The Service of God

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In both the Old and New Testament lessons, we hear the word “Servant.” In the Isaiah passage, the prophet is describing the servant of God, and in the Luke passage Mary says she is the servant of the Lord.

 

In order to get a handle on what is going on in these two passages, I am going to do something I don’t normally do in a sermon. I’m going to explain some grammar to you. Some might say “inflict” grammar because not everyone appreciates grammar, but I dare to go where angels fear to tread, so here goes.

 

In Greek and Latin you have your verb tenses and moods, but you also have noun declensions. Nouns are either the subject, the direct object, the indirect object or possessive. The formal terms are the nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. It is the last, the genitive that we are concerned with today. Well at least I am. I hope you are.

 

The phrase “Service of God” or in Greek λειτουργίᾳ Θεοῦ is in what is called the genitive case. Normally that indicates possession. I might talk about “this sermon of mine,” and the words “of mine” are in the genitive. That means it is my sermon or my words. If I say, “This church of ours,” the words “Of ours” is in the genitive, meaning this is our church.

 

So in the phrase “Service of God” the words “of God” are in the genitive case. Here is where it gets interesting, at least for a grammar geek. There are different types of genitive cases. Among them are the objective genitive and the subjective genitive.

 

What’s the difference, you may ask, if you are still awake. Well, I’ll tell you. In an objective genitive, the genitive noun is the object of the verbal idea contained in the noun it modifies; But in the subjective genitive the genitive noun is the agent of the verbal idea contained in the noun modified.

 

Did you get that? Because its very important. It will be on the test.

Let me put it another way. In the Objective, the main noun is doing the action, in the subjective the main noun receives the action.

 

Assuming you are still with me, and just mentally ticking off your grocery list right now, or wondering if I have gone off  my nut, let me tell you why this is important for today’s message.

 

Today we are talking about the service of God. If we look at the phrase as an objective genitive, we are talking about the ways God serves us. We get that in the Isaiah passage. But if we take the phrase, “the Service of God” to be a subjective genitive, we are talking about the different ways we serve God, which we see in the Gospel passage.

 

The service of God, objective genitive—how God serves us.

The service of God, subjective genitive—how God is served by us

 

So let’s look first at the objective genitive, as found in the words of the prophet Isaiah. We start with the prophet introducing God’s servant to us. Now here when I say “God’s servant,” I mean here is the person who was chosen by God to represent God’s service to us. Here is the man who God has ordained to serve us.

 

And what does he do? In the words of Isaiah, he brings justice to the nations. Last week I talked about how we can look around and see what is wrong with the world. Its not hard to see at all. The servant of God comes to bring justice to the nations, to help put everything right. Now anyone who has studied history should be very careful when they hear that. In the French Revolution, they wanted to put everything right. 40,000 deaths later, almost everyone realized that things were worse than they were before. The Bolsheviks in Russia wanted to put everything right. 60 million deaths later, the regime finally fell, and it not much different now than it was before the October Revolution. Mao had the same goals for China, and ten years of the Cultural Revolution in China only produced chaos and an estimated 1.5 million deaths.

 

No, whenever the justice is coerced, it ends up being oppression, even when it is the church that is doing the work. The crusades, the Inquisition, witchcraft trials—the many times in history that the church tried to bring about justice through coercion ended badly for the church and for the people the church was supposed to be serving.

 

But the servant of God is different.

 

So how is the servant of God different? Listen to what Isaiah says;

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;

This is truly God serving humanity. God understands that many of us are bruised reeds, damaged by life in various ways, and we don’t need someone coming in and yelling at us about how we need to shape up our lives. We do need to shape up our lives, but the way to that is not at the sharp end of verbal whip.

 

A smoldering wick he will not snuff out. God knows that we don’t always burn bright with the desire to do the work of God. Sometimes, at best we are smoldering wicks. But does the servant of God look at us with disgust and say, “You call that a fire? A lightning bug has more fire power than you do.” No, the servant of God is not there to castigate, coerce, or cajole us by shame into being better people.

 

What does the servant of God do?

 

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

 

The servant takes us by the hand and leads us to justice, to righteousness. The servant molds us, forms us into the image of God, and we become the means to bring justice, by living it out ourselves. The servant does not overpower us, nor does the servant call us to overpower others. We are a light. And we all know that when a light is overpowering, it is blinding, and serves no useful purpose.

 

We open the eyes of the blind by being a gentle light of righteousness ourselves. We show, in our lives, the joy of God. We serve God. And that brings us to the subjective genitive. (You thought I forgot this was a sermon about grammar, didn’t you? Or at least you were hoping I did!)

 

We are involved in the service of God, by being served by God, but also by serving God.

 

The words of Mary, 38 “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled,” are our words to God as well. We are your servants. Now there were a few words that Mary said that precede these words. “How can this be?” she asked, thinking that God was calling her to do the impossible–in this case bearing a child. Perhaps those are our words as well. How can we serve God. We just want to be a happy, thriving little congregation, doing our part here in our little part of the world. We don’t need…we don’t even want prophecies or miracles, virgin births, visiting angels, visitations in the night by strange groups of shepherds.

 

All of that sounds remarkably… unpresbyterian. And yet, that is how God works sometimes. And as servants of God we partake in the miracles God sends us. Sometimes our service to God is that of being faithful in the face of overwhelming odds. Do you know how few churches in our position are doing as well as we are? We are a downtown, mainline church that does traditional worship, and most downtown mainline traditional churches are dying. But we are faithful in the face of those overwhelming odds.

 

Sometimes the service is to accept the miracles of new birth that God brings us, as Mary did. Behold we are the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto us according to thy word. We are at your service, O God.

 

But how do we serve God?

 

We serve God the way a farmer serves the soil. A farmer has a symbiotic relationship to the soil. The soil sustains the farmer, but the farmer also has to respect the soil. The farmer is subject to the fertility of the soil. Farmers do not force things to grow. They nurture them into growth. They understand the soil, and the miracle of growth. They understand certain things grow best in certain soils; others are just a waste of time. They weed the soil. They understand that the soil is bigger than they are, and the soil is where the real miracle of growth occurs. So they shape the rhythms of their lives around the soil. There is a good time for planting, a time for watering and a time for harvest. The soil, and what grows from it tell us when then those times are.

 

We serve God the same way a musician serves sound and rhythm. The musician who ignores sound and rhythm is just making noise. In order to make music, the musicians have to give themselves to the sounds and rhythms of the universe. They have to serve the elements of their craft.

 

And so, in the end, we serve God even as God serves us. The grammar tells us so.

 

 

The Texts:

Isaiah 42:1-9 

The Servant of the Lord

42 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

“I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”

Luke 1:26-38 

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

 

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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