Who is the servant?

The year began with yet another attack by terrorists against a house of worship, this time it was a church in Egypt, in Alexandria, claiming 21 lives on New Year’s eve. Following the attack, there were strong words of condemnation from government officials and notes of sympathy from around the world, but it didn’t stop there. A remarkable thing happened.

A growing group of “Egyptian intellectuals and activists [called] upon Egyptian Muslims at large to flock to Coptic churches across the country to attend Coptic Christmas Eve mass, to show solidarity with the nation’s Coptic minority, but also to serve as ‘human shields’ against possible attacks by Islamist militants.”

Father Rafaeil Sarwat, a Coptic priest, commented, “Although 2011 started tragically, I feel it will be a year of eagerly anticipated change, where Egyptians will stand against sectarianism and unite as one.”

In the days following the attack, Muslims and Copts joined together in a show of solidarity that included street protests, rallies, and widespread Facebook unity campaigns calling for an “Egypt for All.” The outpour of anger towards the terrorist attack has taken even Egyptians themselves by surprise. In past attacks on Egypt’s minority Christian community, verbal condemnation has been immediate, but even the most moderate of Egyptians have seldom taken to the streets or offered themselves as “a Muslim shield” in support of the Copts.

Christians in Egypt celebrate Christmas on January 7, and Christmas Eve services took place on Thursday night. In some churches, the congregations had hung banners above the sanctuary doors, welcoming their Muslim neighbors—and in an unprecedented show of solidarity, they came.

Muslims and Copts gathered at churches across Egypt Thursday night for mass. In Abbasiya, where the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, led the Christmas eve service, dignitaries, movie stars, officials and government ministers congregated in a show of respect and support. Inside the cathedral, plainclothes security were conspicuous, both in the altar and dotted throughout the gathered congregation. “You have shielded us and protected us God,” an exhausted looking Pope began a little after 10pm to the packed congregation.

I don’t know if Coptic Christians sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, I doubt it, but on Thursday night, together with their Muslim neighbors, they proclaimed heavenly peace on earth. Defying the path of violence and terror, they stood side by side in common witness to a better life, a truly godly life.

We heard a passage from Isaiah this morning, a passage where God declares, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” The curious thing about this servant in Isaiah is that no one really knows who it is. Sometimes it looks like all of Israel is the servant, as in this passage,

Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; do not fear, for I am with you (Isaiah 41:8-9).

Is all of Israel the servant? Other passages suggest that the servant is an individual or perhaps a group who has a mission to Israel and to the world, as in this passage,

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 ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

Imagine reading the book of  Isaiah, all 66 chapters, and then you get this question in the test,

Is the servant

a. Israel
b. a remnant of Israel
c. the prophet himself
d. some other individual, or
e. all of the above?

The really interesting stuff is always too complex for multiple choice answers. I suspect that the identity of the servant has been left intentionally open, because the servant is God’s own; the servant’s identity is entirely determined by God’s choosing, God’s spirit, and God’s delight. The servant’s work is to bring justice to the nations, and the servant will not grow faint or be crushed until justice has been established in the earth. The text gently directs our curiosity and attention from who the servant is to what the servant does and how the work is done:

Justice doesn’t drive down Main Street in a Hummer or a tank. Justice notices the bruised reed and is careful not to break it. Justice doesn’t quench the dimly burning wick on the way to brighter, more important things, but is careful to protect the little flame. The servant doesn’t drive a divine bulldozer, but is attentive to the vulnerable and the fragile nature of wounded life. This is what being a servant of God looks like, says Isaiah, and he says it to Israel as a whole and to those in exile who question God’s justice; he says it to kings and judges, to priests and prophets; he says it to any woman and any man who desire to serve God.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.

Who is the servant? Those who hear that particular call and serve in righteousness; those who practice vulnerability and are attentive to others who are vulnerable; those who work for the reordering of social life and social power until all who share one breath and one planet are free to fully live the gift of life.

Setting fire to a synagogue, a mosque, or a church in the name of God only makes you an arsonist and a murderer, not a servant of God. The servant of God cries with the bereaved and sits with the defenseless while they say their prayers.

It is no accident that followers of Jesus heard echoes from Isaiah in the voice from heaven that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here is my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights.

Now we are at the river. This is the river that runs from the garden of Eden to the city of God, from Genesis to Revelation, from the beginning of creation to its fulfillment. Its waters run through the scriptures and shape the landscape of our faith. The river of God is full, and its waters bring life and gladness. In the desert, Hagar and Ishmael found a spring to sustain them. In the wilderness, Moses struck a rock and God’s thirsty people drank. Bearing the ark of the covenant, Israel stepped into the river and the water parted, and they walked across and entered the promised land. This is the river where Naaman, the great general of the king of Aram, washed himself and was cleansed. This is the river that runs between promise and fulfillment, between the desert and the land of milk and honey, between slavery and servanthood.

This is the river where the people gather in response to John’s urgent call to repentance. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And Jesus came from Galilee and he waded into the water to be baptized. Why, if John is not worthy to carry the sandals of this more powerful one, does Jesus seek John’s baptism? Why, if Jesus is the bringer of fire, does he desire to be baptized with water? Why, if Jesus is the agent of God’s judgment, would he submit to a baptism of repentance? “I need to be baptized by you,” said John, “and do you come to me?”

Yes indeed. The servant of God stands in the river with us. The waters carry God’s promises of life in fullness, but they are also saturated with our fear and the terrror and pain of our godless lives. “Let it be so now,” the Lord says, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Righteousness is fulfilled in Jesus’ solidarity with our broken humanity. He gives himself up to the river of God’s grace and to the murky water of our sinfulness. He gives himself to the path of servanthood that lies ahead of him. The path leads to the cross. Now we ask, who is the servant?

And all we can say is, this one. This one whose life echoes the life of God’s people from the beginning of creation to its fulfillment. This one who notices the bruised reed and is careful not to break it. This one who doesn’t quench the dimly burning wick on the way to brighter, more important things, but is gentle and careful to protect the little flame. He stands with us in our vulnerability and brokenness, and his love makes us whole. His life reminds us that we are God’s beloved children in whom God’s soul delights. His life reminds us what it means to be human.

After the violent attack against a house of worship in Egypt, people stood together, defying the path of violence and hate. Moved by those courageous actions, a Coptic priest commented, “Although 2011 started tragically, I feel it will be a year of eagerly anticipated change, where Egyptians will stand against sectarianism and unite as one.” We are still shaken by the murderous attack against Representative Gifford in Tucson. Will this be a year of eagerly anticipated change for us? Will we have the wisdom and the courage to stand together against hate and violence? I pray we will, in Jesus’ name.