Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 15, 2023
Isaiah 49:1-7 Commentary
In the Servant Songs in this part of Isaiah the Lord God alternates speaking with the Servant himself also making remarks or comments. In this passage we hear from both the God who pre-ordained the Servant long before he was born and from the Servant himself. From God’s side we get high-flying confidence. From the Servant’s side we get more a sense of frustration, maybe even the worry of failure. But in the end it is the word of God that gets the final say.
And what God promises here is stunning, make no mistake. He will ultimately bring back together the scattered people of Israel and through the Servant will make this renewed and regathered people a light to all the other nations of the earth as well. It is a huge promise and undertaking but God makes clear that he can do this easily. Once this remarkable thing happens, the Servant himself will be honored. Kings will rise to their feet in the Servant’s presence and princes will bow down to him. The ordinary roles of who gets honored the most on this earth will be reversed.
Were we to read the rest of Isaiah 49, we would see the promises pile up even more. The reversal of fortune that will come to Israel will be resounding. The renewed people of God will be treated like royalty by the royalty of the earth and they will lack for no good thing. One thing that is abundantly clear, however, is that the identity of the Servant, the work of the Servant, the accomplishments of the Servant, and the accolades that will accrue to the Servant will all happen for one and only one reason: the Lord God chose the Servant and enabled his every action.
Of course over the centuries these passages have all been applied to the final Servant of God in the person of Jesus the Messiah. But although Isaiah does not contain any hints of the Doctrine of the Trinity or a differentiation among three Persons within the Godhead, one thing this passage can contribute to a larger Trinitarian theology is the clear note that the Persons in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—forever and always work in concert. In classic Trinitarian doctrine, the work of God may be divvied up among the three Persons but the work is always united and in perfect harmony. Each divine Person within God works hand in hand with the other two and together the three Persons always accomplish a singular goal.
There may be another nugget of Trinitarian theology tucked into the implications of Isaiah 49 and it has to do with the perichoretic love and enthusiasm that each divine Person in the Godhead has for the other two. In Isaiah 49 it is clear that the Servant is going to receive great acclaim for his work of redemption. And in Trinitarian theology that is exactly what the Father wants for the Son and both want the same thing for the Spirit, and the Spirit in turn is only too happy to devote his work in the church to casting glory back onto the Son. This is the eternal dance of joy and mutual delight that characterizes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and glimmers of it shine through in Isaiah 49 in all the adulation that gets cast onto the Servant of the Lord and the vital work of redemption the Servant will accomplish as a light to all the nations of the earth.
If preaching on Isaiah 49 at first looks a little difficult in that its imagery seems far removed from us, the willingness of God to let the limelight shine on the Servant—and all the resonances this has with the Doctrine of the Trinity as just noted—may give us a key preaching opportunity. Because we live in a “me first” society of self-aggrandizement. Everyone wants to be famous. School teachers even say they cannot get students to sign up for vocational training courses anymore because the kids today all want to be famous pro athletes, actors, or singers. More recently is the trend for young people to attempt becoming YouTube or TikTok stars and they will go to great lengths to achieve this ephemeral goal.
But even in the church we live in a time of people wanting power and influence. As detailed in her book Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes DuMez has shown that humble images of Jesus the servant of God have given ways in more recent years to more macho, Rambo-esque imagery even as the humble and meek message that emerges from something like Jesus’s Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are chalked up as being ineffective.
Isaiah 49, then, can be a reminder of the humility of the true Servant of the Lord and that in the divine economy, it is shared glory and not glory that someone gathers for him- or herself that brings about and proclaims salvation. We cannot be a light to the nations and point to the Christ of God who is the Light of the World if in our behavior and witnessing we depart from such core and fundamental biblical principles and, indeed, if we depart from the very character of our Triune God.
The image in Isaiah 49 of kings rising to their feet and princes bowing low to acknowledge and affirm the supremacy of the Servant of the Lord reminds me of one of the closing scenes from the final “Lord of the Rings” films. The great man, Aragorn, has just been coronated as King of Gondor and as he and his soon-to-be wife Eowyn make the rounds to the assembled crowd, people bow and curtsey as they pass. When Aragorn comes to the four little Hobbits who were the true heroes of the epic tale in destroying the one evil Ring of power, the Hobbits too begin to bow. But the King stops them. “My friends, you bow to no one.” The King and Queen—followed by the entire assembled throng, then bow before the bewildered Halflings of the Shire.
Tucked just behind this scene is the great reversal of the Gospel itself: how the carpenter from Nazareth went from the crucified one to the Cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords.
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