Isaiah the prophet lived about 2,700 years ago. One thing we know about Isaiah is that he was called to be a servant of God and he was very clear about that calling. He was called to bring the faith community of Israel back to God. They were in disarray in more ways than one. They were scattered without organization and unity. They had rebelled against God and forgotten their roots and basic beliefs. They were influenced by pagan cultures, giving in to cultic practices, thus provoking God who wanted to destroy them. Basically they had lost interest in God.
Stubbornly, they refused to repent, but Isaiah declared that God had not given up on them. God was willing to forgive them as long as they repented and returned as faithful people. Few would return, but a remnant, or small minority would listen, repent of their sins and thus be spared. “As for my servants, I will not destroy them all.” And to them Isaiah assured them they would have a future and ultimately a place to settle. Once again they would be a community, because a few of them heeded the call and were faithful.
What Isaiah faced was an overwhelming challenge to convince the faith community that God is relevant and would indeed forgive them. Since the people of Israel had succumbed to heathen rituals and had become arrogant and “holier than thou,” he had his work cut out for him. They were holier than thou because they no longer had any need for God. They had become filled with themselves and no longer had any commitment to love and justice.
Just about everyone I know who is in ministry experiences times when saving the lost is overwhelming. Today’s society surrounds us with competing activities and organizations which demand time and energy away from the church. People seek alternatives that provide pleasure, relaxation or activities that provide some other personal benefits. Most people don’t succumb to cultic practices but they do give priority time, energy and resources to things that make them feel good or satisfy their appetite for self preservation.
Recently I watched my grandson play baseball. There was a lack of coaching and just a handful of parents on the sideline. The players didn’t seem to be enthused about the game. There seemed to be a lack of commitment and excitement. The parents I observed spent most of the time talking on cell phones and the coaches seemed more interested in statistics than they did having a relationship with the young men on the team. Many of the players were missing, presumably doing other activities. I wondered to myself, “Why do families do this? If they are not committed, why do they bother?”
Watching my grandson’s baseball game reminded me of the church. Key people are frequently somewhere else. Only a few seem enthusiastic about their faith. Getting folks to volunteer for special programs and events is extremely difficult. It’s not that people don’t want to help. They will, as long as there aren’t other activities and interests taking priority.
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Isaiah reminded the faith community that returning to God meant living the life as a servant. Just as he was willing to say, “Here I am,” he wanted others to do the same. Jesus also said, “The greatest among you must be a servant.” (Matt 2:11) Let’s be honest, the idea of being a servant is not very attractive.
For some, being a servant means staying in the background so others can grow. The Israelites had forgotten their call to serve others. Their three-fold call was to be committed to “justice, love and submission.” (see Micah 6:8) Instead it was all about them. They had developed a superiority complex.
Most everyone remembers Isaac Newton. He was famous for discovering gravity by encountering a falling apple. Newton also revolutionized astronomical studies. On the other hand, few people know Edmund Halley. He was the one who challenged Newton to think through his theories. He often corrected Newton’s mathematical errors and prepared geometrical figures to support his theories. Halley convinced Newton to write his first book and he also was the one who edited it. Historians call Halley’s relationship with Newton one of the most selfless examples in the world of science. Halley received little credit for his contributions. Ultimately however, he used Newton’s principles to predict the orbit and the return of a comet that would later bear his name, Halley’s Comet. Still, it did not matter to Halley that he received the credit.
Servants are those who stay in the background. They are also willing to make commitment. And their commitments remain genuine because of sacrifice and discipline. Locally, Habitat for Humanity just broke ground for another home. I am fortunate to be on the Habitat Board. I have the opportunity to bless each new home when it is finished. More importantly I have the privilege of serving with some extremely committed people. Without their time, talents and leadership we could never build houses.
When it comes to commitment one of the names that frequently surfaces is Jane Hull. At the young age of seven she was visiting a shabby street in a small town near Chicago. Seeing ragged children there she announced that some day she wanted to build a house so poor children could have a place to play. When she became a young adult she visited Toynbee Hall in London where she observed educated people helping the poor by living among them. When she returned to Chicago she and a friend restored an old mansion and moved in.
The two women cared for children of working mothers. They also opened the house to older children and held sewing classes and cooking classes. There were art rooms, music rooms and reading rooms too. Jane also became an advocate for the poor. Later she was awarded an honorary degree from Yale. President Theodore Roosevelt claimed she was “America’s most useful citizen.” She was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. In spite of her notoriety, Jane Hull remained a resident at the Hull house and finally died there in the place she called home.
Being a servant also means to be challenged. We would rather remain in our comfort zones but the challenge to be faithful requires us to make changes.
One day at the end of my Death and Dying class I was just about ready to leave when a student approached me after class. I looked at the clock knowing that I had many things to do. The student proceeded to tell me that she was thinking about going to seminary. Her interest got my attention. Here was a young woman who was sincerely thinking about going into the ministry. How refreshing it was to witness a young adult being enthusiastic about ministry. I forgot about my agenda and took time to listen to her faith journey.
When I read this passage from Isaiah I was reminded of Isaiah’s challenge. Getting people to turn to God and commit to the faith is almost impossible in this society. But, sometimes there are those exceptions, as people make a commitment. How rewarding it was for me to be able to share my own sense of call and be part of that young woman’s spiritual pilgrimage.
Isaiah was right, there is a faithful remnant, a few committed souls who will turn to God and be willing so say what Isaiah said, “Here I am.” Isaiah also proclaimed that the life of a servant would not go unrewarded. “My servants shall eat. My servants shall drink. My servants shall rejoice. My servants shall sing for gladness of heart …. They shall build houses and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not labor in vain. They shall be offspring blessed by the Lord.” (see verses 65:13-14, 21-23)