Sermon for Epiphany 1 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is the twelfth of January; how many of you have already failed in your New Years’ resolution? I’m sure I would have done by now if I made New Years’ resolutions. I’m generally a little better with whatever Lenten discipline I take on than I had been when I still made New Years’ resolutions, but only a little. Thus, the words of the prophet Isaiah are a tremendous comfort to me: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” What precisely this means may not at first be obvious, so let’s consider these two images.

A reed, you may know, is a type of tall grass that grows in wetlands and which was (and sometimes still is) used for various purposes- boats and houses among them. Until the middle ages replaced it with parchment and vellum, papyrus reeds also served as the primary material for writing surfaces. I just learned this week (to my embarrassment, because it seems like the sort of thing I should have known already) that the heavenly paradise of ancient Egyptian mythology, Aaru, was conceived of as an endless field of reeds.

So, this type of grass was extremely important to ancient people. But a bruised reed would not have been useful for any of the applications I just mentioned. Particularly if you were building a boat or thatching a roof with the stuff you’d expect it to be strong and watertight, so you’d simply dispose of the weak reeds, maybe feeding them to your livestock, but certainly not building anything with it.

And what of the dimly burning wick? You might be thinking of a candle, but that’s an anachronistic assumption. While tallow candles may have around at this point (beeswax candles wouldn’t become popular for another millennium) they were expensive, didn’t give off much light, and smelled awful. The prophet here is, instead, referring to the linen wick placed in a stone or clay oil lamp.

These little lamps had been around for thousands of years and would continue to be the most popular sort of lighting for hundreds more. They were ingenious and ubiquitous (which is why you see so many of them in museums today). You’d fill them with olive oil and they’d burn bright and clean. However, if the wick were at the end of its usefulness the opposite would be the case- it would burn dimly and it would give off smoke. There would be nothing for it but to throw it away and replace it.

So we see here two images of things which have lost their usefulness. They are, in other words, broken. And we, too, are broken. Yet the promise God gives us in Isaiah, and which Peter proclaims to the Gentile Centurion Cornelius and his family in this morning’s lesson from Acts, is that our only judge, the judge of the nations, revealed as such in his Baptism in the Jordan, judges us gently and mercifully because we have come to believe.

And this is about a more fundamental brokenness than our slipping on a New Years’ Resolution or a Lenten discipline or continuing in a bad habit or a pattern of selfish thoughts. Those moments of weakness are reminders of the Law which convicts us and of the flaw in our nature, orginial sin, which binds us and of our need not to “be better” but to be forgiven.

I’ve said plenty of times in this pulpit that this is not an antinomian (that is, lawless)approach, because I do believe that the sanctification which follows from our being justified in Christ, not only permits us to live more faithfully and obediently, but actually enjoins on us the obligation to do good works. That said, before this becomes even a possibility, we must recognize that we cannot do it on our own because we are, like the bruised read or the dim wick, fundamentally broken.

It is often said that the church is “not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners,” and I think this is even more true than the cliché is often credited as being. Most of the time we go to hospital because we think we’re sick. But when we get there we usually expect treatment that will make us better. Not any doctor or nurse I know would respond to a patient saying “I’m ill or injured” by saying “well, so is everyone else in this hospital. What of it?” No, we generally expect (with the exception of end-of-life care, which again proves the rule) that some restoration of health is the goal.

Both the prophet and Peter recognize and proclaim that God’s chosen comes to preach and establish peace and justice. Redemption is not just a “get out of hell free” card. It is that, but it is more. It is also the promise that we can ourselves be a people of peace and justice, that our justification can lead to sanctification, that even though we cannot build the City of God (bad, semi-Pelagian modern hymns notwithstanding) we can come to live in such a way and even to work for the kind of positive change that can make this old world look at least a little bit more like the Kingdom Christ himself will come and establish.

In other words, in Baptism and in the life that follows from the acceptance of God’s grace, we find that we who were the bruised reed or dim wick and were spared, have been changed into something new and useful and beloved in this life as a foretaste of the perfect life of the world to come.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.