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"Gentle Justice + Servanthood, Action + Being Held by God" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

Gentle Justice + Servanthood, Action + Being Held by God

A Sermon for Northminster Church

Preached by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

December 11, 2022

Isaiah 42:1-9

  1. Intro: Beginning this morning with an approach I’ve never used. One that all of the math teachers whose classes I stressed, and cried, and agonized through seemed to prefer.

-not something my preaching professor taught or suggested

- but with this particular church and this particular text it just might work.

-if it doesn’t tell me after, please hug me first.

Going to start by giving you this morning’s Good News here at the beginning and then show my work through the text to get to this point.

Good News: Just as justice and servanthood go hand-in-hand, so too do action and being held by God.

Now let’s talk about how I got here.

  1. Justice and Servanthood

A. Background of text

-Think about the book of Isaiah - it’s long!

-Did you know scholars break it into three sections?

-1st or Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), written by prophet we Isaiah in 8th C BCE - before exile

-2nd or Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), the work of an anonymous 6th-century BCE author writing as the exile was ending

3rd or Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from exile.

-Also timeline to keep in mind:

597 BCE - first deportations from Jewish homeland to Babylon

586 - Destruction of Jerusalem

538 - End of Exile

-All of that matters b/c:

-this text is in 2nd/Deutero Isaiah

-composed by different writer. Not original prophet.

-written as exile is ending.

-people have been exiled approx. 50 yrs.

-this prophet is speaking to a people who’re facing a new way of living. A new way of being the Lord’s people.

-This text is also one of 4 passages known as “servant songs” in Isaiah

B. Who is the “servant” God delights in?

-From various areas of Jewish thinking

4-King Cyrus of Persia who allows Jews to return to Jeru and rebuild Temple.

-unlikely. He’s not the non-violent type!

-Prophet writing about him/herself


-reading preferred by Christians b/c of Jesus

-reason to leave the male language in the reading

-Israelite nation as a whole

-later in chapter 42 verses 18 & 19 talk about sins of servant

-idea being this is an imperfect servant

-Hold onto both Messiah/Jesus option and Israelite nation. Both are helpful ways of thinking through the text because:

-what it means to be God’s servant is specific

-it’s tied to justice

-God “delights” in this servant

C. We’re told the servant will “bring justice to the nations?” What does this look like?

-Probably not what we’re expecting!

-It will be:

-quiet, no screaming or yelling.

-non-damaging, those things and people who’re already bruised and bent won’t be trampled anymore

-gentle, presence will be gentle enough not to extinguish a candle on the verge of going out

-In other words: not blustery, loud justice but gentle justice “that arises from amidst the vulnerable and broken”

-justice that “pays special attention to the needs of the those already broken and bruised”

-justice that takes into account the energy of those who’re faint

-justice “that emerges from those already in need of justice”

-Don’t think gentle justice is weak!

-verse 4: even though justice “faces obstacles, resistance, and great pressure,” it “will not crack” or “give up until things are set right.”

-this is a justice of dogged determination

-it has internal strength, a spine of steel.

D. What about the word “until”?

-Did you catch that?

-hear verse 4 again: And though he faces obstacles, resistance, and great pressure, he will not crack; he will not give up until things are set right.

-small detail, but perhaps “the cost of bringing this justice is the yielding of one's own power. The yielding of one’s own wellbeing, even life.”

-Of course this makes us think of Jesus whose pursuit of gentle justice comes with the giving of his well-being and life.

-But also works if we think of “servant” as people of Israel because it serves as a reminder to us of what pursuing justice could mean for us.

-our reminder of what genuine servanthood to a God who breathes life into this kind of justice looks like.

E. That’s what I meant when I said justice and servanthood go hand-in-hand

-Gentle justice doesn’t just happen, it takes work and time

-Whether it comes through the person of Jesus who we do our best to emulate

-Or through us as the people of God like the Israelites, gentle justice is thoughtful, attentive, and considerate

-requires us to pay attention to those whose strength is almost gone so we can lend them the hand that’s most useful

-to tread carefully with those who’ve been traumatized so that we don’t accidentally re-injure them

-requires us to abandon our egos to serve those who don’t need our voices at full power - even if they’re raised in protest - but at a gentle whisper because their abuser was a yeller.

-Gentle justice and servanthood go hand-in-hand because neither is innerwardly focused but rather outwardly focused toward God and others.

-Gentle justice and servanthood go hand-in-hand because they’re both based, tethered, held together by relationships.

III. Action and Being Held by God

-Move to second half of good news of action and being held by God going hand in hand.

A. Hear verses 5 & 6 again, “God, the Eternal One, who made the starry skies, stretched them tight above and around; Who cast the shimmering globe of earth and filled it with life; who gives breath and animates the people; Who walks and talks with life-giving spirit has this to say: I am the Eternal One. By righteousness I have called you. I will take you by the hand and keep you safe. You are given as a covenant between Me and the people: a light for the nations, a shining beacon to the world.”

-You might be wondering why the prophet has stopped mid-justice conversation to describe God

-remember: end of exile. Jewish people will be restarting.

-new time is about to begin

-God will be with them again as they create new life for themselves

-Also why creation language is used.

-God is a god of creation. She’s an experienced gardener, a veteran mother, the consummate planner. She knows what it is to begin from nothing and create all there is.

-This is the prophet’s reminder of this experience to the people.

B. But most striking portion of this God summary is her description of how she relates to the servant: “By righteousness, I have called you. I will take you by the hand and keep you safe.”

-Sit with that for a minute

- think about how comforting the image of God taking her servants, her people by the hand is

-It’s a parental image, a loving image, a gentle image that comes with a backbone of protection

-Exactly the kind of God that bruised, traumatized people need

-Exactly the sort of imagery that reinforces the gentle justice of the servant

C. With such a loving Holy Parent can there be any other response from the servant beyond being “a shining beacon to the world”? Can the servant do anything other than “open blind eyes so they will see again” or “lead prisoners, blinking, out from caverns of captivity, from cells pitch black with despair?”

-In language that’s reminiscent of Jesus in Luke 4, “God is calling the servant to bring attention to injustice in the world.”

-Why this relationship between blind eyes and imprisonment?

-Likely because “in the ancient world one of the major reasons for imprisonment was debt.”

-This amounts to a debtor’s prison and from the ancient world, such confinement has been used in medieval Europe and the Islamic Middle East.

-Germany finally did away with debtor’s prison in the 1860s

-US - move from Federal to State issue in 1833 with Virginia continuing the practice until 1849

-Greece in 2008

D. Don’t think debtor’s prisons no longer exist in the US

-same concept different form

-NPR reported story of Edward Brown in 2015.

-lived in Jennings, Missouri - outskirts of St. Louis in St. Louis county -City wanted to condemn

the home he’d lived in for 25 years.

-A back injury made it impossible for him to ltend his yard and Brown was cited for his grass being too long. He was also cited for not getting his dog’s rabies vaccine. Eventually house was condemned and not having anywhere else to go, Brown stayed in the home and received another citation for trespassing.

-Owed the city $464, but lived on a $488 budget, so couldn’t pay his fines

-"I went to jail for that," he said in the article. Was jailed multiple times, once for 30 days. Another time 20 days.

-Lest we think this was a single jurisdiction in the greater St. Louis area, NPR did an entire series in 2014 that showed all 50 states charge “a long list of fees for court services, even for the cost of a public defender.”

-As of 2014 Louisiana was one of 24 states that required defendants and offenders to pay for all of the following: electronic monitoring, probation or supervision, public defender or legal costs, roam and board, and had increased civil and/or criminal fees since 2010.

-Series also found “that poor defendants often struggle to pay these court costs — which typically add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars — and that people are sent to jail for not paying, even though debtor's prisons long have been outlawed in the United States.”

-In case you’re tempted to let that “if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime” sort of thinking sneak into your mind, let me remind you that being poor isn’t a crime.

-Even if it was, a 2020 study called “Fees, Fines, and the Funding of Public Services” “by researchers at Yale, Harvard and UC Berkeley law schools revealed that municipalities that rely more on the collection of fines and fees solved violent and property crimes at significantly lower rates than others.”

-Said another way, “Fines and fees do nothing to deter individuals from committing crimes, nor do they contribute to any form of rehabilitation. They are implemented simply to punish individuals and raise money for municipal governments and private companies. Essentially, the reliance on fines and fees has created a system that profits from charging and convicting people of crimes.

-Give you one guess which group of Louisianans are hit disproportionately hard by such fees, fines, and incarceration.

E. The servant’s mandate is to open blind eyes so they can see again

-consider if that isn’t literal, but societal.

-if it isn’t about helping people with vision challenges see but opening eyes of those who are blind to injustice

-to the slightly different form, but still very real presence of debtor’s prison

-to the inequality and racism that’s built into our criminal justice system

-to ways our society is quite content to not just let a culture of poverty exist but thrive

As I said, being held by God and action go hand-in-hand

-in part quite clearly because God tells us she has taken us by the hand and will keep up safe

-but also in the sense that we extend that safety, that special feeling, that security, and the holy spine of steel to others when our eyes are opened

-we must move from being held by God to the action of caring for those who come blinking, out of prison- literal or of their own making.

-Just as gentle justice and servanthood are bound together by relationship, so action and being held by God are bound together by a willingness to be wrong, to admit we always have more to learn, and the determination to make this world God’s world.

IV. On this third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy, let’s find joy in this message of gentle justice.

-Find joy in servanthood, in being held by God, and in taking action.

-For while this is a season of waiting, of anticipation, it’s not a season of inactivity.

-We can still recognize and take part in gentle justice that goes hand-in-hand with servanthood just as action goes hand-in-hand with being held by God.

-That is very good news

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