(A sermon preached to my preaching lab, in which I decide to take a big risk and see what slam poetry will do in a sermon.)
The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
The text that we just heard from Isaiah is actually a poem, and the third of four pieces called the Servant Songs, written to God’s people, the Israelites, during their time of exile in Babylon. These writings are intended to comfort those listening and assure them that God is with them. In this particular poem, the violent suffering is past, the Israelites are nearing the end of their time in exile, but the constant shaming and persecution is eroding their identity as people of God. Those hearing these words witnessed the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God on Earth. They were feeling alone and abandoned by their God. This text is intended to speak to those imprisoned by their present circumstances, living in the shadow of shame. In other words, they were a people without a God living in a strange land, having undergone suffering and persecution, crying out for any shred of hope from the God that they once knew.
The author of this poem (we are never told his or her identity) is living in a world that has been ripped apart by violence, is displaced from all that they know, and is clinging to a promise of a better day despite all evidence to the contrary as their world is eroded away through constant persecution. They are at the breaking point where they need a promise given for them and for their community. They are crying out for a God who knows them and loves them in spite of their shame and fear…A God who will not leave them alone.
This text was written for a specific people at a specific time, but God also speaks to us through the words of the prophet Isaiah. We live in a world where we are not safe from violence even when attending a movie or going to elementary school. We live in lonely apartments or behind white fences, scared to know our neighbors because they might very well be…us. Our identity as beloved children of God becomes harder and harder to recognize when the world attempts to define us by our jobs or education. Our income. Our political affiliations. Our sexual orientation. Our ability to “hold it together” when we are dying inside. We are crying out for meaning and purpose and for something besides the cruel laws of the world to define who we are. We read this text in the days leading up to Good Friday because it is loaded with Messianic hope. We have a God who is present with those who suffer, even up to the point of suffering Himself, through death on a cross.
However, I am going to suggest that playing the Jesus Christ trump card is the easy answer to preaching a text from the Hebrew scriptures and we should look a little deeper into what this text is saying to us as it stands alone. To facilitate this, I re-wrote this text as slam poetry:
The Lord has given me the voice of a teacher, the calm of my mother, the voice of a preacher…that I may extend a cup of cool water to the thirsty…
Air to those stifled by suffocating obligation and convention…
A word to those who are wearied by the hum of screens and work and the static of a life in which no promise ever breaks through…the shame…the doldrums of day to day exhaustion
Every day, every night, MY God turns me around from myself towards Her…towards Him...to listen again. She opens my ears…He widens my eyes to listen with seeing and hear with my very soul.
I am opened up, my heart ripped open…painful like air on an open wound, yet, I did not turn away. Did not cringe. Did not run, even though I wanted to.
This new thing…this thing that God has me doing…
…is terrifying. This speaking truth to power, reason to unreason, good in the midst of so much shit…there is no way that I would be doing this on my own.
I offer myself again and again for humiliation. I state boldly what I am called to do before those who would judge me. I stand before an angry jury…a boardroom of somber suits…testifying to the truth.
I put myself out there to be exposed…to be scalded and scolded and saddened…again and again. I did not hide in my closet or behind my accomplishments or convictions.
My God is with me…disheveled and dishonored as I am…cast about the world like a ship adrift. I am honorable in her sight. Therefore my gaze is steady. My past shame has no power over me. I am justified…made right…made whole…if only in her sight.
I am not alone…though I walk in shadow…I am not dead. My God stands together with me in the mud of the present. I am not unjustly convicted by this world…I am justified by MY God.
God is not telling us to endure present suffering in order that we might be justified one day. God is not making suffering some virtuous thing that will bring us closer to Him or Her. God is not telling us that we are capable of bearing suffering alone or choosing to do anything different to better our situation. NO! The message here is that God endures with all of us. We hear such promises as: “The Lord gives me all that I need”, “the Lord helps me”, “He who vindicates me is near”, “Let us stand up together”. This is a God who promises to endure with us. A God who defines us in spite of what our present circumstances or the world would say about us. This is the Gospel of the Lord.