It is not particularly my thing to say, “As we said last week,” because I know that we are blessed almost every week with visitors, and, as well, that those of you who are our part-of-the-year visitors from cold weather climates like Canada or Montana, or refugees from places like Iowa or Wisconsin who might just have arrived from the snow, and thus missed last Sunday.
But to today. Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is the last written of stories of an encounter that in Mark has Jesus being baptized by Mark, but changes over the next several decades as Matthew and Luke are written, as apparently followers of Jesus wondered why, since John was baptizing for the forgiveness of sin, Jesus would have been baptized? This culminates in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, in which there is no baptism involved, but only John’s and Jesus’ seeing each other.
Last Sunday, in the context of discussing both the Baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ declaration later in the Gospel According to Matthew that followers, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” in that context, I offered my strong opinion that the most effective way for us to make disciples is to let the Jesus in us be seen by everyone whom we encounter, seen through the way we greet and act toward them. And I specifically used the expression,
“I do want you to greet the least pleasant person you encounter with a smile and either a ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’ or whatever”
And I then expanded upon that by saying,
“. . . since we cannot in fact wait until the end of the day to determine who was that least pleasant person, I think it would be best to greet everyone that way.”
But please hold in your minds that term, “least pleasant person you encounter,” because today again, as we did last week, we have read from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, and as I point out, from the second of three prophets who may or may not have shared that name, but whose words we find in the Book known as “Isaiah.” This “Second” Isaiah is the prophet who also gave us the wonderful, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and told that Cyrus of Persia was about to free the exiles taken to Babylon in capture from Judah — the surviving tribe and “land” of what was called “The United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” under King David and one of his sons, Solomon. Since Cyrus’ conquest was in 539 BCE, we can rather accurately date when this Second Isaiah was writing.
And that same Second Isaiah calls us in today’s passage to be “a light to the nations.”
Calls us? Wasn’t this Isaiah writing to Jews of the sixth century before Christ?
Within what he wrote, we have four small sections known as “The Servant Songs,” of which today’s reading is one. Probably the best known to us because of Handel’s “Messiah,” is the song, “He was rejected and despised of men.” While Christians often choose to have these as songs foretelling the Messiah, foretelling Jesus, and I do not want to ignore that idea, many if not most scholars would say, and I believe correctly, that these songs are speaking about the Hebrew people, about the people, the nation, of Judah. But if they are, just as I believe that we should understand that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew sees Jesus as fulfilling “The Law and the Prophets,” we fill, we take, the place of those sixth century before Christ Jews, the people of Judah, in being designated Servant.
We Christians are to be servants; we are to serve God; we are to serve Christ. But that service is meaningless, if it does not include service to other children of God, to all other children of God, including “the least pleasant” whom we encounter.
Now, different types of people might at times strike us as “least pleasant.” In these politically combative times, it might be someone we define as either an “elitist” or as a “deplorable”; for me, it might be someone from the University of Michigan — just kidding.
Just kidding, which I do with anyone I see or encounter wearing a Michigan shirt or sporting its logo by frequently saying, “You know, we have a dress code here.” But I myself am hardly sinless; I am not preferred in God’s eyes to those people “least pleasant” to my eyes. And one of my less attractive sins is that I do make judgments on numerous other people. When my lovely and wonderful wife makes some harsh judgments on someone she sees, I’ll often pipe in, “But he (or she) is a child of God,” . . . yet I might in fact be silently making the same judgment as she. I’ll presume — and if I offend you, please come back nonetheless — I’ll presume that anyone smoking a cigarette in this day and age is either ignorant or indifferent to his or her health, and so why should I (as a taxpayer) be responsible for his or her medical costs? I’ll presume that adult males who play computer games are not very mature, that people I see in cafeterias holding enough food for three who obviously do not take care of themselves are childish, and, like those smokers, will be dependent on me to pay for their avoidable medical care simply because they did not care for themselves, and I could list more ways I find someone to be, if not “the least pleasant,” at least a subject of my judgmental-ism.
. . . and that I then catch myself being judgmental, and say to God, “I am sorry to be judgmental,” does not seem to stop me from being so yet again.
And yet simple human, let alone, Christian, honesty leads me to say, “I’m glad they do not know my shortcomings and failures.” Mine might not be so detectable from my appearance or public behavior, but am I not one of the “least pleasant people” I know? No; I do not believe I am a “least pleasant”; I think of myself as pleasant, but to rephrase, “Am I not one of the most in need of God’s grace and mercy of all whom I see or know?” and to that I give an unqualified, “Yes.”
Which helps me to understand why we are to be servants — servants not just of God but of the other children of God, — why we are to be servants as we are called to be even to those who are not pleasant to our eyes or to our judgment, that we are to be servants even to those whom we might judge harshly . . . and even fairly. That “why” comes from wrestling with the second of the two Great Commandments as Jesus framed them: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as . . .”
Well, I hope you do not tire of hearing me say that the Hebrew in which “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes to us is horribly mangled, and that in studying that specific passage in Hebrew and looking to see how others had wrestled with it, I came upon the instance, the only instance with which I am familiar, where Bible translators chose and defended a different understanding of the balance of that commandment, and so interpreted it and translated it, which are not the same thing, and that was in the middle to late 1960’s translation in England known then as “The New English Bible,” an understanding that the best interpretation of the Hebrew of the Book of Leviticus should be: “Love your neighbor as you have been loved [by God].”
In other words, when we say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we should not engage in wishy-washy, touchy-feely about how important it is to love ourselves, that is not what it is about. What it is about is recognizing that we have received love from God, and that we are to pass it on to others. (And that makes me wish I had programmed that song, “Pass It On,” today.)
And it does not matter how unpleasant those others, those neighbors to whom we are to “pass it on” might be, as I say, even to those “least pleasant” to our own eyes. “No shoes, no shirt” might understandably and, indeed, justifiably, be grounds for excluding someone from entering and being served in a restaurant, but they are not grounds on which God denies them admission to the kingdom, because Jesus died for them, too.
And if Jesus died for them, the least we can do is to recognize them as brothers and sisters, and even if we might be judgmental, and I doubt that I can ever completely overcome that, I pray that we can overpower their unpleasantness in our eyes by offering them more than pleasantness in return, by offering them sincere recognition as children of God, and by serving them when and as we are called to do.
We might serve them in various ways beyond smiling greetings of “Hello” and “Good morning”; there are certainly those who receive the charity of this church who might not be wholly ethical in doing so, or wholly sympathetic in their plights, but they are those we are called to serve.
For turning in service to others is one way we give thanks for what Jesus in going to his death has done for us; it is one way we do Love our neighbor as we have been loved.
That second Isaiah might not have known that you and I, some 2600 years later, would be those to whom he was speaking, but we are. So let us serve God by showing to others His love made real to us in Jesus Christ, and thereby be lights, and collectively a light, to the nations — which means carrying Him to those who do not yet truly know Him.
And in His name. Amen.