Sunday, April 24, 2016

Jesus Healing the Bruised Reed of Creation

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Creation-Care Sunday 
April 2016
Texts:  Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 12:15-21

[Watch the video of this sermon here:]

"How often does Jesus make references to Creation in his teaching?"  That question was asked by a participant in a Bible study I led at Reformation Lutheran Church in Media, PA, in 2009.  I promised her an answer by the end of the study. I knew Jesus had made several references, but when I began reading through the Gospels I was surprised just how many times nature is referenced either by Jesus himself (over 50!), or in the accounts about him and his birth, ministry, death and resurrection (over 55!). 
            What is undeniable is that both Jesus and the Gospel writers saw Creation in all its aspects as imperative for giving witness to God's Kingdom and the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God:
·       Jesus is present at the beginning of Creation.
·       He speaks about care of Earth as integral to the in-breaking of God's Kingdom.
·       He interacts directly with many aspects of Creation (rivers, lakes, seas, winds).
·       He seeks prayerful refuge in the wilderness, on mountains and in gardens.
·       And he uses countless images from nature to illustrate his teachings. 

Reciprocally, nature gives witness to the personhood and divinity of Jesus from the time of his birth announced in the heavens, to the darkness that enveloped the land at his crucifixion.  Earth took Jesus into itself and gave witness to the resurrection with earthquake, sunrise and the beauty of a garden.

Matt. 12:20
He will not break a bruised reed
   or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.

            This passage from the Gospel of Matthew is just one example to help us understand how Jesus’s ministry is not just for humans, but is, in fact, placed within the larger context of God’s Creation.  In this passage, he’s actually quoting from his favorite prophet, Isaiah, whom he references many times in the Gospels.  So it’s worth looking at Isaiah’s original words to understand why this verse was important to Jesus.
First, we have to understand the historical context of Isaiah’s words.  The text was written about 800 years before Jesus was even born.  The book of Isaiah was written at a time when Israel was at war with many of its neighbors and the people of Israel were attacked and taken into captivity in Babylonia.  The people were devastated because it appeared that the covenant that God made with the people had been destroyed.  Not only had the people been unfaithful to God’s commandments, but their temple was pillaged and decimated, and they were all deported to Babylon to live in brutal slavery.  It seemed as if God had reneged on the contract with the people of Israel.  They were separated from their land, and their people were scattered.  The Davidic line was apparently lost.  And the Temple – the dwelling place of God – had been destroyed. 
It is into this echoing cavern of self-doubt and communal devastation that the prophet Isaiah raises his voice to proclaim a new covenant to the people of Israel.  According to Isaiah, God is calling forth a new leader, a servant – in Hebrew, it is the word ebed, which can mean servant, ambassador, prophet or even friend.  This is very good news, because it means that while Israel did indeed break the covenant, the relationship with God has not been destroyed.

This is good news for us as well.  Think back on the times when you made a bad decision, or really made a mess of your life.  Or a time when you let someone down, or, even worse, felt like you failed your own self.  Those times can be devastating.  It’s very easy to get sucked into a pit of despair, or give up on a dream, or to feel like it’s no use to get back up, brush yourself off and start all over again.
But this word from God through Isaiah says: don’t give up! 
I’m not throwing in the towel on you. 
I’m sending someone to you who will handle you with tenderness and care. 
He will be gentle with you, and not extinguish your dimly burning wick. 
And not just you, but entire groups of people who suffer. 
He will bring justice to those who are wrongly imprisoned around the world,
and to those whose rights are daily trampled or snatched away.   

So let’s look more closely at who this servant is. Verse 1 of the Isaiah text talks about God presenting the servant. The text does not give us the name of this servant. But it does tell us about this servant, the qualities of this person and the things that this servant will do:

·       We know that God chooses the servant and delights in him or her.
·       We know that the servant will be humble – he will not cry or lift up his voice (in other words, he won’t be a blowhard).
·       Further, in verse 3 the text says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” This tells us that the servant will not harm those who are vulnerable or hurting.

So we know this person is like no other servant-leader God has ever established before.  And even more significantly, the servant is being installed within in the context of Creation“I have put my spirit upon him,” says God in verse 1.  So even the same spirit, breath, ruah, that was present at the beginning of Creation is present with this servant-leader.  Thus his anointing as servant has the same status as the initial creation of heaven and earth. 
  “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth,” we read in verse 4. Thus, the servant will faithfully bring forth justice and will be relentless until justice has been established in the earth – in Creation itself. 

Further, this verse tells us that the servant will be a teacher: “the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  So, in fact, all the ecosystems of Creation – the coastlands (especially those threatened by rising seas due to climate change), the mountains (especially those threatened by mountaintop removal), the glaciers (which are disappearing at an alarming rate due to warming oceans), the tundra (which is diminishing due to global warming), the oceans (threatened by pollution and acidification) – are all waiting for people to learn from this servant-leader.  We are to learn how to handle the bruised reed of Creation with the same care that the servant-leader handles the people of Israel – by not doing any further damage, and refraining from anything that would extinguish the dimly burning wick of life on this planet.
And then in verse 6, God speaks directly to the servant. “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” So God is faithfully accompanying the servant, like a parent with a child. Then: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Not only is God making a promise to the servant, but the servant is God’s promise, the light of hope shining for all people. And the servant has specific tasks: “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
It’s pretty obvious that Jesus fits this description of the servant-leader. On the banks of the Jordan River at his baptism, with God speaking from heaven that God is well-pleased with him (taking delight in him), Jesus takes upon himself this mantle of the servant. As he is baptized, following God’s command for righteousness, he assumes the duties and responsibilities that being a servant-leader entails:

·       He protects those who are vulnerable – like the poor, and women and children.
·       He opens the eyes of the blind and frees many from the dungeons of illness and poverty.
·       He confronts both the Roman and Jewish authorities on their hypocrisy and speaks truth to power in order to establish justice.
·       And he teaches – on the coastlands, on boats, on mountains, in houses, and anywhere else his followers are gathered.
·       He also regards his relationship with God as one between a parent and child - calling God “Daddy”, or Abba.

All the nations will benefit from Jesus as a light to the whole world, because his ministry is among not just his own Jewish people, but with Gentiles as well.  Because this servant is not just for the Hebrew people.  The servant-leader is for all people.  Jesus’ mission began with the Jews but was intended as peace for everyone.  The message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection transcends lines drawn in the sand, transcends arbitrary human distinctions of class, race, and creed.  This message applies to everyone.  This light shines on all people.

And, in fact, it’s not just for people.  This light of the servant-leader is for all the earth.  This is for the bruised reeds of nature:
·       the species facing extinction
·       the air choking with pollution
·       the mountains being razed for minerals and coal
·       the habitats of wildlife being decimated to make way for yet another strip mall or factory farm or fracking pad

Jesus’ inauguration is placed within the context of Creation in verse 5 for a reason.  When humanity is at peace, then the Earth that supports humanity can be at peace.
I long for the fulfillment of this covenant.  I get so discouraged sometimes looking at the bad decisions humanity has made, what a mess we’ve made of our home.  How we’ve let each other down, and let down the species and ecosystems that try to coexist with us.  When we see the ways we have decimated the earth as the home of God dwelling in and around us, it is very easy to get sucked into a pit of despair, to give up hope of being able to restore the health of Earth’s body. 
But, again, this word from God through Isaiah urges us: don’t give up!  This servant-leader will teach you how to handle the bruised reeds with tenderness and care so as not to do further damage.  He will lead you with gentleness so that you may follow his example and have mercy on the least of these – the babies in their mother’s wombs, the children whose bodies are so sensitive to poor air quality and to toxins in the water, and the last of the species facing extinction. 
You will bring justice to the very Earth itself, because that is what Jesus is calling you to do.  You, yourselves, as followers of this servant-leader, will be a light to the world.  Because Jesus dwells in you.  Therefore you yourselves are the new covenant. 

And the symbol of this new covenant is the cross.  The cross is the sign of the death and resurrection of the servant-leader, the death and resurrection of the entire Earth, and all her inhabitants.  There is, indeed, hope.  Yes, we have broken the covenant.  But the relationship has not been destroyed.  God is declaring new things all around us:

·       new ideas for healing the Earth and providing clean water and plenty of food for all in need
·       rethinking how we consume so as to minimize our impact on the Earth
·       taking time to think about how much we waste, and where it goes and who is affected, and changing our habits to reflect a spirit of conservation
·       making different choices governed by our concern for the least of these so that the bruise reeds can recover and the dimly burning wicks of life can be rekindled

Our eyes are being opened, and I believe the Christian church can lead the way for helping God release the Earth from the dungeons of darkness. 
Let me conclude with a prayer by Brother Roger from the Taize community in France, whose words we repeated each week during our Lenten services last year:

“O Christ, you take upon yourself all that weighs us down so that, freed of all that holds us back, at every moment we can begin anew to advance from worry towards confident trust, from the shadows towards the clear running waters, from our own will towards the vision of the Kingdom of God. In this way, though we hardly dare hope so, you enable every human being to be a reflection of your face.”

That is what being a follower of the servant-leader Jesus Christ is all about – becoming the reflection of the face of Jesus to all people and all of Creation.  May God strengthen your heart and your faith with the promise of the resurrection that is emerging within us, within our faith communities, and within all the Earth.  Amen.

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