BRUISED REEDS AND SMOLDERING WICKS
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on March 9, 2014 (First Sunday in Lent/Communion Sunday)
Psalm 40:1-3, 9-11
He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.
14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. 15When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16and he ordered them not to make him known. 17This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
18“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
21And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
– Matthew 12:9-21 (quoting from Isaiah 42:1-4)
Our worship services and sermons for this season of Lent will be based on themes from the book “He Still Moves Stones,” by Max Lucado – a book that a member of our congregation read a while ago and said was very helpful. The title is a reference to the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb where he was laid after the crucifixion (an image of which is on this morning’s bulletin cover). It was a big, heavy thing – it normally would have required several men to move it. But God moved it early that first Easter morning, not so much so that the risen Christ could get out, but so witnesses could get in. That little act of stone moving transformed a situation of desperate grief and hopelessness to one of overwhelming, unbelievable joy.
Well guess what? God still moves stones. Seemingly unmoveable stones from hopeless situations in people’s lives. And that’s what really matters – not so much what amazing thing God did two thousand years ago in a place long ago and far away, but today. Here. In my life, and in yours.
The book begins with the author telling the story of an art exhibit he visited when he had a little free time on a Saturday afternoon. The art exhibit – at the local library – was called “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks.” The title is a reference to the gospel lesson we read this morning, which actually quotes a passage from Isaiah 42. The author of the gospel of Matthew believed that Jesus was the faithful servant of God, longed for by Isaiah, whot would not “break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick.”
And what, exactly are these bruised reeds and smoldering wicks for which Jesus takes such care? They are people, whose lives for various reasons are on the verge of despair — of defeat.
The art exhibit portrayed examples of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks from scripture. (Unfortunately we don’t have the actual images from the art exhibit, but these might give you some idea of what was there):
A painting on an easel on a table: A leper, pleading for help, as others run in fear from him. And the words, “If you will, you can…”
And on the same table, back to back with the first: The same leper, but healed and in good health. The title says, “I will.”
On another table, a painting of a man tortured and tormented by demons. And the caption for the image: “Swear to God you won’t torture me!”
Back to back with that painting is a painting of the same man, but now calmed and at peace. The title of the picture: “Released.”
And so the exhibit went on – around the room. Images of people suffering, and paired with them – healed.
And in the center of the room was a single painting, different from the others. No faces; no people. Just two simple objects – a reed and a wick.
Allow me to read a short portion of the book:
“Is there anything more frail than a bruised reed? Look at the bruised reed at the water’s edge. A once slender and tall stalk of sturdy river grass, it is now bowed and bent.
Are you a bruised reed? Was it so long ago that you stood so tall, so proud? You were upright and sturdy, nourished by the waters and rooted in the riverbed of confidence.
Then something happened. You were bruised….
by harsh words,
by a friend’s anger,
by a spouse’s betrayal,
by your own failure,
by religion’s rigidity.
And you were wounded, bent ever so slightly. Your hollow reed, once erect, not stooped, and hidden in the bulrush.
And the smoldering wick on the candle. Is there anything closer to death than a smoldering wick? Once aflame, now flickering and failing. Still warm from yesterday’s passion, but no fire. Not yet cold but far from hot. Was it that long ago you blazed with faith? Remember how you illuminated the path?
Then came the wind… the cold wind, the harsh wind. They said your ideas were foolish. They told you your dreams were too lofty. They scolded you for challenging the time-tested.
The constant wind wore down upon you. Oh, you stood strong for a moment (or maybe a lifetime), but the endless blast whipped your flickering flame, leaving you one pinch away from darkness.
The bruised reed and the smoldering wick. Society knows what to do with you. The world has a place for the beaten. The world will break you off; the world will snuff you out.
But the artists of Scripture proclaim that God won’t….”
(From the book “He Still Moves Stones,” by Max Lucado (Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson, 1999), p. 6-7)
Most of the rest of the book relates stories of people who were “bruised reeds and smoldering wicks” until God repaired and renewed them. People who were consumed by shame, bitterness, family issues, despair. People who felt as if their lives didn’t matter, left in a bad situation with no choices, wondering if God cared. Because only God can restore and strengthen us when we are so close to giving up. It is the God we worship who gives life and eternal life. All other false gods will drain the life out of us.
In the weeks to come we will take up some of the ways in which we may be in need of the healing and hope that only God can provide. We will consider acts of radical faith; growing old; letting God do what only God can do. We will reflect on facing death, and trusting in God’s grace.
And during this season of Lent, I invite you to consider ways in which your life may be like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick. Where might our church be like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick? And what stones stand in the way of our feeling blessed that seem too big for you to move alone?
Maybe you will want to paint a picture of it, or draw it, or write a poem. If you have a story about how God has moved some stone to bring you a blessed life, perhaps you might share it with us.
And when we arrive at last at Easter, we will rejoice at how God moved a stone two thousand years ago, and brought new life – eternal life – out of death. Only the God of Israel and the God of Jesus can do that. God still moves stones.
Robert J. von Trebra