Commemoration of Florence Li-Tim Oi, Annual Convention, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Nashville

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Is. 52:7).

Our Convention theme this year focuses us on mission, on our the call to be witnesses for the sake of the Gospel; but our first reading at this Eucharist provides a salutary corrective to any notion that God is waiting around for us to get our act together in order for the work to go forward. We’re called to be witnesses, messengers of the Good News, true enough; but it’s really not about us or what we’re going to do. It’s all about God.

God is the chief actor in the Holy Scriptures, which begin with a sentence in which God is the subject. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2). God is the mainspring, the mover and cause. It is God who calls Abraham to leave his home and to begin his journey; it is God who makes covenant with his People, and then calls Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land. It is God who acts; the One who steps onto the stage of human history and starts shaking things up.

Our reading from Isaiah is a case in point. At first glance it’s all about the messenger, the one who brings good news, who announces peace and salvation. How beautiful the feet, how welcome the messenger! If we look more closely, however, we discover that the good tidings are about something that has already happened. “Your God reigns” (Is. 52:7) is the message: present tense, not future. In other words, God has already acted, before the messenger even has time to come to the mark and to begin his sprint. The message is not about something that will happen, about something that remains to be accomplished. God is already enthroned, and the messenger has no other task than to proclaim what has already taken place.

The rest of this prophecy from Isaiah hammers home this truth. Alongside the messenger who brings the good news, there are also watchmen, sentinels on the walls of the city, witnesses to what is taking place. “Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (Is. 52:8). God is the king long before anyone sings his praise. The watchmen are witnesses to what God is doing, to what God is revealing right now. When they look out, they see God advancing, making his move to restore the land and to bring the exiles home. As the prophet says, “The Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Is. 52:9-10).

For Christians, of course, the good news is all about Jesus Christ; about his death and resurrection, which means new life for us. When Jesus gives the commission to the apostles at his ascension into heaven, the work of salvation is done. He remains the chief actor because he is alive, here and now. We are called to be witnesses to him, to share the message of new life in Jesus Christ.

Yet God is not waiting around for us to get our act together, in order for mission to happen. If that were the case, and it were left to us, mission might never happen! Instead of waiting for us to respond to the call, God is already on the move, long before we ever get moving. When we arrive, as witnesses and messengers, God is already there, softening up the ground and preparing the way for the work ahead. The Holy Spirit has already begun to blow where it wills, as it says in the Gospel of John (Jo. 3:8). God is active before we even think about acting.

We think of mission as something we do, as the action of the church, or of some people in the church, but in truth it begins with God, who is the source of all mission. He is the sender, the One by whom we are all sent. Our message is not about us but about what God has done in Christ. This action has theological priority because it has already taken place.

We witness to the work, like the watchmen in the prophecy, as God is revealed in plain sight. As messengers, we don’t so much bring ourselves but rather the good news of what God is doing for us. The spotlight is on God. The Good News is about Christ Jesus, raised from the dead by the power and action of God.

What do you see, watchmen, as you look out at the world around you? Can you see what God is doing? Can you see the God who not only sends us on mission but is engaged in mission himself? He is covering the distance, drawing near to us, and we can see his mighty works in plain sight.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee