Opening The Old Testament
The Bible's Lynchpin: Lectionary Reflections on Isaiah 49:1-7
January 19, 2014
Today we are blessed to read one of the Bible's greatest passages, indeed a text that stands at the very heart of the Bible's central claim. The servant of YHWH has been chosen, "chosen before I was born" (Is. 49:1), "so that my (YHWH's) salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is. 49:6). For Christians, of course, the servant is Jesus whose epiphany we remember and celebrate and now attempt to illuminate for our time. Why has Jesus come? Many of the answers to that crucial question are to be found in II-Isaiah's so-called servant songs. Last week we looked at the first of those songs, Isaiah 42:1-9, and today we turn to the second.
Many Christian traditions celebrate Human Relations Day this Sunday, a day when we claim that the vast diversity of the human family is a fabulous gift from our creator rather than a burden to be endured and feared. In the USA in 2014, we 300 million residents are experiencing a wonderful experiment, an experiment fraught both with promise and danger. The USA may well be the most diverse nation ever known in the long history of the human family. When I arrived in Dallas, TX in 1968, the city was known as a deeply segregated one, sharply divided among its primarily Anglo, Latino/a, and African-American citizens. We all thought of Dallas as a city beginning its struggle to find unity among and with its essentially three-faced population.
Today, that human face has changed radically. I recently learned that there are some 220 (!) first languages spoken in Dallas County. We have here now about 50,000 Vietnamese and Thai citizens, perhaps 20,000 Koreans, along with an astonishing 10,000 Tongans and Samoans! In the Dallas public schools, among 160,000 students, only some 9 percent name themselves Anglo in origin. The days when a "White Citizens Council" made many of the city's major decisions have passed away forever.
How are we Christians called to address this amazing diversity? Many call for the older idea of a "melting pot," wherein all new residents are asked to "fit in" to the ways and language of the once-dominant white majority. Many others hope that these diverse residents will teach us older types new ways of living and being and speaking. After all, in the Dallas of today, as many speak Spanish as a first language as speak English. Is there a middle ground between these often contentious notions of living together?
Since I am not a sociologist, I have no easy practical solutions to the problem that we now all face when it comes to radical diversity. But since I am a biblical theologian, I do have some thoughts about how serious Bible readers might think about the problem and then might act on the basis of that thinking.
The servant song of Isaiah 49 begins with a loud proclamation to "the coastlands" and "to peoples from far away" (Is. 49:1). When "coastlands" are mentioned in the text, the implication is that even those who live in unimaginable places bordered by the vast ocean, far away from the safe deserts and mountains of Israel, are to witness what YHWH has done in calling the servant. YHWH's servant has been called and named before birth, having been known even in the mother's womb (Is. 49:1). The first characteristic of the servant is that his/her "mouth" was made by YHWH to be "a sharp sword" (Is. 49:2). It is important to note that this servant is decidedly not a warrior but an orator, whose words are sharp rather than whose iron swords are honed for battle. The later book of Revelation borrows this image in John's description of "one like a son of humanity" from whose mouth comes a "sharp two-edged sword" (Rev. 1:16). Thus, very earliest Christianity focused on the power of Jesus found in his words, not in his prowess as soldier or fighter.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.