Text: Isaiah 42:1-9
It is January 12, 2014. My name is Nancy Petty. I am 50 years old. I am a mother. And I am a lesbian. I am the pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. My passion is waking up every morning and going to work. I love being with people as they search for meaning in life. Even if I were not a pastor, I imagine that church would still be at the center of my life. I consider myself to be a learner and a seeker. As an adult, I have traveled to Haiti, Cuba, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, Nicaragua, and England. It is important to me that church be a place where all people are welcomed—where everyone has a place at the table. Most central to my theology is the message that God’s radical and inclusive love is for all; and that every single individual and every living thing is a reflection of God. I am motivated by a desire to build community in which there is diversity and where all people are treated equally, with respect and dignity.
Now, let me tell you a bit of the backstory to this narrow view of who I am, some of which you already know. My growing up years were not easy, especially my adolescent years. There was deep struggle, pain and confusion as I wrestled with questions of identity, especially when it came to my sexual orientation. While I did grow up in a culture and community and family where church was at the center of our lives, I did not grow up in a church where the message was it’s okay to be who you are, especially if that means you are gay. I can safely and honestly say that I never heard a preacher proclaim from the pulpit that God’s love is radically inclusive of all people and that God loves us just as we are. Neither my religious education nor my schooling taught me it was okay to question the answers I was given to matters of faith and life; or for that matter to question the questions. There was no encouragement to be a searcher and seeker. Learning was more about answering the predetermined questions with the prescribed right answers. There was no “living the questions” curriculum. For the first eighteen years of my life the only places I traveled to were parts of North and South Carolina and Georgia. Maybe Tennessee and that was a disappointment because I never reached Dollywood. Most central to my theology was the concept of original sin and my need to be saved from my wretchedness. The way to do that was to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I was motivated, most of the time, by guilt and shame. Building community was a matter of trying to fit in and be like everyone else.
I begin this way to illustrate that life has at least two views—the focused, up close view and the wide-angle view. The focused, up close view is a somewhat narrow view. It’s a slice of the pie, not the whole pie. It’s about where we are now, and not so much about how we got to where we are now. It’s a mighty long way from Sandy Plains Baptist Church in Shelby, NC to Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC—and I’m not just talking about road miles. To understand the significance of where you are at present, it sometimes requires taking a wide-angle view of where you’ve been and where you’ve come from.
This passage from Isaiah that we have read this morning shows God speaking into the pain of exile to send a servant who will bring justice, and not to Israel only but to all the nations. It’s a dramatic and moving text. But we’ve entered in the middle of the story—a story that spans over years of deliverance, covenant, monarchy, bondage, exile and return. There is a backstory, a wide-angle view to Isaiah 42:1-9 that is important for us to understand. It goes something like this.
God delivered the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and brought them through wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for God. For centuries they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but the prophets always called them back. Then, in the sixth century BCE, the unthinkable happened.
The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, took them into bondage, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains. The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries. Israel had been abandoned to its enemies: How could the Mighty Deliverer allow this to happen? Had God abandoned them? Removed from access to the temple and to the land, were they still God’s people? Was God still God?
It was in the midst of this identity crisis that Isaiah speaks a word. The prophet reminds the people who God is and how God works. He draws their attention from this particular, historical moment, to the larger purposes of God. As Isaiah speaks, it’s as though we see the camera lens zooming slowly out from a close-up shot to a wide-angle view. By reminding Israel of who God is, how God works, and what God is doing by sending a servant, Isaiah expands the frame of reference, re-locating and purposing Israel’s particularity within God’s wider frame.
God is the God not only of Israel or even of Babylon, but the one who “created the heavens . . . and stretched out the earth” (verse 5). This is the God of creation, who made everything that is, and who dwells in this wide, open cosmic space, not contained by the cramped space of exile. This is the God “who gives breath to the people of the earth and spirit to those who walk on it” (verse 5). God’s breath animates not only the people of Israel, but every living, breathing creature on the planet. And finally, this is also the God who has reached out to create the particular people called Israel, to call them to righteousness, and to keep them (verse 6). This is the God of the expansive universe and the God of these very particular people.*
It is easy to read these scriptures week after week and hear them as though they are about someone else, from another time and place that has very little connection to us. But I want to challenge us this morning to hear Isaish 42 from both a wide-angle view and a focused view. First, consider this focused view. Listen as I read Isaish 42:1-9 again.
Here is my servant Pullen, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon her, she will bring forth justice to the nations…
The people of Pullen will not grow faint or be crushed
until they have established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for their teaching.
Thus says God, 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 God, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, 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…
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare…to you my servant Pullen.
Isaiah 42 is about us. We are God’s servant in whom God’s soul delights. God’s spirit is on us to bring about justice to the nations. God has given us as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind and to bring out those who sit in darkness. That is the focused, close up view. And it is an important one.
But we must never forget the wide-angle view. Isaiah 42 is about us, but it’s not just about us. The text speaks to a chosen Israel as the servant of God in covenant with God. And we’ve just heard it reframed it to speak of a chosen Pullen as the current day servant of God, attempting to be the love of God in our world. It is tempting to focus only on our part in the narrative, to celebrate our role as servants, as chosen, as special to God. But our part in the narrative is just that – a part in service to a greater whole. Our narrow, focused view of the story doesn’t exist outside the wider view, that all of creation is precious, that God isn’t willing to abandon anyone or anything, that God so longs for communion with the entirety of creation, that God so loved all of us that God calls us to love one another, to serve one another, to be in community with all others. Our light is bright and essential, and we are but one light. We are called, and we are special, and so are the ones we are serving, so are the ones we haven’t yet served, so are the ones who are different from us, so are the ones whose faith means something different to them. Establishing justice on earth is bigger than our understanding of justice. We have eyes to open and prisoners to bring out of darkness. But we are not alone in that work. Isaiah reminds us that God is still God. God’s people are still God’s people in their particularity, yet with a purpose that extends beyond themselves to all of God’s creation.
When we can understand the cosmic universal God as the same God who calls us by name; and when we can understand ourselves as both essential to God’s ongoing revelation in the world and as one very profound, yet very, very small part of the universe then, like Isaiah, we can take the wide-angle view of our faith and to our living. And in doing so, we learn that in all manner of things, all shall be well—all shall be well!
*The section in this sermon on Israel’s history was adapted from commentary by Amy Oden on Workingpreacher.org.