Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah spoke to the people Israel exiled in Babylon. Defeated, dispirited, they needed no prophetic word of correction, but rather consolation. In God’s name, Isaiah proclaimed, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
God recommissioned the people to be “a light to the nations,” the whole world, to witness to the truth that the quest for salvation, for prosperity and peace involved 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, in the horror of the Holocaust, and unto this day when the bigotry of anti-Semitism still cries, “Christ-killers” – know the cost in suffering and the promise in survival of their witness to the world.
Over 2000 years ago, John the baptizer declared to the people around the River Jordan near Jerusalem what God was doing in Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John witnessed to the truth that the quest for salvation, for healing and wholeness involved sacrifice.
Jesus, through his life and ministry, seeking the least, last, and lost, proclaiming a radical return to the heart of the law of life – love God, love neighbor – and challenging the status quo of the selfish and unshared privilege of secular and religious powers and principalities, charted a course that wended its way to Calvary, ending on a sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death.
Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John. Prophecies of witness. A witness to truth. A truth involving suffering and sacrifice.
“Witness” is derived from the Greek martus, bearing the same root of the word “martyr.” For to witness does not mean to behold a truth with physical sight, but to testify to it, always being prepared to walk toward and, if necessary, through death’s door.
Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John in this weekend when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.; celebrating his life, commemorating his legacy. Nearly fifty years ago, Martin prophesied, testifying to the truth that the American dream of universal equality and the opportunity to enjoy the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was unfulfilled. In bearing, in being that witness, Martin was murdered, martyred.
That prophecy, that dream remains unfulfilled. Today, America is a land where all cannot say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” Where people still are judged not by the content of their character, but by their skin’s color, class status, sexual orientation, gender, or chosen creed; any, all of which able to determine the access or lack to the fullest range of life’s opportunities. Where abiding poverty in a land of abundant plenty still daily crushes the heart of hope. Where presidential candidates still play the “pokered cards” of race, class, and creed hoping to amass the winning number of electoral chips.
Yes, we have made progress. Speaking personally, I will be 65 this year and, in my lifetime, there was a time when I, as an African American cleric, would not have been the priest-in-charge of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina; such was the reigning and restrictive racial divide in our society and in our church. Yet, as there remains much progress to be made, to paraphrase Robert Frost, there are promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.
The bright beacon of Epiphany’s declaration that Jesus’ life and ministry of love and justice are for all people, for the whole world casts its searing, scathing light on the reality that the prophecy, the dream of the universality of equality remains unfulfilled.
The late, great Ronald Stuart Thomas, a Welsh Anglican cleric, is one of my favorite poets. His lucid, austere verse speaks deeply of common human emotions and experiences. In his poem, Judgment Day, Thomas expresses the regret of one who, like the rich man of Jesus’ parable, dead and entombed in Hades, looks up, too late recognizing those who in life were beneath him and thus he never saw:
In health happy, (I was)
Careless of the claim
Of the world’s sick
Or the world’s poor.”
The dream of the world’s least, last, and lost remains unfulfilled. In 2017, how will I, you, we respond so that the regret of Judgment Day never is ours?
me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006, by Walt Calahan
Ronald Stuart Thomas by Christopher Barker
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot
St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy
 From The Declaration of Independence
 See The American Dream, Dr. King’s commencement address delivered at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on June 6, 1961.
 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 for Civil Rights.
 From the poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
 Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)
 See Luke 16.19-31
 From “Judgment Day” (my emendation), R. S. Thomas – Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Giant, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1993), page 105