Sermon for First Sunday after Epiphany, Year A; January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 29
A Prayer from the prophet Isaiah: “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 (and) a light to the nations” Amen.
One of the more useful assignments that I was asked to complete while I was in seminary was to write my own “Elevator Speech”. What is an “Elevator Speech” you ask? My professor explained it this way: he said that every Christian ought to be prepared, at a moment’s notice, to explain in 30 seconds or less why they would call themselves a Christian.
Another way to put this is: we should be able to tell someone who is not a churchgoer why it is that we believe in Jesus in about the same amount of time that it takes to finish a typical elevator ride.
If you have never tried to distill why it is that you are willing to get out of bed on a snowy January morning and come to church into a 30 second sound bite I’d encourage you to write your own “Elevator Speech”— it is more difficult than you might think, but the exercise is wonderful because it forces you to put into words why it is that you find Jesus to be so compelling, and why it is that you cannot turn away from his call to do God’s healing work in God’s creation.
I have long thought of today’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles as Peter’s “Elevator Speech”. And it is a good speech; if you are looking in the Bible for a concise summary of the life and work of Jesus you probably won’t find a better one than this. But lately I have come to realize that Peter’s speech is much more than just an explanation of Jesus’ work; this speech comes at a moment of conversion not just for the people who heard Peter speak that day, but also for Peter himself. I’ll elaborate more about his “Ah Ha!” moment in just a minute.
I believe that we come to church because it is within this community that we find the strength and the inspiration to continue to go out into the world and to try to make it a better place. My job as a preacher is to study and pray about each week’s Scripture readings and to try to help you find the connections between them and your day to day lives.
I am not here to tell you what to think or believe about the readings—I am here to help you find how they can be relevant to you today. We have all wasted our time if you don’t walk out of here today with some idea or inspiration or nudge from the Holy Spirit that better equips you to face another week in God’s mission field. With that thought in mind let’s look together at our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah—how is God using Isaiah to speak to us today?
Many of us probably recognized today’s excerpt from chapter 42 as one of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”. These passages, in which Isaiah describes the mission of God’s unnamed “servant”, were adopted long ago by early Christians as Scriptural passages in which they believe Isaiah is predicting the birth and life of Jesus the Christ. Probably most of you though of Jesus this morning/evening while the lesson was being read; you were not wrong to do that.
We have all been taught that Jesus is “the servant” in these passages. But if we sit there passively in the pew and think that Isaiah is only talking about Jesus then we are missing what God has to say to us today. If we sit here and think that Isaiah is only describing the work that Jesus was sent to do then we are letting ourselves off the hook way too easily, we are shirking our responsibilities, we are refusing to hear what God is calling us to do.
What if we go back to this reading, and this time, in every instance where Isaiah refers to “the servant” instead of thinking of Jesus we understand that Isaiah is referring to the people of God? How does that change the way this passage speaks to us today? Now Isaiah is saying that the people of God are chosen by God, that God delights in them, that God has put his Spirit in them and equipped them to bring justice to the nations. Isaiah is telling us that God has given the people of God as a covenant to the people and as a light to the nations—-to bring sight to the blind and to free the prisoners who sit in darkness.
Ah Ha! That changes everything! God isn’t using Isaiah today to tell me about how wonderful his servant Jesus is; God wants me to know that I, as one of God’s people, am chosen, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent out into God’s creation to bring light and justice to those who live in darkness.
Now please take note that I am not claiming that that each of us is sent out alone to do this work. We are part of a community for a reason and it is part of God’s plan that we are sent out as a community rather than as individuals. God’s emphasis on community brings me back to Peter’s “Ah Ha!” moment in our second lesson from Acts.
To help you understand Peter’s conversion let me place his elevator speech into context for you. Peter, a poor Jewish fisherman, had been invited by a wealthy Roman gentile named Cornelius into his home because Cornelius and his friends wanted to learn about Jesus. And as Peter was delivering his elevator speech to these strangers it suddenly dawned upon him that he had completely underestimated the scope and the audacity of God’s mission in sending Jesus. Up until the moment that he delivered his speech Peter had believed Jesus was the Messiah—the long promised descendant of King David sent by God to free the Jewish people from oppression—-and, of course, at that time the Jews were oppressed by their Roman rulers.
But listen as I read the verse that immediately follows Peter’s speech and our lesson, Acts 10 verse 44: “While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” As the words of his elevator speech died on Peter’s lips he was astonished to witness the Holy Spirit lighting upon everyone in the room, Jew and Gentile, Roman and nonRoman, oppressed and oppressor, everyone—and he realized that God’s plan to bring peace through Jesus was so much more audacious than he had ever dared to dream, and that God’s vision of the people of God was inclusive in ways that he could never have imagined. Peter realized that through Jesus God was calling everyone into community, that the Jesus movement was not confined only to Jewish people like himself, and that God often chooses and empowers the most unlikely people to participate in his healing work.
Just a few minutes ago you heard Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus. On the day that John baptized him in the Jordan River, Jesus committed himself to follow the will of God, to preach peace and to bring healing to God’s creation. Jesus claimed his identity when he accepted his role and agreed to participate in God’s saving work.
Like Jesus, we remember who we are when we do the work that God has sent us to do. We are the people of God, sent out as a community to bring light and peace and justice, by a God who amazes and astonishes us at every turn. Jesus calls us to accompany him on his mission, fully aware that the future is unknown but trusting in the knowledge that we are in this together.
In the words of God spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “See, the former things have come to pass, and the new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” AMEN