A MONTHLY MESSAGE FROM THE ELCA PRESIDING BISHOP
Picture this: Surrounded by an alien culture; worried about keeping young people engaged; a nonfunctioning government; a religious establishment in disarray; the economy is a mess; competing and beguiling demands on people’s attention, time and loyalty; a worship facility in serious need of repair; a dizzying rate of change; and people either tempted to throw out all forms of the past or to cling mindlessly to tradition for fear of change.
Sound familiar? This describes the people of God in exile in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem.
This was the world to which the prophet Isaiah was called to speak God’s word of judgment, promise and hope. Isaiah 49:1-7 is the Old Testament reading for Tuesday of Holy Week. It’s the day when our pastors, associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers are invited to renew the vows they made when consecrated, commissioned or ordained. It is the day when the oil for baptism or healing is blessed. It’s a time for these dear servants of the gospel to come to be fed with word and sacrament. It’s also a time to be encouraged to continue their ministry and the ministry entrusted to God’s servants throughout the ages.
The world in Isaiah’s time was in turmoil. It’s clear he doubted anything was being accomplished: “I have labored in vain, I spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49:4).
We feel that way sometimes—the “parking lot meetings” that take place after church council, years of preaching and teaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus and yet we still argue about which group gets to use the church parlor (I once had two committees arguing over the use of a slotted spoon), or worship wars over styles of music, contention between parishioners while wearing WWJD bracelets.
But it is to this wonderful, often frustrating, ever-changing mission that we have been called and have been equipped. Like Isaiah, God has given us God’s word that has the power of life. And, equipped with God’s word, we are armed with a sharp sword and a polished arrow (Isaiah 49:2).
It is likely Isaiah might have felt a little underequipped when contending with kings. After all, in a world that decides the rise and fall of nations with real swords and arrows (or guns, money or political power), the metaphorical weapon of God’s word might seem like a feeble piece of equipment. In difficult, conflicted, intractable situations I sometimes feel a little naked armed only with the word of God. But time and time again God has sent prophets into the breach equipped only with God’s word of life.
One can imagine the reaction of opponents armed with real weapons when faced with the Lord’s servants armed with God’s word.
Think: Pharaoh when he saw Moses. The Canaanite kings when they saw Deborah. The lions when they saw Daniel. Really? Haman when he saw Esther. Goliath when he saw David. An ossified and compromised church when it saw an Augustinian monk. Really? Institutional racism when it saw Martin Luther King Jr. The Montgomery Transit Authority when it saw Rosa Parks. The Salvadoran generals when they saw Oscar Romero. The Liberian warlords when they saw Laymah Gbowee. Death when it saw Jesus hanging on the cross. Really? A culture of cynicism and materialism. A culture gripped by anxiety. The indifferent and the hostile. The angry and the desperate … when they see you. Really!
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’ ” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).
In his commentary on Second Isaiah, Harvard Divinity School Old Testament professor Paul D. Hanson wrote, “For the human servant called to serve the world-embracing purposes of God, one of the chief temptations is to scale back the assignment to human dimensions.” We all do that from time to time. We lose sight of the cross. We are distracted by threatening forces around us. But it is to us, we earthen vessels, and for such a time as this that God’s mission has been entrusted. We may not see the fruits of our labor, but through us God will bring hope to God’s people.
It is likely Isaiah might have felt a little underequipped when contending with kings.
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
This column originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Lutheran magazine. Reprinted with permission.