Sunday, January 16, 2011
God's Arrow: Sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7
Christmas is finally over. Even our sanctuary bears witness to that fact. Still. Indulge me for one brief moment, a Christmas Eve image. It is nearly midnight as we reach what is always, to me, the high point of our service. The sanctuary is lit almost entirely by the candles held in the hands of each worshiper. The echoes of that most beloved Christmas carol are still ringing in our ears. It is at this moment that we hear these words from the gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. ~John 1:1-4
At that moment, we turn from the infant in the cradle to give our worship to the mighty God who came among us as that baby. We read these words together, in the candle-glow, and our hearts grow still and silent as the night: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word: this is one of our most holy names for Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the Beloved Child of God. Christ is the Word of God. And, as John tells us, Christ the Word was present with God in the act of creation—all things came into being through the Word, just as it is written in the book of Genesis. God speaks, and worlds are created. As Jewish scholar, Susannah Heschel, wrote this week, words do in fact create worlds. 
It has been a week of soul-searching. In the aftermath of last Saturday’s terrible shooting in Tucson, which left six dead and thirteen more injured, we have been asking ourselves questions, but they all boil down to a single question—the same question that grips our hearts, always, at such moments of tragedy: Why? Why did it happen? And, the corollary, what could have been done to prevent it?
It is utterly human to want answers at a time like this. It is completely normal that we should seek to know, to reckon, to understand. Only, sometimes, the answers are not so readily available. Sometimes there is not one answer, though one answer appeals to us mightily. Sometimes we are left with our questions, and with the feeling that the world is a frightening, random, fundamentally mysterious place, untamable and unknowable.
Still, I do believe that one very good thing may have emerged from last Saturday’s horror. This week we witnessed a growing consensus that our national political discourse, the way in which we talk to one another, has grown so vitriolic, so hateful, that it repulses most of us. We want a change. This is, in my mind, a very good thing. It is the recognition that words do create worlds, and we want to be very intentional about the worlds created by our words.
What worlds shall we create? What shall we do with this powerful tool each of us has, the ability to speak? In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet is grappling with just this question. He recognizes that God has called him to do something. In fact, God’s call has been present with him his whole life—from the time he was in his mother’s womb. And God has equipped him as well—God has given him gifts for service. God has given him a particular ability with words—“[God] made me a polished arrow,” he says, “in his quiver he hid me away.” In other words, God gave the prophet the ability to send out words that hit their mark, find their target. But we also notice, the prophet doesn’t seem satisfied with his work. “I have labored in vain,” he says. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” These are words that sound close to despair.
It is not always easy to figure out where God is calling you, or just what it is that God wants you to do. That is especially true when you have had the experience of feeling that your work has been ineffective, or worse. In the case of the prophet, the work he believes he has been called to do is to unify, bring together the people of Israel, who have been dispersed throughout the world in the time of exile. Can you imagine? Makes me want to say I will never complain about any aspect of any job description ever again. Unify my people! Oh, ok God. I’ll get right on that.
Most of us, thanks be to God, are not called upon to achieve such enormous objectives. Most of us, thanks be to God, are given calls which are more along the lines of, “Pray this morning!” Or, “Don’t have that fight with your spouse/ mother/ child!” Or even, “Write that report/newsletter article/ sermon!” Calls we can certainly neglect or ignore—calls that are not necessarily easy. But calls that don’t leave us drenched in perspiration every time we contemplate them, either.
But the call to God’s arrow seems to grow in size, not diminish. “It is too light a thing,” says God, “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.”
God is calling this servant to go beyond the narrow confines of partisan concerns. God is calling this servant to make his constituency a very, very broad one—instead of the people of Israel, the whole world. Instead of the tribes of Jacob, all the ends of the earth.
Here’s the funny thing about this passage. It is not clear just who or what this servant of God’s is, this prophet. Scholars note that, at times, it seems to be a single individual. In which case, we are back to totally overwhelming and impossible job descriptions that would make most people want to run screaming into the night. On the other hand, if the “prophet” described here is a collective, if it is more than one person, if it is the whole people of Israel—as some readers believe—then that instruction to reach all the ends of the earth still looks daunting. But now it is a shared burden. Now it is the work of, not just one soul, but a community.
Words create worlds. And words create communities as well. And the good news about our call, yours and mine, is that it is both individual and collective. It is both private and personal—a call to be a deacon, say, or to be a caring parent, or to show Christ’s love in the workplace. But it is also collective, communal—remember, we talked about it last week. Our call as a community is to shine forth the Light of the world, so that it can be seen by all people. Now, I’m not going to pretend that isn’t a daunting call. It is a big task. But it is a task we are called to fulfill together. Together, we can do such a thing. Together, we can let the light of God’s love reach to the ends of the earth. It starts with our words.
This week our president spoke these words: “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”  He not only issued this call to the American people; he also demonstrated, in the very words he was speaking, how to do that. He taught by example. He acted, in this way, as God’s arrow for this particular moment in time, the aftermath of a tragedy. He sent out powerful words, words capable of creating new worlds of hope and healing. He behaved very much in the manner of another of God’s arrows, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At a time when our country was torn apart by the painful issues of segregation and discrimination, he sent out powerful words that are still resonating with us today.
King had strong opinions on the necessity of well-chosen and well-timed words. And he was passionate about exactly what the content of those words should be. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We must be sure that the words we use are words that heal, and not words that wound.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
Words create worlds. We are privileged and blessed with the gift of our words, and called to be God’s arrow in the way we use and direct them. What worlds shall we create with our words? Hopefully, worlds of hope and not despair; worlds where the Light shines in the darkness; and worlds where healing can, at last, take place. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Susannah Heschel, “Sarah Palin Cries ‘Blood Libel’: Can Words Harm Us?”, Religion Dispatches, January 12, 2011 (http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4040/palin_cries_‘blood_libel’%3A_can_words_harm_us/).
 Barack Obama, “Obama’s Remarks in Tucson,” New York Times, January 12, 2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/13/us/politics/13obama-text.html?ref=us).