(Preached on Sunday, January 15, 2017)
The guest on the afternoon talk show was a body builder. During the interview, the host asked, “Why do you develop those particular muscles?” The body builder simply stepped forward and flexed a series of well-defined muscles from chest to calf. The audience applauded. “What do you use all those muscles for?” the host asked. Again, the muscular specimen flexed, and biceps and triceps sprouted to impressive proportions. “But what do you USE those muscles for?” the host persisted. The body builder was bewildered. He didn’t have an answer other than to display his well-developed frame.
Too often Christians are the same way. We focus on our spiritual exercises, giving a lot of time and energy to Bible study, prayer, reading Christian books, listening to sermons and going to church. But we seem to treat these exercises as ends in themselves, instead of as the means to an end that they are intended to be. These exercises of faith are not just intended to improve our pose before an admiring audience. They are not just intended to bring comfort of knowing we are faithful people and giving God our attention. They are not just intended to comfort our own souls.
On the other hand, there is a real danger in downplaying these spiritual exercises also. And there are Christians who fall into this trap. That is the danger of thinking we have advanced beyond the need for these exercises. It is the danger of thinking these exercises of Bible study, prayer and going to church, are really not that important. It is the danger of thinking that what is most important for a follower of Jesus is to be about the work of establishing God’s kingdom here on earth. It is to think that doing the good works Jesus did – caring for the poor, healing the sick, lifting up the downtrodden and oppressed – this is all that matters. It is to be about doing the works of charity as well as the works of advocacy in an attempt to change the unjust systems which make the works of charity a necessity, and only doing those things as I seek to live out my faith.
The danger with this approach is that we can burn ourselves out and become ineffective workers for God’s kingdom if all we do is seek to work and never seek to nurture our spirits. When we do we are like the Bull Moose who ate an inadequate diet during the summer. The Alaskan Bull Moose is an impressive species. The males battle for dominance during the fall breeding season, literally going head-to-head with antlers crunching together as they collide. Often the antlers, their only weapon, are broken. That ensures defeat. The heftiest moose, with the largest and strongest antlers, triumphs. Therefore, the battle fought in the fall is really won during the summer, when the moose eat continually. The one that consumes the best diet for growing antlers and gaining weight will be the heavyweight in the fight. Those that eat inadequately sport weaker antlers and less bulk.
Our spiritual exercises are needed to be sure we are strong enough to carry the day when we face the hard battles of working for justice and spreading the influence of God’s will. Like the diet of the Bull Moose, the practices of Bible study, prayer, worship, are important for the development of our spiritual life and for building strength in our spirits.
That is what the true and faithful servant of God is like. A person concerned with developing the life of the spirit, as well as concerned with doing the works of justice in today’s world. That is the type of person Isaiah describes. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
The servant is called by God to a missionary task – to be a light to the nations – to bring justice. But the servant is not one who does this through self-promotion, nor through coercion. The servant works subtly, gently, yet faithfully. The servant does not give up in despair or discouragement. And all this is possible because God has bestowed the Holy Spirit upon the servant. In other words, the servant and God have a very intimate, nurturing relationship. That is what the spiritual exercises do for us. They nurture that relationship with God and cultivate our hearts and souls to receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
When Isaiah wrote these words, near the end of the exile of the Jews in Babylon, he was probably thinking of Israel, the nation, as the servant of God. He was hoping to challenge them to this type of lifestyle as they returned to the Promised Land after all those years of exile, living in a strange and foreign land. As the disciples and the gospel writers reflected on the life of Jesus and what his life meant they came to understand that, even better than Israel had ever done, Jesus had fulfilled this role of servant which Isaiah described. Jesus was the Servant of God – the One God had chosen, in whom God delighted, and upon whom God had poured out the Holy Spirit, in order that Jesus might begin to bring justice to the nations of the earth. They also came to see that to follow Jesus meant to be called to be Servants of God as well.
The reality is, though, that we are, at best, reluctant servants. That is why, as we have explored already this morning, we struggle to understand that the life of the Spirit and the works of justice are both important. That is why we struggle to keep them in balance and tension, instead of focusing only on one or the other. We view these as two separate activities which we have to do ourselves, instead of viewing them as two aspects of the one activity which God, through the Holy Spirit, is doing through us. Even those of us who seem to come closest to following the example of Jesus in our lives are often reluctant servants.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had his moments of doubt and his times of flagging spirit. I have told the story before and it is well known of the night in Montgomery, Alabama, early in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans when Dr. King received another late night telephone call with a message of hate and threat that he wondered if he could keep going on. Standing there in his kitchen he heard God speak to him, telling him to persevere. In his own words he said: “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
The faithful servant of God knows that the work depends not on his or her own power, but on the power of God, who created the heavens and the earth. The One God who called us to follow Jesus in this work to continue what God began in Jesus. The servant, theologian Walter Brueggeman reminds us, has a different vision from that of the world. “The world is defensive because it believes things must be as they are. … But our vision is different. … We know God’s vision of justice and wholeness will win out, and so we need not be fearful or grim as the world is. We can wait expectantly and not fearfully because we do not doubt that God’s purposes for the world will win out.”
Dr. King reminds us that that alternative vision we have as Servants of God enables us to engage the work of justice, calling our country to a higher, truer vision of what it might become. He said: “Let us therefore not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved country to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”
As we begin a new year, and enter a new era for our nation under new leadership, let us remind ourselves of the importance of embracing both the life of the spirit and the works of justice. Let us seek to stay spiritually fit by concentrating on our spiritual exercises of Bible study, prayer and worship. Let us do so with an eye to our spiritual growth, but also with an eye to the mission of working for justice, to spread the influence of God’s will in our nation and our world. Let us do so with the faith and hope of Dr. King as he voiced in his speech to a national gathering of the AFL-CIO in Bal Harbor, Florida in 1961: “And as we struggle to make racial and economic justice a reality, let us maintain faith in the future. We will confront difficulties and frustrating moments in the struggle to make justice a reality, but we must believe somehow that these problems can be solved. There is a little song that we sing in the movement taking place in the South. It goes like this, “We shall overcome. We shall overcome.” Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And somehow all over America we must believe that we shall overcome and that these problems can be solved. They will be solved before the victory is won.” They will be solved with the strength and power of God’s Holy Spirit working in us as we join together as God’s servants in the life of the spirit and the works of justice.