Christians are sometimes prone to hurdle the Old Testament’s original context in order to sprint to the finish line that is the Jesus to whom it points. We always want, after all, to preach and teach Christ and him crucified.
So preachers and teachers sometimes treat texts like Isaiah 42 as little more than an opening act for the star of the show, Matthew 3’s baptized Jesus. This may especially be tempting for those who preach and teach Isaiah episodically rather than as part of a series of messages or lessons on it.
Yet it’s hard to fully hear what the Old Testament says to us about Jesus if we don’t first hear what it says to its original audience. Perhaps, then, its preachers and teachers might makes a new year’s resolution to spend more time listening to what the Spirit said through the Old Testament to its first hearers.
Isaiah 42 is a good place to start on the second Sunday of the new year. Of course, it, as do most texts, has several contexts, even for its original audience. While scholars wrestle with its exact composition date, they generally agree that it’s broadly set in the context of Israel’s Babylonian exile that has nearly completely devastated her political, social, economic and religious life.
While most westerners who preach, teach and hear Isaiah 42 can hardly relate to that context of defeat, loss and upheaval, most can relate to the questions it raises. How could Yahweh let all of this happen? Has Yahweh abandoned God’s adopted sons and daughters? Is God still God?
Isaiah 42 makes some basic claims about this God that are fundamental to not only God, but also to Israel’s identity. God is not just the God is Israel or even of Babylon. The prophet insists Yahweh “created the heavens and stretched them out … spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, … gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it” (5).
Yet her experiences with Babylon have left God’s Israelite sons and daughters feeling breathless and almost lifeless. They’re left to wonder if God cares at all about “justice” and “faithfulness.” The Israelites question whether God is interested in, to say nothing of capable of making things right again.
Isaiah 42’s more immediate context is its place within the section of the prophecy that encompasses chapters 40-42. That section’s heart is Isaiah 41:8-20’s promises about the new things that Yahweh is about to graciously do in and for God’s Israelite people.
Yahweh, Isaiah 42 announces, is going to do some of those things through God’s “servant” (1). Verse 6 and following makes some pretty bold promises about what that servant will do. He will “be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (6-7).
This sets a bold and ambitious agenda for God’s servant. It, after all, involves nothing less than a complete overhaul of Israel’s existing world. God’s servant’s job description in Isaiah 42 includes reversing much that seems irreversible and settled.
Yet the servant through whom Yahweh promises to accomplish this may not seem up to the job. In the 21st century we’re often drawn to people who make the loudest noises, biggest promises and most audacious claims.
Isaiah 42’s servant does none of those things. After all, the prophet insists, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (3).
A light for the Gentiles? This servant seems like he could hardly light a corner of a room. Open the eyes of the blind? He scarcely seems like he can even open his own eyes. Free the captives and release those held in dungeons? This servant scarcely seems capable of getting out of his own way.
Is that why Isaiah refuses to identify just who this servant is? Why the prophet emphasizes the activity and character of this servant rather than his identity? One scholar suggests God is much more interested in what gets done than in who does it.
One might argue that this has helped fuel the disagreement between God’s Israelite/Jewish people and God’s Christian people. To hopelessly oversimplify a complicated argument, the Israelites and Jews tend to interpret Isaiah 42’s servant communally. They think of God’s servant as Israel whom God calls to be a servant to the world, a light to the nations.
Christians have, on the other hand, tended to see this servant in individual terms. So we’ve traditionally thought of him as Jesus. We see the fulfillment of Isaiah 42’s prophecy largely in his life and ministry, but especially in his death and resurrection.
Yet might even Christian teachers and preachers see aspects of both in this text? Trying to remain faithful to Isaiah 42’s original context as well as its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, might we see this as both descriptive and prescriptive? That is to say, might we think of our text’s servant as not only God’s only natural Son, Jesus, but also, perhaps secondarily, as God’s adopted sons and daughters?
Those who wish to remain faithful not only to Isaiah 42 but also to the testimony of all of the Scriptures want to focus on God’s work. Those Scriptures emphasize, after all, God’s creative and sustaining work (5). They also emphasize God’s enlightening and liberating work (6-7).
We see that in God’s work in Jesus Christ’s ministering, for example, to both Jews and Gentiles. We see God at work in giving life to people who are dead, sight to people who are blind and freedom to those enslaved by all sorts of evil. We see God at work in the countless “new things” (9) God does in and through Jesus Christ.
Yet by sending the Spirit (1) into the world and God’s people, God also equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to be God’s servants as well. God empowers God’s people to serve the world by working for “justice” (1, 3, and 4). God equips God’s sons and daughters to be “a light for the Gentiles” (6) we not only serve, but also share the gospel with. God empowers God’s people to serve those on society’s margins by helping to “open eyes that are blind … free the captives from prison and … release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (7).
Woody Allen ends one of his movies by having a character say something like, “I don’t hate God. I think the worst thing that can be said about God is that God is an underachiever.” As Will Willimon notes, that’s the problem at least some of us have with God. God doesn’t measure up to our expectations for how we think God should be and act.
A few years ago Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote a book entitled, God’s Problem. In it he says God’s big problem is human suffering and why, though God promises to do something about suffering, God does nothing. God’s problem, claims Ehrman, is that when it comes to alleviating human suffering and anguish, God just doesn’t meet expectations.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9 Commentary