Isaiah 42

From Isaiah 42: “A dimly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 42:3)

The circumstances are now fuzzy in my memory but there was a time many years ago when I was in a period of spiritual drought: all but a small spark of faith had disappeared, and when lamenting about this to a friend, he responded, “Quench not the dimly burning wick.”

It was a way of saying that even the smallest spark of faith could be enough to sustain a difficult time. Ever since “Quench not the dimly burning wick” has been a phrase that comes to mind frequently—it’s a promise that resounds through holy scripture affirming that which is most fragile or vulnerable will not be destroyed.

God is not done with us even when all that’s left is a dimly burning wick.

These words come to us from the first of four passages in the prophet Isaiah about a saving figure called “the Servant”[1]. Isaiah imagines one who is unlike prophets of old, not crying out in the streets, not shouting, not like a public officer imposing on his subjects nor acting against the poor, but one who is committed to justice and equality for all people. This figure, the Servant, became entwined with the story of Jesus Christ, most notably in the passage from Isaiah about the suffering servant.

The story of Jesus created, in the ancient world, a new form of literature known as gospel. Anthropologist and theologian Rene Girard makes a distinction between ‘gospel’ and ‘myth’[2]. Both arose in the ancient world: the myths, particularly of the Roman Empire told stories of dying and rising Gods, but myth for Girard, originated with those who used violence as their primary form of power, whereas gospel was told from the perspective of the victim, the suffering servant, the one who because of the resurrection is given voice.

The gospel flips the priorities from privileging the entitled to caring for the needs of the most vulnerable. In myth, the dimly burning wick would be extinguished, in gospel it is treasured and kept alive.

I find this contrast of myth and gospel particularly fascinating in light of current events because there seems to be emerging a new version of the myth of the ancient world, one that privileges the powerful and exploits the weak.

It’s a mean spirited myth that divides the world up into winners and losers and regularly ‘others’ minorities and the vulnerable. It’s a version of social Darwinism[3], a survival of the fittest within an economic system that is driven by consumerism: and what’s most troubling about it is that it creates a kind of cultural amnesia—a sense that this is just the way it is.[4]

A couple of examples:

First, as one who lives and works in downtown Vancouver I notice, as many of you do, the filming for movies and television that often takes over whole blocks of the city. There’s a huge crew around, lots of technology, and you know that thousands upon thousands of dollars are beings spent to create a ‘make-believe’ world for the purposes of entertainment. All this often happens right next to where there is abject poverty and homelessness. Yet too often we just dismiss the contradiction, saying that this is simply the way things are.

A second example: all myths have their rituals and the ritual of the myth of social Darwinism is of course professional sports. Now I watch professional sports on TV like many, but sometimes it’s good to step back and observe what is going on. Beyond the athleticism of the players, these so called ‘games’ result in winners and losers, violence is tacitly encouraged cheered on by fans who regularly cheer the winners and taunt the losers. It’s a not too veiled image of the cruel ways of the world, and the violence that too often emerges.

Sadly it’s often the oppressed themselves who get caught up into the power of this ritual and into the assumptions of the myth that generates it. Winning—at any cost—is assumed to be the only thing that matters and lives are diminished because of a perception that one is not on the side of the winners, when you think of yourself as a loser, your world can cave in and you can begin to believe that that’s who you are.

It is not who you are. It’s where the countercultural vision of the gospel can take hold. Myth would extinguish a dimly burning wick; gospel fans it into flame.

The story of Jesus ministry begins not with a heroic act of a brave conquering hero as did many of the myths of the ancient world, but rather with his baptism by John in the Jordan river. He went, as it were, off the grid, away from the Roman armies, the centres of power to an eccentric preacher on the outskirts of town, following not the privileged but the peasants who were longing to be freed from the social and economic oppression of Rome. He goes with the people and rather than dominate, he joins them in their ritual act of purification, of renewal, of cleansing, of a new start. He does not raise his voice declaiming the false promises of the empire, rather he humbly waits his turn and then joins with others being baptized by John.

In Matthew’s account (Matthew 3:13-17) there is a moment where John the Baptist questions why he is to baptize Jesus—but Jesus insists and so John does immerse him in the muddy waters. It is like Jesus himself needed to be awakened by John’s baptism for as he rose out of the water a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” It is an echoing of the first verse of Isaiah’s servant description—“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him.” (Isaiah 42:1)

The Spirit of God rests upon Jesus: he is God’s beloved child and from that moment on what is most compelling about Jesus is that he did not flaunt that identity that was revealed at the moment of his baptism as something unique about him: no.

As Pastor Paul Nuechterlein put it:

It could be said that John the Baptist came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him. And the disciples—Peter and Mary Magdalene and all of them came to see and love in themselves what Jesus saw and loved in them. Throughout his ministry of teaching and healing, Jesus sees the “child of God” in people with such clarity and persistence that they begin to see it in themselves.[5]

It happened first to Jesus at the Jordan just as it happens first to us at the font when it is revealed that we are caught up, not in the myth of empire but in the gospel.

We are not divided into winners and losers as the world would have us think, we do not need to be bound by the dynamics of revenge and violence. We are called to understand one another and ourselves as God’s beloved children, as expressions of the love that is at the heart of the universe.

It is so easy to get caught up in the assumptions of the world that we live in today with its rationalizations for violence, its bloodthirsty calls for revenge and retribution, and its unkind dividing up the world into winners and losers. Gospel presents an alternative vision.

It’s what Bishop Michael Curry calls “the Jesus movement” that sees each human being as God’s beloved daughter or son[6]. It is the way that does not extinguish the smouldering wick but fans it into flame so that we might be awakened to see the world as it is and begin to live into God’s dream of what it might be.

Myth will always seem more powerful than gospel: rather than mass advertising, the Jesus movement is sustained by small pieces of bread and small sips of wine—putting us together again with the one who awakens us to presence and power of God in our hearts and lives.

It’s the language of sacrament that can speak more clearly than any words of preachers or teachers. It’s the witness of scripture, particularly in the servant passages from Isaiah and the Jesus story that gives guidance to us in these troubling times.

So if sometimes, these days, your faith feels like a dimly burning wick about to be extinguished, if you are finding the rhetoric of politicians and leaders shrill and upsetting, if these cold winter days have zapped you of energy, take heart.

Gospel always comes to us as something new. From God’s perspective we are not winners or losers. All people—from every language, tribe, religion and nation—each and every human being is beloved.

So come forward today, receive the bread and wine of this holy communion, know that even the smallest spark of God’s life within you cannot be extinguished by the violence and anguish of the world or by your own lingering doubts or hesitations.

For here, imperfectly but faithfully, we celebrate the God who became manifest in flesh. Here we seek to nurture the spark of divinity within each one of us. Here we pray and work for the peace of the world as we affirm the dignity of every human being.

Using words of Celtic theologian John Philip Newell, let us pray.

To the home of peace
to the field of love
to the land where forgiveness and right relationship meet
we look O God,
with longing for earth’s children
with compassion for the creatures
with hearts breaking for the nations and the people we love.
Open us to visions we have never known
strengthen us for self-givings we have never made
delight us with a oneness we could never have imagined
that we may truly be born of You
makers of peace.[7]


Preached by Dean Peter Elliott
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver BC
January 8, 2017


[1] An excellent interpretation of these passages on the Servant from the Girardian perspective by Dr. Anthony Bartlett can be found here

[2] This distinction between ‘myth’ and ‘gospel’ is summarized here  I am grateful to the exegetical work on lectionary texts offered on this website by Lutheran Pastor Paul Nuechterlein and others.  The introductory section here was foundational to the ideas in this sermon.

[3] An insightful perspective on the implications of the Brexit vote and the results of the US Presidential election is outlined in The Age of Humanism is Ending by Achille Mbembe found here

[4] The notion of ‘cultural amnesia’ is developed more fully in  Gil Baille’s Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads.  New York:  New York, Crossroad, 1995.  Page 130

[5] FULFILLING ALL RIGHT ACTION  Quote from a sermon by Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, January 9, 2011.  Found here

[6] Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, offers his vision of the “Jesus Movement” in a video found here:

[7] John Philip Newell.  Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace.  Toronto:  Novalis, 2011, page 52.