You can understand why Judah might be ambivalent about this speech by God in chapter 42. Think about it. Here you are, cooling your heels in exile over in Babylon, already feeling abandoned by your God—when at last God shows up on the scene and promises deliverance just prior in chapters 40 and 41.
Of course, that’s all good. In the chapters immediately preceding our text for today God promises not to forget the exiles, and that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31), and again, “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you’” (41:13).
Pretty good news for a bunch of beleaguered refugees who’ve been wondering out loud about whether or not they’ve been forsaken, right? Refugees and how they’re treated, Franklin Graham notwithstanding, are issues God cares a great deal about.
So what’s God’s solution to the plight of the Israelites? How is God going to provide this much anticipated help?
Well, in chapter 42, we see that God is preparing to send a servant whose job it will be to establish justice.
All right. Now we’re talking.
Still sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? God’s getting ready to send in the cavalry, and finally mete out a little western style, retributive, eye-for-an-eye justice.
“Oh yeah, there are going to be some people who get what’s coming to them,” the exiles are thinking. They start to imagine how sweet the vengeance will be. They’re making little mental check-lists about all the wrongs they’ve suffered, and what a little payback might look like.
You can imagine how satisfying it must have been to a people uprooted from their homeland, force-marched around the fertile crescent, enduring all the while the humiliation of being unwilling exiles in a foreign land—how satisfying it must have been to daydream about how all the wrongs that had been done to them were about to be avenged—in spades.
Nothing lightens the attitude of the oppressed quite like the thought of a little righteous payback. God’s servant finally come to dole out some real justice.
But who is he? (Obviously, a he. God’s servant, to their thinking, could never have been a woman, could never have been anything less than an ancient Near Eastern Terminator, a sort of Judean proto-Rambo—kickin’ butts and takin’ names. Women need not apply. Violence; retribution; justice all require the appropriate amount of testosterone. Women (Kill Bill, also notwithstanding) are too soft, too sentimental. They won’t kill people and break things with the requisite amount of enthusiasm. At least that’s how the patriarchy has always sized up the situation. Not much has changed, has it?)
Oh yeah, God’s servant is on the way. Who’s it going to be?
They’ve got in their mind what this servant is gonna look like. So you can imagine how shocked they were to have the head of God’s Department of Justice described to them in this fashion in our text for today: “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; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (42:2–3).
Wait, what? How, exactly, this kind of servant is going to be of any help handing out traffic citations—let alone “faithfully bringing forth justice” in a hostile land.
No. This isn’t going according to plan at all. Bruised reed? Dim wick? What is that? That’s not Jason Bourne; that’s Pee Wee Herman.
So the confidence of the exiles is waning with every passing moment. They’re looking for God’s servant—a savior … someone to lift them up out of the mud pit that has become their lives, only to be told that the troops God’s sending in aren’t particularly intimidating. In fact, God’s servant sounds pretty wimpy … if you just wanna cut to the chase.
But things get even more discouraging for the displaced Israelites when it dawns on them that the servant who will bring forth justice isn’t someone from the outside; it’s them. The exiles themselves are God’s servant, who, though, bruised and dimly burning will bring forth justice.
They start thinking back to what God has said just a few verses before in chapter 41: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from the its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off’; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (41:8–10).
And they start thinking, “Now wait a minute! That sounded good back then when you were talking about fearing not, and helping us, and upholding us and all like that. That was pretty good stuff. But now you tell us that your idea of victory is not growing faint and not being crushed? I don’t want to tell you your business, God, but that’s not very reassuring from where we sit here at the sharp end of the Babylonian stick.”
And God’s response is: “Exactly! The power structures of this world try to establish justice at the sharp end of a stick. But you, my servant, Israel, Jacob whom I have chosen, you will bring forth justice for me in ways inconceivable to the powers and principalities of this world—a bruised reed you will not break, and a dimly burning wick you will not quench; you will faithfully bring forth justice in the earth. Your very presence, the way you live together, the people you protect will offer this world a glimpse of the justice I have in mind—a world in which the mighty and the powerful don’t get to elbow their way to the front of the line, and those who’ve known only heartache and want will finally have their day in the sun.”
“But how, Lord? How—without the stick—can we bring forth justice? Doesn’t justice require power and the exercise of force?”
And God says, “I’m going to lead you out of bondage. What you seem always too quick to forget is that I created the heavens and stretched them out, I spread out the earth and what comes from it, I give breath to the people upon it. This is my world, and I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you. This isn’t about you. It’s not about heroic gestures or your connections. This is about me, and I’ve chosen you to establish justice because when justice is finally established, knowing your inadequacies and failings, no one will ever be foolish enough to think you did it. They’ll know I was right there in the middle of it.”
God says, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6b–7).
And don’t you think the church—among the inheritors of this promise to Isaiah—is always in danger of missing this point, convinced as it often is that the reign of God will be established only when the church gets everything right or at some ethereal point in an apocalyptic future?
It’s easy to forget that the church isn’t an end in itself; it’s a tool, chosen by God to bring about God’s purposes. The church doesn’t exist for itself and its people; it has been called into existence by a God who knows that only together and fueled by God’s love will we ever change the world.
It’s easy to believe that God’s work will be accomplished by the force of the church’s charismatic personalities or through the power of its innovative programming—when in reality, God’s work very often gets done in spite of what the church considers its strengths, rather than because of it.
Because, according to Isaiah, the glory of God shines in bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks. If you want to do the work of God, recognizing your brokenness is a good place to start.
Do you see? God doesn’t need to establish justice by violence. The way God chooses to bring forth justice in the earth is to form a people capable of living justly, a people who foreswear violence and the sharp sticks of this world, in favor of living faithfully in the midst of the violent, even when the sharp stick is brought to bear on them.
A people always on the lookout to welcome those whom the people in power have traditionally cast aside—the immigrant, the poor, the weak, and the voiceless.
The servant of God stands in stark contrast to the ways the governments of this world seek to establish justice, who are always about the task of breaking the bruised reed and snuffing the dimly burning wick, of stacking the deck in favor of the ones who already live in relative comfort. The way the governments of this world work—they choose whose life has value, and who should be deported or barred entry, based on a person’s race or ethnicity, based on what they contribute to those who already have so much.
And don’t kid yourself, peaceableness, gentleness, hospitality isn’t something just to be avoided or even scoffed at in our world; in the end those unwilling to employ power, to resort to violence must be broken, snuffed out because those sorts of people pose such a threat to the way power is currently arranged.
You can’t have people walking around who not only won’t use the stick, but aren’t even afraid of it.
The way current power structures are arranged, people concerned above all about those who have little are a threat, especially if they have no stake in protecting, as a matter of primary importance, those who have everything.
A people like that strikes fear into the very heart of the power centers of this world.
You think I’m kidding? You think maybe the preacher is just doing some fancy dancing, some rhetorical two step that sounds good on Sunday, but won’t play in the marketplace on Monday?
This world doesn’t fear peaceable, gentle, hospitable people—let alone kill them. Right?
To which I can only respond: “Really? Gosh, I thought that that’s exactly why they killed Jesus. They killed him because he refused to back down to those who would do him violence.”
As Will Campbell said: “If Jesus Christ had been a Moderate he would never have been crucified. By definition of the word there are too many options. Had he been a Moderate he would have joined Pontius Pilate who gave him ample opportunity to cut a deal, to compromise… Jesus Christ was a RADICAL! And for that he died.”
You see, the world has a way of breaking bruised reeds, of quenching dimly burning wicks. But God said, my servant will not break, will not be quenched, will not grow faint, will not be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.
And that’s the thing: God is a God of justice, who empowers people to live in ways that welcome all people, in ways that look after the rights of all people, in ways that ensure the safety of all people—and sometimes, in ways that ask of us to put ourselves and our bodies between the vulnerable and those who would seek to destroy them, between those whose race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity is being threatened and the ones who brandish fear and hatred against them, between families and those who would tear them apart by ripping children from the arms of their foreign born parents.
The former things are passing away. I’m going to do a new thing, a thing that the world won’t recognize, a world up to its elbows in the blood of its most precious, enamored as it is by the exercise of power, spellbound by every display of strength.
And we, you and I, among the spiritual heirs of the exiles … we’re it. “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6–7).
According to Isaiah, the way God intends to establish justice in this world isn’t through the normal channels of power.
Justice isn’t going to be brought forth by some act of the United Nations, some treaty that promises not to kill people if they promise not to kill us first.
Justice will only finally be established when God raises up a people who embody the justice of God—the same God, who when faced with our tendency for violence and hatred, offered us not the sharp end of a stick but the soft bottom of a small baby, the twisted body of a Jewish carpenter. That’s God’s idea of how you go about bringing forth justice in the earth.
If you’re hung up on power, on being a winner, the church is going to come as something of a disappointment to you.
On the other hand, if what you really care about is justice, the church—bruised reeds, dim wicks, and all—can be a pretty interesting place to be.
We’re here to be used by God to help change the world. That’s not me talking, that’s God.