Christopher Columbus noted in his private journals, how the words of Isaiah 42, especially the line “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” kept him going, through the dark times of his life. When no one was willing to back him on his westward quest, the fact that God had given him this vision drove him on, hat in hand, visiting the various courts in Europe looking for a sponsor. When everyone turned against him, Columbus held tighter onto this personal interpretation of Isaiah. The phrase, “I give you as a covenant to the people,” is spelled out in the next line of Isaiah 42:7, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This sense of mission, Columbus says, and not the search for gold, is what made him return to the Americas for two additional journeys.
I don’t mean here to paint Christopher Columbus as some kind of extraordinary saint. Quite the opposite, I think passages such as Isaiah 42 are meant to inspire us to expect more from ourselves, our church, our nation, and our God. We should not pray simply for a prosperous New Year. We should pray to be people of God’s covenant. We are instruments in God’s hands to bring light. We are responsible for people who today are strangers to us. We go into the dungeon to bring the prisoner out. We bring the salve that allows the blind to see. We speak the truth that reveals how many hapless souls are still held in chains by the tyrants of our world.
Isaiah 42, however, begins with the fact that God chooses to work through humble people. God says, “Here is my servant… my chosen.” Follow God’s finger and you see him pointing to an ordinary Joe. He points to you and I. He knows how close we come to being run over by those who have more clout in todays world. If you hear God’s call, however, you will not give up. You will “faithfully bring forth justice.” The power to do this is in God’s hands.
Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus poem flips the image of Isaiah’s light to the nations. At the base of our Statue of Liberty we have covenant for the people of the world that makes America a lighthouse inviting those who are distressed to find refuge:
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My prayer for the New Year is that we don’t give up on being a light to the nations.