Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 42.1-7 & 49.1-9
‘Ich dien.’ This is the motto of the Prince of Wales, currently of course, Prince Charles—Ich dien, ‘I serve’. I worked some years ago now at the Prince Charles Hospital; its motto is taken from the Prince of Wales: it is, ‘We serve’.
I remember a conversation with a member of staff way back then, over 25 years ago now. He said he hated the hospital’s motto. ‘I am no one’s servant!’ he said. I was taken aback by the violent tone of his words, spoken as they were over a cup of tea and a biscuit in the morning tea room.
Though I have often failed to put it into practice, I loved the motto. I’m sure that it was inspired by the words of Jesus: ‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant’ (Matthew 20.26).
Who wants to be a servant? Not I, not in myself—it’s not something I would ever have thought up for myself. As a child, when I wondered about what I’d do when I was grown up, ‘servant’ was not at the top of the list. I can understand where that man was coming from, the one who hated the motto of the Prince Charles Hospital, We serve. And yet now I am a minister—and ‘minister’ simply means ‘servant’. A ‘minister of the Word’ is a servant of Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh.
Yet it’s not just me. That call to serve is extended to all Christians. To each and every one. Our very baptism is a sign of our being ‘in Christ’, in the one whose life and death was characterised and stamped by service to others and to God. Jesus Christ was the servant of God. We follow the Servant.
It is in the book of Isaiah that we see the first vision of the Servant. This servant would bring justice to the nations, and be a light to the world. The references to the servant appear in the second and third parts of Isaiah, which were written long after the prophet Isaiah lived. They began to be written around the end of the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon.
The prophet did not want the people to return to Jerusalem embittered. He wanted to proclaim God’s purpose for them: they were to forgive their enemies, and bring justice to the nations. They were called to bring the light of God to the people of the world. And they were to do that by being a servant people.
All of this was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He was the true Israelite, the Servant looked for by Isaiah. What is this servant like? Isaiah tells us that he will work in a very strange way:
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…
Where the servant finds the slightest grounds for hope in another person, he will encourage it. He will seek to fan the sparks of faith into a burning flame. His hope will be in the Lord, not in his strategies or his plans or his brilliance.
Jesus was the Servant Isaiah looked for; we are a servant Church today, each one of us is a servant today, all because of Jesus Christ our Servant-Lord.
How do we become servants? That’s a bad question. How do we become servants, I mean, that’s the bad question. We are already servants. Through baptism, we are united with Christ the Servant, we are one with him, we are servants with him. We can’t make ourselves servants by any efforts of our own; God has said we already are.
To be the servant that we already are, we don’t need to strive to be a servant, trying harder and harder, screwing our face up with the effort; no, we must let go of whatever stops us from serving. Let me give you my list of things to let go of. I must let go of attitudes that put me first. I must let go of my own plans and dreams, and seek God’s dreams in connection with my fellow servants.
I have to say ‘No’ to certain things. These things may be ways I spend my time, or money. They may be priorities I have in life that exalt me above others.
To be a servant, I need to listen. I’m not always good at that. To be a servant, I need to see Jesus Christ in the people I meet. Including each one of you.
What’s your list? Don’t fret that you aren’t a servant; instead, seek to let go of the things that stop you from being the servant that you already are in God’s eyes. Let go of the false priorities, the hurts, the bitterness that keeps you from recognising that Jesus is coming to you through other people.
Let me finish with something else that might help; it’s a story of how one group of men became servants.
There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years however fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had forgotten what it meant to serve one another, and those who came to visit. They had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. ‘Please do,’ responded the abbot. ‘Anything you can offer.’
Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, an important vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who could it be? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah? Was it that one?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and John started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Peter and David left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.
As one traveller, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.
The Servant-Messiah is among us. Let us serve one another, and those God gives us each day. Amen.