The people Israel are conquered and taken captive by the Babylonian Empire. Defeated and dispirited, they – in the words of the psalmist, who, recalling a time of past deliverance from trouble – “waited patiently upon the Lord.” Nay, not wholly tolerant of their suffering. For who, in dire straits, is or can be? Nevertheless, they hunger for a prophetic word. Not of correction, directed at their past ills of disobedience unto the Lord. Their suffering hath accomplished that! But rather a word of consolation pointing to their future. So, Isaiah, in God’s Name, declares, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
God recommissions the people to be “a light to the nations.” To be a witness to the world that salvation, prosperity and peace, necessarily involves – paradoxically, given human desiring, yet, given human experience, no less truly – suffering and survival.
History, biblical, modern, and post-modern, confirms that our Jewish sisters and brothers – from their exodus from Egypt, through their sojourn in the Sinai wilderness, their making their home in the land promised unto them by God, their exile in Babylon, their successive oppressions by Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires,(1) through the horror of the Holocaust, and unto this day of the persistent, pervasive, and pernicious bigotry of anti-Semitism – know the cost in suffering and the promise in survival of their witness to the world.
Some 800 years after Isaiah, John the Baptist, declared what God was doing in Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John was a witness that salvation, healing and wholeness, involved sacrifice.
Jesus, through his life and ministry, was a witness to the law of life: Love God, love neighbor. Caring for the least, last, and lost. Challenging the status quo of the selfish and unshared privilege of secular and religious authorities. Thus, charting a course that inexorably ended on a sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death.
Today, we read and hear the words of Isaiah and John who were witnesses that salvation involves suffering and sacrifice.
The Greek word, martus, translated “witness,” also produces the word “martyr.” To witness, meaning more than seeing with physical sight, is to testify to a truth, always being prepared to walk toward and, if necessary, through death’s door.
Today, as we read and hear the words of Isaiah and John, we celebrate the life and commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin believed that the American dream of universal equality to enjoy the Creator-endowed “unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”(2) was unfulfilled.(3) In bearing witness, in being a witness to that truth, Martin was murdered, martyred.
Martin’s dream, our American dream remains unfulfilled. Today, in America, all cannot say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”(4) Today, in America, people, we still are judged not by the content of our character, but by our skin’s color, class status, sexuality, gender, or chosen creed. Any and all of which determine our access or lack to the fullest range of life’s opportunities. Today, in America, yes, we have made progress. Indeed, within two or three generations past, it would not have been possible for me, as an African American, to be your priest-in-charge. Yet, paraphrasing Robert Frost, there are promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.(5)
Today, we read and hear the words of Isaiah, John, and Martin. They summon us, who follow Jesus, to be witnesses. Hearing, heeding their call, let us remember that, short of martyrdom, to be a witness, at the least, means to be an epiphany, a revelation in our words and our deeds of love and equality for all people.
So, my beloved sisters and brothers, go, be a witness!
(1) Persian Empire (538-333 BCE), Greek Empire (333-63 BCE), Roman Empire (63 BCE-313 CE)
(2) From The Declaration of Independence
(3) See The American Dream, Dr. King’s commencement address delivered at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on June 6, 1961.
(4) The closing words of King’s I Have a Dream speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 as the keynote address of the March on Washington, DC, for Civil Rights.
(5) From the poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
The Prophet Isaiah (1866), Gustave Doré (1832-1883). Note: Doré depicts the prophet, during the period of exile in Babylon, kneeling, in the posture of a supplicant, to receive the word of the Lord he will be directed to declare to the people.
Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness (c. 1600), Annibale Carracci (1560-1609)