“I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:3) might be a motto of more than a few of the pastors and teachers I know. Even on a Sunday so close to the start of a new year, some of us wrestle with the kind of discouragement Isaiah expresses in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
So Isaiah 49’s preachers and teachers may want to begin their presentation by exploring some of the dynamics of such discouragement. They may want to share some of the things that discourage them about their work for God’s Church and Kingdom — while remaining sensitive to those for and with whom they work. Preachers and teachers may even want to find ways to help their hearers explore their own discouragement about their work for God in God’s Church and kingdom.
Isaiah’s discouragment may surprise us. After all, as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in a fine sermon commentary on this text (no longer available), Isaiah seems to have had a lot of advantages. Like the prophet Jeremiah, he’d had a lifelong sense of calling from God. God had also empowered and gifted him in a number of ways.
On top of that, our text’s prophet seems to have used those gifts and talents well. Isaiah 49 makes it quite clear he has worked very hard to use them for God’s honor and God’s people’s well-being. Isaiah has worked hard in spite of the difficult context that is his setting.
The Babylonians have defeated God’s Israelite people and destroyed their temple. By dragging them away in chains, they have separated the Israelites from the land God had both promised and given their ancestors. God’s exiled Israelite sons and daughters must almost surely wonder if God is still their God. And if so, how can they worship the Lord so far from the land God had graciously promised and given them?
We briefly addressed the issue of this servant’s identity in last week’s CEP sermon commentary. Those who consulted this website on Isaiah 42 may not want to get bogged down in that controversial issue, other than to perhaps remind people that while some see this servant as an individual, others see him communally, perhaps as Isaiah’s “Israel” (3).
In verse 7 God almost as much as admits that people have not received God’s servant Isaiah very well. God seems to understand why God’s prophet might feel as though he’s worked hard without results. God speaks of him as “him who was despised and abhorred by the nations … the servant of rulers.”
Of course, Isaiah’s trying not to let that rejection bother him too deeply. At the end of verse 4, after all, he says, “What is due to me is in the Lord’s hands, and my reward is with my God.” In verse 5 the prophet also reminds himself that he’s “honored in the eyes of the Lord” and “God has been my strength.” Hoezee calls this “self-talk,” the kind of “pep talk for the soul” that we need and give ourselves from time to time.
Yet God goes on to insist that Isaiah’s “reward” is far, far greater than anything he seems to be able to imagine. The prophet’s original job of restoring the tribes of Jacob and bringing back God’s Israelite sons and daughters is just “too small a thing” (6). God’s got far bigger plans and goals for him.
God, in fact, isn’t just going to equip the prophet to do what God had called him to do all along – “to bring Jacob back to” the Lord and “gather Israel to himself” (5). God also promises to use to make God’s servant “a light to the Gentiles” (6).
God isn’t just going to use Isaiah to “restore the tribes of Israel and bring back those of Israel” God “has kept” (6). Through the prophet’s labor God is going to “bring” God’s “salvation to the ends of the earth” (6).
On top of all that, God insists Isaiah will no longer be the “servant of rulers” (7). Instead, God promises that “Kings will see” Isaiah” and rise up, princes will see” him “and bow down” (7).
Of course, this dramatic reversal of fortune won’t just or even primarily be due to Isaiah’s hard and persistent work. It’s not the prophet’s charisma or persistence that will humble the high and mighty. No, God insists powerful people will both rise up and bow down before Isaiah “because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen” God’s servant (7).
So instead of giving God’s worn-out prophet a retirement with a healthy pension, God gives him a new, bigger and far more challenging assignment: bring the news of God’s love and rescue to basically everyone, including Gentiles like the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians.
After all, good news that’s just for those who have already received God’s grace with their faith is just “too small a thing.” That gospel is also for those who live in the world’s four corners. The gospel is not just for God’s “nice” adopted sons and daughters. It’s also for those who have made themselves God and God’s children’s enemies.
Isaiah 49 reminds us that God’s deep and abiding love for God’s world is just too enormous to be limited to just one kind of person or people. God’s grace is too huge to be limited to one area or region. God’s compassion is too immense to be limited to one ethnic group.
Hoezee and others suggest these grand plans and purposes offer those who preach and teach Isaiah 49 an opportunity to reflect with their hearers on the size and shape of our own goals for Christ’s Church and Kingdom. Those goals are so often shaped and limited by the past’s limits and frustrations. We hardly dare imagine things like new ministries because, well, frankly, some of our old programs have seemed to be of “no purpose” and “in vain.”
Hoezee writes, “God may not be all that interested to hear our self-pity or our excuses as to why we just can’t try to do this or that. God always has bigger ideas, grander dreams, a broader vision. It seems unlikely that when we complain to God that we’ve ‘done enough’ that God will reply, ‘You’re right; you’ve done it all. There is nothing left to do’.”
I recently had a cup of coffee with someone whom I deeply admire and respect who works for the United States Peace Corps in an east African country. She has been diligently working to teach middle school students English, as well working on some neighborhood development projects. She’s recently taken on a new role of helping people form economic empowerment groups that focus on financial planning.
But this dear person admitted to me that she, like Isaiah, fights discouragement. She has poured so much of her life, time and energy into a people and nation that she has come to love. Yet she admits that she sees little concrete impact, outside of a handful of students who have come to see her as mentor and even friend.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7 Commentary