So last week, we looked at the mission of God’s Servant to repair the world. This Servant is Israel, the Jewish people, called to be faithful to God and to be a light to all the nations. Which didn’t happen quite the way the prophets had hoped. Israel largely remained entangled in the same problems and sins that the other nations had.
Jesus saw this mission as his own, to be the faithful Israelite, to repair the world through his own suffering, taking the brokenness of the world onto himself, so that the world could be made whole. A beautiful vision, but not one that the Jewish people as a whole latched onto, which puzzled some early Jewish believers in Jesus. “Can’t you see it?” they would ask, and people would say, “No.” Meanwhile, another puzzling thing was that many non-Jewish people were resonating with this message, and the early Church was like, “Is this okay? Are they allowed in?” And they decided yes. The Servant was Jesus, and the Servant’s mission covenant community was composed of a believing portion within every nation, who would act as a Servant in and for the world, who would seek to live lives of salt and light and good deeds, bear witness to God’s truth, and even suffer and become martyrs if necessary, and the world would be repaired through this faithful remnant called the ecclesia, the ‘called-out’ community, the Church.
This is a beautiful vision and mission. Aren’t we glad we get to be a part of that? Only problem is, we’re bad at it. Thousands of years now, and the world has not been healed. The Church is entangled in the same problems and sins that Israel and the rest of the world has been entangled in. All that Jesus did, and all the Christians have tried to do, and I’m not sure we’ve left a witness that is unmistakably clear that Jesus really is the Savior of the world. And in light of the existential problems we face today – the climate crisis, economic crises, political crises, racism, pandemics, violent crime, poverty – it doesn’t seem obvious to most people that the Church, Christianity, would be the place to turn to solve these problems. Sure, we have done some good things, but we don’t have this brightly shining, unambiguous track record as being the folks that repair this world.
Last week I said that Jesus is healing the world and he knows what he’s doing. And something we like to claim a lot is that we are tight with Jesus. But if we look at the world, we must conclude that at least one of these things is not true. Either Jesus doesn’t know what he’s doing, or we’re not as tight with him as we’d like to think.
This is the place where the Servant finds himself in Isaiah 49, the second Servant song. “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” You ever find yourself saying that? Worked so hard, put in long hours, but can’t get the promotion. Paid all the money for an education and can’t get the job you want. Worked so hard on your marriage. Given everything to your kids, and it seems to be all in vain. And just like anything, yeah, other people can make their own choices. They don’t have to give you what you’d like them to give you. But when it comes to God, as the Servant says, “yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”
Your labor is not in vain. Be assured, God is at work, and it will work out to something good at last. Keep it up. Do not be discouraged. That’s what faith is.
The title of this sermon is a callout to the person we commemorate this Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, born January 15th, 1929, and commemorated this day in the Lutheran liturgical calendar. King was a servant of God, with a particular mission, and that mission could be a discouraging one, and Martin Luther King was a flesh-and-blood man like us, not a perfect person, but a man with a vision and a mission nonetheless, seeking to do God’s will as he knew best, and he had much opposition and much reason to be discouraged, overwhelmed, feel like giving up, what have you. It certainly would have been safer and more peaceful for him if he left being an activist, but he was called and he had to carry the stresses of that, and he only lived to be 39 years old when he was assassinated. He would be 94 today otherwise.
Dr. King likened the words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he held them to be like a check, a guaranteed payment from our American society, only to find that when African-Americans went to cash that check, they wouldn’t be able to. They would be told, “Insufficient funds.” As if America just didn’t have the ability to deliver on its promise. And Dr. King would say, “I don’t believe that. We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
So King kept at it. And I’m glad he did. And at the end of his life, the night before he was murdered, he told an audience that he was looking over the mountaintop at his dream coming true. He said, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
You, and the mission God has for you. Why will it work out? Why will your discouragement not have the last word? Because of the resurrection of Christ. Paul says, elsewhere in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:58), “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Your labor is not in vain. The resurrection of Christ was the moment when God said that love shall not die. Shall not be defeated. Death will not have the last word. And whatever you do in the Lord, with the love and purpose that God provides, your labor is not in vain. It will last. It will bear fruit. Somehow. It may not be exactly what you are planning on working out. Your kid, your friend, your boss, your body – they will do their own thing, but God’s love working in and through you, and anything you do in cooperation with that love, that is something eternal. Take it to the bank and cash it. There are sufficient funds. Abundant funds. But you’re not in control of exactly what the result is going to be. If God is doing it, it’s a part of a much bigger plan than your own goals and dreams.
This is also what the Servant discovered. The Servant is becoming identified with the prophet, or with the faithful believing remnant of Israel who wanted to restore Israel again, all the tribes, all the people, all the land, all faithful to God. God said, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is not just about making the Jewish people right with God, this is about the whole world.
Also, Dr. King, as he went further along in mission he realized something important. Yes, he started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the goal of lifting up the Black community to ensure equality and integration, but his mission expanded more and more, not just for the African-American community, but he saw his mission for the whole human community to be one brotherhood, one beloved community where all people were liberated from this estrangement from one another and exploitation of one another.
Giving yourself to the mission, at the very least, may be God’s means of saving you, even just you, making you the kind of person who has to depend on God to do things you can’t do, and this allows God’s grace to shape you through faith. Do not give up. God will bear fruit in you. In our 1 Corinthians text today (1.8-9), Paul reminds us, “God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the partnership of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Take that to the bank of faith.
How do we know for sure we’re on the right track. Again, get behind the man who knows what he’s doing. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Follow him. Ask where he is staying, and abide with him. Invite other people along the journey of faith. Yes, the mission is hard. Any other purpose in life you might choose for yourself is also hard, because life is hard. But this is a mission that bears fruit that lasts, and that will change your life for good. Even though we still haven’t got all of the problems of the world solved, was it still good that Dr. King cared and sought to address it? Was it still good that men and women of all colors and creeds joined that movement? Yes, it was. Let us pick up the movement towards the beloved community handed down to us by our forebears. The work is not complete, but it will be. We have a part to play, in small and large ways. Don’t think it doesn’t matter. Who you become and what you do matters. Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”
And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).