A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and Martin Luther King, Jr, weekend, at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio
“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.” (Isaiah 49:6)
I love that God is not above playing with words. Since the beginning, when the Word went forth and created light, the pun has been in development: It is too light a thing/I will give you as a light to the nations.
This is not to make light of God’s charge to the people. It is not enough, God says, to restore your own people, to take care of your own, to protect your own interests and your own inheritance. That is too easy and too ordinary a thing for those called by God’s name, chosen as God’s covenanted people, inheritors of the promises to Abraham forever; and we have claimed the inheritance of that mantle alongside our brothers, sisters, and siblings who first heard the call to light.
No, God says, whatever you do you do on behalf of the world. Because when God created light, it did not shine only in the east, or only in the west, nor did it turn away from anyone except to return with the morning and the dawning and the seasons. God created light for the benefit of the whole of creation, that we might see and understand even toward the heavens, exploring the darkness of the skies with their faraway, fading, and guiding stars.
When we claim to have seen the light, it is not because it shines more brightly on us than on our neighbour, but because we have only just opened our eyes.
It is too light a thing, says the LORD, that you should only take care of your own. Other translations say it is too easy, it is too slight, it is too small a thing, too narrow a focus when there is a wideness in God’s mercy that spans creation, all who are created in God’s image.
If only God didn’t think so highly of us! God’s mercy is wide, we might say, but our reach is limited, and our influence waning in the world. We can’t save everyone.
We can’t save every black child from the stress that comes from growing up in a country riddled with racism. We may mourn, amongst other things, the vast discrepancies in health outcomes from the moment of their birth, and the mortality of black mothers, to the crippling indignities that accompany disparities in pain relief and pain belief. It’s unconscionable. But what can we do?
We can’t save every white child from the insidious lies of white supremacy that continue to drive those disparities and underwrite all kinds of inequality and evil. You cannot rescue a fish from water. You have to clean up the stream.
We can’t save every migrant child, every refugee, every asylum seeker, apparently, nor their families, from things done on our behalf.
We can’t save every country from war, from tyranny, from oppression.
God’s mercy is wide, we might say, but our reach is limited and our influence is waning. We can’t save everyone, can we?
“I formed you in the womb,” says the LORD, “to be my servant.” (Isaiah 49:5)
“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.”
And by the way, says the LORD, I am relying on you to help relieve the burden of anti-Semitism and hatred from tribes of Jacob and from the survivors of Israel, too.
We cannot save everyone, but God’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth. We are called to be its light, its harbinger.
We are to light torches and build beacons and in every wave and particle of our lives to be a light in the darkness, to be the lightness that relieves our neighbour’s burden, to be the hope that keeps feet climbing until we reach the mountaintop, to do all the good that we can for all the people we can, to defeat all the evil that we can in all the ways that we can along the way; and not to return evil for evil, but to replace curses with a blessing, “for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9)
“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
How hard is it, after all, to love God, to love our neighbours, to love our enemies, to love even those for whom we have no passion one way or the other, those who are almost invisible to us? For it is too light a thing, says God, to love only those whom we see.
We see our fellow godchildren as like us, or not like us, or invisible to us. But it is God’s salvation that we proclaim, and that we claim for ourselves, and God created light to shine from one end of the universe to the other.
The light of God’s salvation is for everyone. It is the light which enlightens every body, which lifts every burden, which anoints every wound with healing.
The Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, preached a sermon titled, “Our God is Able:”
God is able to conquer the evils of history. His control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination and if we become disappointed because of the undue cautiousness of the federal government, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. In our sometimes difficult and lonesome walk up freedom’s road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us. He has placed within the very structure of this universe certain absolute moral laws. We can neither defy nor break them. If we disobey them, they will break us. The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror. Our God is able. (MLK, 114)
And Dr King told of the night when, in the midst of work and trouble, a threatening phone disturbed him so that he wondered if he could continue. The work seemed all at once too heavy. He prayed,
“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. (MLK, 117)
We are called to be beacons of courage. King continued,
I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” (MLK, 117)
The salvation of God will reach to the end of the earth.
Three nights later, King said, his home was bombed, but he already knew by then that he could take it, that God have given him all that he needed to do the work God had given him to do. He ended his sermon,
“Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better men. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world. (MLK, 117)
It is surely not too light a thing. But it is not too great a burden, either, is it? – the burden, the yoke of God’s love for all of God’s children.
All sermon quotes from Martin Luther King Jr, “Our God is Able,” in Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010)