Today we are looking at the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 19, 2020. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and John 1:29-42. Today I’ll be focusing on the first two readings.
The prophet Isaiah writes,
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.’
In language reminiscent of Psalm 139, the prophet proclaims that God knew him before he was born; that God in fact called him before he was born. God made his mouth to be like a sharp sword, honed and filled with God’s word.
Then the prophet continues,
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.’
What faith this prophet has! He truly believes that God has made him. He truly believes that God designed him to be who he is, and that the setbacks he has experienced are not a sign of failure. Indeed, he puts his trust in the Lord, and trusts that the God who made him will continue to recognize him for who he is.
What amazing faith. Isn’t that a piece of the faith we try to share today? Don’t we still, thousands of years later, try to get people to believe that God made them? To believe that God knew what God was doing while making them? That God always has a plan for them, and gave them gifts and talents precisely for this reason? Paul builds on this in today’s second reading:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Because of the grace that has been given you. What good news for people who doubt their worth!
And what tragic news for people who know, beyond doubt, that they are worthless. People like me, some of the time. Depression makes it clear, crystal clear, that there is something wrong with you. Very little is crystal clear to someone in the midst of a deep depression, but there is one thing: something is wrong with me. I am made wrong. I am broken. I lack something that others have. And it’s not that I’m sad. It’s not that I lack happiness. It’s that I lack a component part that would make me a productive member of society. I lack a crucial piece that would make me worthy of love. I lack something, something, something that means that I will not achieve anything, and cannot, and was never intended to.
Someone in the midst of a depression may hear Isaiah and Paul here, where they say that God has given you spiritual gifts from before birth, and respond, “This message is not for me. I am the exception. I am the one God messed up with. I am the reject.” Science has taught us that mental illness is often, if not always, a congenital disease, and that there is a strong genetic component to it. This means that someone who lives with, say, depression, can accurately point to the womb, and say, “That is where I developed this disease. That is where my troubles began. From the very beginning. From before I was born.” Neither Isaiah nor Paul would have conceived of this. For them, mental disorders were likely fleeting problems caused by events, or in worse cases, possession by demons. But in our scientific understanding today, it seems like we are made this way. We are made diseased. We are made disordered. We are made broken. And it is hard to hear words like this spoken to us. Are Isaiah and Paul merely speaking to others, the better ones? Is this a message just for the perfect people? If so, then I do not belong. I do not belong in the church. I do not belong to God. I am, like I always thought, useless.
Or perhaps Paul and Isaiah were speaking to us all, and they just didn’t know that God dropped the ball with me. That God made me wrong. That God cast me off, and I am here on earth as an anomaly, not as a clay pot, but as a pile of broken molding clay pieces.
The message that I need to hear today is that God did not make me wrong. God made me right, but the broken world we live in has caused things to go wrong. Just as some people are born with a congenital heart condition, or born with a condition affecting their limbs, I was born with a brain condition. A brain defect that unfortunately helps me to believe things about myself that are so damaging, so hurtful, so wrong in the eyes of the God who made me. I need to hear today that what is wrong with me is something I can overcome, because God nonetheless has a plan for me, a role for me. I need to hear that my brokenness is not my identity, that my identity is deeper than that, more than that, fuller than that. I need to see that God offers me healing, and that that healing may not look like I want it to look. But it will be healing.
Texts like these two are the ones that people with mental illness need to hear some commentary on, commentary that gives real hope to someone who knows the pain of hopelessness.
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