Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, January 12, 2014
Commissioned for Service
[Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 10:34-43]
Today is a special day in the life of our church. We are ordaining four new elders for the first time. Fresh air is blowing through our faith community, as these 4 individuals are stepping up to use their time, talents and treasures to serve God among us. Each of these four and the remaining eight elders need to develop the quality of “spiritual discernment” – which requires that they learn how to be still, how to listen and learn from Scripture, how to read the times we are living in, and how to take bold and decisive actions as Jesus would do, based on God’s agenda, not our own.
I believe St. Pauls Presbyterian Church is at an important crossroads, literally. We are experiencing a changing of the guard, as we pass the baton of leadership to new people, who have not served in this capacity before. Some DO KNOW how we have always done things in the past and some DO NOT KNOW, but we are asking all 12 of our elders to get down on their knees and learn how to serve as Jesus has modeled and instructed us to do.
The position of elder is not an honorary medal to pin on your shirt or hang on your wall. The position of elder is one of servanthood – of seeking the last place in line, not the first. That’s why my gift to each of our new elders will be a towel. Jesus took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet with it on the night he was betrayed to demonstrate the costliness of God-filled leadership. Jesus invites us to take the towel as we lead this congregation into a future of spiritual vitality and mission outreach to our community. Both our hearts and our hands must be committed to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. One without the other is ineffective.
If our hearts are in God’s service we will spend time in God’s presence, abiding & immersing ourselves in God’s Word and Being until we come to understand and absorb the very mind of Christ. If our hands are in God’s service, we will roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty to improve the lives of other people without any hope or desire for reward or praise. Every act of heart-filled service with our hands for others is a way of worshipping God.
Let’s now look at today’s three Scriptures: first, the Servant Song in Isaiah 42. This is the first of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is divided into 3 sections: First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah. The servant songs come in Second Isaiah which was believed to be written while many of the people of Israel and Judah were exiled in Babylon. Some of the people remained behind in desolate Jerusalem, but they were scattered and defeated, wherever they were living. This song is one of hope – holding out the promise of one who is called “The Servant” – God’s chosen One, the One in Whom God’s soul delights. This servant is filled with the Holy Spirit and will bring forth justice to all nations.
Some scholars call the book of Isaiah the Fifth Gospel, because Christians see Jesus as the fulfillment of so many prophecies it contains, especially the 4 Servant Songs: Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12.
In this first Servant Song we learn that the Servant’s style of leadership will be radically different than people expect: he won’t cry or lift up his voice, or make it be heard in the street; he will not break a bruised red, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. This was a far cry from the way kings ruled people. One commentator writes that the Servant will establish justice “not with violence or the use of overriding strength, but through humility, passivity, reserve, and endurance.”
In the first 4 verses this Servant is introduced by God and in the remaining verses God speaks directly to the servant, defining the WORK that God is calling the servant to do: 1) to open the eyes that are blind, and 2) to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon and from prison those who sit in darkness. These acts are described as something NEW… a new kind of work, which the Servant Leader will accomplish.
God also identifies God-self as the Lord… who predicted the fall of Jerusalem… and now prophesies that something NEW and something WONDERFUL will spring forth out of Israel’s devastation.
When Jesus identifies himself in the Synagogue in Nazareth in Luke Chapter 4, his words parallel very closely this “calling” which Isaiah prophesies. Jesus says to his neighbors: “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These words are also a direct quotation from the Book of Isaiah and show Jesus picking up the mantle of Isaiah’s Servant/Leader.
This Servant’s humility, passivity, reserve, and endurance is poignantly portrayed when he comes to John the Baptist at the Jordan River, as described in Matthew 3:13-17, and asks to be baptized. John resists because he knows that Jesus is God’s Messiah. He says to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you!” But Jesus, with the humility of a servant replies: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus was not baptized for any sins, as the others John baptized, but came, so that God the Father could reveal to John and others that this was INDEED his very SON, the BELOVED of God, who came to meet us right where we are. The Spirit descended like a dove from heaven and rested on Jesus. A voice from heaven claimed him as his own Son and expressed PLEASURE in him.
This day of baptism brought Jesus out of the shadows and into his public ministry. His years of childhood and growing up are not described in the Scriptures, except for a few brief references. This was his “Coming Out” party, you might say: his commissioning as God’s Son and our Messiah. The door OPENED on that day and he walked through it into 3 years of visible, well-documented public ministry in Galilea and Judea.
Likewise, this is the “Coming Out” party for our four new elders: who are walking through the door of public ministry at St. Pauls Presbyterian Church. In the footsteps of your Lord and Savior, you will be asked to spend time in prayer, Bible study, Fellowship with other Christians, and service to others in our community. You will be asked to have a vision for what God is doing among us. You will be asked to stretch your wings and fly in new ways that you may never have done before. As you kneel down, either literally or figuratively this morning, we will put our hands on you, anoint you with oil and pray for you with the hope that the Holy Spirit will descend on YOU, as the Spirit descended on Jesus… and on the disciples of every generation. Jesus does not ask YOU to do anything that Jesus has not already done first.
And yet, in each historical situation, the tasks and challenges will be different. We read in Acts 10 that Peter’s mind and spirit were challenged, stretched and some say “converted” – when the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and other Gentiles who were uncircumcised.
The whole story is told in Acts 10:1:-11:18. It is the pivotal event in Luke-Acts, showing that the Holy Spirit crossed over the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. The passage we read only contains Peter’s Sermon to Cornelius and his friends, but the larger section shows that Peter was converted, just as Cornelius was converted. Cornelius and his household came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, while Peter’s limited view of salvation was transformed and expanded to include all of God’s creation both near and far! Peter’s theological affirmation in Acts 10:34 is this: I TRULY UNDERSTAND THAT GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Historical circumstances change, but God’s grace and the gift of salvation do not change… if anything… they expand to include whomever we attempt to exclude. God’s love shows NO PARTIALITY. God’s love is an ocean that is always rising…
So how do WE connect; how are WE commissioned for service in this time and this place? What are the issues WE face? What boundaries is God bursting? What lines in the sand is God erasing and crossing over to show that God’s love shows NO PARTIALITY?
I cannot answer that question for you. I don’t know what boundaries you have drawn in the sand to separate yourself from others. I do know that God’s love is always searching for the lost and finding them and that God’s love is global. Whatever limits we put on God cannot contain God.
Before closing this morning, let me emphasize what “commissioning” is NOT. Dr. Rodger Nishioka, a Japanese American seminary professor of Christian Education, shares a story about a young boy named Kyle, who attended Rodger’s Confirmation Class and was confirmed on Pentecost Sunday with his 9th grade peers. Everyone in the class loved Kyle and Rodger was surprised that he decided to join the class, because his family attended church very sporadically. Once in the class, he attended regularly and formed wonderful friendships with the other kids. He had never been baptized, so he was baptized and confirmed on Pentecost Sunday. Then he disappeared and everyone missed him. Rodger Nishioka did some serious self-reflection and realized that the church does a very POOR job of teaching that Confirmation is a BEGINNING of someone’s faith journey, not the end. Why had Kyle and his parents assumed that Kyle was DONE and no longer needed to attend church?
When Rodger visited Kyle’s family, they were apologetic and so was he. They admitted they had missed the point and Rodger confessed that he had failed to convey that Confirmation/Commissioning is not an end, but rather the doorway to a life in faith. The next Sunday Kyle and his family were back and even seemed a little relieved at the realization that the journey was not over but just beginning.
In the same way, our new elders have not “arrived” someplace – but are rather “departing” for a journey of leadership that will be challenging & fulfilling. They will be taking the “towel” as Jesus did, to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ.
In my opinion, St. Pauls Presbyterian Church as a whole is being invited to empty herself with the same humility, passivity, reserve, and endurance that Jesus exhibited when he took the towel and washed his flawed disciples’ feet. They did not deserve it, but Jesus saw in his disciples more than they dared see in themselves. He saw in Peter, who would within a few hours deny that he even knew Jesus, a rock on whom Jesus would build his church.
Jesus sees more in us than we do. But we will never find this calling if we are constantly try to scramble to the top of the pile to make a name for ourselves. Only as we bow our heads in humility and kneel in submission to the God who calls us, will our heads and hearts be lifted up. Only in humility and submission to a God who loves all people without partiality will our hands be put to good use for the glory of God. Let us pray.
“Exegetical Perspective,” John H. Hayes, Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4, p. 221.
“Pastoral Perspective,” Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, p. 240.