The prophet Isaiah delivered many descriptions of the coming Savior Jesus Christ. He pictured him as Emmanuel (“God with us”), born of a virgin. He celebrated him as the Child born to us, known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He explained his work as the Suffering Servant, stricken and smitten and afflicted for our sake. He revealed his identity as Messiah to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also Lord and Savior for people of every nation and culture and language.
This chosen Servant, anointed by the Holy Spirit, appears also in chapter forty-two of Isaiah’s book. Here we are told that he will proclaim justice without quarreling and without shouting in the streets. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Even though Jesus possesses all power and all authority in this world, he does not wield his power with violence and destruction. Instead, he becomes a victim of evil to rescue victims of evil. He forgives sinners who repent of their sins. He heals all those who bear the burden of sin—of their own guilt, or of sins committed against them. The world battles against the people that belong to Jesus, but Jesus has already overcome the world.
Not many of us have much experience with bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. We understand these images as metaphors for weak and humble people. But a common happening in traditional congregations of Christians might bring some interesting context to thoughts of a smoldering wick.
Many traditional Christian congregations have candles in the front of the church building. The candles are lit at the beginning of the service and snuffed out at the end of the service. In a larger congregation, a person called “acolyte” lights and extinguishes the candles; in a smaller congregation, the job of the acolyte might be done by an usher, an elder, or even by the pastor. That acolyte carries a single flame on a “torch” to light each of the candles—sometimes that torch is first lit from a single candle, the Christ candle, which is kept burning even before and after the service. This provides worshipers a symbolic reminder of the light of Christ, bestowed on each of them, uniting them as one holy fire even while they burn as separate, individual flames for the Lord.
These candles, in the old days, were often made from beeswax. Such candles were known to be less likely to drip and run and create a mess. More recently, many congregations have switched to a liquid oil. The visible candle is a hollow white tube, filled with liquid wax. A wick runs into the liquid and bears the flame. The candles must be refilled from time to time. Otherwise, the wax gets low and the candle starts to smolder instead of burning brightly. Eventually, the smoldering candle will go out.
Acolytes are taught not to touch the candle with the snuffer, which is the bell-shaped part of the torch. Instead, they lower the snuffer over the candle, letting the bell fill with smoke under the candle has no oxygen and the flame goes out. After filling the snuffer with flame from the first candle, the acolyte then keeps the bell full of smoke, and the remaining candles go out more quickly.
But, acting as acolyte in a small congregation, I have discovered that the smoldering wick lasts longer than the brightly-burning candle. More time is required to extinguish the wick that is only smoldering, probably because it uses less oxygen per second than the brightly-burning candle. When extinguishing the candles at the end of the service, I must remember to give extra time to the smoldering wick, because if I don’t take longer with the snuffer, the smoldering wick will continue to smolder.
We all would like to be brightly-burning candles for the Lord. Some days of worship we feel full of grace and Spirit; other days we seem barely to be smoldering. It may help to know that the smoldering wick is stronger. It is not easily snuffed. The Lord, who will not break a bruised reed, will also not abandon his smoldering wicks. We all have a place in his plan. J.