The Lord said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." - Isaiah 49:3
God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. - Romans 11:2
Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:145-152; 1 Kings 1:1-27; John 11:45-57
Today's verses, like yesterday's, refer to Isaiah's "suffering servant" theme. The image of the servant has multiple layers of meaning: Is it the prophet? Is it the nation of Israel? Is it the Messiah? Yes, all of the above. All these people identify with the call and the price of being God's servant. Today, the choice of Romans 11 for a matching New Testament verse highlights what it means for Israel. Romans 11 is an important chapter in the Bible, arguing against a view that Christianity and Gentiles have superseded or replaced Israel in God's plan. Paul, who refers to Israel both as "my people" and "them," implying a conflicted relationship, uses the image of the Gentiles as a tree grafted into the tree of Israel. Whatever blessing we have, we have because God has first blessed, and continues to bless, Israel.
Today's John 11 passage also illuminates how this works. After he raises Lazarus from the dead, Jesus becomes the object of controversy. Everybody on both sides is part of the nation of Israel. Some choose to follow Jesus. The authorities choose to do whatever it takes to stop him:
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. - John 11:45-52John points out the irony in Caiaphas' statement. He meant that for "one man to die for the people" would mean getting him out of the way, so that their familiar arrangement with the Romans wouldn't be disturbed. Out of fear, or possibly out of greed for the way his class of people profited from the arrangement, he chose collaboration with oppressive military and political power, over the new thing God was doing in Jesus. John, of course, knows that for "one man to die for the people" really means that Jesus' death and resurrection would come to be the transforming act of God not only for the people of Israel, but for all people.
This is John's way of showing how Jesus fulfills the "suffering servant" theme. Just a few verses after today's Old Testament verse, we hear God's call to the servant:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. - Isaiah 49:6So for all Israel, for Jesus, and for all Christians of any nation who bear his name, our identity as part of God's people is to do more than claim God's blessings and benefits. We are "blessed to be a blessing." With the blessings, we also take the call and price of being God's servant. We carry on this act of God, shining a light for all nations to see, for the sake of God's salvation for all.
Again, I think of the American election coming up in a few days, and especially the rhetoric about "making America great." For Jews and Christians, and for all who claim the values and principles under which America was founded which grew out of Judeo-Christian beliefs, the one definition of "great" that really matters is God's definition. How great are we at fulfilling our call? How great is our commitment to justice, freedom, equality, and opportunity - not only for ourselves, but for all people? How great are the lengths to which we'll go for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all people?
We always stretch the meaning of the word "nation" when we take the words of the Bible and apply them to our country in our time. But if we're going to do it, let's at least get the whole picture of what it means to be a people collected under God's blessings, and realize that part of that identity lies with shining out, extending the blessings to the world. That's what greatness means for any nation. May we grow greater in the blessings and actions that matter to God.