Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 23:23
“When I reached the age of fifty, five years ago, …I had been for thirty-five years a Nihilist…in the sense that I had no religious belief. Five years ago, I began to believe in the teaching of Jesus Christ, and my life was suddenly changed. I ceased to care for all that I had formerly desired, and began to long for what I had once cared nothing for. What had before seemed good, seemed bad, and what had seemed bad, now seemed good…The tendency of my life, and all my desires, became different: good and evil changed places. And all this came from understanding the teaching of Jesus otherwise than as I had formerly understood it.”
So begins the book, What I Believe, written by Leo Tolstoy in 1884 at the age of 55. Tolstoy was born to a wealthy, aristocratic Russian family in 1828. He was raised in the church, but church was more about conformity and tradition than substance and meaning. He was spoiled and self-indulgent. In his early 20’s, after running up a number of gambling debts, he joined the army and ended up fighting in the Crimean War. He was a good soldier and in recognition of his bravery and service, he was promoted to the level of lieutenant. However, he was very shaken and altered by the number of deaths he witnessed and left the army immediately following the war. He did much traveling around Europe and spent time with many of the leading thinkers of the day. In 1869 he published one of the great novels of all time, War and Peace. Then in the 1870’s he began going through a spiritual awakening, a conversion even.
Tolstoy writes, “I, like the thief [on the cross], knew that the life I had lived and was living was bad, that the majority of men around me led the same life. I also, like the thief, knew that I was unhappy and suffering, and that around me others were also unhappy and suffering…I, like the thief, was nailed by some force to a cross, to an evil and suffering life…In all this I was like the thief: the difference between myself and him was this, that he was dying and I was still alive. The thief could believe that his salvation was there, beyond the grave; but I could not be satisfied with that, because, besides the life beyond the grave, there was yet before me a life here. I did not understand that life; it seemed to me terrible. Then suddenly I heard the words of Jesus; I understood them; and life and death ceased to appear evil. Instead of despair, I felt the joy and happiness of a life never to be destroyed by death.”
Tolstoy, up to that point, had become entirely disillusioned with Christianity because he was entirely disillusioned with the church. But he returned to the gospels and for six years studied them intensively. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount became, for Tolstoy, the centerpiece of Jesus’ thought and ethic. And what he saw emerge in these four central books of the Bible was a Savior who modeled humility, sacrifice, peace and love and called for his disciples to do likewise. But what Tolstoy consistently experienced in the church was lip service – an effort to say the right words – not to live them. And an unfortunate tendency, played out repeatedly, to spend massive amounts of energy on the peripheral, on the fine points of scripture while ignoring the weight. In Jesus’ words, “For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23).” Repeatedly Tolstoy writes, “Jesus meant what he said.”
Tolstoy went on to become an ardent pacifist and mentored a young Mahatma Gandhi. Many years later Tolstoy’s writings would also deeply influence the thought and practice of Martin Luther King Jr.
This seems like a rather significant moment in our church. We are entering into a new year. We’re getting ready for our annual meeting – a time to reflect on the year gone by and make preparations for the year to come. We are also entering into a new decade and this will be a momentous decade in our church as we celebrate our 150th birthday. A couple of weeks ago when it was still 2019, 2024 seemed pretty far off. Now, standing here in 2020, it’s feeling a whole lot closer! But because this seems like an important new beginning, I’ve been thinking about how I want to address this time from the pulpit and I’m planning to do a loosely organized 3 part sermon series on Jesus. Today, I want us just to reflect a little on the nature of Jesus and I was thankful to Leo Tolstoy this week for the way he helped shed light on the transformative power found in Jesus’ life and his teachings. Next week I want to spend some time looking at fear and how fear manipulates us. And then on the 26th , we’ll do some reflecting on kindness and mercy.
Let’s look at this lectionary text from Isaiah. It’s a very familiar passage. Isaiah is writing about the servant of the Lord. Interesting thing here, these verses represent one of the great unsolved mysteries of this particular book of the Bible. No one knows who this servant is. On a literal level, who was Isaiah talking about here? I’m guessing we won’t ever know. But fast forward several hundred years and we come to another new beginning, the start of not only a new century, but a new millennium and a transition from BC to AD. Just a couple years before 1 AD, Jesus is born. And suddenly this Isaiah text takes on a whole new level of meaning as we see in these words a perfect description of Christ, a prophecy fulfilled.
But as is often the case, when words are familiar, they seem to roll over and off us without any real consideration setting in. So we may not notice how Isaiah offers such a countercultural description of the Messiah beginning in line one – “Here is my servant…”. Isaiah doesn’t say, “Here is your king.” He writes, “here is my servant”. And in that word, servant, we find the whole nature of Jesus revealed. One who came to serve. This servant is the person in whom God delights. It is the servant in whom God will put his spirit.
And with that spirit of God wrapped around him, this is how the servant will act in this world. Try and hear these words with new and open ears. We will know God’s servant because he will bring justice to the nations. But he won’t do this with force or great might, or loud displays of power. He won’t shout or cry out. He won’t even raise his voice in the streets. This is a gentle and merciful servant who treats with gentleness and mercy all those he encounters. He’s not going to break those who are bruised by life. He’s not going to put out the smoldering light of anyone trying hard to let their light shine. But in faithfulness he will bring forth justice. And this will take time and it won’t be easy. But he’s not going to falter in his faith or be discouraged. This servant will not stop until justice, God’s justice has been established on this earth. Isaiah continues, now directly addressing the servant, “I am God, who created the heavens and the earth. I am God who gives you breath and life. I have called you, my servant, in righteousness and I will take you by your hand and lead you into a covenant relationship with me so that you will be empowered to shine your light on everyone you meet. And you’re going to use that light, not for your own glory or satisfaction. No. You’re going to use that light to open eyes that are blind, to free people from darkness. I am the LORD. That is my name. The former things have passed away and these new things I declare to you. They are already happening even as I speak.”
Skip forward to Matthew and we find Jesus walking out of the water after his baptism and in that moment the heavens open. The Spirit of God comes down and alights on him like a dove. God’s voice is heard from the heavens. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Echoing the words of Isaiah – “This is my servant in whom I delight.”
Jesus goes on in his short adult life to fulfill this prophecy of Isaiah’s in every possible way. And in the process, he totally disrupts our understanding. He messes with our ideas of how life should be ordered. In the words of Tolstoy, “everything that had seemed good – Jesus makes look bad. And everything we had thought was bad starts to look good.”
We often talk about Jesus ushering in an upside-down kingdom. But you know what a mess it makes if you turn a kingdom on its head? Pieces fly everywhere. Here we are in the year 2020 still trying to figure out which way is up and which way is down. We still keep getting lost in the details and neglect the weight of scripture Jesus speaks about — justice, mercy and faith. Jesus is actually echoing the prophet Micah’s words here when Micah says to the people, “God has shown you what is good and what the Lord requires of you – to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (6:8).”
We find Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan in Matthew 3. In Matthew 5, Jesus begins a three-chapter long sermon known as “The Sermon on the Mount”. He shares, what in his mind, are the weightiest points of the law. Chapter five begins with Jesus’ understanding of justice. We refer to them as “The Beatitudes”. In God’s Kingdom the poor in spirit are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The meek are blessed for they will inherit the earth. The merciful are blessed for they will be shown mercy. The peacemakers are blessed for they will be called sons and daughters of God. The persecuted, or we might also say the faithful, are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Justice.
For much of Tolstoy’s life he drifted. He rejected the church and therefore thought he had to reject God as well. I get where Tolstoy was coming from. Growing up, it was Jesus’ words, his teachings that set my heart on fire. It was his preaching that pricked and poked my conscience. It was his example that made me passionate in my desire to help others, especially those who had it so hard. And I didn’t understand why others didn’t feel as strongly as I did. It felt especially evident in my church. I loved my church family. But my church family didn’t seem terribly inspired to follow Jesus’ example. Don’t get me wrong, they were good people. But church was more just what you did on Sunday morning. It was ritual. It was going through the motions. It was reading scripture but not worrying overmuch about living it. It was mint, dill and cumin at the expense of justice, mercy and faith. Now, that’s how my extremely idealistic and judgmental – oh my goodness judgmental -teenage self saw things. Looking back, I don’t view that time in quite the stark black and white shades I did then. And the home church of my youth looks very different from this same congregation today. This present-day church is on fire for Christ and I love what they’re doing!
But at that point in the past, I headed to college and for the most part, left church behind. And then my senior year, in search of direction and meaning, longing for weight, I started attending church with my grandma and grandpa at First Mennonite in McPherson. It was there, I found a church that seemed to be in tune with Jesus’ example and teaching – a church, thus, in tune with the heart of God. A strong peace witness wedded to justice. A heart for service reflecting mercy. A commitment to believer’s baptism and a martyr’s legacy in the example of faithfulness. And for good measure, practices of simple living that reflected humility. I couldn’t believe it! A church that embraced God’s upside-down Kingdom! Then I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I left my old church home – one I still loved very much – and found my way to a new home by a different road.
I did a real lousy job meeting the annual report deadline last Sunday, turning it in this last Thursday instead. As I wrote the report and relived everything we did in this last year, I was thoroughly overwhelmed at all we accomplished together. But what moved me so greatly was seeing the multitude of ways in which this body worked together to act justly, to embrace mercy, to walk faithfully. I’m not going to name everything we did right now. That would take too long. But I am going to name most of the different ways we served in God’s name this year. Forgive me if I forgot something. I have no doubt I’ve missed some things. But to the best of my memory, here is how I remember this congregation living the weight of the gospel message this year…
We tied comforters for MCC and worked at the MCC resource center doing all sorts of needed tasks. We made a whole assortment of crafts as well as homemade noodles and peppernuts to send to the relief sale. We collected food snacks in great abundance to give to all our area schools to help them in alleviating hunger in the student body. We served in a wide, wide variety of ways at the relief sale. We hosted a community Easter sunrise service, a Camp Sing for Mennoscah, a community fun night. We helped Stephennie Schmidt get the Buhler blood drive back up and going. We offered a safe, healing place for an absent and dying church member to reconnect with our church at a private organ concert. We worked every week at the Et Cetera store and helped provide some meals for folks in need at the We Care Center in Hutchinson. We got baptized and we celebrated two precious baptisms. We took church to Pleasant View one Sunday morning. We provided lots and lots of meals for farm families in the harvest fields. We helped in laying the groundwork to launch a new ministry in our area – the Omega House. We packed over 550 school kits to send out around the world. We served many people from the community at our annual mission supper and raised much money for Mobility Worldwide. We made prayer blankets and filled them with prayers for people we love very much in this congregation. We canned meat for MCC. We gathered an amazing amount of food for a family in need in Moundridge. We helped put two new and needed roofs on homes in Buhler. We waited tables at Pleasant View’s Gift Day. We offered parents a night out and played with their children. We made comforters to send to foster kids who need a blanket of love to pull close around them. We purchased Christmas gifts so that the kids and the mom in Moundridge would have presents to open on Christmas morning. We collected coats, blankets, gloves, socks, lengths of fleece and onesies to be used to help children in need. We created a special aid fund available to use to help children or families in need in our local communities.
It’s a long list and every time I’ve read it through, I’ve thought of something else to add. And the really awesome thing is, there are so many things I can’t name – uncountable acts of service we have all done quietly, with no shouting in the street, showing mercy humbly.
This beating heart of service in our congregation has brought me great joy this year. I hope it’s brought you joy as well. But most importantly, I know our attempts to follow God’s chosen servant Son, have delighted God’s heart and have brought God joy. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and begin looking for the opportunities to serve that God will bring our way in 2020. May our efforts to follow our servant Lord bring us great joy and hope in the year and the years to come.