“He put a new song into my mouth…”

Epiphany II, Year A

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.

But I said, I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,

to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,

for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength–

he says,

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,

to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,

Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,

because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.

Isaiah 49:1-7

About year ago, Pete Townshend, the front man of iconic rock band The Who, on the eve of releasing an album for the first time in decades made a rather stunning proclamation: Guitar-based Rock n Roll is dead.[1] More specifically, that there are so many talented guitar players today, a quick YouTube search can yield millions of results of people in bedrooms playing jazz more complex than Django Reinhart or Wes Montgomery could have ever imagined, people playing blistering shred solos more complex and virtuosic than Eddy van Halen or Steve Vai had ever played, yet their only stage is their basement, bedroom, or garage. The talent that would have led to these people being legends in the music industry playing to stadiums filled to the brim with thousands of fans, have been regulated to hobbyists. What could have caused this sad state of affairs? It’s quite simple, we’ve all heard it before. At least that’s what Pete Townshend concludes in the interview. For someone who has built his career on guitar-based Rock n Roll, in 2019 he concluded that the guitar was out of possibilities. Everything on the instrument has been done, and by extension, Rock n Roll is dead.

It’s rather disheartening news for all of us hobbyist guitar players, who fell in love with the instrument by listening to classic bands like The Who and wanting to play their music. What’s worse, Rock and the guitar[2] have both been declared dead for the last twenty years.  No less that 17 iconic rock stars have declared the genre dead at various points between 2000 and 2019.[3] Blame is pointed everywhere, from those same iconic artists selling out, to the rise of Hip-hop and Electronic Dance Music, to like Pete Townshend suggested, the guitar simply being exhausted as an instrument. Some even blame younger rock acts such as Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, and Greta Van Fleet for not being innovative enough, simply cashing in on nostalgia. If any new act that dares to appeal to a classic style of Rock n Roll is dismissed as Dad-Rock.

As you can imagine, or perhaps you feel it yourself, there is much handwringing, wailing and gnashing of teeth among guitar players and Rock fans alike. There is a stirring, a clamoring among a people and genre in exile for a hero, a new Chet Atkins, Van Halen, or Jimi Hendrix, anyone to say something new and innovative to give hope to fans who mourn their music’s fall from grace. In a stale, unjust, unchanging world, we cry out for a voice to speak of redemption. We need a prophet to save us.

Trouble is, Rock n Roll fans aren’t the only ones who are clamoring for a prophet. Around every corner, every internet forum, every meeting of like-minded people, every community, there is a sense of unease, a sense of frustration, that something has got to give. That for every step forward of progress that is made, two steps are taken back. Or as the tired saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or if you want to get Biblical with this sense of frustration, There is nothing new under the sun.[4]

Blame is passed around everywhere, depending on where they stand on the political spectrum, or their personal theory of economics and/or moral philosophy, people will blame the Devil, Big Business, Politicians, or even the wickedness of human nature. Proposed solutions are just as diverse: If we could just get money out of politics we would be so much better off, if people would stop being so selfish we could fix everything, if we just went back to the old days, when people had real morals and convictions, everything would be better, if we could just get people to get off their stupid phones and really talk to one another… In a world full of partisanship, tribalism, echo-chambers, and diverse opinions, one thing we can all agree on is that things are not as they are supposed to be. This is not the best of all possible worlds. It is stale, unjust, unkind, and the evil that persists refuses to budge. Collectively we are frustrated, and we lash out against one another because no matter what direction we take, nothing seems to change. In many corners people are looking for a prophet, someone to take a heroic stand, speak the truth, and motivate real change. We look for our prophet in politicians, in celebrities, in authors, in scientists, in journalists, in artists, even rock stars, but where we look there seems to be no prophet around.

Or maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong places for a prophet. The fallacy of the frustration we are experiencing is that we keep hoping God will rise up, or at least choose from among us, a great individual who with sweeping charisma, skill, and influence, will be able to fix all of our problems for us. How many stories are there in the Bible after all where a hero rises and saves the day? We want a king David, a Moses, a Samson, a Superman to save us from ourselves. But if you pay attention to those stories, these powerful heroes are not always admirable or even heroic. Sure, they make great change, but there is always a shadow, something imperfect. Most importantly, though they may be leaders with great power, they never achieved their victories alone.

If not in some superman or übermensch, where will we find the prophet we so desperately need? What manner of a man is a prophet anyway? The prophet Isaiah tells us what a prophet is, he says:

 Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

Like we have always suspected, a prophet is someone called by God, even before their birth, to speak sharp truth. That is, someone God chooses to tell the world how God has always intended for it to be. This is someone who is brave enough to speak against evil in all forms, uncompromising in God’s love for humanity and intolerance of injustice and unrighteousness among people. As we go on Isaiah laments how difficult and unrewarding the task really is. He says,

But I said, I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.

Even an eminent prophet like Isaiah shares our frustration with the world. A prophet is someone who sees the world through God’s eyes, and wishes to raise it to what it was always meant to be. Or in the words of God to Isaiah:

…I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth…

So far, none of this is very surprising. This is everything we would expect when we think of what a prophet is. And it is these very expectations that cause us to ignore what a real prophet is. In this case, who God is speaking to:

…And he said to me, You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified…

A prophet isn’t a superman, an übermensch, or someone with super-human charisma or influence, there is no one prophet, there is only a prophetic people. In this passage, God is not only talking to Isaiah, but to all the Israelites. When Isaiah says he was called to be a prophet before his birth, he wasn’t making a claim that he was somehow special or better than anybody else. He was called before his birth because he was born into a prophetic people. The people that God chose to light the way for the rest of the world, to lead the whole world to God.

We are frustrated with the world because our problems are too large for one individual, no matter how skilled or heroic. And as much as we would like for someone to solve all our problems for us, we are the ones God has called to be his prophets.

But what if we aren’t enough? That is the lingering fear of all the prophets. What if we do everything we can to make the world better, to bring God’s kingdom on the earth, but we aren’t strong enough? Thankfully God has freed us from this fear through Jesus. Through Jesus’ defeat of death, we know that we have won. That through Christ, all goodness, all hope, all prophecy, all acts of kindness and love, no matter how small, build up God’s kingdom. Thy kingdom come may come long after any of us, but through the Resurrection we know it is coming.

In this season of light, this time of Epiphany, and at all times, take heart and prophesize! You are the light of the world, let your light shine!  Rejoice as the Psalm proclaims:

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 40:3

[1] https://www.guitarworld.com/news/pete-townshend-todays-players-have-literally-exhausted-the-possibilities-of-the-guitar

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/the-slow-secret-death-of-the-electric-guitar/

[3] https://ultimateclassicrock.com/rock-is-dead/

[4] Ecclesiastes 1:9

One thought on ““He put a new song into my mouth…”

  1. Joseph,
    Thanks for posting your sermons! I appreciate them! Sermons are really lacking down here!
    May all the negative energy bringing you down come to an end.
    May the dark thoughts the overthinking, and doubt exit your mind.
    May clarity replace confusion.
    May hope replace fear.
    May the light of your spirit shine so bright that nothing dims your glow!

    Like

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