December 19 Lesson: The mission of the servant


By Rev. Teresa Edwards

Isaiah 9:7, 11:1-8, Matthew 1:18-25

On the very day that I write these words, people across our nation are voting. How do we decide who to vote for with so many complex issues and choices? No matter where your personal party line falls, voters support leaders who promise to serve with justice and righteousness as their guides. Is there a man or woman on the ballot who can lead with justice and righteousness, who can bring about peace? While human leaders often fall short, Isaiah reminds us that there is one who comes to bring true and lasting peace.

Earthly king or long-awaited messiah

Isaiah’s familiar words take us straight to Christmas. Each Advent, the faithful read these passages, anticipating the birth of Christ, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic promise. Surely righteousness, justice and peace describe the Jesus we meet in the gospels.

Yet for the first hearers of Isaiah’s prophecy, another image arose. Those who initially heard these words expected a king who would bring back the united Israel, which seemed like such a hazy dream. The Israelites faced the threat of the Assyrians in the Northern Kingdom and many years later the Babylonians in the Southern Kingdom. They needed this Godly king, who could bring justice, righteousness and peace.

So how do we read these texts? Do we see only Jesus in Isaiah’s words instead of a wise and Godly human king? Might we take up the position of those first hearers who could barely dream of a messiah and instead sought an earthly king? "In the eighth century BCE, the words were uttered about the birth of a specific king in Judah, subsequently applied to other kings and even later to an expected messiah. The early church heard that promise and saw it fulfilled in Jesus, and Christians at worship will hear these words as proclamation of the birth of Jesus. All that is as it should be, for this ancient song helps faithful Christian hearers understand the meaning of Christmas." ("New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Volume VI")

As we study, let us keep one eye on the Old Testament lesson and one eye on our New Testament understanding.

Justice, righteousness and peace

Righteousness, justice, and peace – all words that describe the kind of leaders we are looking for and the kind of people we want to be. Yet so often we fall short of these lofty and desirable words, as do our leaders. Isaiah celebrates a leader who brings all these dreams to life. "His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore." (Isaiah 9:7)

So what do these words really mean? In the Old and New Testaments, righteousness conveys a twofold meaning based in relationship. In the language of the law, righteousness points to ethical and fair behavior. In relationship to God, righteousness points to a covenant connection with God which directs how we relate to God and one another. This word communicates far more than right and wrong.

Today the word justice usually means retribution. When justice is done, people get what they deserve! Yet, justice casts a much larger shadow in the Biblical world. "Biblical treatments of justice often challenge inequitable distribution of such goods on behalf of the poor or other disadvantaged persons." ("New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 3") In a world where justice reigns, all people receive fair treatment, not just fair punishment.

We long for peace in our world, homes and hearts. Peace is the translation of the Hebrew word shalom, meaning well being or wholeness. In the Biblical sense, peace communicates more than the absence of war. It declares that all people living in God’s world experience life fully.

In a world where peace reverberates, justice and righteousness flow naturally. The exiles want a human king who brings all this to fruition. As Christians, we know that Jesus comes to usher in that kingdom. "Jesus is the model of the ultimate peacemaker, always pointing to Abba as the source of peace, justice, goodness, mercy, love, creativity. In order to claim peace, we must relinquish our own private agendas and let ourselves be claimed by God." (Henri Nouwen: "Writings Selected With an Introduction by Robert Jonas")

Mother Teresa gives advice for practicing the peace we receive in God. She advises: "Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at all. Do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light his light …" In this hurried Advent season, even a simple smile extends peace to a harried salesperson or co-worker and brings peace to our souls too. "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

Matthew tells a story about a child who is born. This child, this very Son of God, makes possible a vision of a peaceable kingdom where justice and righteousness reign. When wars and injustice become too much to bear, when human leaders disappoint, when we the believers fall far from grace: all we need to do is look for His star glimmering brightly in the night sky. In that star, the promise of peace still shines.

Rev. Teresa Edwards is the associate pastor at Forest Hills UMC in Macon. E-mail her at