The Politics of a Dimly Burning Wick—Isaiah 42:1-9 (Amy Allen)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In Isaiah 42, the prophet speaks both of the vulnerability of a dimly burning wick and the great light of the world. Understanding the relationship between these two images can provide us with hope and insight as we seek justice in our situations.

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.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
7   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

This week, in the wake of two weeks worth of debate, demonstrations, and most tragically, destruction following first the Ferguson, MO verdict and then also that in the Eric Garner case, I am drawn to the words of the prophet: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). Certainly there are bruises this Advent that need to be healed. I pray there is also hope that continues to shine.

In my liturgical tradition, we observe midweek Vespers during the season of Advent. In that service, the reading of the Scripture is followed by the passage from John, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). At the close of day, sitting in a darkened sanctuary, meditating on the flicker of the candles in the Advent wreath, I have always pictured John’s light as the sort of “dimly burning wick” Isaiah speaks of. And yet, I tell my catechesis students week after week that Jesus is the Light of the World, comparing his brightness to that of the sun.

So where is the disconnect? Which is it—a flickering candle or a glowing orb? Is Christ present in our world, bringing peace, healing, and reconciliation? Or are we so bruised and torn apart by division and sin that the hope of Christ’s gospel barely manages to stay alight?

In this week’s reading, Isaiah reminds us that it doesn’t have to be an either-or. God’s Servant, whom Christians name Christ, is not the dimly burning wick. He is the Light of the World, and shines with the very Spirit of God (Isaiah 42:1). Yes, Christ is a brightly glowing orb, and Isaiah tells us,

“He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching” (42:4).

So what then about the flicker? That is us. We are the bruised reeds and, in our better moments, the dimly burning wicks. We are the fragile light that breaks into our world’s divisions and darkness. Or at least that’s what God calls us to be—what Christ promises to nourish, and never to break or extinguish.

We live in a dark world. A world in which people are judged because of the color of their skin. A world where people are pushed so close to breaking that they feel that violence is the only answer. A world where truth is not so easy to discern. A world where “justice” means different things depending upon one’s partisan values.

And yet, into that world God comes. Into that world, Christ shines a light—through his own life and death, but also through the lives of all those who come to believe through him. The tiny flicker of hope and goodness and righteousness amid a world of darkness.

But God does not stop there. God does not just promise a flicker. God sends God’s Son—the orb—into our world with the promise both that he will sustain our individual lights, but also that he will fan the flame. That Christ will not stop until justice—real justice—has been won.

I began my observance of this Advent with the words of two “Advent calendars” in my heart. The first was the paper calendar of my seven-year-old daughter. Opening the first little perforated door of her Advent calendar last Sunday, she read to me the words of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The second was posted on Facebook by a friend and ministerial colleague, Rev. Tom Gaulke, who has begun the tradition of posting “Advent rants” for his congregants and friends. He writes,

We must be careful not to give false hope to Christians (or to anyone) by supplying pietistic “cures” for social ills. Prayer for forgiveness will not eliminate oppression. It just won’t, ever. Changing six light bulbs will not solve global climate change. Individually deciding not to shop at one store or another will not earn workers rights. It might alleviate guilt, but mistakenly. And guilt isn’t the central problem here. Oppression is. Systemic oppression. A corrupted, broken system. Organized people calling for or creating systemic change—replacing the system from which these abuses are birthed is the deeper struggle. It is difficult. It requires relationships and communities and hard work. That hard work is needed. A society that enables abusers and users (corporations and the ultra-rich) to kill and abuse and devalue the poor and people of color, sacrificed either for profit, or lack thereof, is an unjust, immoral society. Repentance is not prayers for grace, or even peace, but rather, a radical reorientation, a recentering, a New Creation, a “New Heavens and a New Earth.”

This is the lasting justice that Isaiah is after. It is the hope and the “great light” with which Christ’s orb shines. And, when we work towards it—when we work towards the real change that our world needs—it is the tiny flicker that Christ promises never to extinguish. A hope that God’s Servant and all of God’s servants together can fan and grow into a mighty flame of righteousness and salvation.

Photo: Dread Scott Flickr – Creative Commons

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