Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 19, 2020
Isaiah 49:1-7 Commentary
We met the famed Servant of Isaiah in last week’s Old Testament lesson, where God introduced him/them to us. Now in this reading, the second Servant Song, we learn more as the Servant reflects on his/their calling, ministry, failure, reassurance, and ultimate glory.
The mixed pronouns in that last sentence reflect the long controversy over the identity of this servant. If you read only verse 3, it seems obvious that the Servant is the people of Israel. But the opening verse certainly sounds individual with its reference to birth. Indeed, verses 1 and 2 are remarkably like the calls of the prophets Isaiah (Isaiah 6) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1-3). So maybe the Servant is the Prophet himself. Further, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear in verse 7 an early version of the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah 53, which the New Testament takes to be a prophecy of the sufferings of the Christ.
We can view that controversy as an obstacle to clear preaching, or we can see it as an opportunity to explore the depth and richness of God’s plan of redemption. The Servant was, indeed, Israel, called by God to be a light to the world. When Israel failed, God called Isaiah to be the Servant who would speak words of judgment and hope to Israel. And when both Israel and Isaiah failed in their God given commission, God sent the Servant Jesus to fulfill the mission of Israel and Isaiah. So, he said, “I am the light of the world (John 8:12).”
I’m getting ahead of myself. But I wanted to urge you not to be turned off by the controversy. This complex passage is tailor made to help you reveal the glory of Christ on this Second Sunday after Epiphany. The most obvious connection to Epiphany is that line in verse 6, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” That has been called the Great Commission of the Old Testament, a soaring prophecy that looks beyond Israel’s judgment and exile, return and restoration, to the salvation of the whole world and the glory of the hitherto despised Servant.
When we focus on that Great Commission of the Servant, we understand why Isaiah opens his reflections on the ministry of the Servant with a call to the nations of the world. “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant lands.” I will be coming to you with the Word of the Lord, so listen well, unlike Israel whose ears and eyes were closed to the Word.
In the rest of verse 1 and in all of verse 2 we hear the qualifications of the Servant for his mission. First and most important, God chose him for the work, even before he was born, even before his mother had named him. The Servant was elected by God, who then “made his mouth like a sharpened sword….” This points to the fact that his ministry was not the kind of royal governance suggested in Isaiah 42, but the kind of prophetic speaking that would pierce the hearts of sinful people. The Word of the Servant would be like a sharp two-edged sword.
But his ministry would be hidden; “in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.” For much of his ministry, his glory would be hidden, with only an occasional epiphany of his true identity. So it was for Israel, for Isaiah, and for Jesus. Thus, his enemies were forever challenging, “Are you the Christ? Tell us.” Even his believing disciples moved from certainty to doubt again and again. He came to reveal the glory of God, but most of the time that glory was hidden in the flesh of a man named Jesus.
Nevertheless, that Servant knew he was called by God. “He (Yahweh) said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor’.” This verse is the clearest indication that the Servant is the nation of Israel. However, it is possible that we should read “my servant, Israel” not as vocative, but as a predicative. That is, it could read, “You are my servant, [you are] Israel.” The individual servant represents the nation of Israel. The servant is the ideal Israel. When corporate Israel failed to “display [God’s] splendor,” God chose another to be his servant and do what Israel had failed to do. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).”
But as I said above, that ministry was not always glorious. Indeed, it was filled with failure and frustration, as voiced in verse 4. “But I said, ‘I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.’” After three years of authoritative teaching, amazing love, and astonishing miracles, the Servant died ignominiously on a Roman cross with nearly all of his followers scattered into the darkness. No glory there.
Yet the servant continues to trust that his work is not utterly in vain. Humans may reject his work, but there is still God above. In words that many a struggling but faithful minister has whispered late on Sunday night, the Servant speaks his faith. “Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand and my reward is with my God.” One wonders if it was this alternation between despair and hope that drove Jesus to his solitary all-night prayer vigils. The Servant suffered even before Isaiah 53.
Now into that mixture of doubt and faith comes a soaring word from Yahweh. “And now the Lord says….” No matter what my enemies say, no matter what my discouraged self says, this is what God says about his servant. I “formed you in the womb to be my servant to bring Jacob back to himself and gather Israel to himself….” That is the short-term goal of the Servant’s ministry—the salvation of God’s historic chosen people. With that reminder, the Servant remembers that “I am honored in the eyes of Yahweh and my God has been my strength….” Which is another way of saying, “You can do this great thing to which I have called you.”
Then God reveals his long-term goal for his servant—not just the salvation of minuscule Israel, but the salvation of the whole world. God says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Israel and bring back those of Israel I have kept….” Well, actually, that was not a small thing at all, not to captive Israel singing their sad songs by the willows of Babylon. That was a miracle beyond belief for God’s exiled people.
But God says, “No, that’s just the beginning, just the first move in my majestic plan of salvation.” I have my eyes on the whole world. I always have. Indeed, that’s why I elected Israel in the first place, as a kind of beachhead in my campaign to retake the world from the forces of sin and death and darkness. I will win the final victory through my servant, who will be “a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
This might not have sounded like good news to the exiles in Babylon. After all, they had been used and abused by the nations, completely destroyed and enslaved by Babylon. Now they are told that God had intended all along to use Israel to save the world. And when their light sputtered and died, God would send another Servant to bring that Light into the darkness. You think that your return from Exile will be incredible? Well, I will finally do the preposterous and return all nations to my kingdom. This is an Epiphany we can’t imagine in our wildest dreams. It’s as though God says to us in this text, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” In fact, that might be the title of my sermon on this text.
Our reading ends with a verse that many scholars think is really the beginning of another section of this Servant Song, but the Lectionary includes it here. I think it an apt conclusion because in it Yahweh declares the ultimate glory of his Servant. Yes, he will be despised and abhorred by the nations, as Israel and Isaiah and Jesus were. In his death, Jesus was subservient to the rulers of Rome (and of the temple). But as Isaiah 53 will reveal, that very humiliation will be the instrument of salvation. The Servant will become a light for the Gentiles precisely by his suffering and death.
Further, his suffering and death will not be the end of him. In the end, “Kings will see you and rise up (from their thrones), princes will see and bow down.” They will do that “because of Yahweh, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” In spite of the failures of his former servants, and through the rejection of his great Suffering Servant, our faithful covenant God will fulfill his plan to save his fallen world.
In the end, it will be glory for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the Gospel is carried to the ends of the earth and the nations stream to the Light of the World. That will be an Epiphany the whole world will see. Describing the New Jerusalem, John says, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings will bring their splendor into it.” (Revelation 21:23,24)
Consider the difference between a script and a prescription. One of the reasons some scholars can’t accept my interpretation of the identity of the Servant is their inability to believe in predictive prophecy. It is simply impossible that Isaiah could know the details of Jesus life hundreds of years before he was born. What really happened, say these skeptical scholars, was that Jesus took the words of the prophets and imitated what they had said. He orchestrated his life so that it would resemble the picture of the Messiah given in the prophets. Jesus was following a script written years ago about other people. My interpretation argues that, rather than following a script, Jesus was fulfilling a prescription. God had prescribed how Israel should act in the world in order to be a light to the world. But they didn’t fulfill that prescription. So, God sent his own Son to do exactly what Israel had not done. He fulfilled all those prophecies, so that the work of saving the world might be accomplished. He didn’t orchestrate. He obeyed fully.
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