The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
What does a Christian look like? I know what a Christian looks like on TV. Often on sitcoms, the Christian is the nerdy, squeaky-clean character – like a Ned Flanders of The Simpsons. Sometimes the Christian character is the hypocritical person, the one who talks a good game but ultimately is a villain. Or sometimes the Christian character is offensive and judgmental – a fundamentalist with harsh views – views offered freely and excessively.
I also know what a Christian looks like on a twenty-four hour news channel: usually super-crazy or super-embarrassing or super-martyr. Or a politician using Christian language to further his or her political career. It really depends on which channel one watches, I suppose. But almost always, when a Christian appears on the television screen, the cringes are not far behind.
So what does a Christian look like? Once upon a time, I thought I had that all figured out. As a youngster in the Pentecostal tradition, it was very clear to me what a Christian should look like; maybe more accurately, what a Christian should not look like. And so I was sure a Christian would never smoke a cigarette or drink beer – at least not the kind with alcohol. A Christian would never visit a bar or listen to Top 40 radio. And, of course, a Christian would never be seen wearing a donkey pin, if you get my meaning. I was young; I had good intentions. Looking back, my narrow views are embarrassing, for sure. But also not unusual; most of us probably have ideas about what looks Christian and what does not.
Today is the first Sunday of the Epiphany season and in this season looks matter. We're looking for glimpses of God; that is one of the Church's Epiphany tasks. But we are not alone – others are looking too.
The first readers of our Isaiah text were looking for God – and having a difficult time with the search. The book of Isaiah, as we have it in our Bibles, was actually written in three parts, at three different times. The beginning of the book was written before the Babylonian exile; the end of the book was written after the exile. And by now perhaps you have guessed it: the middle was written during the exile. Today's passage is from that middle section.
The people were living in a harsh world. And in that harsh world, glimpses of God were difficult to find. There seemed to be very little light in the midst of the deep darkness they knew all too well.
The powerful Babylonian empire had devastated Israel. They destroyed the Temple, plundered their goods. Those who survived the siege were carried away in chains, prisoners far from home. Everything the people took for granted, everything they relied on, was stripped away.
Included in that was their image of God. They had long known their God as the Deliverer, the one who brought them out of Egypt. The Exodus story was their foundational story. What they knew about God was that God saved and protected them. God was their deliverer. But this time God did not deliver. And so they felt hopeless, abandoned, alone.
There are a variety of theories concerning the intended audience for today's message. Some read this passage from Isaiah as a Messianic prophecy. Some apply it solely to Jesus – foretelling his ministry. Some even think the writer saw himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
And while there is perhaps some truth in each theory, I am convinced that servant called by God is actually the people of Israel – not an individual but the community. Not a Messiah to save them, but them to save the world. And if so, it is shocking. It is shocking because it is an absurd plan.
Surely God could do better than these people. These people are in exile. They can't even save themselves. The evidence said they had been hopelessly abandoned by their God; the people were something of a joke amongst the nations, not a light to the nations.
They were crushed – and feeling crushed. By a harsh world, they were beat up. The world around them was rough. There were too many problems. Too much injustice. Too little evidence that things would ever change. Power, dominance, production: those were values that ran the world in which they were struggling to survive.
And they were not powerful. They were not dominant. They had no great riches or influence. But isn't just like God to choose the least likely?
God called this people – this people living in exile. God took them by the hand. God gave them as a light to the nations.
In a world of power, God called them to service. In a rough world, God called them to be gentle. In a culture that snuffs out the weak, God asked them to, as Isaiah so poetically puts it, preserve “the dimly burning wicks.” In a world that so often closes its eyes to injustice and pain, God called them to open eyes – to scatter the darkness with light, to be the light.
It is a difficult mission; it is a heavy calling. They lacked the power to force the change. They lacked the influence to buy the change. Had they shouted their message, no one would have listened. But in this season looks matter. God was calling them to be a light in a world of darkness. God was calling them to look different.
Today is the first Sunday of the Epiphany season and in this season looks matter. We're looking for glimpses of God; that is one of the Church's Epiphany tasks. But we are not alone – others are looking too. And we might just be the epiphany the world has been looking for.
I recognize the irony in the following statement, since I am in the middle of a long monologue: we can shout our message all we want, and many Christians certainly do, but not many are listening. They are looking; they are looking for a glimpse of light.
Folks are looking for some light to break through the darkness – some evidence that God really is doing something new, some evidence that God is making a better world. And it might be an absurd plan, but God is trusting this plan to us – with God's help, of course. Yeah, it's a heavy calling – a calling we foolishly agree to every time we rehearse the Baptismal Covenant – a calling we foolishly affirm again today.
In a world of power, God calls us to service. In a rough world, God calls us to be gentle with each other. In a culture that snuffs out the weak, God asks us to love them back to strength. In a world that so often closes its eyes to injustice and pain, God calls us to open eyes. In a world suffocating under the weight of darkness, God calls us to be a light. We are called to be different – to work with God to make a different world, a better world.
And I suppose that is what a Christian should look like: A Christian should look like God changing the world.