With the impeachment trial underway and Democratic candidates vying for the top office in the country, we are surrounded daily with reminders of politicians living out their oaths in a number of different ways. At the recent debate for the surviving candidates for the Democratic Party nomination, we saw refused handshakes and heard allegations of lying. Sadly, those campaigning for office have become known more for their mudslinging than for staking courageous claims on important issues. It makes me think of Pilate’s question to Jesus when He was being interrogated through the night of His arrest. At one point Pilate seems to throw up his hands and ask a question either from the gut or in disgust: “What is truth?” It would seem that discerning truth from fake news in political circles has a much longer history than we might have imagined!
In Isaiah 42: 1-9 a description is given of a leader who is identified as the “suffering servant.” His platform of tenderly caring for the least of these is as unusual then as it would be now. Imagine any one of those on the platform last Tuesday night talking about protecting a dimly burning wick from being blown out or a bent reed from breaking in the wind. Political commentators would have a field day with anyone who spoke with such wimpy analogies! Through Isaiah, God calls us to the work of reconciliation and justice. Does this sort of campaign talk get a person elected now? I doubt it. That’s the kind of talk we want to hear from our mothers, coaches or teachers. But when it comes to national security, we value lines being drawn in the sand and tough talks between world leaders. As a country we are divided in what we are looking for from our elected officials.
The middle of the second century Marcion of Sinope set out to assemble a suitable collection of holy writings that depicted God in the light he preferred. He completely ruled out the God of the Old Testament as a tyrant and totally separate entity from the more forgiving God of the New Testament. He only liked the social justice message found in Luke’s Gospel. The only letters he accepted as worthwhile spiritual reading were those of the Apostle Paul. It may have been the first compilation of books that eventually became part of the Bible. But his rejection of all the other writings that had nurtured generations of Jews and a century of early Christians was labeled as heresy. The temptation to rewrite history and only include the parts that validate our personal lives is not new. We certainly do that when we tell tales of family folklore. We talk about Aunt Mable’s meltdown at the Christmas party in the slant of our choosing! History books have ignored stories of people and movements and misrepresented others. Marcion’s evaluation of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t accurate. The God we meet in the Old Testament isn’t simply a God of wrath. We meet the Suffering Servant through Isaiah and begin to understand that this prophet is very much a precursor to the Messiah we so love from the New Testament—Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
In this beautiful passage from Isaiah 42 a song is sung about a new kind of leader. This servant will tend to the needs of those who feel unworthy. God is sending someone who will help a defeated nation of Jews reclaim faith in the powerful God they had abandoned. The good news for a people overtaken by the Babylonian superpower was that a new political reality was on the horizon. It would bring new leadership to usher in an age of mercy and compassion. This was a song of encouragement that could sing a despondent people into reclaiming their faith heritage.
Amidst the mudslinging and Ukrainian crises, there’s Oscar buzz as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces their selection for motion picture awards. Seven years ago an unknown story was recognized as the Best Foreign Feature Film, a documentary entitled, Searching for Sugarman. It told the story of a 70’s rock icon whose name was Sixto Rodgriguez. The sixth child of hardworking Mexican immigrants (hence the first name of Sixto!), he was raised in Detroit where Mexicans supplied the labor force for many of the Michigan industries. They were marginalized and mistreated but worked hard to raise their families. Rodriguez, as he became known, was given a guitar as a young teen and his talent became quickly evident. He played in bars around the Motor City, often timidly facing away from the crowd as he sang songs crying out for justice. It was in one of these dark bars that he was discovered by talent agents who thought that his musical skill surpassed that of a new singer named Bob Dylan. He produced an album that his agent, Harry Balk, thought would take off. Interviewed for the documentary 40 years later, Balk estimated that only six of Rodriguez’s albums sold in the U.S.: six! It was decreed a flop and the rock/folk singer slipped easily into oblivion.
Until…..Until two men from South Africa set out to locate him! What no one in our country knew, including Rodriguez or his agent, is that a bootlegged copy of his album, Cold Fact, made it into South Africa when the birth pangs of the anti-apartheid movement were being felt. His music decried the abuse of authority of the 60’s and echoed his own experiences of being discounted because of his ethnicity. It spoke to a younger generation of South Africans who worked to topple the apartheid government. Rodriguez’s music that was rejected in his own country became the unofficial soundtrack to youth protests halfway across the world. Despite his popularity in Africa, no one could locate the reclusive artist. The assumption was that he was dead, with rumors that he had shot himself on stage. Another story was that he had doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire while performing, dying in front of a packed audience. But a couple of men began to search for him, finding clues in his music that pointed to Detroit of the 1960’s and 70’s. They found a quiet man living in the same home in a run-down area of Detroit which he heated with a wood-burning home. His whole life he had followed the example of his hard-working parents, laboring in a career of demolition and construction work. He learned from these unexpected visitors that his songs had fueled a revolution 8500 miles away!
When Swedish Film Director, Malik Bendjelloul, learned of the story, the work on his documentary, Searching for Sugarman, began. The hardest task initially was winning over the trust of Rodriguez who had no desire to be in front of the camera. Filmed with the harsh scenes of a forgotten city, Detroit is the colorless backdrop to the story of a reticent singer. When he learned that he was legendary in South Africa, he finally agreed to fly there with one of his daughters to share his music. He was 70 years old, beginning to lose his sight and walking with difficulty. They expected to be greeted by small crowds in intimate venues. Instead he sang before sold-out arenas every night with tens of thousands of screaming fans. They couldn’t believe that the political poet they assumed was dead was standing before them, singing the songs that won them their freedom. When asked in the documentary, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know you were a superstar?” he said he didn’t know how to respond to that. His agent filed a lawsuit to determine who benefited financially from the royalties for millions of records that were sold in South Africa without Rodriguez’ knowledge or permission. Rodriguez himself said he doesn’t lose sleep over someone else cashing in on his talent. He doesn’t regret that he could have had a different lifestyle if the money had come his way. With the release of the award-winning documentary in 2012, his story became known. Since then he has sold his 45-year old records and performed all over the world. Much of the money he has made with his new-found fame has been given to family and friends. He has never seen any of the money earned from his music in South Africa but he insists he lives with no regrets. His happiness stems from the fact that his musical self-expression was prophetic to other people who drew strength from his words and ultimately helped to topple a racist regime. One commentator spoke of the magical quality that poets like Rodriguez possess: “He took all that torment, all that agony, all that confusion and pain and transformed it into something beautiful.”
The prophet Isaiah is the political poet who sings a song of justice to the defeated Israelites. The servant who brings promise of demolition of enemies and restoration of their freedom does not fit the mold of a valiant conqueror. John Hayes, in a commentary on this text, writes, “The establishment of justice is to be carried out, not with violence or the use of overriding strength, but through humility, passivity, reserve, and endurance. This contrasts with what is depicted of the ideal king elsewhere.”
Just as we value bold expressions of strength from our leaders, the Jews did not recognize that their plight could be rectified by a gentle, unassuming servant. But this is the identity that Jesus claimed 500 years later. When asked to read from the scriptures in His home synagogue of Nazareth, He chose a Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah. He declared that the prophecy had been fulfilled that very day in Him. In an uproar over this heretical claim, His own community tried to throw Him over a cliff. His campaign for election in the local polls did not go over well so He left, never to go home again!
The Suffering Servant of Isaiah was called to help other nations, not just the Jews. When Abraham was chosen by God to be the Father of a nation, he was told that he was blessed to be a blessing. The songs of the Israelites helped form their identity as the chosen people of God, descendants of Abraham. They were shaped to be of service to the world, not to conquer others. They were to bring release to prisoners and freedom to those held captive. Through their song they were to praise God and bring hope to others. Steve Prince, the MSU-educated artist whose works have been exhibited worldwide, states that even a dirge has two distinct parts to it. The first addresses the sadness and melancholy a people feel for their losses. But a critical second part is the joyful resolution to those troubles by a God who turns our mourning into dancing! As followers of Jesus we know that our identity stretches beyond this lost world and assures us that our home is in a Promised Land that is not controlled or limited by earthly rulers. It’s only in openly processing our losses in the setting of the Church that we can get to the second part of joy in a dirge. Rather than seeking revenge and wasting our lives on regret over how we’ve been wronged, Isaiah invites us to sing a song of God’s powerful presence that flies in the face of business-as-usual. It recognizes the victory that comes from claiming our identity in Christ.
A more contemporary example of that Suffering Servant is the one whose legacy we celebrate today: Martin Luther King, Jr. A little girl wrote a letter to God with a complaint and a suggestion: “Dear God, please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now. Ginny.” But today is MLK, Jr. Day! His birthday fits nicely in Epiphany when we celebrate how God moves among us in our human history. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, King became a political poet whose words ignited a revolution to free his people from racist captivity. The Civil Rights movement named the evil of discrimination but also claimed joy in the expectation that God was with them in their struggle for equal rights. The movement emerged from the Church and Rev. Dr. King preached a message of release for the prisoners. Isaiah’s writing assured King and assures us that God will use a servant people whose power comes from complete dependence upon God. The vision Isaiah paints in his song is so bold that it necessitates a supernatural power that supersedes our human effort. When we unite our voices to express our anguish over a broken world we find hope that cannot be found on our own. Our hymns have the power to sing a transformative movement into being, surprising the world with its force. We can’t claim it. We don’t control it. The God of Jesus Christ enlists the help of a servant people and together we find joy in changing our world!