are the exact same ‘one.’  Or ‘ones.’  It’s plural, after all.

It’s easier, I realize — and, I admit, fun — to follow the threads of text-connection — to pretend that the point is the question ‘Who is the servant?’  Because once we answer that, right or wrong, we can be done with it.  Because ‘the servant’ is Jesus or Jeremiah or Jacob or Zion, but in any case not-me, not us.  

But what if the text is not a riddle but an invitation.  Morning by morning to be waked to listen,  so to speak the story I — we — have heard.  Which means morning by morning to be waked not just by the noise of birds singing the sun up or school buses rumbling past but by others’ voices, others’ stories.  In print, in person, even in ancient texts read anew.  To risk not just my time and energy but my heart.  To identify with and as, even at risk of being pulled unwilling to places I did not want to have to go.  To be able to set my story, there, so, with all the rest, to see it in its proper shape and size and to see the way it fits as part of the larger whole.  To sustain with my speech, and, speaking and hearing, to be sustained.

We are on the verge of Holy Week.  From Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through his suffering and death, and past death into life.  If it’s only about Jesus, we can tick the boxes, turn in our test papers, and promptly forget the whole.  

But what if it’s about us?  What are our ears waked to hear?