SO IF NOT US, THEN WHO?
Jesus wasn't the only one called to be "a light to the nations."
In today’s gospel, we hear John proclaiming the arrival of Jesus – “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Last week we heard of Jesus’ baptism by John, and today we hear the beginning of his formal ministry and the calling of his first disciple Andrew, who then called his brother Simon Peter. Like Jesus’ ministry, ours is formalized in our baptism when we are washed clean by water and anointed with holy oil. Our parents and godparents, or if an adult ourselves, “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and agree to put “your whole trust in [Jesus’] grace and love.” In our turning toward Jesus we are becoming his prophetic voice in the world as the body of Christ. This is a highly risky endeavor for as we know, three short years after Jesus’ baptism, he would fall victim to the authorities and those people who denounced his prophetic voice.
We have been created to understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, and this understanding is right there in our Rite of Baptism. Societies from early on have often wandered from these basic laws into unjust ways often seeking to raise up one group of people to the detriment of another. When this happened, it was the prophetic voice crying out that drew our attention to the wrongs of society and sought to bring us back to justice and fairness. But as our Bible and I think history shows, prophetic voices are not always appreciated and society tends to want to quiet them, either through banishment to jail or through death.
The collect for today is a prayer for all of us who believe Jesus Christ is the light of the world. “Grant that your people” we implore God, “illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” Is this not a call to prophetic ministry? The world in every age falls into difficult and dark times because of our inability to fully love our fellow human beings, and our collective desire to depower groups of people in our societies.
This collect, and this weekend, we are reminded of God’s call for all of us to be prophets in our age. If we are not the prophetic voices of our age, then who is? Our politicians, our celebrities, our industrialists? For our collective sakes, I hope not.
Isaiah says in today’s Hebrew bible reading, “And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant … I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
We are the “light to the nations” and if not us, then who?
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
How can we not respond to these words of commission? How then can we not seek to take this message to our city, our nation and to the world? How then can we not invite people into the intimate relationship of agape love with God, that God desires?
Our baptism calls on us to take the message of Jesus into the world. This is a prophetic mission and our prophetic witness. It can be daunting to speak out against injustice and oppression in a world that seems to foster these. If we find we are reluctant to respond with a prophetic voice, we would join many who have gone before us in feeling apprehensive. Moses was reluctant, and we find in Exodus 4:10-17 the account of his pleading with God to send someone else. Jeremiah likewise was reluctant. In the book of Jeremiah chapter 1 verse 6, we hear him saying to God that he doesn’t know how to speak. Elijah, too, was reluctant, and when the going got tough for him he fled and pleaded with God to take away his life (1 Kings 19). Jonah, too, was reluctant and fled to Tarshish rather than go to Ninevah where God had called him to go. Even Jesus seems to be reluctant in the account of the wedding in Cana. “My hour has not yet come,” he says.
We have a natural fear, I feel, of speaking out against the prevailing culture when it becomes necessary to do so. Our human tendencies make us much more likely to ‘go with the flow,’ to mirror the behaviors of others in the community. But for the good of the nation we need the prophetic voice to rise above the masses, a voice to call attention to those issues where injustice is being promoted.
If not us, then who?
In our modern times, there are few truly prophetic voices that have impacted the world apart from Jesus. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu come to mind. In India, Mahatma Gandhi and of course in this country, Martin Luther King Jr. Tomorrow we commemorate his birthday with a national holiday. There will be many commemorations across the nation, and our diocese is sponsoring a ‘Day of Service’ as a way of reminding ourselves that Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to right the wrongs of a community that continued to oppress African Americans, people of color and poor whites.
I am sure that most of you know far more about Martin Luther King Jr. than I do but in reading some of his many sermons, letters, interviews and books I found a sense of who he was. Martin Luther King Jr. seems to have been a prophet for the time but one who still felt some hesitation about returning to the South with its system of injustice and oppression that he had grown up in. In his book “Stride Toward Freedom” he wrote that after some hesitation and discernment and “despite the disadvantages and inevitable sacrifices, [their] greatest service could be rendered in the South.” He concluded he said, “that we had something of a moral obligation to return.”
When he agreed with his wife Coretta to take the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, he knew what he was doing and the possible consequences of his actions. A year or so later Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus, and soon King was in the thick of organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the lone prophet fighting injustice in the South like some superhero character. He was one amongst many but one who seemed gifted with oration skills that surpassed many of his peers, and he held a deep interest in non-violent protest that was a hallmark of the effort to transform the laws and culture of the country’s oppression of African Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr. challenged not just the political system but also the white clergy of the establishment churches. His letter from Birmingham City Jail was a call to Christian discipleship to be at the heart of the African American’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality. King lamented “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” “Lukewarm acceptance” he said, “was much more bewildering than outright rejection.” This is a challenge to us all.
King was a prophet of his time, and his prophetic message resonates with us today. Like many of the prophetic voices of times past, he was silenced in the hope that the movement and actions he championed would be halted or reversed. Of course, that didn’t happen and his voice continues to be heard, as does the voice of Jesus, John, Jeremiah and Elijah.
There is a danger that we can sit here this morning and feel that the era of Martin Luther King Jr. is behind us. I don’t feel that injustice, oppression of minorities, and equality for all is ever behind us. These issues are being played out across our city, our nation and the world every day. We don’t have to look far to find other examples of injustice being played out.
There is a proven danger in speaking up as that old friend fear seeps in to neutralize our good intentions. We each have a prophetic voice, and we can use it to speak within our families, within our social groups and within the wider community. We can speak it whenever and wherever we find injustice, wherever Christ’s glory needs to shine. We can speak out in small ways as much as in the grand gestures of community action.
Injustice, as many of us know, happens all around us every day. Our prophetic witness is the antidote the world needs. Our witness can shine the light of Jesus into those dark places, and we can do what we can to arrest the complacency of the world to overturning injustice and oppression.
So, if not us, then who?