On our second anniversary trip, Banu and I went to the Jersey shore. Specifically, we went to Long Beach Island. We stayed at a bed and breakfast in the cozy little village of Beach Haven. Our anniversary was right after Labor Day, so the tourist season was starting to wind down. There was a huge storm about a hundred miles off the coast, so the sky was cloudy, and the surf was choppy.
photo by Arun Sundar
A key landmark of Long Beach Island is the Barnegat Lighthouse. Upon climbing to the top, I looked over the railing, and as one might expect, it is a challenge for those afraid of heights. (I wasn’t able to see the storm out at sea. The lighthouse isn’t quite that high!)
This lighthouse, like all lighthouses, is built to shine in the dark. It is built to guide ships from running aground, from crashing into the rocks. Its mission, if you want to call it that, is to protect travelers in the dark from harm.
So often, we travel in the dark. We need a lighthouse to guide the way. We are called to be lighthouses for each other, as we travel through perilous waters.
Lighthouses came to mind while I was meditating on Isaiah 42.
That chapter provides one of the best pictures of the grace of being chosen that appears in the entire Bible. It’s a picture of the figure known as the Servant of Yahweh, the Servant of the Lord. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (v. 1a).
Verses 1-4 of chapter 42 present the first of what are called the Servant Songs. There are three more: in 49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12, which is the one presenting the Suffering Servant.
The question has been often asked, just who is this Servant? Some say it’s the prophet himself. Others believe the nation of Israel is intended. And still others, reflecting a Christian interpretation, say the Servant is none other than Jesus himself. One group with a less well-known interpretation, “Jews for Allah,” affirms that the figure in chapter 42 is Muhammad. (I must admit, though; I find their reasoning to be less than convincing!) I believe the prophet and Israel are intended, but the Messiah is able to perfectly live out these statements.
The Servant has a mission. In his commentary, George Knight speaks of the mission as being “meant to sit down alongside the brokenhearted just where they are to be found, [that is], in the mire of this human life of ours; and in this way, by his very presence with them, he will become the instrument by which a strength and hope that is not their own will be transferred to them.”
By renouncing the false strength of violence, the Servant is able to tap into the true strength of God.
The first Servant Song, spoken in the third person, ends with verse 4. At verse 5, God begins to directly address the Servant. This chosen one is set within the context of creation itself. The statement that the Lord “created the heavens and stretched them out” might be considered by some to be poetic flourish. Modern astronomy, however, tells us after some 14 billion years, the universe continues to expand. (Not that the prophet is engaging in a scientific discussion!)
Of course, Yahweh is Lord over more than the vast reaches of space and time, but also of the inner space of the human heart and of the human community. “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you” (v. 6). The Lord’s taking our hand directs our dealing with each other.
The context of creation isn’t simply window dressing; it has real significance. The word used for “righteousness” in verse 6 is צֶדֶק (tsedeq). It comes from a verb whose basic meaning is “to render justice,” or “to justify.” But it can also mean “to make normal.” There’s a whole sermon in that word itself!
So what we have is the God of the cosmos calling the Servant to exhibit justice all over creation. Wickedness—injustice—is abnormal. What is normal is to be in harmony with creation. To be righteous means to deal justly in our relationships: with our God, with our neighbors, with ourselves, with our planet and all it contains.
If it’s true, as I said I believe, that Israel is intended to be the Servant of the Lord, it’s also true that Israel falls short.
On that point, May 14 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the nation state of Israel.
In the current issue of Sapir Journal, there are meditations on verses 6 and 7, as it is translated, “I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you, / And I have grasped you by the hand. / I created you, and appointed you / A covenant people, a light of nations— / Opening eyes deprived of light, / Rescuing prisoners from confinement, / From the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
They are meditations on “A Light unto the Nations,” and what that means for the Israel of today.
The Iranian-American writer Roya Hakakian offers this reflection: “Of all the miracles known to Jews—the burning bush, the parting of the waters, the rain of manna from the sky—the greatest of all was made not by God but by the mortals who envisioned a country out of only despair.”
Well, no doubt that vision was enabled by the divine call “to open the eyes that are blind.”
She continues, thinking of the many divisions among Jews throughout the centuries, “It is in the unceasing emphasis on questioning, even quibbling over, ideas, if only to master the arts of tolerance and temperance.”
When I was a student at Southeastern College [now Southeastern University] in Lakeland, Florida, an Old Testament professor of mine made an enlightening comment. He said when two Jewish people come together, there are three opinions. That wasn’t an insult. It expresses harmony with Hakakian and the unceasing emphasis on questioning—and the light it thereby sheds.
Bari Weiss is the founder of “The Free Press,” a Substack.com publication. She offers her own observation.
“There is a famous teaching attributed to the 19th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim that has stayed with me since I learned it as a kid.” She recalls, “Bunim teaches that every person should keep two scraps of paper in her pockets. On one scrap, in one pocket, a line from Tractate Sanhedrin: The whole world was created just for me. On the other scrap, in another pocket, Abraham’s words from Genesis 18:27: I am but dust and ashes.
“In low moments, we need the Talmud to remind us that for our sake the world was made. At other times, we need Bereshit to bring us back down to Earth.”
Since its founding in 1948, the nation of Israel has been in an almost constant state of war, to one degree or another. There are complicated reasons for this, and there is plenty of blame to spread around.
(Here’s a side note about the Palestinians: about 5% of them are Christians, and they exercise an influence greater than their numbers might suggest. The Arab church can be traced back to the first century.)
Weiss resumes, “On the one hand, a nation like any other—screwing one another, screwing it all up. On the other, a Jewish state set apart—an ancient promise by God to the people of Israel. On the one hand, a reminder that we Jews are just people. On the other, an aspiration as high as the heavens—a vision of a nation capable of lighting up the dark.
“These days, like so many Jews in Israel and around the world, I find myself reaching for the pocket with Isaiah’s words, praying that Israel can make itself worthy of that vow.”
I’ve taken the time to address this special anniversary due to the deep ties between Judaism and Christianity, despite whatever approval or disapproval we might have with the Israeli government.
Still, there is the call to let light shine, be it by prophet, nation, or Messiah.
["Simeon in the Temple" by Rembrandt]
To that point, Luke 2 speaks of the dedication of the infant Jesus in the temple. Simeon, a man great in years and in righteousness, welcomes Mary and Joseph. Taking the baby into his arms, he proclaims, referring to himself, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word” (v. 29). During his long life, he has known by inspiration of the Spirit, he would not die before encountering the Messiah.
There was the promise his eyes would see the Lord’s salvation “which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (vv. 31-32).
Not only is this Lord of light the Lord of creation, as noted earlier, but also the Lord of history. This one is the Lord of time. Verse 9 in the Isaiah text proclaims, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
We’re prisoners of the moment. We are captives of the moment. We have only the present in which to act. The past is forever locked away, beyond our ability to change it. And as for the future: whether it’s five seconds, five days, or five centuries, it’s always beyond our reach. Tomorrow never comes. That is, until someone figures out time travel!
But part of the good news of being chosen by the Lord of time is that we can trust that future. We’re called to be faithful now, in the present. We’re guided by one who has journeyed beyond the divide, beyond the final tomorrow of death, and has come back to us.
The Lord, the one “who [has] created the heavens and stretched them out, who [has] spread out the earth and what comes from it,” has given “breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it” (v. 5). The Lord has given the life force to we mortals. That life is the light of the world.
[Hale-Bopp Comet, 1997, "The Lord created the heavens and stretched them out"]
We have now entered a time in our nation, in our congregation, in our own lives, how we will choose to be the lighthouses for the Lord or if we will choose to be lighthouses.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, Iyar is the biblical month of healing. It is also the biblical month of transition. The question is, will we transition to the path the Lord has prepared for us?
Will we let light shine; will we allow it—as was the calling of the prophet… as is the calling of the nation… and as has been our calling of followers of the Messiah?
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.
 George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 73.