Tomorrow our nation will observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born on January 15th in 1929. He died at the hands of an assassin in Memphis just over 39 years later. It seems safe to say that things have not been the same since, not exactly. I can’t help but wonder what King would think of the present situation, not least the Impeachment of Donald Trump. But somehow I think he might be even more focused on voter registration and the full restoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which his life, preaching, and witness were so instrumental in passing.
As we begin the period of the year still considered “ordinary time,” which may take a bit of stretching to accommodate in days to come, the figure who dominates our scripture readings is another social and spiritual reformer, the man known forever as
John the Baptist, the “forerunner.” St. Paul does not mention him in his letter to the Corinthians, but the call-out regarding the grace and peace of God casts light on the passage from Isaiah applied here to John, “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 make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” [Isaiah 49:6].
Next week, the focus on Sundays will shift to the teachings of Jesus. But John mattered, especially to Jesus. And so we pause to consider him and those like him who prepare the way.
The first two readings remind us that God lifted up Israel and then the New Israel, the community of Jesus Christ throughout the world, to be a light to the nations. Sometimes that light seems to falter and even to fail, but it will not be extinguished. Whether we will add to its brightness and light up the world, as Dr. King did, or forget the gospel in our enthusiasm for amusements and entertainment is up to us. As King reminded us in his address to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington on Feb. 6, 1968, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Like John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the Light himself (see John 1:8), but gave witness to the light and so helped scatter the darkness of the times. Like John, he paid for his testimony with his life. Nor did John or King end the darkness, which, as it does, returned and pressed ever harder against the Light. In terms of King’s struggle, de facto segregation still prevails in great American cities; minority voter suppression and disenfranchisement persist in several states; disproportionate law enforcement, sentencing, and incarceration exist in much of the legal system; violence and fear darken the lives of citizens trapped by poverty and discrimination; and war itself, which King was addressing that day in 1968, less than a month before his martyrdom, continues to threaten and scar the world. But the struggle for justice and peace goes on. It does so because of the work and witness of prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who continue to bear testimony to the Light that scatters the moral and political darkness of our era.
“I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation” [Psalm 40:8-10].