January 19, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
It was a stark message.
On May 11, 1945, just days after the war in Europe ended, John Hesley’s mother, Maribelle, received a telegram. It said, “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your husband 2/LT Hesley William has been missing in action over Czechoslovakia since 25 April 45.”1
On July 16th she received a second telegram confirming that William was killed in action.
John was only three, but he remembers weeping in a closet over his father’s death.
Those telegrams changed the course of his life. He knew plenty of kids whose dads fought in the war, but they had all come home. He played football, despite his small size, to feel like less of an outsider, to show the other kids he could be just like them, even without a father.
He grew up convinced that he would die young, perhaps in a plane in combat like his father. He passed the test for naval flight training, but changed his mind and enrolled in a Presbyterian seminary instead. He served as a minister for several years and then trained as a clinical psychologist. Over the years he worked with several veterans:
one, a soldier, was haunted by the killing he’d done in Vietnam;
one, a sailor, swallowed up by depression, wanted to go back to war, the only place he felt useful;
one, a woman, struggled with survivor’s guilt after watching her best friend die in an explosion.
All the while, as he helped ease their burdens, John kept his own grief locked away, such was the power of those telegrams.
I don’t know what messages you have gotten over the course of a lifetime. Some have probably been great news; others something you were dreading; and still others such a surprise that you didn’t know what to make of them.
Isaiah received a message, a message from God, a message to share,
with Israel, with a servant, with anyone who would listen.
Centuries of Christian interpreters have heard it as a message for a very specific servant, a message for the Messiah, the one who would bring light to the nations.
That’s part of why we hear this text during the season of Epiphany.
But while that is a valid interpretation, it obscures the fact that this is also a message for Isaiah’s contemporary audience.
This message is not something that will be delivered at some point in the distant future. It is a word for them now, in their current situation.
That is particularly powerful because they are desperate for a word from God.
Why? Because Israel is in exile. They have sinned and it has ruined everything. They have trusted alliances rather than God and it has led to the destruction of the nation. Their enemies have triumphed. The Temple has been destroyed. They doubt they will ever hear from God again.
But this message says the exile is not the end. God has not abandoned them.
In fact, into their state of darkness and depression, God speaks a word of hope. God is commissioning a servant.
A servant whose message will cut like a sharp sword, pierce like an arrow, and will plumb the depths of their bruised souls.
A servant who will shout into their wilderness. His voice will carry all the way from the Temple mount to the coastlands, from the place they called home all the way to wherever they find themselves in exile.
But this proclamation is not accepted without objection.
Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God all night long. It means “the one who strives with God.”2
So the one commissioned as “my servant, Israel” complains, “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
The Hebrew here is actually, “I have spent my strength on ‘tohu’ and ‘hevel’ – emptiness and vapor.”
It is an echo of Genesis 1 where God creates out of tohu – emptiness and void – and by a word, creates light.
So now, God promises that the servant’s work and words that seem like tohu and hevel – emptiness and vapor – will actually re-create Israel, draw them home from exile, restore their hope.
And even that will not be all!
The servant’s message, like God’s word in Genesis, will bring light!
It is a startling message!
God is saying that the ultimate culmination of their experience in the exile will not be just forgiveness and restoration for their own community. The good news of what God is doing will touch and transform the nations!
In fact, God will use them, and every bit of their experience, to bring others light!
(Can you imagine God doing that with every bit of your experience – good and bad?)
In doing this, God will not so much be doing a new thing, as fulfilling a promise made long ago to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”3
Because the God who loves Israel has enough love to share with all the world!
John Hesley had lived all his life with a message that broke the world as he knew it.
And then last September he finally opened a box of items he had inherited from that sad season. It contained the telegrams, and newspaper clippings, and condolence letters, and pictures. It lit something in him. He searched the internet for histories of the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe, firsthand accounts from air crews, and stories about his father’s last mission.
Eventually he traveled to Pilsen, where his father’s plane had gone down. They hold a festival every year to celebrate their liberation by Allied forces.
John was their honored guest. They took him to the place where his father’s name was etched into a marble memorial, and to the field where the plane had plowed into the rich earth. Little pieces of wreckage still littered the ground. One of the hosts picked one up and handed it to John. At first he objected, “It should stay here.” “No,” said his host, “You’re the person who should have this.”
John’s sense of loss, a loss that he carried for decades like a weight, has faded, replaced with a story, a message, that is bigger, and more wonderful, and more redemptive, than he had realized.
Isaiah’s message is like that. It is bigger, and more wonderful, and more redemptive. It is hope for people in exile. It is light for the nations. And as God’s people we make it our own. Amen
1 This story is from “The Navigator” by Brian Mockenhaupt in Smithsonian magazine, January/February 2020
2 see Genesis 32:28
3 see Genesis 12:3