Bruised Reeds and Dimly Burning Wicks

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

It is so that I do not remember many sermons — not even my own. Among such a handful, though, is one I listened to more than thirty years ago.

I was in my first year of seminary. Daily chapel was held then in an old gymnasium where students and faculty would sit on folding chairs. It was this time of year when seniors would preach and it was a student’s sermon that stays with me still.  I do not recall it word for word, of course. Rather, it was and is the tender words of Isaiah spoken then which mostly I remember now:

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 49:3)

And yes, I remember well her speaking directly to those gathered there — especially to students — with hard earned empathy and with the certain promise that the challenges which threatened to break, diminish, or extinguish them would not. For we had been promised otherwise. I do not remember especially needing those words of encouragement that morning. But I was struck by it still — knowing, I expect, that one day I would need it, too. And this stays with me, too. As she spoke, she was living the truth of the promise for those gathered then — she was bolstering up the bruised and protecting the dimly burning among us even as she spoke that day.

It runs so contrary to the way of the world though, doesn’t it? No matter where we find ourselves it is far too common for another in competition or crass cruelty to finish off what perhaps the forces of the world have already begun. And yet the promise is that the ‘servant’ —- who at least for today I hear as being Jesus — does not and will not break that which is already bent or snuff out that which is struggling to stay lit.

Oh, there are a whole lot more promises which ring out in the prophet’s voice today.  Hopeful words about justice being established and breath and spirit sustained and light and sight and freedom for those who need such as these most of all. And yet, it seems to me, it all starts here in this promise: that which is most fragile will not be destroyed, abandoned, snuffed out.  Indeed, in part this speaks the truth to me that God is not done with us — not even when we waver, or stumble, or fall. Not even if from no other quarter is our value or worth recognized. No, not even then.

Now it goes without saying, I imagine, that there are ‘bruised reeds’ and ‘dimly burning wicks’ all around us. Even if we don’t see it at first.

To tell you the truth, it is so that I have felt a little bruised of late. Oh, it is not one thing, of course, but many. A too busy season. A nasty head cold which made its presence known two days before Christmas Eve. Too many seriously ill people. Too many whose griefs are burdensome — and made more so, somehow, at a time of year when the rest of the world seems to know only joy. And all of this against the backdrop of a world where the sort of justice and freedom and wholeness the prophet proclaims seems far more distant to me than it ever has before. I came to the last week of the year feeling weary and uncertain, questioning even some things I have always felt I’ve known for sure.

It was then that seemingly out of the blue I received a note from a college student home on break — one I had worked together with early in my ministry here. This young man wrote to thank me for the work I do and for what I had unwittingly taught him then those several years ago.

It was as though without even knowing he was doing so, he cupped his hands around my “dimly burning wick” — protecting it enough so that it might shine once more.

It was a small thing, I expect, and perhaps next to nothing to him. But that gesture of kindness spoke to me of who we are all meant to be for one another. Every day. All the time. For at least as I read the picture taking shape before  us now, this is, in part, who Jesus was and is as he came to us as one of us. We get a first glimpse of this even now as we see him submitting to John’s baptism in the river Jordan. Indeed, as Jesus came to us as a human being, he taught us what it is to be fully human. And this being so, what we hear today is that to be ‘fully human’ is, in part, to recognize the fragile humanness of one another. And we are called to be and do as Jesus did: to also be those who don’t break those who are bruised. To not, no not ever, be one who extinguishes the flickering flame of another.

For perhaps I cannot much impact a world where injustice and cruelty seem to rule. But I can bolster up the bruised reeds around me. I can protect the struggling flame of the one standing next to me. And maybe in doing so we can together find a way to see how God is calling us to be even more fully human together.  Together. For the sake of one another. For the sake of the world.

And when that seems to fail, there is this: these beautiful words of the Prophet Isaiah which ring out to me still in the voice of a seminary senior more than thirty years ago now. When all else seems to fail, we simply return to these powerful promises and the certain truth that this is who Jesus is for us. Always. And we begin again. Watching out always for those who are bruised. Keeping our eyes open for those whose flames are flickering all around us.

  • Are there any sermons which you remember? What makes them memorable?
  • When has someone bolstered you up when you were bruised? Protected your flickering flame when it threatened to go out?
  • Is part of what it is to be ‘fully human’ as Jesus is to live with such empathy that you would protect and build up those around you who struggle? What does that mean for you today? What might it mean tomorrow?



  1. Carol Dennison says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder. That same quotation from Isaiah also stuck with me as a word from a parish worker who protected and nurtured my “dimly burning wick” long before I was a pastor and who reminded me of it years later! Your blog is a gift all year long! Blessings on you and your ministry in the coming year and always.

  2. Raye says:

    Thank you, Pastor Janet, for your reminder that we are to be our brother’s keeper and/or our sister’s keeper! Your words really touched me! Thank you for your honesty! You open up your heart to each one of us and show us the ‘real’ you! Thank you so much! Please know that you are appreciated! In Christ’s love, Raye

  3. Tamara J.K. Keen (Tammy Kloos - greek partner!) says:

    I remember the same sermon, Janet! It was Judy Mattison (sp?), I believe, who preached. It spoke powerfully to me and I have never forgotten it. Later in ministry, a parishioner shared this same verse and it was used at her brother’s funeral. He had come back from serving our country and he was never the same from the horrors he had witnessed. It brought her great comfort, too. Miss you, my friend!

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